From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
For June we are celebrating screenwriting duo Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith. Get your tickets to the She's The Man Movie Party at the Alamo Drafthouse here!
Ella Enchanted isn't really a Cinderella tale, but it is adjacent enough to the narrative to give you pause if you're not so into a protagonist whose entire skill set is "she's nice and she can clean." At least, it is at first glance. On its face, Ella Enchanted is a tale about a princess-to-be who was cursed as a baby and grew up with a wicked step-mother and two evil sisters. Underneath that familiar premise, it's much more.
Ella is cursed as a baby by the well-meaning fairy Lucinda, who believes she has given her a gift. After several terrible experiences with her awful sisters, Ella vows to find Lucinda and break the curse. Thankfully, plots are rarely so simple. Woven into the charming fairy tale are conversations of consent, discrimination and privilege, and each gets a moment of resolution throughout the film.
The way the people and the creatures of the kingdom are treated is a big part of Ella Enchanted. You’ve got Slannen the Elf, who wants to be a lawyer but cannot because of his race. All elves are to be entertainers by rule of law. Meanwhile the giants and ogres of the kingdom are also discriminated against because of their appearance and size.
Fantasy rarely lacks a love interest. In Ella Enchanted's case, it's Prince Char. Prince Char has no idea what's going on in his kingdom. He's happy to let his (evil) uncle rule it while he rides around on horseback dodging his fanclub and ogling pretty ladies. That is, of course, until he meets the one who doesn't want him back. Like most rom-com love interests, his motives start off as typical and evolve quickly past them once he learns more about the girl and her plight. Despite Ella having one hell of a problem, she does not share it with the entitled Prince. Instead, she shares the issues plaguing his kingdom while his uncle sits on his throne talking to his snake (not a euphemism). You know where all of this goes. The good prince eventually starts to understand the issues of his people and the creatures of his kingdom and usurps the evil uncle to take his rightful place as king. It's predictable, a little trite, and a lovely conversation and acknowledgement to see in a quick, ninety minute film.
Then you’ve got the big one: Ella. Consent isn’t just a conversation to be had between a man and woman. Consent is critical to functional human interaction and respect as a whole. Ella Enchanted also illustrates the misuse of consent both intentionally and unintentionally. Where Ella’s evil sisters know what they’re doing to her, Char hasn’t the slightest idea, and yet both parties violate her rights by telling rather than asking. Because of the overall plot of the film, the narrative never focuses on Char or the sisters learning the importance of consent, but it does focus on Ella’s unwavering kindness and devotion to others in the kingdom in the face of her deep misfortune. Ella Enchanted also takes a stab at showing just how difficult it can be to trust someone when you spend your life without the basics of consent in your life. Obviously it's difficult to delve too deep in an hour and a half film that has other things going on, but Ella's mistrust of Char and anyone else from his level of privilege does a decent enough job showing what kind of toll a life of abuse can take.
Like it or not, media helps structure the way humanity understands and deals with things. Slipping ideas as big as consent and discrimination into a fairytale is an exceptional way to help start conversations that aren't easy to begin with. Throughout their career, Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith have a habit of bringing these and other important issues into their work under the guise of fluffy entertainment.