On Saturday I ran a workshop about fairytales at LaDIYfest Sheffield! I had a lot of fun, and all the feedback I’ve had so far has been very positive.
I promised a write-up of the workshop, so here it is! This is for attendees who want to have an easier time of finding some of the texts we discussed, people who couldn’t make it due to the numbers cap, and anyone and everyone else who is interested in queer and/or feminist fairytales.
For most of this post, I’ve endeavoured to capture the flow of conversations in an organic and impressionistic way, rather than trying to follow a strict model of “X said this, and Y replied with that” (aside from anything else, my memory isn’t that good!). This means that the many voices and opinions and questions have been subsumed into a single voice – I hope I’ve done a good job of capturing the tides of conversation, but: attendees, please do let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed, or if there’s a comment or idea you’d like to be specifically attributed to you, and I’ll be very happy to oblige. I haven’t been able to provide citations or sources off the top of my head for some of the things that were discussed, as they came from the group – I’ve done so where I can, but decided to prioritise getting this posted while it’s still fresh.
Comments, additions, and questions are all very welcome – I’d love this to be a living document rather than a static record!
The workshop was attended by 25 people (I raised the initial cap of 15 due to lots of interest and LaDIYfest being even more popular than anticipated). Although it was a child-friendly workshop by request of the LaDIYfest organisers, we ended up with a group of adults. We began with introductions, everyone being invited to share their name, pronoun, and one thing from a fairytale that has stuck with them (for any reason). Responses were very diverse! Many people mentioned Disney – some with fond memories, some citing it as their early encounters with the beauty myth (all the princesses had such amazing hair!) or with the idea that women’s main purpose was heterosexual romance, others remembering moments of agency and resourcefulness displayed by the Disney heroines (such as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, bravely attempting to rescue her father). There were two participants with different memories of a similar story: one remembering that a girl was married by a prince because gems fell from her mouth when she spoke to him (making what she actually said meaningless, and his supposed love for being based entirely on her material worth); the other participant forgot the marriage element and remembered the backstory, in which this girl is rewarded with her gem-speech for being kind to an old woman (in contrast to her two older sisters, who were unkind and so punished by having snakes and toads fall from their mouths).From these snippets of people’s experiences, we moved to the next stage: what sources do we have for fairytales? Where do we first encounter them, and how do we receive them? Answers from the group: Disney; other films; picture books; being told stories as children (by teachers and relatives); story books. What books do we remember? Which authors can we name? The group came up with these names: Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, Perrault, Aesop, Neil Gaiman, Terry Jones, Roald Dahl. I noted with interest that these were all men – even though women such as Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue were mentioned in the initial sharing of memories – and led into a talk on the gendering of how we receive fairytales. (Why don’t we remember Marie de France in the same way we remember the Grimms?) While we often think of (for example) the Grimms as ‘sources’ of fairytales, their versions are not ‘pure’ or ‘original’. The stories in Grimm/Perrault are collected from oral tradition: stories often passed from mothers to daughters (consider the term ‘old wives’ tales’!) were written down by men of letters. What we see in these fairytale compendia is a moment where oral traditions become frozen in time – a static snapshot of one particular point in a constantly shifting set of stories. Telling, re-telling, and changing fairytales is intrinsic to oral tradition – as are women’s voices. In this context, then, feminist (re)writing of fairytales can be seen as not simply an intervention, but as participation in and restoration of an old and important element of fairytales, how they work, and what they do. (Fascinating further reading recommendation on this topic – Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers.)
How else do fairytales work? What do they do? What is the purpose of a fairytale? Fairytales can be about showing possibilities, and strangeness – a fantastical world intruding on the ‘normal’ world. Changelings and kitchen fairies and gnomes in the woods – ordinary people coming across them.They can be aetiological – that is, providing explanations for things, whether for natural phenomena (like storms), features of the landscape (like an oddly-shaped mountain – could it be a giant, sleeping and turned to stone?), or local folk practices and traditions. They are often a didactic form – stories intended to teach the listener in some way. Fairytales told to children are often warnings against danger – cautionary tales about telling lies (The Boy Who Cried Wolf) or talking to strangers (Little Red Riding Hood), showing extreme and unpleasant consequences. They’re a safe way of demonstrating danger, instilling fear and good behaviour. They allow children to experience risk and excitement without actually experiencing it. More generally they are often about moral conduct – the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. One participant proposed that the two key “good” attributes to possess are cunning and kindness, which I loved as an idea! They’re ways of transmitting moral lessons, which (necessarily) mean they reflect the cultural values of the time. They can also be ways of teaching about the rules of the time – which is different from morals, in that often social rules can be unfair or oppressive, but the listeners are still being taught to negotiate life under them. In this way, some fairytales don’t so much demonstrate a moral as demonstrate the amorality of the social order they’re depicting?
So, if fairytales teach culturally-specific lessons about morality and society, this is another way of thinking about how we can write “our own” fairytales. Many of the lessons of fairytales are ones that we would still broadly support – morals about kindness and acceptance continue to be valuable to us, but as feminists and/or LGBTQI people, we may want to jettison (for example) morals about enforcing appropriate gendered behaviour, or about the importance of heterosexual marriage (whether in the service of social climbing, where a kind shepherd marries a princess; of preserving monarchical order, when marriage takes place between royalty; or of more seemingly-mundane goals such as reproduction or simply the adoption of the ‘correct’ gender roles). (In a discussion about this at the LaDIYfest gig, with a school teacher, we talked about this being a good way to engage children with (re)writing fairytales – by talking about them as being ways to teach people about a belief. She said she’d discussed Frankenstein as a moral tale with her class, and asked them to write their own stories with the same basic moral of “don’t mess with nature” – one of them came up with an ecological fable about dumping waste into the ocean leading to a tidal wave! Fairytales with simple morals such as “girls can do things just as well as boys” or “love is love, no matter who you are” would be good ways of talking about these! (There’s an interesting discussion to be had about the role of children’s books in terms of LGBTQI representation – e.g. books like Heather Has Two Mommies and And Tango Makes Three – but for the moment I’ll settle for just linking to Liz Chapman’s resource list, drawn from her research into this very topic.)
Also on topic of rewriting: we tend to think of fairytales as taking place in an “other” world, a world that is already far from ‘normal’ – a world of wolves and forests and kings and princesses and millers and shepherds, which feels miles away from the majority of contemporary life here in the UK. But these stories, which seem to take place in a mysterious past, were recorded as literary artefacts at a time where these stories were taking place in a mundane present. Especially given the focus we’ve had so far on examples from the Germanic tradition, which was long before the unification of the smaller kingdoms into one country. At the time they were recorded, they were taking place in the contemporary world. Thus, ‘modern’/contemporary fairytales are a completely valid way of doing things. (Another interesting digression: the modern equivalent of fairytales is perhaps the urban legend? Stories passed around through word of mouth, with vague connections to ‘a friend of my aunt’s hairdresser’ or something – close to the reality and the now, but supernatural, strange, sometimes evincing a belief in some form of natural order/justice… And what does the internet mean for this sort of tradition? Stories can be quickly reproduced and disseminated, regardless of how true they are – consider the necessity of Snopes.com, or the “creepypasta” format of horror story … It’s interesting and I’d like to think more about it, but anyway – onwards!)
So, having thought about the ways that fairytales often impart morals and/or behavioural standards at the end, let’s take a closer look at the resolutions we see in fairytales. What does a “happy ending” look like? Is it different for male characters and female characters? One common resolution is marriage, either a commoner marrying “up” or two members of the ruling class marrying each other. With male protagonists, we see a lot of instances where marriage to a rich and/or noble maiden is one part of a wide array of successes: for example, a poor youth who completes a series of challenges set by a king, and in the process is awarded riches, land, and the king’s daughter. In contrast, most female protagonists that we can remember are only offered marriage: while this may involve a rise in social status (e.g. Cinderella marrying a prince), there is no corresponding acquisition of wealth and power (except in a sort of auxiliary way: wealth as a consequence of marriage and power inasmuch as she can influence her husband). Other common resolutions are a long and happy life. Different cultures may have different ideas of what this entails – French versions of fairytales having a stronger emphasis on reproduction, on procreative marriage as the goal rather than marriage which affords higher social status. All these resolutions are to an extent ideological – they are transmitting messages about the place and purpose of women, and about the importance of heteronormative relationships. In making our own fairytales as queer and/or feminist writers, we can engage with these messages about gender and sexuality, subverting or undermining or outright getting rid of them. Other resolutions can be simply about escaping danger – avoiding the troll under the bridge, escaping the wicked witch. Survival is sometimes all a fairytale character can hope for! And then, we have the flipside of the resolutions where the good are rewarded – we have resolutions where the wicked are punished. These punishments can be brutal and extreme – dancing in red-hot shoes until death, being dragged through the streets in a barrel full of spikes, vomiting snakes every time you try to speak. These can be genuinely horrifying – are they meant to scare children into good behaviour, or provide them with a gory thrill, or both? Are these punishments disproportionately meted out to female characters? There seem to be a lot of wicked queens, cruel mothers (or stepmothers), and deceitful/lazy young girls who are punished in these ways – can we think of many (or any?) male characters who are treated in this way?
Moving from gendered resolutions to thinking about women in fairytales more generally – what female characters have stuck with us? How “active” or “passive” are these characters? Who are our favourite female fairytale characters? The Snow Queen is very much about women who act – the little girl Gerda goes on a quest to rescue her male friend from the Snow Queen who has captured him; on the way she is hindered by an old sorceress and helped by a robber girl, and the majority of the other incidental characters are also women. (The new Disney version, Frozen, seems to have changed the story in very significant ways – there have been a variety of responses about the gender politics of this so far, both sceptical and approving.) Different aspects of the Cinderella story came up – while the Disney version (based on the French Cendrillon) has her in a quite passive role, other versions (like the German Aschenputtel) have her being cunning and resourceful, and aided by the spirit of her dead mother. (It’s also worth noting that Aschenputtel doesn’t have the “ugly sisters” – they’re beautiful but cruel!) There is a brilliant analysis/deconstruction/rewriting of this story by Angela Carter called Ashputtle or the Mother’s Ghost, which explores three different versions of the relationships between the dead mother, the stepmother, the sisters, and Cinderella/Ashputtle herself (there’s some discussion of it currently visible on Google Books).
A version of Rumplestiltskin was highlighted as interesting because the female protagonist is displaying hubris – she gets herself into her dilemma by boasting that she is able to spin straw into gold. Is this a fable about putting women in their place? (Having done some checking post-workshop, in the Grimm version it’s the woman’s father who boasts about her skills – but in another Grimm story called The Three Spinners, it’s the mother. The Three Spinners is interesting, because rather than the moral of rewarding hard work and punishing laziness, the girl who hates spinning (and accepts the skilled help of three women who are good at spinning) is rewarded by never needing to spin again! I feel like this story might speak interestingly to our later discussion about politics and labour and solidarity…) Another story mentioned was The Wild Swans, in which the sister’s fortitude and courage saves her eleven brothers. But on the other hand, it’s also about sacrifice and enduring pain, in order to aid male family members – is this just a reinscription of the idea that a woman’s highest purpose is to help the men in her life? (It’s also worth mentioning Andersen’s tendency to write himself into his stories as self-sacrificing female characters – mostly notably in The Little Mermaid, which has been read as an expression of his love for another man.)
A number of Disney stories also got brought up – more about them below! But I found it interesting that there wasn’t much recollection of stories involving women actively going on quests, except for Gerda in The Snow Queen – I remembered East of the Sun, West of the Moon and The Girl with the Iron Claws, both of which have women undertaking more traditional heroes’ journeys (and rescuing men!). I also remembered Catherine and Her Destiny, which has the female protagonist journeying for seven years and working for different women while pursued by a cruel (female) anthromorphic Destiny, before eventually, she finds employment with a kind woman whose own Destiny is able to intervene.
Although there are these stories with cunning and resourceful women, and women going on quests, they seem to be harder for people in this group to call to memory. Does this tell us something about what sort of fairytale gets remembered, transmitted, almost “canonised” by popular media such as Disney movies? I find it useful to think about Marta Wasik’s paper on Disney princesses (from Roles 2013), which she divides into three areas – ‘classic’, with princesses who are often passive and literally immobilised (Sleeping Beauty in her castle, Snow White in her glass coffin); ‘renaissance’, with princesses who are more rebellious and active, but presented as rather more sexualised and still defined primarily by their romantic interests (Ariel, Jasmine); and ‘modern’, with princesses who are considerably more active agents in their fates, and more like young girls than young women, both in terms of their appearance and their attitude to romance (Rapunzel, Merida).
Disney films kept on coming up as we discussed female characters, and so it was definitely time to move on to the next point of discussion: modern fairytales. How do they use / re-frame / alter / respond to the images and ideology of the originals? (Can we even talk about about fairytales as having ‘originals’? Does that erase the continuity of oral tradition, or is an acknowledgement that modern responses to / versions of fairytales frequently do use specific written sources rather than drawing on a general oral tradition?) Belle in Beauty and the Beast was suggested as a good example: mostly interested in reading (and unashamed of this), and she’s brave enough to attempt to rescue her father – and she’s given the opportunity to get to know her eventual partner, rather than falling into the ‘love at first sight’ trope. This can be seen as improvement on the original source – the moral of which was less “beauty is found within” and more “if you’re stuck with an abusive husband, be kind and patient and eventually you can change him”, which is considerably more damaging! – or it can be seen as a whitewashing of it (after all, the Beast still does treat Belle poorly).
Disney’s The Princess and the Frog was cited as positive – Tiana is hard-working, talented, and independent; her dream is to run her own restaurant. But does the moral of the story undermine this, as she learns a lesson about not being single-mindedly ambitious and having time for love as well? Is this about balancing ambition with emotion, or is it more just about limiting women’s ambition? And how does her race come into this – is it somehow more acceptable for a Disney princess to have a working-class background if she’s a woman of colour? She does get her restaurant in the end, but partly due to the money from her new partner… The Princess and the Frog also has what I read as an interesting comment on the “Disney princess” marketing machine in the character Charlotte – a rich white girl who owns innumerable pink princess dresses and is obsessed with finding romance.
In general, Disney seems to be becoming more and more self-reflexive – Enchanted is also a self-parody with regards to the idea of the “Disney princess”, and both Brave and Tangled seem invested in subverting the traditional “princess” role. Brave and Tangled are also more invested in relationships between women than previous Disney films (and perhaps this also applies to Tiana, who has her friend Charlotte) – specifically, there is a strong focus on mother/daughter relationships. Marta Wasik has spoken about how in Disney, the parental figure with whom the princess character most “identifies” is the father – he may be bumbling or disciplinarian or otherwise difficult to deal with (consider the fathers of Jasmine, Ariel, Belle, and Pocahontas) but he is always “recuperated” in some way: in contrast, the mother (or stepmother) figure is usually either completely absent (Snow White, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas) or in some way “false” or “malevolent” (Snow White, Cinderella). Tangled explores this abjected mother figure in ways which are, on the one hand, important – various people have commented that the relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel is a scarily accurate portrayal of abusive relationships, and having this depiction in a movie for children might help them to recognise abuse and name abuse in their own lives – but on the other hand, continues to feed this image of the Disney princess’ mother as absent and/or malicious (Rapunzel’s real mother is far away, and we see no interaction between them until the end of the film). Brave is a film focused almost entirely on the relationship between a mother and daughter (as well as the rejection of romance by the latter, and the consequences this has) – Merida’s mother Elinor being turned into a beast literalises the difficulty they have communicating with each other, and their eventual reconciliation and understanding (with the use of sign language during a speech!) is, in my opinion, the emotional climax of the film. (Themes of motherhood are, of course, also important in fairytales more generally, but their specific examples in Disney is where the conversation went!)
What modern fairytales aside from Disney are doing interesting things with gender? The Wizard of Oz – and indeed the spin-off story Wicked – both focus on interactions between female characters, and Dorothy is the hero of a quest. A few participants remembered a story in which a princess rescues a sleeping prince from a tower, and then decides she doesn’t want to marry him because he is too lazy. I think this could be one of the stories from a book called The Practical Princess and Other Liberating Fairytales, which was an expressly feminist collection of fairytales for children that was published in the late 70s. It might also have been from the collection Don’t Bet On The Prince (edited by fairytale expert Jack Zipes, with contributions from Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood). Other suggestions were Mary Poppins and the work of Philip Pullman (particularly His Dark Materials and The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, both of which feature capable heroines) – but at this point, it was time to move the conversation to the next stage: considering the process of (re)writing fairytales.
So – modern fairytales are not necessarily written with the intention of making some kind of ideological intervention, although they usually do end up reflecting the values of the author in some way. If we’re talking about deliberately creating works which are feminist and/or queer, then (and I take this idea from a talk by Sophia Morgan-Swinhoe) there are two broadly-defined ways of going about it: deconstruction or reconstruction. That is to say, ‘deconstruction’ entails exposing the patriarchal and/or heteronormative and/or cisnormative elements at the heart of the tale and bringing them to the fore in a way that makes them unavoidable – for example, the many retellings of Little Red Riding Hood that emphasis the nature of the wolf (which is frequently read as a metaphor for a sexually predatory man – see Zipes’ The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood for a fascinating analysis of how this tale interacts with rape culture and ideas about sexuality). Whereas ‘reconstruction’ involves using the tropes, motifs, structure, and even stock characters/stories of fairytales, but building them into something which is at odds with patriarchal or cis/hetero-normative ideologies – for example, The Practical Princess tales discussed above.
At this point, I asked the group what they’d like to do with the remaining time – continue with discussion, or move on to some writing of their own? As the group was bigger than I’d initially planned for, and I’d wanted to make sure that as many people as possible had space and opportunity to contribute to the discussion, there was not as much time left for writing as I’d intended. I offered some A4 prints of a Josef Madlener series of postcards based on German folklore as sources of inspiration – including a wild-haired man with glowing eyes (Rübezahl), and a fairy riding an appaloosa unicorn to a mountain stream (Die Bergfee). The group split into two – one taking the pictures and throwing ideas around about what they might write, the other continuing with a facilitated discussion about rewritten fairytales more generally. The following is an account of the second one – I’d really love to hear details from the group focused on actively rewriting!
How about the political dimension of fairytales? Many fairytales can be seen as individualist – dealing with the exceptions, people who transcend the social order, the poor third sons of millers who become dukes and princes through their bravery, the goose girls who become ladies and princesses through their kindness. We linked this to the idea of the carnivalesque – are the rags-to-riches fairytales a contained way of upending the status quo, in such a way as to satisfy and pacify people at the bottom of the social order by highlighting these successes as possible? But the carnivalesque’s contained forms of resistance can also have revolutionary potential – giving people a taste for freedom, a spark or springboard from which to begin more sustained disruption and dismantling of social hierarchies. If rags-to-riches tales are individualist, what might a collectivist fairytale look like? What might an anarchist or anti-capitalist fairytale look like? How the Steel was Tempered was suggested as an example – written with an expressly communist ideology and framing the hero’s success in terms of the greater good. Another example was The Mouse that Made the Butter, a story of two mice who fall into a pail of milk: one sees that there is no way to climb out, so gives up and drowns; the other continues to stay afloat and swim vigorously for as long as possible, and the motion of the swimming churns the milk into buttter so the mouse can at last clamber out. (A cursory Google search didn’t find me a source in any of the old collections, but I did find this, credited to ‘an American newspaper’.) This valorisation of persistence in the face of seeming impossibility, and of struggle and resistence, might provide an idea for what a socialist or collectivist fairytale might look like. (I have tried my hand at an anti-capitalist fairytale – it’s called The Boy Who Ran With Wolves, and it’s about youth and cruelty and exploitation. I think it needs some more refining before I read it in public, though!) Perhaps fairytales are able to universalise stories of struggle and resistance in a way that makes them more accessible? The power of telling our own stories and having them heard is vital and can be agents of political change and awareness – one example brought up was the writing and art of Palestinian activist Shahd Abusalama.
What about fairytales as escapism? It was suggested that there’s a sense in which it’s necessary for them to be portraying things which are generally unachievable – because otherwise they lose their escapist, fantastical quality. On the other hand, they can’t be considered purely escapist, because of their aforementioned qualities as didactic forms, moral forms. There has been comment (somewhere; possibly in relation to Angela Carter?) to the effect that fairytales were “the pornography of their day” – a voyeuristic way of accessing sex and violence, which also continues to be (safely?) contained. But certainly some fairytales are purely about little moments of comedy or wonder – one example I’ve read recently is a very short story in Anna Altmann’s collection of traditional German fairytales. A man is driving his coach down a narrow road through the forest, and sounding his horn to alert anyone who might be on the road – but his horn is so cold that it can’t make a sound. He tries in vain to warm it up by playing as many songs as he can remember on it, but still nothing comes out. When he finally arrives at his destination, he takes his horn and hangs it up indoors. As it slowly warms up, it sounds several blasts and then plays every song he played, in the same order: the story concludes by saying that all the songs had frozen inside the horn, and when they thawed out they filled the house with music. There’s no moral, no lesson – just a little brush with the fantastical in everyday life (and it becomes even more magical when we remember that this story was told centuries before the invention of sound-recording technology!)
It was at this point that our time ran out, but here are some other questions I would have liked to consider.
Which fairytales speak to (or can be brought into dialogue with) lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex and queer understandings of self? Of the world? Which fairytales do you feel are most ‘ripe’ for queering? Or are they all fair game? As a genderqueer person I would have loved to further explore what sort of spaces for transgender and/or genderqueer perspectives can be carved within the domain of fairytales, which is a genre often invested in normative gender roles. (I have written a number of queer fairytales myself at this point – The Prince Who Loved A Monster and The Girl and the Mermaid are probably the queerest of my finished ones, although The Artist and the Bird has a protagonist who is never gendered in the narrative (and neither is their lover). I would also very much recommend Emma Donoghue’s book Kissing the Witch and The Mechanisms’ albums Once Upon A Time (In Space) to anyone looking for queer fairytales!)
How are fairytales racialised? Fairytales from the Germanic traditions we’ve been discussing seem particularly invested in a beauty standard that is very much about white womanhood (pale skin, and often golden hair). What might a race-critical (re)telling of Snow White or The Goose Girl look like? (In some versions of the Goose Girl, the pale skin and golden hair of the “true” princess are a sign of her royalty contrasted with her imposter servant who is supposed to be dark and ugly – a very problematic construct.) Does the word “fairytale” necessarily invoke this early European tradition? What sort of terms govern the discourse around fairytales in a more global setting? Is it erasing of non-European cultures to talk about “fairytales” when meaning only this European tradition, or is applying this term cross-culturally an act of imperialism? Or is it more complex than that? How have modern versions of fairytales, such as the Disney movies, engaged (or failed to engage) with race? What sort of racial dynamics get constructed? Tiana is the first black Disney princess – how does her portrayal compare with that of the other princesses of colour, Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocanhontas? How about the reception of these characters?
Can/should we define Disney fairytales as “reworkings” of fairytales? Or are they too conservative/sanitised to count? Is this a meaningless semantic difference? Does something need to be subversive to be a “reworking”, or should it just be different? What do we think of the marketing of Disney’s female main characters under the “Disney princesses” umbrella? What about the backlash when Merida was “crowned” an official “Disney princess”, losing her bow and gaining a considerably more feminised appearance in the process? What sort of composite text is the ABC/Disney-owned series Once Upon A Time – particularly given that the character Mulan has been revealed to be bisexual? Would depiction of a queer woman of colour be possible in a mainstream Disney film – and if not, what makes Once Upon A Time different? Why are queer lives/sexualities not seen as child-appropriate? (And what (if anything) does it mean, with regards to a hierarchy of “acceptable” queerness, that Mulan has been written as a bi woman rather than a trans man or transmasculine person? Anecdotally, I know a number of people who read Mulan as trans, citing not just Mulan spending most of the film living as male, but the words of the song “Reflection“) In terms of non-Disney visual media – what about the trajectory of the Shrek franchise – has it lost its edge?
This blog entry has already reached quite a mammoth length, so I’ll end it here for now – but I’ll hopefully be posting some more things of interest soon, including a more organised list of interesting resources.