Dispatches from Misandry-Prime, planet of the false rape accusations

So, today I found myself reading a comment thread attached to this article (clean link) about the rape allegations against Ben Sullivan, current President of the Oxford Union. It seems that there are people out there who not only believe that anyone accused of rape should be automatically granted anonymity, but who believe that if that if the accused is not convicted of rape, the accuser should go to prison instead, and take the sentence the accused would have received. You know, for their vicious attempts to ruin the accused’s career.

Seriously? What the fuck? What fucking planet are you on?

In fact, let’s talk about that planet. Let’s name it Misandry-Prime, because – according to some of the commenters on that thread – any policy other than the aforementioned arrangement – is “a prime example of misandry”. On Misandry-Prime, where such a policy makes sense, I propose that the following must all be true:

– On Misandry-Prime, nobody ever watches the films of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, or Charlie Chaplin, because allegations of rape have permanently tarnished their careers. In fact, every single one of the following people can’t show their faces in public again, because of how dramatically their careers went down the toilet at the first indication that they might have sexually assaulted someone: Al Gore, Jimmie Page, R. Kelly,  John Travolta,  Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Mike Tyson, Jerry Seinfeld, Dominique Strauss-Kahn… and if you add in accusations of domestic violence, let’s not forget Michael Fassbender, Charles Saatchi, Mel Gibson, and Sean Penn. Not a single one of them are still household names. All of those men – their careers were completely ruined the second someone came forward about being assaulted by them, regardless of whether the jury found in their favour or not, or even whether the case made it to court! Not a single person spoke up for them!

– On Misandry-Prime, whenever someone comes forward about a person who sexually assaulted them, they are instantly and automatically believed. There is no groundswell of support for the accused – no, not even for Ched Evans or Julian Assange – and there are definitely no aggressive smear campaigns against the accuser.

– On Misandry-Prime, rape accusations are magic! They alone have the ability to ruin someone’s reputation, and they will do it instantly, in the time it takes to click your fingers, the moment anyone suggests that rape might have occurred. Nobody has ever had their reputation ruined by allegations of murder, or theft, or drug abuse – on Misandry-Prime, it is rape accusations and rape accusations alone that can do this. Since rape is the only criminal allegation that could possibly damage someone’s career, rape trials are the only ones that need to take place in complete secrecy!

– On Misandry-Prime, real rape victims come forward in the sure knowledge that they would be believed and supported – and even though rape trials are all entirely secret, they have a psychic ability to sense when someone who assaulted them is on trial, which means they can still add their own evidence to the trial!

– On Misandry-Prime, the media circus that surrounds rape allegations is ~*~super-exciting and fun~*~! It doesn’t involve having every aspect of your body, personal life, sexual history, moral character, etc, constantly publicly scrutinised with the aim of determining whether you were “asking for it” or if you were sufficiently attractive for someone to bother raping, and there’s never any kind of smear campaign designed to make you out to be a crazy, irrational, slutty, ugly, attention-seeker who had sex and then changed their mind afterwards! Nope, it’s just a fun way for a bored party girl to get onto a lot of chat shows, get the attention she craves, and wreak dramatic revenge on a man who she probably just doesn’t like because he rejected her or something.

– On Misandry-Prime, the juries ALWAYS get it right. It’s just logic, you guys – if the jury couldn’t prove the defendant did it, then obviously the defendant didn’t do it! This means that it’s standard legal practice, if the prosecution fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime in question, that the plaintiff always subsequently gets arrested for perjury and sentenced to whatever punishment was waiting to be lined up for the defendant.  This is why people who can’t prove that someone mugged them or burgled them end up in jail half the time! And this is why, on Misandry-Prime, there needs to stop being an exception for rape!

So, on Misandry-Prime, perhaps this ass-backwards idea makes some kind of sense. But since we don’t fucking live there, let’s stop with this bullshit, alright?

“Frozen” – why I hated it on first watching

[This is the first in a series of three posts about Frozen. I’ve only just seen it, and as someone with a deep and abiding interest in women and their representation within fairytales, I have a lot of thoughts about it. This post discusses my gut reaction – that it’s an absolute failure of a film – and compares it with recent Disney offerings Brave and Tangled. The second post will look at alternate perspectives on Frozen, examining other ways that it has been read and received by women, queer people, and abuse survivors. The third post will be an exploration of Frozen as it could have been, if the valuable subtexts of the film had been brought out and explored more satisfyingly.]

So, I’ve finally watched Frozen. And… wow. I hated it. Not just because of the shoddy animation or the gaping plot-holes or the poor world-building. (Or the lyrics, with gems like “who knew we had so many plates?”, “don’t know if I’m elated or gassy”, and  “the past is in the past”…) No, what really gets me is the way that despite the way it’s been touted as a progressive and/or feminist film due to the focus on a relationship between sisters, it (in my view) actually way more regressive than any other recent Disney films (and indeed several much older ones).

First off, Dani Colman has written this very detailed examination of why Frozen fails as a progressive film on every count. I really recommend reading it, as it articulates many of the reasons why I found this film deeply unsatisfying, and I’ll be building on some of her points here. (But also, it’s not a perfect article – as I’ll discuss in post #2). Colman writes:

Frozen creates the clever illusion of its own progressiveness by subtly degrading what came before it to make itself look more enlightened by comparison. In doing so, it not only treads upon a rich history of compelling heroines in much better films; it manages to get away with being good enough.

In the rest of the article, she compares Frozen‘s heroines with classic Disney princesses like Jasmine, Ariel, and Mulan – demonstrating that most of these characters have far more agency and personality than either Anna or Elsa. I’m going to focus instead on how Frozen compares to more recent Disney offerings Brave and Tangled. This post contains spoilers for all three!

All three films deal with themes of imprisonment and freedom, the nature of love, and the importance of familial love as well as (or instead of) romantic love. Frozen had the potential to do really interesting things – and the original Andersen story, The Snow Queen, has a host of amazing female characters. Even having abandoned most of the Andersen plot, Frozen could have been brilliant – an look at what enforced separation does to sibling love, of how a difference in power can change relationships, of the ways that women are taught to be silent and still and emotionless, of what it’s like to grow up being abused by well-meaning parents. But at every point where it could have done something interesting or complex, it just… doesn’t. And it’s not enough to say that this is “just a kid’s film, so it doesn’t matter” – I’ve been picking holes in Disney since I was little, so don’t tell me that children don’t notice this stuff! Frozen seems particularly egregious having come after Brave and Tangled, both of which managed to be far more complex and emotionally realistic. (Which is not to say that I think either of these films are perfect – they definitely do have their problems, and those deserve critical engagement as well – but even with the recognition that they are flawed, I still think that Frozen doesn’t measure up even slightly.)

The thrust of my argument is this: Frozen is a failed attempt to re-create what was good about Brave and Tangled.

So – Elsa is locked in her room for most of her life, and Anna is confined to the castle for three years between her parents’ death and her sister “coming of age” so she can become queen. Let’s compare this to Tangled: Rapunzel has been locked up for her whole life as a young girl, and (like Anna) she’s conventionally feminine and a little bit clumsy – but unlike either Elsa or Anna, she has hobbies and interests. In the song “When Will My Life Begin?” we see her baking, reading, knitting, painting, playing music, doing ballet, playing games, and a whole load of other hobbies – and later we learn she’s also been charting stars! She’s smart,  and curious about the world beyond the tower. We see something similar in Brave: while Merida is not locked up per se, she is subject to pressure to remain at home and behave more like a traditional princess. And there’s something else going on here: both Rapunzel and Merida actively fight against the walls within which they’re being kept. We never see any sort of resistance or agency from Anna or Elsa – the closest thing we get to seeing Elsa express any contrarian desires is when she tells her parents not to touch her because she’s afraid she’ll hurt them (and this is after several years of being conditioned to believe that she is dangerous and people should be afraid of her). And Anna – if she loves her sister so much that she’ll ride out into a blizzard to save her without even stopping to put on some warm clothes, I find it hard to believe that she’s spent several years being foiled by a closed door. Sure, we have a montage of Anna knocking forlornly at Elsa’s door as she grows up, but… seriously, she never slipped a note under that door? Never made a rope out of bedsheets and tried to swing in through Elsa’s window? For that matter, did Elsa literally never come out of that room until she came of age? Were there not even any family dinners? Did Anna never have a chance to talk to Elsa about this, or think to ask her parents what on earth had just happened and why the family was suddenly acting as though her sister was a monster? At no point do either Elsa or Anna seem to display curiosity, resourcefulness, or any desire/ability to change things – they both seem to accept their respective fates of being locked in an empty room and locked in a nearly-empty castle with nothing but sadness and resignation. The only way I can make sense of this is if they’re both already seriously hurt and traumatised – which leads me to the next point…

Anna and Elsa’s family situation is highly disturbing, and this is never expressly marked as abusive. Again, let’s break out the Tangled comparison: Mother Gothel keeps Rapunzel in that tower all her life because she wants to exploit the magic properties of Rapunzel’s hair. When we first meet her, Rapunzel has to an extent internalised the idea that she needs to stay in the tower to stay safe, saying “I like it in here, and so do you! Come on, Pascale, it’s not so bad in there”. When we see her interactions with Mother Gothel both in conversation and in the  villain song “Mother Knows Best”, it becomes clear why: because Mother Gothel has been systematically undermining Rapunzel’s confidence in herself. It’s a pretty chilling depiction of emotional abuse, and I am SO GLAD it exists in a popular children’s film, because it’s expressly modelling what abuse can look like – and might, perhaps, help kids better recognise abuse if it happens to them. And then let’s think about the mother/daughter relationship in Brave – in which Elinor’s desire to keep Merida indoors and marry her off stems from a sense of duty and political necessity rather than from selfish or cruel reasons. Elinor begins as a domestic antagonist, but the heart of the movie is about how these two very different women with different priorities come to understand each other, and negotiate a compromise between duty and freedom. It’s fantastic and it made me cry.

Now let’s look at what happens in Frozen. Elsa accidentally hurts Anna when they’re playing – and since it’s a magic wound, instead of going to whatever Arendelle’s equivalent of A&E is, they ride off to find the trolls (who seem to actually understand magic). What happens next is creepy on so many levels. The lead troll does some magic memory-altering on Anna, without getting meaningful consent from her parents – he just does it. He tells Elsa that fear will be her enemy, and then the proceeds to scare the bejeezus out of her with a prophetic light show. And then he tells Elsa that she will need learn to control her powers! Here’s the basic reaction I’d expect from sensible and loving parents:

“So, Mr. Troll, what you’re saying is that our daughter has incredible and unexplained magic powers, and she needs to control them so she doesn’t accidentally hurt people again? Right then! Perhaps you could recommend us a magic-user who could teach her how to do this? Like a wizard tutor, or something? Maybe she could stay with you, since you’re clearly a pretty short ride away from our palace, and you seem to know how this magic stuff works? How about some of you come stay in the palace for a bit and keep an eye on her, show her how to control this stuff? Or we could just bring her down for some supervised lessons once a week? Either way, since this girl is the future queen and all, we definitely want to make sure she grows up healthy and stable and in control of her magic – and I mean, just from a practical point of view, having an awesome sorceress queen would probably do wonders in terms of discouraging people from invading our kingdom. Also, thanks for altering our other daughter’s memories to remove the ice-magic stuck in her head – it wasn’t great that you didn’t check with us first, but if that was the only way to save her life, then I trust your magical/medical opinion! But just so you know, once she’s a bit older we’re going to sit her and Elsa down and explain about all of this: because even if Anna didn’t get a say in this happening to her, she has a right to know her history, and we respect her autonomy as a human being.”

But instead we get:

“So, Mr. Troll, what you’re saying is that our daughter has incredible and unexplained magic powers, and she needs to control them so she doesn’t accidentally hurt people again? Right then! I guess what we should do is lock her in an empty room for the rest of her life, keep her as isolated from human contact as possible, actively teach her to fear her powers, and get her to internalise the mantra ‘conceal, don’t feel’ every time her ~emotions~ get out of hand! It’s not like she needs love or intellectual stimulation or compassion or guidance or anything. And as for Anna, well, we’ll just send away pretty much all the palace staff and leave her to wander aimlessly around the castle with no friends, and never explain to her what’s happened, so she grows up feeling that her sister suddenly came to hate her for no reason. That’ll work, right? What could possibly go wrong?”

They lock their daughter up, teach her to repress her powers rather than control them, never ever explain to Anna what on earth is going on, and generally behave in a way that suggests they have no respect for the basic humanity of their children. So far, so fairytale – bad and/or absent parents are a mainstay of the genre. But the thing is, the horrifying way they treat their daughters is never ever coded as abusive. This is a massive step back from Tangled‘s emotionally realistic portrayal of parent/child abuse, or Brave‘s complex exploration of a difficult but basically loving parent/child relationship.

The problems with Frozen‘s portrayal of family don’t end there: while I know that it’s not exactly unheard-of for Disney movies to require suspension of disbelief, when watching Frozen I found it impossible not to poke the cardboard walls. Why? Because the entire plot hinges on a family structure (and for that matter, a governmental structure) that makes no sense. This isn’t as dire a problem as the two I discuss above – independent-heroine-by-numbers and abject failure to acknowledge that the family is abusive as hell – but I think it bears thinking about in the context of a film that has been lauded for elevating ‘true love’ between siblings to the position normally occupied by romantic love. When the king and queen die, what on earth happens to the kingdom? Who is running it? It can’t be that everything just shuts down, because the Duke of Weselton talks about Arendelle as a trading partner. I’d expect there to be someone – an aunt, an uncle, a distant cousin – who is taking the reins until Elsa comes of age and is allowed to be queen. But if there is, we don’t see them. Ever. And it seems pretty likely that there aren’t any, since when Anna runs off after Elsa, she is somehow able to make Hans the temporary regent of her kingdom – and another noble tells him “if anything happens to the princess, you are all Arendelle has left”. (And later, he is seemingly able to convincingly claim the throne on the basis of his verbal account that he and Anna said their marriage vows just before she died in his arms. What?) Furthermore – in all those three years, who was still keeping Anna locked indoors? I can just about believe that Elsa has at this point been sufficiently traumatised that she stays locked up – although again, if Anna loves her sister so much, before the film starts she’s had three years free of parental supervision during which she could have reached out to her – but what’s stopping Anna from going out to see the world, or at least her immediate surroundings? (Also, on the subject of abusive families – Kristoff brings home a female friend, and his adoptive family’s response is to sing a song about how gross and awful he is, but how she can fix him if she marries him? And then tries to trick them into getting married? I just… wow, no.)

Who knew that ice magic could also do lipstick and eyeshadow?

Who knew that ice magic could also do lipstick and eyeshadow?

I’m also really bothered by what feels like casual misogyny – I love flawed heroines, I honestly do, but I feel like there’s a running theme of women being coded as over-emotional, even hysterical, and incapable of taking command or acting sensibly.  (I’ll go into this in more detail in blog post #2).  There’s also the way that “being free” and “being conventionally sexy” are conflated.  In “Let It Go”, the song in which Elsa finally claims her powers and expresses her individuality, she also gives herself a magical makeover and winds up looking like a classic femme fatale, with a long slinky sequinned split-to-the-thigh dress, dramatic makeup, and a new sexy wiggle in her walk. I am very much in favour of people dressing however they want, and I don’t for a moment think that expressing femininity makes someone unfeminist – but I do feel like this scene is worryingly invested in the “Madonna/Whore” dichotomy, as well as the idea that performing femininity/sexiness is inherently liberating (rather than liberation being found in having the choice to do so or not). “Elsa’s become empowered – quick, make her sexy!” For a film that is supposedly progressive, I feel it falls back on a lot of reductive and harmful tropes about women.

The final thing I wanted to talk about is how this fits in with the Disney Princess marketing machine. To quote Colman again:

Throwing the doors open to women with a new generation of intelligent, capable female characters who are not defined by whom they fall in love with is a smart move, and Disney knows it. That’s why Disney has been beating the “More Feminism” drum for years now: not because they believe it, but because the children of millenials are being brought up in homes that champion intelligent, outspoken women, and that’s where the ticket sales are coming from. But Disney has, and has always had, a fine line to tread between breaking new ground, and maintaining the comfort of tradition, or it risks losing the millions in ticket sales and merchandise that comes from the old vanguard.[…]

Whether you loved or hated Frozen, it should be impossible to deny that it is preceded by a rich history of animated films that champion bravery, intelligence, strength and agency in their heroines far more effectively than it does. Yet denying it we are, in droves, and sometime since Frozen’s release the praise heaped upon it reached such a critical mass that it somehow has made us forget that Belle left both home and the Beast’s castle to save her father’s life; that Mulan risked death on the battlefield and execution for treason to protect her family; that Esmeralda chose immolation rather than give herself to a man she despised; that the archetypal Prince Charming hasn’t been seen in a Disney film since The Little Mermaid; and that no Disney heroine except Anna — even Ariel — has begun her story with love as her goal since 1959.

I think this hits the nail on the head: in order for each new Disney princess film to be seen a step forward in terms of awesome heroines, without actually doing something new or revolutionary, it needs to put down the films that came before it. I absolutely don’t think that Disney’s oeuvre is a shining example of feminism, and beyond the lens of gender there are swathes of problems as regards racial stereotyping, investment in the beauty myth, heteronormativity, and so on. This is the two-pronged power of the Disney Princesses merchandising machine: with one hand they flatten out every previous princess into a hyperfeminine, glitter-covered version, appearance-focused iteration of the original character; with the other hand, they sell their newest creation as the most daring, the most independent, the most ground-breaking yet.  Seriously, look at this picture – to take the two most obvious examples, Mulan spends most of the film wearing armour and passing as a boy, yet in Disney Princesses merchandise she’s wearing an even fussier version the type of clothes she hates so much that there’s a song about it; Rapunzel ends the film with short brown hair but is depicted all through the Disney branding with her flowing golden locks… There was some backlash a while ago when a prettied-up version of Merida was added to the ensemble, but again, while Merida was definitely an important step forward in many ways, the objection to the Merida redesign again served to elide all the ways that so many of her predecessors – Mulan, Belle, Tiana, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas… – were themselves “girlified” by the Disney Princesses branding.

disney princesses

And so – Frozen has been sold as, and received as, something new. Is it more feminist just because there are two princesses instead of one – even though neither of them seem to have personalities or interests or consistent psychologies? Is it queerer than usual because the central story is a love story between two women – even though they’re sisters, with a sketched-in relationship that seems based on their both liking snowmen and chocolate? Does it skewer the love-at-first sight trope by undercutting the relationship between Anna and Hans – even though it then goes on to have Anna and Kristoff fall for each other in a similarly short space of time? Well… no. I really don’t think it does. (And again, other Disney films do it better – Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog both do far more interesting things with the idea of what constitutes a princess; Tangled has a lot to say in terms of challenging traditional gender roles (particularly in how it undercuts traditional ideas of masculinity); if you want characters falling in love that isn’t “at first sight” then what about Beauty and the Beast?)  I think that what is happening here is something rather more cynical: that, having seen the success of Brave and Tangled, the two most recent princess movies with resourceful heroines and fresh (or at least, more nuanced) perspectives on love and family, Frozen is an attempt to recreate that success without doing any of the emotional or intellectual work required to create a groundbreaking film (or even just a compelling film). Frozen is Tangled-by-numbers, a shallow and formulaic attempt to cash in on the current enthusiasm for more ‘independent’ heroines.

But wait – there’s more! In the course of writing this blog, I also asked my Facebook friends: if you like Frozen, tell me why? The ensuing discussion was really interesting and I now feel like I understand more about why this film was so well-received by lots of my feminist and queer friends, people whose opinions I respect. However, as this blog post is already well over 3000 words, I’m going to leave this one here – stay tuned for another post soon, which will discuss Frozen in terms of queerness, survivorhood, and the value in having fallible protagonists! (And because I’m a ridiculous human being who apparently has a lot of feelings about women in fairy tales (who knew?), there is also a third post on the way, in which I explore how Frozen could have been a far better movie by bringing out the more interesting things buried in the subtext.)

Adventures in microaggressions: misogyny and ablism in public spaces

I’m tired of this.

I’m tired of men in public spaces who think that my sole purpose is to provide them with entertainment on their way home. I am tired of complete strangers who think it’s appropriate to follow me round a shop and relentlessly question me about my purchases and my visible disability. I’m tired of having “babe”, “darling”, “love”, “sweetheart”, and “honey” thrown at me by random adult men in the shops and on the streets and all over public transport. I’m tired of being grabbed, being thumped hard (but “jokingly”) on the back when it’s clear that I’m relying on a walking-stick for support, having my thigh squeezed by someone who started out polite and got creepy. I’m tired of offering help or directions to male strangers who then spend the next half hour slowly escalating their invasion of my personal space and making increasingly sexually inappropriate comments. I’m tired of doing everything I can to subtly tell them that I’m not interested – reading, having headphones in, not looking at them, responding in monosyllables. I’m tired of the terrifying angry about-face when I finally stop playing their game and following the social script, when I tell them straight-out that I’m not interested, and so “babe” and “darling” turn to “bitch” and “cunt”. I am tired of being told that they’re just being friendly, that I just can’t take a joke, that I should just give them a chance and they’ll turn out to be nice.

I am tired of the way that being visibly disabled makes me feel like an easy target, because I know that disabled women are disproportionately at risk of being abused, and I know women to whom this has happened. I am tired of having to ask people to give up priority seats for me when I’m using my walking-stick, and believe me, I am sure as hell tired of strangers asking me questions like “so what’s wrong with your legs?” or “what have you done to yourself?” or even “so is it degenerative?” I am tired of being in pain so frequently. I am tired of how slight changes of plan can make things awful – I am tired of going out with a heavy backpack or without my walking-stick, because I am sure that I will not have to do much walking, and then ending up in pain because things changed. I am very tired of having to turn down some amazing opportunities because I can’t guarantee that I’ll have enough energy enough on the day to (for example) travel to the other end of the country, give a workshop, and spend the night on an unfamiliar sofa. I am tired, tired to the point of tears, of how slow and laborious recovery is, of feeling like I’m just about treading water.

I know things could be much worse. I know that I have privileges that shield me from other forms of microaggression; that being white and middle-class and financially stable and a UK citizen are all things which, while they may not erase the things that happen to me, can mitigate their effects (for example – after a horrible train journey, in which a man begun by asking me about train times and ended up being invasive and terrifying, I could spare the money to jump into a taxi rather than risk being followed home by him). And I am angry that this is the case, angry at the forms of structural power that run through the world and leave so many people worn down and hurt and disenfranchised, angry at the systems which coerce people into wielding their privileges as leverage against their oppressions, angry angry angry.

I am angry, I am tired, and I am not going away.

(NB: I don’t usually write and upload posts this quickly. I have some part-written posts which deal with some of these issues in a more nuanced way – but I’m currently battling a moth infestation in my flat and just needed to vent. As such, this point may well contain things that are ill-considered, faily, or oppressive: as ever, please do call me out if I’ve fucked something up.)

Upcoming things!

The longer I leave off writing a blog entry, the more convinced I come that I need to re-enter the arena of online writing with something stunning, long, detailed, or all three – and so the longer I put it off. This is probably something that gets in the way of the main purpose of this blog – to tell people about things! So, dear reader, here is a short and sweet blog post about some things which are happening soon (and to which you should come, if you would like to and have the means to).

Wednesday 26th February, Brighton – the multivocal collage of thoughts, words, pictures, and experiences that is the Queer In Brighton anthology is coming out! (Pun unintended, but oh well.) I have a short piece published in this, about the first time I went to Brighton as a baby queer, and the year-or-so I spent living there while doing my MA. You can read it by clicking here. The anthology will be available to buy for £12.99, and I am very excited to attend the launch and get my contributer’s copy!

Sunday 9th March, London – I’ll be reprising my workshop on queer/feminist fairytales at Wowzers, a community-led feminist arts and music festival. This workshop was very popular at LaDIYfest Sheffield – you can read my write-up of it by clicking here. It was excellent fun to run, and I can’t wait to see where the participants take it this time round.

Saturday 15th March, Oxford – I’m sharing some of my poetry at the next installment of glorious queer-feminist performance night and punky crafting circle, Quiltbag Cabaret. I’m really looking forward to it – and I’ll be performing some of my newer and/or lesser-heard poetry, rather than my usual trademark pieces like ‘Hair’.

And with that, I shall leave you with a thought that I tweeted earlier: the other day, when confirming that my name is indeed Hel, I added: “with one L, like the terrifying chthonic Norse deity”.  I think I might just start introducing myself with that addendum from now on!

Three resolutions for 2014

Well – it’s 2014, and so I’m going to post my resolutions for the year.

I do have mixed feelings about the institution of New Year’s Resolutions – I feel like they’re often adopted with a sense of explicit ‘permission’ to have failed by February, because hey, nobody ever really sticks to new year’s resolutions, right? At least in my experience, there’s a pervading view of the new year’s resolution as being meant in the same spirit as someone with a hangover saying “I’ll never drink again – I mean it this time!” – an sort of expression of “wow, I sure did indulge over Christmas / drop the ball on my plans for last year / waste a lot of time playing Minesweeper – better sort myself out!” with the understanding that things will drift back towards the status quo eventually. But on the other hand, my 2013 ended on quite a low note, with grief and illness knocking the wind out of my sails, so even the illusion of a fresh start as dictated by numbers on a calendar feels like a good thing. I also think there is a certain symbolic value in taking stock and making plans at the time of year when the days around me begin to lengthen once more and I emerge from a form of hibernation. There is a lot that I would like to do and learn and make, and I want to make 2014 a year in which these things happen. So I’ve actually been thinking about resolutions since the beginning of December, and trying to work on the foundations for the year ahead as much as I’m able to.

Anyway. I have resolved that I will:

1. De-centre whiteness in the media that I consume.
Read more books by people of colour; watch more films/television shows by and starring people of colour; actively seek out artists of colour who are currently performing in the spoken word and live music scenes. If I get The Cutlery Drawer up and running again, make sure that people of colour are represented in the lineups. I reached the conclusion that this was an important thing for me to do some while ago, and I would like to be held accountable in this regard, which is why I’m making this resolution publicly. In the light of the shocking racism that’s already being enacted by white feminists this year (seriously! It’s been two days!) this feels even more crucial: I need to address my white privilege. And that doesn’t mean reading about the existence of structural racism, shaking my head with disapproval at the injustice, and then saying “okay, all done here!” It doesn’t even just mean calling out racism in fellow white people when I see it. It means recognising that I am entrenched in a white-supremacist society which systematically devalues the creative and intellectual work of people of colour, relegating this work to a ‘specialist’ interest.* It means accepting the fact that by consuming media and creative work without addressing the white-supremacist nature of the creative industries, I am tacitly supporting racism. It means making the effort to actually hear the voices of people of colour – political voices, artistic voices, voices that speak from and to a vastness of experiences which my white privilege means I can ignore. It’s not enough to follow blogs and tweets by people of colour, when of the 22 books (poetry, fiction, and academia) I finished reading this year, only two were written by authors of colour. (I haven’t been tracking my film/TV/music consumption in the same way, so I don’t have numbers, but: those are also for the most part pretty damn white.) So, in 2014: engage, engage, engage with the creative and intellectual work of people of colour, and de-centre the whiteness which currently dominates my media landscape.

*Which, y’know, sounds rather like the grossly racist and classist claim that the word “intersectionality” (coined by a woman of colour to articulate her experience of oppression!) is too ‘academic’ and ‘specialist’ for working-class white women to understand… oh but wait, it’s alright, because those claims are now being swept under the rug as part of the vile meme about ‘reclaiming’ intersectionality (from women of colour who are being framed as ‘abusers’!). Urgh.

2. Focus on my writing, and getting it out there.
Draw up a plan for the year – make sure I’m writing, recording, researching, performing, and submitting work to magazines/anthologies. Go back to having a calendar of poetry/fiction submission deadlines, and send out work regularly. A couple of specific ambitions: headline a poetry night; get at least three things published (including at least one piece of fiction); have the fairytales collection approaching completion (or at least, comprising over 10 finished and fully edited short stories); be somehow involved in next year’s Crick Crack fairytale show. In line with resolution number 1, engage with criticisms of white authors/authorship, and with ways to keep my work from being white-dominated/white-centric (e.g. Lena Dunham’s Girls – Racialicious is currently down but that post is still readable on the Wayback Machine) while also not crossing into cultural appropriation or exotification (e.g. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl).

3. Take care of myself.
I went into more detail with this one on Facebook – but essentially, recognising that I have limited time, energy, and emotional resources, and allocating these to the things that matter most to me. This includes getting back into a good self-care routine (which I rather lost in November, due to a friend’s death and getting various kinds of ill again) which in turn includes allowing myself to relax and have ‘off’ days; maintaining physiotherapy and enjoyable forms of exercise (swimming, dance, and hiking – but only when I can do these things); regularly planning and cooking meals which are nutritious, and tasty; doing a sufficient amount of work in my day job; doing creative things which aren’t tied to ideas about ‘success’ or my future as a writer/performer (e.g. getting back into handcrafting things, which I’ve been doing a bit of over the holidays and really enjoying).

So, that’s my 2014. How about yours?

Magic and mythmaking: (re)writing queer/feminist fairytales

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).

"Diamonds and Toads", by Carliihde at Deviant Art

“Diamonds and Toads”, by Carliihde at Deviant Art. [Crediting but used without permission; I will take this down if requested by the artist.] I note with interest that all the pictures of this story on my Google Images search showed the “good” daughter with blonde hair and the “bad” daughter with dark hair…

 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.)

"From the Beast to the Blonde" cover

“From the Beast to the Blonde” cover

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.

A shot from The Wrong Crowd's production of "The Girl with the Iron Claws". Photograph by Steve Ullathorne.

A shot from The Wrong Crowd’s production of “The Girl with the Iron Claws”. Photograph by Steve Ullathorne.

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).

Christine Gritmon's satirical take on "Beauty and the Beast", from TheFW.com

Christine Gritmon’s satirical take on “Beauty and the Beast”, from TheFW.com

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.

Autumn to winter

It’s been a while since I updated with what’s going on in my life, so – for anyone who might have been wondering – here comes an abridged account of the past few months. (I’d like to talk in more detail about many of the things below, but perfectionism means that I’ve been putting off posting anything until it’s just right, which means this blog has carried on being empty! So for the meantime, a whistle-stop tour of what’s been happening since August.)

Nine Worlds was an absolute blast – I was shattered by the end of it, but I had an amazing time. I spent most of my time in the Queer Fandom track, with forays into various others, and loved performing at the Bifröst cabaret. The “Better History = Better Fantasy: Writing Outside the Binary”  panel that I spoke in was an incredible experience: the audience, the chair (Alex Dally MacFarlane), and the other panellists (Koel Mukherjee and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz) were all bursting with information and enthusiasm, and the discussions sparked were so valuable. I took a lot of notes and really should write about this properly at some point, but, yeah, it was such an awesome space – and I was really pleased that even though this wasn’t a panel “about” race, the other two panellists were women of colour (because structural racism/sexism still exists in queer spaces, and definitely exists in SFF, and can only be addressed by empowering marginalised voices). I enjoyed every session I attended, was wowed by the beautiful things for sale in the vendors section, and briefly cosplayed as Queen Chrysalis. And the geeky disco was great. (Absurdly, I think a favourite moment was when I realised that every time I was a speaker (and one time I wasn’t), I had managed to get the room briefly and intensely angry about all the inherent misogyny in Steven Moffat’s oeuvre. Seriously, he’s all over British television right now, and there’s insidious sexism oozing out of everything he creates.)

If you’d like to read more about Nine Worlds right this minute (as opposed to waiting for me to write more, if I ever get round to it) there are some lovely reviews up on blogs Serenity Womble  and Ferretbrain – I’m linking to those because even though I didn’t go to all the same sessions as those bloggers did, their experiences and perspectives (as feminist and/or queer people who felt welcomed) are pretty close to mine. Oh, and following my talk in the Academia track about Margaret Cavendish as an early writer of (or precursor to) SFF, I was invited to contribute an article on this topic to the first issue of Holdfast Magazine: it’s available to read online here.

If Nine Worlds was intense, the Edinburgh Fringe was… well, perhaps a new word needs to be invented to describe how intense it was. I’d been in Lashings show-runs before (Oxford Fringe 2012 and 2013), so I’m used to them as distinct from our more variety-show style gigs; I’d stayed in the Edinburgh Lash-flat before (as a guest) so was prepared for the delightful ‘queer feminist vegetarian commune’ vibe of life there; however, combining the two for a week of performances was new and challenging, particularly as someone with unreliable health (I was unwell for quite a bit of my time there). The packed auditorium of radical queers on the last night was the perfect reward. As well as performing in the Lashings queer panto Fanny Whittington, I managed to do some poetry at Flea Circus‘s 3-day slam and Other Voices’s alternative spoken word cabaret, and saw some great shows (highlights included Sophia Walker’s poetry, Rachel Parris’ musical comedy, and Lisa Skye’s highly individual one-woman show Ladyboner).

My costume for Transpose as The Queer Agenda - a hand-lettered t-shirt (reading "To Do: - Feed cat - Buy soy milk - Smash heteropatriarchy and cissexism") and a rainbow bustle. I wore this with rainbow galaxy leggings!

My costume for Transpose as The Queer Agenda – a hand-lettered t-shirt and a rainbow bustle. I wore this with rainbow galaxy leggings!

Staying with the topic of performances, my absolute favourite thing the past few months was the Hallowe’en edition of Transpose. There were readings from Kat Gupta, Jacq Applebee, Sandra Alland and myself; films by and about trans disabled people (introduced by Sandra Alland, who was given funding to mentor them in making these films); and music from Squid and the Krakens (moonlighting as They Came From The Sea) and of course CN Lester. Everyone was, pardon the expletive, fucking brilliant – and €385 was raised for Transgender Equality Network Ireland. I also loved how creative the costumes were – CN came as the Gender Binary, which led to a number of similarly conceptual costumes such as the Lavender Menace (a superhero/ine in delicate shades of purple) and Fifty Shades of Grey (an all-grey outfit strung with housepaint colour sample sheets) . My costume was the Queer Agenda (see picture!) and there was also a contingent of Lashings villains: Dick and Osbourne from Fanny Whittington; and from Cinderella, the eeeeevil Baroness Scratcher and her son Boris (who, along with Dave, comprised the Snotty Stepbrothers). The auction was full of highly tempting items, including a year’s supply of CN’s baking (!!!) and a cross-stitched “Don’t be a dick” sign. Again, I really want to write more about everything, but for now – there’s an review of Transpose (written on Facebook by a long-time fan of the events) reproduced in CN’s link above: there’s also a review (with pictures!) on Jacq’s tumblr, and another review here.

At Transpose I read one of my fairytales, “The Mermaid’s Wish” – a response to the Andersen story, rather than a retitling of my other mermaid-related fairytale – and, honestly, I’m really proud of how it went. As I said in my post about Verse Kraken, I find it interesting that I’m moving away from my initial model of expressly not-doing responses/retellings to specific stories, in which I was more about making use of prevalent tropes/themes/motifs as “ingredients” for new stories. I think it’s partly because the more research I’m doing, the more I want to engage actively with specific source texts as well as the genre as a whole. (I also keep meaning to blog about what I’m researching  – maybe soon…)

Related to this, I’m doing a workshop on fairytales at the upcoming LaDIYfest Sheffield this Saturday. It’s an all-ages workshop (by request of the organisers), and will hopefully get people thinking about gender and sexuality in fairytales and even inspire them to get writing their own. I’m very excited to have been invited to do this, and am really looking forward to it. The whole event looks like it will be fantastic – check out the full workshop timetable here. (If I feel up to it before LaDIYfest, I’ll write a longer post about fairytales – and I’ll definitely try to write something on here summing up the workshop, as I imagine it will be really productive and interesting.)

And on the topic of workshops, I also facilitated a workshop about transgender representation in student media at the recent ULU Autumn Liberation conference, using as case studies pieces published in student media in the past few years. Unfortunately it was the day after I received news of a good friend’s death, so I didn’t manage to cover everything I’d hoped to do. The group were forgiving, though, and I hope it was still more valuable than if I’d simply dropped out.

I’m currently unwell again – apparently grief lowers your immune system – and so have been spending a lot of this month indoors  and at something of a low ebb. I’ll admit I’m scared that this could be a health relapse, even though I know it probably isn’t. Most of this post was drafted a few days ago – before I went to the third in the Trans Seminars series at the University of Warwick, and in further advance of LaDIYfest, which is now tomorrow! So, I’ll leave discussion of the seminar for another time, and finally post this entry. 😉 I hope you’re all well, friends and readers, and I’ll try to get into the swing of updating more regularly!

Fairytales, feminism, and my own project.

Last week, I arrived in Brighton at 1am on a train severely delayed by ‘extreme weather conditions’ (everyone from outside the UK, feel free to laugh at our public transport!) and forged my way through the ankle-height-and-still-falling snow to meet my friend Carla. To my surprise, she said I’d brought that night’s weather on us – before going on to explain: “In Germany, when it’s snowing, we say Frau Holle is shaking out her bedsheets. Frau Holle is the same as Hel.”

This lovely mythographic tidbit (which also ties in quite well with my previous post about my name) was an entirely appropriate end to the day. Earlier that evening I had been at the talk on “Feminism and Fairytales” from Sophia Morgan-Swinhoe, organised by KCL FemSoc. (As I said a while ago, I’m ridiculously proud of how far KCL’s feminist community has come, and I’ve ended up taking a sort of grandparental interest in their events…)

It was a genuinely fascinating talk, covering familiar and unfamiliar ground – with interesting information also coming from the audience that packed out the seminar room. While I won’t attempt to reproduce my notes in full, here are some of the points from the lecture (provided with Sophia’s permission!):

– The written versions of fairytales we have often came from female oral storytellers, but transcribed (and often adapted) by literary gentlemen who went into communities to ‘bring back’ stories. Some of the storytellers were fiercely protective of their stories: Sophia mentioned an account in which a woman refused to give up her story to the Grimms, who then paid a child to visit her and memorise it for them.

– The seeming disjunct between the female origin of most fairytales and the sexism we see in them is in part attributable to the men who edited and prepared them for the printed word; additionally, many of the stories can be seen as a guide to coping with pre-existing patriarchal structures, rather than necessarily endorsing them. For this point, Sophia particularly noted the stories of Marie de France, which showed a preoccupation with forced and unhappy marriages.

– The designation of fairytales as ‘for children’ was first effected by Andrew Lang, a Victorian who collected numerous anthologies of ‘Fairy Books’. (I discuss Lang’s influence on my childhood – as well as fairytales, gender, and queerness more generally – in my article “On Fairies and Marriage” in the first issue of False Moustache magazine.

– Patricia Duncker has described the fairytale form to be inflexibly sexist and ultimately conservative. Sophia disagrees (as do I!) – while today where we seem to have ‘retold’ fairytales everywhere (from TV series Once Upon a Time to last year’s two Snow White films to the latest hilarious schlock piece Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters…), there have always been subversions: in the old oral accounts, in the aforementioned Marie de France, and in Victorian writing. Apparently that last one was because fairytales were deemed a ‘safe’ thing for women to write about – which then allowed them to slip extra things beneath notice. (Carla tells me a similar thing happened with East German film – fairytales were designated politically ‘safe’ subjects, which resulted in the creation of some wonderful films: apparently the Cinderella of Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel is a skilled huntress who repeatedly bests the prince, and whose respect he has to earn.)

– Finally – and leading in to the other purpose of this post – Sophia discussed two principles of rewriting fairytales: deconstruction and demolition that exposes what’s at the heart of it, or rebuilding and reclaiming the elements to create something new. On the latter point, she quoted Barthes on myth: “the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn…” The talk – and ensuing discussion – then turned to discussing modern revisions and re-visionings of fairytales: my notes from this section are probably worth another blog entry in themselves, so I’ll leave that for now.

The discussion of writing within the fairytale form – as deconstruction, or as reclamation – got me thinking about what I’m doing with my own fairytales project. In the Q&A after the talk I mentioned to the room that I was writing feminist fairy tales of my own. I realise I haven’t actually yet discussed on this blog what I’m doing – or trying to do – with these stories.

A little context: I read ‘The Prince Who Loved A Monster’ at Transpose last year, and it went down very well – so far, that’s the only one I’ve read aloud publicly, but I would love to start taking my fairy tales to similar events. I’ve been writing more and more, and thus far I’m honoured by the high praise from people who have seen them.

I’ve variously described them as ‘queer’, ‘alternative’, ‘modern’, ‘political’, ‘feminist’, and ‘dark’ fairytales. None of those are quite right – they seem either to imply a more overtly didactic approach than I’m taking, or a sense of belonging to the traditions of gritty urban fantasy or fairytales that have been ‘updated’ or ‘retold’. The other day someone used the term ‘fairytales for our times’, which I quite liked, although I wouldn’t really think of them as being particularly ‘of the zeitgest’: if they’re ‘of’ anything, I expect it’s ‘queer/feminist subculture’.

So what are they? Well. For a start, they’re new stories. That’s not to put down the tradition of retelling fairytales – if you’ve caught me at one of my more reflective poetry gigs then you’ll perhaps know that translation, adaptation, and transformation of myth and folklore is something that I utterly love doing. I’m a great fan of Angela Carter’s (often brutal and sexual) stories built upon ‘extracting the latent content’ of traditional fairytales; Emma Donoghue’s (often fantastically queer) metaphorisations of existing fairytales; and if we’re talking extremely modern versions, The Mechanisms’ transposition of fairytale characters into a dystopian intergalactic war. But – so far – that’s not really what I’m doing with the fairytales collection.

What I’m trying to do is write totally new stories – ones which aren’t obviously deconstructions of any one specific fairytale, while being still very much in dialogue with the existing tradition. (And to be clear – I don’t think that this is some new thing that I’ve invented. Hell, what’s the fantasy genre if not new stories in dialogue with a mythic tradition? But still – writing simultaneously within and against a tradition is amazing, and important, and something I want to keep feeding with my own work.) The fairytales I’ve written so far share common elements with traditional fairytales – important themes like love and morality and sacrifice, motifs like magic and bodily transformation, settings that are both familiar and alien, now and not-now, here and not-here. Stylistically, they’re quite diverse: some in the recitative style of oral fairy tales, some more like the written iterations, some poetry, some prose that’s more ‘modern’ sounding. Perhaps most crucially, they’re informed by my understanding of the world, which is a queer, feminist, and broadly left-wing* understanding. It isn’t my intention to be polemical with them as such – there’s nothing fun about feeling like an author is shouting at you, unless the shouting is itself the point** – but given that the fairytale is to some extent an intrinsically didactic form, and that art cannot help but reflect the artist in some way, this world-view certainly comes through. So – political, yet not polemical? I don’t think I can do much better to explain what I mean than quote myself from that False Moustache article – because despite feeling acutely aware of that article’s flaws (with hindsight of over a year!), it still works as a manifesto for this endeavour:

Looking through my diary from earlier that year, I found this scribbled at the end of a rant about stereotypes and identity: “WE NEED NEW MYTHS. OUR OWN ONES.”

And whether that ‘we’ means women, or feminists, or queers, or kinksters, or polyamorists, or anyone else who lives on the borderlands of heteropatriarchal society – yes, yes we do.We need to tell our own stories and watch them ascend through culture until they displace the old patterns that reproduce power and violence and damaging gender-norms. We need new templates that give precedent and permission to whole kaleidoscopes of genders and sexualities and relationship structures and ways of being in the world. We need fairytales of our own, that teach about the world as it is, but also that give us hope to build it better.

*I say ‘broadly’ because I don’t currently subscribe to any one particular strain of left-wing thought, and I don’t expect I will do until I’ve done considerably more reading in this area.
** See my ‘shouty’ poetry, for example…

Gig: March 23rd, London, The Feminist Library

In brief: I shall be performing a poetry set at the Feminist Library’s spoken word night on Saturday 23rd, at the Library itself (very near Waterloo station)!

Unless you happened to be at the NUS Women’s Conference the other week, my last live poetry performance was October. Having at last (hopefully) recovered from the last vestiges of my frustratingly-lingering illness, I’m aiming to get back into the live poetry scene as much as I can. (And I’m very pleased that shortly after making this resolution, I was invited to perform at this night and  this Thursday’s “Human Writes!” slam in aid of English PEN – unfortunately I can’t make the latter because I’m conferencing in Oxford until the evening, but if you’re able to be in East London on Thursday then it promises to be an excellent night.)

I’m excited to be performing again. I’m bringing out the loud, angry, feminist stuff – so unless there’s a clamour for them, don’t expect any of the more meditative things, or the translations… “Gender Rubble” will almost certainly appear, as will the latest version of a never-before-performed poem about words and rebellion.

Oh – and if you’re in Oxford this Monday, I’m planning to be at Hear the Word. Undecided on whether I’ll perform or not, but I’m looking forward to it either way!

More detailed updates coming soon – a write-up of NUS Women’s Conference, and some thoughts about fairytales (both in general, and with regards to my own project).

P.S. Another amazing event to which I (very sadly) can’t make it is happening TOMORROW: exciting feminist performance event including Rebecca Morden of Scary Little Girls, whose work I have loved for something like 4 years now. Go, go, go – and then tell me about how it went!

Article, workshop, book!

Another flying update for you, dear reader! Here are three things which you might find interesting:

I’ve co-written another piece about the Burchill/Moore mess with Sussex PhD researcher Lizzie Reed, which has now been published at academic blog Re.Framing Activism.

I’ll be running a workshop this Sunday, at StudentFems2013. It is amazing to see something like this coming out of the grassroots student feminist movement, and I’m honored to be a part of it. As well as providing the usual “Trans 101”, I’m hoping to facilitate a productive discussion about the points of intersection between trans and feminist thought, and the different ways that gender is envisioned and constructed in culture.

Finally, I’d like to alert any LGBTQ Brightonians to Queer in Brighton – it’s an awesome multimedia project about Brighton’s queer history, and the deadline for short written submissions for the printed anthology is the 1st of March. If you have a memory of being LGBTQ in Brighton that you want to share, then do consider sending something in – it looks like it’s going to be amazing.