Thursday, April 29, 2010

Brothers and Beasts

Just finished reading Brothers and Beasts: an Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer. It's impossible to summarize or even pick highlights, since each essay was so different, yet each author is a professional writer so the quality of each was good (i.e., no worries about "fan fiction" type stories). First of all, when I saw it was a collection of essays specifically collected by men, that struck me as odd, but as Maria Tatar and Kate Bernheimer remind us in the Foreword and Introduction, in modern times it's very unusual for men to admit interest in fairy tales. In the past, the foremost collectors and theorists on fairy tales were men, but today the only major one that comes to my mind is Jack Zipes, whereas there are a host of women doing wonderful work in the field. Ironic that as academia becomes more infiltrated by women, certain areas of study are pushed aside and thought of as only for women.

If there was one summarizable thing I gleaned from the collection of essays, it is that everyone experiences fairy tales differently. We have so many theories on what certain symbols in fairy tales mean and how they affect children, etc. But I wonder how much of that study is personal philosophy, and how much is conducted by discussing with people how they understood fairy tales as children and now as adults, or reading tales to children to record their reactions and questions. Because really, who's to say one philosopher's personal journey with fairy tales is any more valid than the little kids I babysit? Or my own, or any of the authors in this book? Some of the essays were very similar to my own personal connections with tales, others are quite opposite, but they're all real experiences.

One thing Jack Zipes points out in the Afterword I thought was interesting-that though you can spot a feminist trend in fairy tales, you can't really spot a clear "male" trend. And though I respect those who are trying to undo negative stereotypes of women in tales, at the same time that's kind of sad. In order for a tale not to be offensive to females, it has to have a plucky and courageous female character who doesn't need a man to save her. Yet the males in this anthology seemed to identify with the neglected and forlorn youngest son who is thought to be useless but eventually rises to power, not the sword-weilding, kiss-bearing hero we might think they would. I myself connect a lot more to any shy characters. While I like reading about these lively females, I never really connect with them. If anything, female warrior characters (in pop culture, or in a more fairy tale-like setting, such as Mulan or other feminist versions of tales) intimidate me. I can't be beautiful and kind and witty and courageous and strong and athletic all at once! It was enough to just be beautiful and kind! And since female warriors are never anything but beautiful, it's not like we're setting more realistic expectations for our heroines-they've only become more unattainable.

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