Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Little Red Riding Hood and Feminism

I was never specifically interested in gender issues or women's rights before looking into fairy tales. In my life I never felt hindered from any opportunities by the fact that I was a woman, and I was exposed to plenty of strong female heroines in various books and movies. From my experience, it didn't make sense to me for some people to be so concerned with the plight of American women when compared to other, more needy groups of people.

But of course, my experience does not reflect everyone's. Sexism is still very much alive in the world and even in America, despite how far we've come, and I've mentioned before how my studying fairy tales has opened my eyes to some of these realities. You can't study fairy tales and their variations without being exposed to some of the gender issues therein. Since reading Catherine Orenstein's excellent Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked, in which she talks a lot about women's issues and the various feminist versions of the tale, this has been on my mind.
Gustave Dore (with blush added by Bruno Bettelheim)

Most audiences are familiar with the versions by Charles Perrault and/or the brothers Grimm. The heroine is thought of as an innocent child, who was warned by her mother not to dawdle on her way to her grandmother's (in the Grimms', but most people remember this element as key to the story), but through her disobedience allowed a wolf to eat her and her grandmother, and they were saved by a heroic huntsman. In this well-known, thought to be authentic version of the story, Red is ignorant and disobedient, and she and her grandmother are overall helpless. The wolf overpowers them and the hunter rescues them.
Margaret Tarrant

Most people are unaware that the Grimms' tale has a second episode in which Red and her Grandmother come across another wolf, but this time, together (without the aid of a huntsman) come up with a clever plan to outwit him. That part of the story was omitted from many translations.

Even fewer are aware of "The Story of Grandmother," a French oral tale. This story has no prohibition against talking to strangers or wandering off the path, therefore not a story emphasizing obedience. It shockingly involves cannibalism, a strip tease, defecation, and a heroine who outwits the wolf on her own without the aid of a huntsman or anyone else. (Often when people are proving how shocking and adult-like older fairy tales are, you'll hear them reference this tale as well as Basile's version of Sleeping Beauty in which she is raped). Many modern people are surprised at how seemingly feminist this story is-Red is independent and clever, and we get the idea she's older than just a child.
Harry Clarke

If this were just one stray version, we wouldn't have much cause to draw too many conclusions from it. But Orenstein tells us that multiple variants of this same story have been found all over France, as well as Italy and even some related tales in Asia. Though they have minor differences from "The Story of Grandmother" as collected by Paul Delarue, they tend to have those darker elements in common. And as for the frankness about bodily functions, Orenstein reminds us, in a culture where families shared small, one-room houses, the sense of privacy and appropriateness would be entirely different than ours. "Family members often shared beds-and the chamber pots beneath them." Sex and bodily functions were common knowledge, from their farm animals to their own family members. And yet the majority of these tales, despite their variations, boast a protagonist who escapes on her own.

It's unfortunate, but in a way understandable that the female characters would have less control when written in versions by white men in societies where women were seen as property of either their fathers or husbands (Perrault/the Grimms). Female characters in fairy tales were increasingly given passive roles, and any actions they took amounted to little more than keeping house and fulfilling the traditional duties of motherhood, sometimes sleeping in an extreme state of helplessness. And as a whole, feminists were very concerned with what these images, imprinted into little girls' minds from a young age, did to their perception of identity. Andrea Dworkin was concerned that we as girls "aspired to become that object of every necrophiliac's lust-the innocent, victimized Sleeping Beauty, beauteous lump of ultimate, sleeping good." Women over and over in fairy tales are victimized, rendered helpless and in need of saving by a male.

Yet now it's almost hard to find a recent version of LRRH  that doesn't give her control. Like this recent commercial for Chanel No. 5:
Or these ads from 1953 and '62:

In each of these ads, the trend started by Tex Avery (that I shared in my last post) has continued, to show that LRRH can be sexy and take care of herself at the same time. As one of the few fairy tale heroines who does not end up married, she's a model for the single woman who can remain independent from the control of men-she now has the control over the tame wolf in the Chanel commercial, or the many men in the lipstick ad.

And yet, as Orenstein points out, in these instances and many others, "has the message really changed? ...her implicit lesson is...that sexual appeal-or lack thereof-is the source of female power and value."

I think these modern versions of Little Red Riding Hood perfectly illustrate the contradictions and pressures women feel today in this unique era of history. We are all aware of the feminist message-few would dare to assert that a woman "belongs in the kitchen" or any of that. Women today can have a respected career, we can vote, we can create. And yet the pressures of the past are still very real as well. From back in the time when women were valued mainly for their ability to be married off and then raise a family, we still judge women extremely harshly for her looks. Women have so much pressure, directly from people we know and indirectly from media, to look a certain way. We almost feel the need to be everything.

I think this clash of values is very apparent in the popular t.v. show "How I Met Your Mother." I just referenced it because of its extremely controversial series ending-illustrating that, although fairy tales are often bitterly accused of giving us cheap happy endings, it is hardly the only genre from which the population at large seeks that ideal "and everyone lived happily ever after." But aside from that-the show was impressive in its portrayal of women. The character Lilly embraced her sexuality and showed us that the modern woman can enjoy a very fulfilling marriage, raising children and eventually experiencing her dream career. Robin's character challenged the stereotypical female-she is tough and unemotional, and did not want kids, choosing to pursue her job as a news reporter. Ted and Marshall showed that even men can have a vulnerable, emotional, romantic side to them.

And yet, Barney's character is possibly one of the most misogynist, womanizing characters to have ever graced the television screen-yet most of his feats of sleeping around are laughed off like a joke. His character literally makes lying to and seducing women into a game, and he makes it clear he would never sleep with a "fatty" and has a scale on which he rates the hotness of women. We see some growth in his character throughout the show but the implied message is clear to female viewers: if you're not sexually attractive, no man is going to want to have anything to do with you. The show was strangely pro-feminist and anti-feminist at the same time. This is the culture we live in, and this tends to be, on the whole, the culture that fairy tale adaptations reflect.
Kneil Melicano (thanks InkGypsy!)

So now we have a new picture of Little Red Riding Hood. She is perfectly capable of defending herself and can fight off unwanted suitors, yet still, the advertisements imply, has scores of suitors. The message of the feminists and the old world clash in such a way that women have to have career plans, even those that really just want to be mothers (and yes, I know several women who have said that). They feel guilty for pursuing love over career, or spending time and money on things such as makeup and clothes, even though we are told with practically every billboard and every time we turn on the t.v. that our value, at least from men, comes from our bodies being perfectly fit and model-like, and our faces and hair flawless, and our fashion choices impeccable. It's simply overwhelming. We have all these fictional heroines who are seemingly able to do it all-they date around while looking beautiful and successfully navigating careers, often defeating the bad guy with martial arts while wearing stilettos and tightly fitting clothes, but who can do all that? And what should we be expecting from ourselves? If the modern LRRH can totally take care of herself, taking out the wolf without blinking, what message does that give victims of rape or domestic abuse-that it's their fault?  Being independent isn't that simple, nor is it easy.  No wonder many women find it simply easier to just please one crowd-they embrace themselves as a dumb hot blonde, or claiming they don't care about love or appearances, throw themselves into their career. 

So how do we create fairy tale characters, or any role models, that are inspiring but not discouragingly unrealistic? Somehow, the image of the passive, sleeping princess, waiting to be rescued, has not only endured but as been loved by little girls for generations. The idea that women should be beautiful by Hollywood standards and attractive to males is not going away anytime soon. The beautiful thing about our current culture is that we have so many options, but it seems like there's pressure no matter which path you choose. Focus on career and you're unfeminine, raise a family and you're unfeminist. 
Agent Juarez

There is a trend in LRRH tales in which challenge gender norms by reversing or blending the traditional roles in the fairy tale. In Roald Dahl's poem, predator and prey become reversed as LRRH takes out a gun, shoots the wolf, and replaces her red cloak with his fur skin. In her actions and even her new appearance, the little girl has become the wolf's traditional role.
Quentin Blake

Many Reds these days end up becoming the wolf in the end. Roles are swapped and blended together in many modern takes on the tale, forcing us to question our preconceived notions of gender and realize they don't fit neatly into "obedient submissive females" and "strong predator or rescuer male". This provocative sculpture by Kiki Smith illustrates this perfectly:
"Daughter", Kiki Smith

Yet, what are we left with? Extremists will try to throw all gender distinctions out the window, calling it all a result of social conditioning. I've never understood that theory, because there are clearly biological and hormonal differences between male and female that affect us. However, as Orenstein reminds us, there are more exceptions, even biologically, to traditional genders than most people realize. No one fits perfectly into a box of preconceived stereotypes, and to every rule there are exceptions, but that doesn't mean there was no rule to begin with. Learning about gender differences is helpful in the same way personality tests are. They can help us to understand ourselves and our behavior, and the people we interact with, as long as we realize it is only a tool and not an absolute

But even these thought-provoking versions of LRRH remain unknown to the mainstream. Many examples of role swapping are thought of as light and comedic, such as Roald Dahl's poem, or the story Giselle tells in the movie "Enchanted" in which Red chased the wolf around with a gun. They are funny because they are so opposite from what we expect-and yet the fact that they are laughable almost cements the traditional roles in our minds more firmly, because they make it seem ridiculous to assume anything else.

We are still left in a world that puts different expectations on us based on our gender. Women have an abundance of paths available to them but we are still overwhelmingly pegged as sex objects. Our world loves to play around with fairy tales but still reveres the versions that were passed down to us from extremely patriarchal societies as the authentic and authoritative versions. If only we could see their portrayal of women as echoes from history and not absolute...

EDIT: I didn't see until after I posted this that Ink Gypsy at Once Upon a Blog just posted some information about Kiki Smith, the creator of the sculpture above, in a post on visual representations of LRRH. Learn more by clicking through!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked

I was excited to find Catherine Orenstein's Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale at my new library. I waited to read it, saving the best for last-I had heard about the book before, probably on Surlalune, and it looked very promising.

And I was not disappointed in the least. In fact, I would even categorize this in my top recommended fairy tale books. Obviously Orenstein explores in depth the history of Little Red Riding Hood, but along the way provides historical backgrounds for some of the tale's most prominent authors-from Perrault to the brothers Grimm; from medieval Europe to the first and second waves of feminism in America. Her histories provide enough interesting details to support her points while painting an overall picture of the culture impressive when considering the length of the book. Her points shed light not only on Little Red but the other fairy tales that came from those writers, and Orenstein references many other fairy tales as she compares and contrasts Little Red with other heroines.  I've read about several of the eras of history she covers before, but she managed to provide me with new and very pertinent information about well known fairy tale authors, as well as exposing me to versions of Little Red I wasn't aware of or knew little about before.

For example, Tex Avery's cartoons featuring Little Red, such as Red Hot Riding Hood:

From 1943, it provides a fascinating contrast to Disney's fairy tale cartoons the world was becoming familiar with. The wolf is horny, nothing new for us but would have been very surprising to its original audience. Red Hot is not the innocent, sweet victim audiences had come to expect from Victorian versions-she is sexually attractive, yet very capable of taking care of herself. Neither is Grandma a helpless victim, but herself a sexual predator of sorts-the wolf is no match for neither of them. These female characters are empowered and self-sufficient, shocking for the times. Of course, I wouldn't qualify them as family friendly, although children at the time would have been exposed to it.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ways that authors have played around with the characters of LRRH to subvert expectations (and not just in the last century-many of the older versions are quite different than the fairy tale many of us grew up with).

Orenstein's writing impressed me. Usually when it comes to non-fiction, as long as you have interesting things to say and are relatively logical in how you organize and communicate your thoughts, you're good to go. But some sections of the book were beautifully written-look at the end of her introduction: "Little Red Riding Hood does not, of course, represent every woman or even an average woman, if such a woman could ever be said to exist. Nor does her tale encapsulate the thinking of a society...it is not the whole truth. But it provides a way in. The endeavor of this book is to draw Little Red Riding Hood forth from her literary crypt, to unwrap the protective vellum that mummifies her in the rare book section of the library, and simultaneously to unravel the preconceptions that surround her in our minds...to explore some of her multitude of reincarnations, not in search of universal truths, but on the contrary, as evidence of how human truths change."

In fact, her whole introduction would really be excellent reference for all of us, especially when people ask why we study fairy tales and what they have to do with life in 2014.

I also appreciated her humor at certain points-when describing how essential a part of life spinning was to any woman all over the world in earlier eras and, hence, its appearance in fairy tales, she says, "a princess can't fling a dead cat without hitting a spinning wheel or a loom."

Orenstein bravely tackles topics that are more controversial. What do porn, cross dressing, and date rape have to do with fairy tales? Turns out fairy tales are intermingled with all of these things, and taking a look at how they influence each other does shed light on how powerful the fairy tale is and what messages people take away from them.

I will absolutely be referencing this book in the future and highly recommend it. Practically everything I read I wanted to share with you all. It was hard to put this one down! Seriously, everyone put it on your amazon wishlist, right now

*Illustrations by Charles Robinson

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The White Snake

I mentioned this back in my post about Chicago Fairy Tale Entertainment back in August: a play of the Chinese fairy tale Legend of the White Snake. I wasn't familiar with this tale, only the Grimm Tale White Snake. And to be honest the Wikipedia summary, linked above, was hard for me to follow since the names were all unfamiliar to me and hard to keep the characters straight.

Being presented at the Goodman Theater this year, Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake might be a better introduction to Asian folklore for people like me. The description from the website:

"The White Snake chronicles the tale of a gentle serpent spirit who lives for centuries coiled on a mountaintop. One day, she transforms herself into a beautiful young woman and, with her feisty companion Green Snake, travels down to the world of humans. There, she unexpectedly finds love, happiness and family, and vows to remain a human forever. But when a vengeful monk discovers her true identity, he becomes determined to destroy the life that she’s built—and break apart her marriage to her one true love. Funny, moving and stunningly staged, The White Snake is a ravishing theatrical spectacle that will enchant and delight"

It's gotten good reviews from the Huffington PostNew York Times and NPR. This performance includes puppets, singing, and choreography. Costumes and props are lavishly done, larger than life, and impressive to behold.

This tidbit from the Huffington Post was interesting, especially to those of us who are interested in the evolution of fairy tales in general, and how and why they are edited. This play ends happily, with love conquering all, but:
"That account bears little resemblance to the original tale, in which the snake devours her human prey, but Zimmerman's free adaptation is consistent with the story's evolution in China. As described in scholarly yet readable program notes, the plot and especially the serpent have been re-imagined through the centuries in plays, operas and literary works, changing along lines that seemed appropriate to the authors and their eras."

Generally, we know people like happy endings, despite how realistic/unrealistic that may be (HIMYM Series finale, anyone?). At least they did their research and have thought through the decision to give the story a happy ending. Adaptations of Swan Lake also have to decide which ending they're going to give audiences.

On that same vein of happy vs. realistic endings-I just saw Saving Mr. Banks. I won't do a whole post on it since it's not a fairy tale, but I did think it interesting that they addressed the issues people have with Disney and his fairy tale versions through Mrs. Travers' character, who didn't want her stories to be all sparkly and fluff, and didn't want children to have the idea that everything would magically work out for them. Yet in the end Disney gives this big emotional monologue about how his childhood was hard and his father harsh, yet through stories we can redeem the past. I thought this was interesting because usually we talk in terms of what stories do to us in terms of preparing us for the future, but in this case the story was a way of almost therapeutically healing and letting go of the past.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Dark Side of Peter Pan

To preface: No, Peter Pan is not officially a fairy tale. But the story has become popular enough and many people do consider it to be a fairy tale, especially with the addition of its characters to the show Once Upon a Time. And generally, most people who have an affinity for fairy tales also tend to really like such classic fantasy stories such as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Also, this book has multiple references to fairy tales in it.

Neverland: J.M. Barrie, The Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan by Piers Dudgeon is a fascinating read. The cover of the book promises as much. I was at first skeptical -"There might be scarier books, but it's unlikely that any will be as luridly creepy as Neverland," claims Michael Dirda of The Washington Post. On the front he promises "a history of psychological domination and submission, unnatural family relations, predatory abuse and suicide." Author Nina Auerbach "was literally captivated by this story." I was worried that the book might be full of sensationalized, wild accusations and unable to live up to such high praise.

But in my humble opinion, the book didn't disappoint. It covers in depth the history behind the writing of Peter Pan. Many of you may be familiar with Finding Neverland, which introduced the public at large to the friendship of J.M. Barrie, the play's author, with its real-live inspirations-the Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother Sylvia. Barrie got to know the family quite well and the games he played with the boys were woven into his literature. The movie portrays it as a sweet relationship, with a quasi-love story between Barrie and Sylvia.
J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan

But of course the true story runs much deeper-and in many ways much differently-than the Hollywood version. Piers Dudgeon takes us all the way back to George Du Maurier, who was not only the grandfather of the Llewelyn Davies boys, but an author and artist whose works and adventures in mysticism and hypnotism deeply affected the younger Barrie. Some of the first chapters were a little hard to get into initially, just because those characters weren't ones I was as interested in learning about at first. But give it a chance and you will be just as absorbed with learning about the bohemian lifestyle of artists in Paris in the nineteenth century and the disturbing practices of hypnotizing their models. 

I appreciated Dudgeon's writing. He begins with the history that has been handed down to us on the subject-the often romanticized version-but, in detective style, starts by uncovering holes in certain theories and going deeper and deeper into the mystery of what really happened between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family. He backs up all of his claims with solid evidence-letters and diaries from the family and their friends. He is careful not to claim speculations are truth, but by the time you have combed through the evidence with him you will probably also agree that his theories are very likely.
George, John, and Peter Llewelyn Davies in 1901

Given that people will jump to conclusions, especially with such dark hints, I should clarify that it is not likely at all that Barrie was sexually abusing the boys. However, there was a weird sort of psychological abuse going on that definitely had parallels to sexual abuse. It's hard to summarize without painting a wrong sort of picture and I'd really encourage anyone interested to read the book yourself, but a lot of it had to do with hypnotism, which surprised me. I had never taken hypnotism very seriously, considering it a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of thing, but it was all the rage among artists in the late 1800s and at the turn of the century. Much like drugs, it can give the people experiencing it a certain high and become very addictive, with negative long term affects that weren't discovered until, for some people, it was too late.

For a while I've had this half baked theory about Peter Pan that in my youth I gathered from the Disney version and didn't really take seriously. In one of the earliest posts on this blog I mentioned that there is no record of anything bad Captain Hook did-he is just seeking revenge against the cocky boy who cut off his hand and gave a crocodile a bloodlust for him, and that it is possibly Peter who is the villain. Turns out I was more right than I realized. One of the early titles of Peter Pan was actually "The Boy Who Hated Mothers" (Barrie had an extremely complex relationship with his domineering mother). Later, Barrie himself describes Peter as a "demon Boy" and was disappointed at the statue of his title character erected in Kensington Gardens, because it "didn't show the Devil in Peter." And really, when you think about it, the play is about a boy who steals children from their nurseries, luring them away from their parents, much like the Pied Piper (as in fact his second name, Pan, is a reference to the god who plays the flute). As Peter himself says, "I forget people after I kill them" (I believe this was from Peter and Wendy, not Peter Pan)

And, in a way, that is exactly what he did to the Llewelyn Davies boys. Both parents, Arthur and Sylvia, died tragically early. Barrie literally changed Sylvia's will so that instead of the boys' nanny and her sister raising them, he took them as his own. The boys themselves later in life either died early in tragic (sometimes suspicious) accidents, or committed suicide. Again, they are all complex situations too detailed to describe here, but it would not be untrue to say that Barrie indirectly had a hand in many of those deaths (including Sylvia's).

To bring the whole business back to traditional fairy tales, Peter Llewelyn Davies-thought to be the main namesake for Peter Pan (when in fact, both of those Peters were named for a fictional character penned by George Du Maurier, Peter Ibbetson) later in life published a collection of fairy tale-inspired short stories written by his contemporaries. I introduced the book and reviewed the collection here and here back in 2012 when the book was rereleased.

It's not the happy or idyllic picture that many of us associate, or want to associate, with one of our favorite childhood stories. But it's definitely one of those instances where the truth is stranger than fiction. Now I want to reread the play and see if I pick up on different things based on what I now know.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Iphone Easter Egg

Those of you with iPhones-ask Siri "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" and see what she says :)
Arthur Rackam

P.S.-Happy Easter! 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maria Tatar in Faerie Magazine

I bought a subscription to Faerie Magazine years ago and I'm not sure how long I'm going to keep getting them for, but there is a new issue out. When I flip through, I'm always a little confused at how random some of the articles are. With such a specific reader base-those who are interested in faeries and lore-why have such generalized topics such as spring umbrellas, berry pie, 10 ways to laugh more, and ways to spend a rainy day? There is also some fairy fiction scattered throughout. I remember one past issue had an article on cotton, which I never understood.
Not to bash the magazine or anything. Beautiful pictures, and some people would enjoy being inspired by faerie-like things, but I personally would prefer something a little more academic overall.

But every issue has one article which I find really interesting. This time it was an interview with Maria Tatar, well-known fairy tale scholar and author. I like everything I've read by her and have great respect for her opinions. In addition, I found the questions they asked to be very relevant-topics that have gotten a lot of discussion on this blog and others, and are very pertinent for our culture. Tatar talks about her favorite tales, the issue of the violence in tales, advice for parents reading fairy tales to their children, the appeal of mermaids, and the overall popularity the tales have in today's culture/Hollywood. Her answers were succinct and yet managed to address each topic well.

Here's an excerpt:
"Faerie Magazine: How do you account for the recent surge of fairy tale-related movies and television shows and books? Why are we reconnecting with fairy tales now?
Maria Tatar: Culture is marked by crisis, and every age is seen as a time of turmoil...In times of crisis, we need the consolations of imagination more than ever-in particular the tried and true. Everything feels unstable these days...It's comforting to go back to stories from the culture of childhood or from the childhood of culture. These are the stories told by our ancestors, and they are also the tales we grew up with. And they are compact and action-packed. They give us small doses of large effects. We have never stopped refashioning fairy tales, but it's more obvious today than it was fifty years ago...We now understand that Disney appropriated the tales for a time, but they have always circulated in popular culture-now we own up to it."

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Princess of the Midnight Ball

Although "Twelve Dancing Princesses" is one of my all time favorite fairy tales, I rarely/never see critics writing on it the way they love to delve into other fairy tales and their significance. Surlalune's Twelve Dancing Princesses Tales from Around the World is pretty much the only exception I'm aware of, which includes a brief history/overview of the tales in addition to supplying several variants. Although in a way it's good, because it's one of the few fairy tales I can still read and make entirely my own, not having voices of various other interpretations in my head telling me what each symbol and plot point supposedly means.

Fortunately there are several fictional versions for fans of the story, and there's really so much you can do with the mysterious underground kingdom. Just looking through the descriptions of the plots (Modern Interpretations via Surlalune) each author handles the tale quite differently. As I discovered from Surlalune's book in Underground Kingdom: Parts I and II, even variants of the tale don't agree on what kind of Kingdom it is. It can be evil/neutral/good, and the women in question can go there willingly or as victims.

I decided to check out the novel by Jessica Day George, Princess of the Midnight Ball. It's a fairly traditional retelling of the story but I like how it fleshed out the characters and the plot. It was found in the teen section of my library although it could just as easily have been in the children's section. The writing was easy to follow, and the clues to the mystery a bit obvious, but at the same time it was kind of refreshing to read such an innocent version. The current trend in fairy tales is to explore their darker, adult roots, which I enjoy as well, but sometimes I notice that in order to combat the frilly and saccharine stereotype that fairy tales have, I/the fairy tale community in general tend to get defensive and point out the horrific parts: "fairy tales have VIOLENCE and SEX!" Which is certainly true, but is that why we like them or what makes them good stories?

Anyway, considering the younger audience the writing was pretty good (I would reserve "excellent" for books like Narnia or the early Harry Potters when it comes to children's books). One of my favorite descriptions was of King Under Stone, the ruler of the Underground Kingdom, who was pale and tall and gaunt and had "eyes like chips of obsidian." Doesn't that paint such a vivid picture in your mind?
Ruth Sanderson

And if you're wary of it being too close to the traditional story, George expands the mystery of why the sisters go to the Kingdom every night, and the ending isn't quite as simple as in the Grimm fairy tale, so that part does get a little more exciting. If I were to critique the gender roles-which didn't particularly bother me when reading it-I would wish the girls were a little more proactive, because in this story it's Galen, the soldier, who does all the discovery of the mystery and the ultimate solution to the problem. It's kind of ironic actually-in this old post from 2010 I reflected on the fact that the soldier in "12 Dancing Princesses" doesn't actually do much except for follow the old woman's instructions. It's the females who are having the adventures, and you can surmise that it took something proactive for them to discover the Kingdom in the first place, although that's left up to your imagination. The romance was also too love-at-first-sight for me, especially for a novel in which there is plenty of time to develop a love through multiple conversations.
Errol le Cain

 Overall I would definitely recommend it to adults who either are looking for a light and easy read, and/or are wanting to explore some different interpretations of this fairy tale. And I would absolutely recommend it to a younger reader, it could be a great introduction to the world of fairy tales. Traditional novel retellings are great because the stark and odd details of a fairy tale can seem more realistic and personal.

Anyone else who's read it have anything to add? And what other novel versions of "Twelve Dancing Princesses" would you recommend?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Little Red Writing Hood

This would really fit as a part of my recent post "Fairy Tale Lesson Plans," but one of my students was just telling me about the play her class is putting on. When I heard it was a fairy tale mashup I was of course fascinated.

The play (which may be this one? I don't think so though) begins with Little Red Writing Hood, who has the script to her own story and others, and she uses her pencil to make changes to the script. When the wolf comes, she doesn't want to be eaten, so she changes him into a ballerina to make him harmless (although, ballet dancers are STRONG and have incredible endurance, so I wouldn't necessarily choose that but, you know, fourth grade play). When Goldilocks is being chased by the bears, Writing Hood changes her into a bear cub and the family adopts her. Writing Hood introduces Prince Charming to Little Miss Muffett, etc.
Harry Clarke

At first I was thinking, all right, a play that encourages empowerment and learning from other people's mistakes, and hopefully inspires a love of writing and the ability to create your own stories, that's great. But then in the second half, Writing Hood's changes have begun to get out of hand. Goldilocks doesn't want to be a bear any more, Charming wants to take Miss Muffett to the ball so now Cinderella is all alone, and none of the solutions were as simple as she thought-and now she's run out of eraser. Enter the FBI-the Fairy tale Believers Incorporated (haha). They take over and change the script back to what it was supposed to be, because "fairy tales shouldn't be changed." When Writing Hood protests that she doesn't want to be eaten by the wolf, the FBI reminds her that she knows she'll get rescued.

Does this ending possibly contradict the empowerment/learning from mistakes that I thought at the beginning? Maybe. Whenever there's a story that involves magic or supernatural abilities, I think it is important to address the possibility of such powerful forces getting out of our control. The world of Faerie is dark and the creatures there are known for being tricksters and not bending to the will of humans easily. And there is definitely truth to the concept that we can't just avoid all unpleasant experiences in life-sometimes we just have to endure things, although I don't blame anyone for wanting to avoid being eaten alive by a wolf.
*Fairy Tale Mashups-Christian Lindemann

I just think the conclusion is very telling. Many people have this idea that fairy tales are sacred and don't realize that the versions we now know as "traditional" underwent many, many changes to become that way. With all of these new versions of fairy tales coming out, it can be so tricky to  reinterpret the tales in a way that isn't ignorant of the tale's history or other modern versions. People grew up with traditional tales (whether Grimm or Disney or probably a combination thereof) and some people are resistant to the idea of changing these stories that resonated with us so much in childhood.

Being an elementary school play we shouldn't read into it too much, but it still reflects how people interact with fairy tales, and to any kid who is ever in that play, the story will probably stick with them for a while.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Using Fairy Tales for Conflict Resolution

The Relationship Triangle is a way to understand how people act within conflicts, and hopefully to avoid future conflicts. There are three potential roles people fit into: that of the persecutor, the victim, and the rescuer. People tend to assume at least one of these roles, often multiple ones in the same drama, shifting in and out. Example: Say someone is pressuring you to make a certain decision. They may think they are rescuing you from making a bad decision, yet you may perceive them as persecuting you and see yourself as a victim. Then a friend of yours may try to rescue you instead of you dealing with it yourself-etc. There is an article in Psychology Today that will describe it much more thoroughly and accurately for those of you interested.

So what does this have to do with fairy tales? One look at the three roles above and you can easily fit the most famous fairy tales into this kind of drama. Cindrella=victim, stepmother and stepsisters=persecutor, and prince=rescuer. In fact, in the youtube video below on using this idea to understand and solve drama in the workplace, the speaker refers to Little Red Riding Hood as a way to understand these roles.

One of the many reasons fairy tales have been around for so long and continue to resonate with us deeply is their ability to be a model for so many of our own issues. They can apply to whatever problems we're going through at different times in our lives, so we can turn to them time and time again for solace and hope that the problem will eventually be resolved.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thoughts on Frozen

To preface, I actually still haven't seen Frozen yet (our church was having a family movie night and showing it, and we were planning on going even though we would have been the only adults there without kids, but out of town family trumped that in our plans). But reactions to it have been everywhere-in the fairy tale blogging world, as well as all of my adult friends and students asking if I've seen it yet and saying I need to because it's so good and I'll love it.

First of all it kind of brings up the issue we had some really good discussion about in my post Fairy Tales Sell: the popularity of fairy tales and whether or not that's a good thing. There's two sides: on the one side, people are being exposed to fairy tales and thinking about them in new ways. With Frozen, it's especially exciting because "Snow Queen" is not a tale many people could converse about and now people are at least familiar with the idea that Hans Christian Andersen wrote such a tale.

However, in the specific case of Frozen, and with many other Disney and otherwise produced modern fairy tales, the stories being made are very different than the fairy tales they are based on. Which in itself is not a problem: all fairy tales have been evolving and changing-the Grimms and other fairy tale collectors did their own editing, as did Disney. Although in the case of Frozen I believe the writers went beyond "editing" and into "vaguely inspired by" territory...

Nora Stasio did an article for Enchanted Conversation a while back entitled The Aftermath of Frozen: Its Staggering Success and its Imminent Impact in which she discusses this very topic. I found this to be poignant: "Whenever a movie is as successful as this one was, there are always copycats. The worst of them try to rip off certain iconic elements of a famous work while generally lacking the heart and the overall cohesion of the original. Most of these rip-offs are low-budget productions, using gimmicks to increase sales, instead of striving for an excellent product."

This is definitely true, and highlights the danger  in fairy tales becoming a formula for money. As reader Amy Willow pointed out in the comments to my previous post Fairy Tales Sell: "  fairy tales being used to market products isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it re-packages them for different audiences and keeps them alive in the public eye. However, I think that it distracts from the original tales and creates a stereotypical fairy tale image, which forgets most of the traditional content of the stories and just uses common motifs associated with them. So whilst it make them popular it doesn't stay true to their nature."

(emphasis mine in both quotes)

When I first discovered the world of fairy tale fiction, via Robin McKinley's Beauty, I desperately searched for similar books. I devoured all the Robin McKinley I could find, and went to the library searching for "Beauty and the Beast" and similar books again and again. Then after I discovered sources like Surlalune I learned how much fairy tale fiction is out there-yet I'm not adamantly looking up each book anymore. Partly because there's just so many new books coming out it's kind of overwhelming, but in large part because the quality overall is lacking in most of the new books. I haven't really been able to match the emotional power I found when reading Beauty for the first time. Other authors are very good-I enjoyed Shannon Hale, Francesca Lia Block, Gail Carson Levine, and the anthologies put out by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, for example. But most of those actually came out when fairy tale fiction wasn't such a trend.

Before, if someone wrote a fairy tale inspired book, it was usually because they had a vision-to reinterpret the fairy tale in an original way. Now, authors are realizing that Harry Potter was widely successful, as were many other fairy tale and fantasy books, and as Stasio said in the article quoted above-they want a piece of that success. They turn to fairy tales not necessarily out of love, but to make a profit. Now that's obviously not true in every case, but it's probably so hard just to keep up with every fairy tale inspiration it's getting harder and harder to have an original idea.

Going back to "Frozen". Again, haven't seen it, so can't speak to its overall quality, but if you have a Disney music Pandora station, the songs will come on fairly regularly. I had heard so much about "Let it Go" and how great it is, but I heard it and thought, that's it? Apologies to anyone who absolutely loves this song, but with all the hype my expectations were higher. The song just lacks the character of most hit Disney songs. It's a rock song, but one with predictable chord progressions and a very basic drum beat. No fantastic orchestrations that build to a really exciting climax.

And I noticed, at least on Pandora-generally when playing a Disney song, the artist would be the composer. The Sherman brothers, Alan Menkin-people known for creating a variety of fun and upbeat songs as well as beautiful romantic ballads. Yet for "Let it Go" the artist is the singer, Demi Lovato. Has Disney music become more about a beautiful and already popular singer (among the preteen Disney channel watching crowd) than creating quality music for them to sing?

Anyway, Ink Gyspy of Once Upon a Blog just sent me this cover of Let it Go. She says, "There are SO MANY covers of Let It go out there it's a bit like drowning but this one made me think: "Why on earth didn't they have an ice/glass/crystal toned music base for the song in the movie?" I remember being quite jarred by the piano starting out in the middle of nowhere - it was just bizarre."

Which demonstrates what I had been thinking just yesterday about this song. This cover has character that shows creativity and sets a unique mood that matches the movie, whereas the original was just kind of predictable.

What do you think? Am I being too critical? I know I can be very picky when it comes to fiction, and music. Especially when something is built up for so long, my expectations are really high and they're likely to be disappointed (the reverse is true too-if something is widely criticized I'm usually like "it wasn't that bad!" Case in point: Indiana Jones 4). So have you noticed that fairy tale fiction/movies in general are lacking in quality? Does the danger of reinforcing bad stereotypes of fairy tales outweigh the positives of keeping fairy tales alive, and potentially inspiring a few people to look into their history?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fairy Tale Rituals: Snow White

Another library book, which if nothing else shows how vastly differently two people can interpret the same fairy tale!

I was instantly intrigued by Fairy Tale Rituals: Engage the Dark, Eerie and Erotic Power of Familiar Stories by Kenny Klein. I knew if nothing else it would be an interesting read, and so far that is absolutely true! It's fascinating in one way just because it's a new way of looking at fairy tales for me. Again, I don't agree with everything, but very interesting concepts to ponder.

Klein takes a look at several fairy tales, analyzing the Grimm versions but also looking further back to older tales. He believes that the stories came from beliefs in Faerie creatures-the dark and powerful kind and not the tiny cute kind-which may very well be true in some cases. Many people did used to believe in Faeries, changelings, and all sorts of mischievous Beings that interacted with humans and explained away certain phenomenon.

Klein goes even further, though-providing with each tale a ritual based on Wiccan magic that the reader can practice and perform to enhance change in their own lives. I had to keep reminding myself that he was serious...in my experience, magic spells and wands are things you only find in fiction such as Harry Potter. But although it's something I've never come across in my own life, I know there are a lot of people out there practicing Wicca and other forms of magic. A commenter here once enlightened me that there is even a branch called Faery Wicca. Which I would guess is what this book is all about. Klein says, "As a distant memory of actual Faerie beings, these characters are real, and inhabit this world as we do...so we will evoke these ancient Faerie creatures...for aid in achieving our real-world goals."
"Winged Fairy," Brian Froud

Klein's theory about Snow White is that she is actually a Nymph, or a nature being. First he uses Changeling as almost interchangeable with Nymph, and says "stories of beautiful changeling children are quite common throughout Europe." Really? I've only come across stories where changelings are ugly/disabled.

But to think of Snow White as a Faerie with otherwordly beauty actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. First of all, Klein points out that the Grimms changed Snow White's natural mother to a stepmother, to make it less disturbing. So in the versions where her own mother is trying to kill her, she was also the one who made the wish for a child as red as blood, white as snow, and black as ebony. She therefore is trying to destroy the very child she wished for. So is it just a case of "be careful what you wish for?"
Trina Schart Hyman

Klein goes even further back in Snow White's history to versions where the mother did not wish for a child at all. In one he quotes (with no source,) it is the king who wishes for a child upon three ravens. Snow White is not born to the mother, but just then appears by the side of the road. This story makes a lot more sense as far as imagining why the mother might be so jealous of this strange child's beauty.

I was curious as to how prevalent versions like this were, because this really could change how we view Snow White and her mother/stepmother. I went to my copy of Surlalune's Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White tales from around the world. I only found one story where the father wishes for a child-but actually in the vast majority of them, there is no wishing scene at all-the beautiful child simply exists as the story begins. However, pretty much all the tales were from sources after 1812, when the Grimms' famous version had already been published. I would be very curious to learn if there are more versions like the one Klein referred to, especially ones that predate Grimm.
Margaret Tarrant

Klein also points out how curious it is that absolutely everyone is overwhelmed by Snow White's beauty. She isn't merely beautiful-she motivates a mother to kill, a huntsman to disobey his Queen, dangerous animals to leave her alone, dwarves to protect her, and a prince who absolutely needs to possess her dead body. Not only that, but each of those categories of people would be looking for something different in a female-yet they all find what they most want (or fear) in Snow White. A sexual threat, a homemaker, a ravishing beauty, a lover. It really makes more sense if she is indeed a Faerie or Nymph of unearthly beauty-what else would cause everyone to lose their heads over one woman?

The temptation scene analysis is a striking contrast between Klein and the author I most recently read, Sheldon Cashdan. Cashdan believed that fairy tales help children overcome their sinful tendencies through 1. identifying their sins in the sins of the main character, and 2. also identifying with the villain. I simply don't think that happens in the vast majority of cases. Anyway, to Cashdan, when Snow White accepts gifts from her stepmother in disguise, it's proof that she suffers from the sin of vanity.
Trina Schart Hyman

Klein sees the scene as the stepmother/mother trying to undo Snow White's beauty. By putting the laces on Snow White, the witch is "tightly binding the Nymph's breasts." Only...don't stay laces tighten your waist but support the breasts in a way that makes them look larger, much like a corset? Like above?

But anyway other than that fact he does have a very interesting point. The three objects the mother uses-laces, a comb, and the apple-are attempts to destroy the three parts of the mother's wish: skin as white as snow (the laces which bind the skin), hair as black as ebony (the poisoned comb) and lips as red as blood (the apple).

Then the sleep episode. This is where feminists of today are outraged, because to have famous fairy tale princesses sleeping indicates that men want their women passive. It was kind of refreshing to hear a different take. Klein says, "While we appear to be dead in sleep, our minds are quite active, connecting us to the Underworld through dreams." He says Snow White goes through a near death experience which enables her to become fully human and later accept a lover. He cites many world religions which involve a ritual that is symbolic of death and rebirth-from pagan beliefs to Christian baptism (although, some of the things he says about biblical passages and/or the Christian faith are incorrect, which makes me wonder how accurate some of his other facts are).

Anyway, it's an interesting thought, and encouraging to think that maybe Snow White (and Sleeping Beauty) are being anything but passive in their sleep. In fact, Klein also points out that the Beast, a MALE fairy tale character, has a similar unconscious/sleep phase-can't believe I hadn't thought of that before. And though, in the Villeneuve version, the sleep is not directly connected to his transformation, in most other versions it's after Beauty revives the Beast from his near death that he has his rebirth into humanity. Hmm...

Then follows an actual Wiccan-inspired ritual detailed for the reader to follow. It involves calling the spirit of Snow White to make you feel beautiful and desirable, and the cutting of an apple, on the New Moon, and an alter and a wand and all that. I kept thinking of Willow from Buffy...
*Also-this post from Ravens Shire/Fairies and Fairy Tales is on the remnants fairy tales have from ancient religions, and is very applicable to the above