Training manuals

Forest-Path

This post was part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors on Emerald City Book Review which this year ran from October 31st (Halloween) to November 6th (following on from Guy Fawkes). This year’s theme was New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. Lory, who hosts the Week on her review blog, introduced Don’t Bet on the Prince as a “groundbreaking collection of feminist fairy tales and critical essays”.

“Nearly thirty years ago,” she writes, “the work of editor Jack Zipes paved the way for a veritable explosion of creative and scholarly activity in the field since — and yet, as we’re seeing in so many ways today, we may not have come all that far on our journey toward true gender equality. What do stories, old and new, have to teach us today? Can we make out of them workable “training manuals” for the challenges we all face, in what we share as fellow human beings as well as in our differences?

Jack Zipes Don’t Bet on the Prince:
Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England
Gower/Methuen 1986

Fairy tales are never static: they’re always changing according to the teller, the medium, the audience, the prevailing culture. What we call ‘classic’ fairy tales are products of the early modern period, edited and retold by men (or women within a male-oriented or male-dominated culture). Marcia K Lieberman succinctly calls traditional fairy tales “training manuals for girls,” telling them the acceptable ways to behave and what to expect out of life. But these narratives – culturally determined dreamscapes peopled with archetypes – can and should change to reflect our awareness that all is not set in stone. As Jack Zipes, the editor of this now historic collection of tales and essays, writes, feminist fairy tales “explore new possibilities for gender rearrangement”.

Lieberman’s essay usefully underscores how literary fairy tales ended with a moral, either explicit or implicit. Virtue is rewarded, sometimes in this world, sometimes in the next: and female virtues included passivity, patience and victimhood. Lieberman reminds us that in The Blue Fairy Book – as edited by Andrew Lang in 1889 – “most of the heroines are entirely passive, submissive, and helpless,” as for example is the Sleeping Beauty. She points out that “the system of rewards in fairy tales equates with these three factors: being beautiful, being chosen, and getting rich” [my emphasis]. When the female protagonist achieves one or more of these goals life for her stops, as the rubric “lived happy ever after” indicates.

What feminist takes on these tales do is re-envisage ideas of attractiveness, passiveness and blatant gold-digging. Lieberman notes that it’s interesting that in these tales “powerful good women are nearly always fairies” (that is, non-human) whereas remote evil women are shown as “active, ambitious, strong-willed and, most often, ugly” – with the added vice of jealousy where the protagonist is concerned.

The sixteen pieces – mostly prose tales but with some powerful poetry by the likes of Anne Sexton – mostly date from the 70s and 80s, as do the four essays. There’s only space to mention a handful but all are rarely just subversive, for they strive to right the balance in favour of our common humanity by giving the female leads active, positive characters and roles. They don’t always end happily ever either.

Michael de Larrabeiti’s ‘Malagan and the Lady of Rascas’ is not a straight retelling of any one classic tale, but points out the danger of males believing they ‘own’ their wives. Sorcery and the vagaries of war combine to ensure a baron’s wife never regains her beauty; but her innate goodness, belying the notion that beauty is only skin deep, eventually proves the redemption of much that she holds dear. As for the heroine being ‘chosen’ by her suitor, Jeanne Desy’s ‘The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet’ definitely subverts the traditional tale of ‘King Thrushbeard’ as well as being an implicit commentary on Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ (as Zipes points out). Finally, the cliché of the lead female being motivated solely by cupidity is shown the door in Jane Yolen’s poignant ‘The Moon Ribbon’, a re-visioning of the Cinderella tale.

Zipes’ own essay is an illuminating examination of how the Little Red Riding Hood theme subtly evolves in narration and book illustration, so it’s entirely appropriate that I mention in conclusion Tanith Lee’s ‘Wolfland’. Here is a powerful telling of the young woman in the familiar depths of an eerie woodland infested with wolves, but here the resemblances end. The grandmother is not in fact the victim of the wolf but a werewolf, the young woman not the disobedient (and some might say willing) victim but heiress to a blood legacy. But then I could as equally mention any of the tales by Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Meghan B Collins or Joanna Russ – or indeed by all the other writers – as worthy of note. In an era when, thankfully, the incidence of kickass heroines is proliferating it’s important to recognise some of the pioneering authors who paved the way.

And the moral? Ah, there’s always a moral. This one will do, from the end of ‘Malagan’: He who turns to evil will, at the end, find it turned against him. If not in the present, then at some future date. That would be very appropriate in a radically rewritten training manual for girls.

This review was first posted on November 2nd 2015 on The Emerald City Book Review. Do look at the other excellent posts on Witch Week, and indeed on the rest of this stimulating blog

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21 thoughts on “Training manuals

  1. It is amazing to reflect, after it has been pointed out as you have done, how all tales – fairy or otherwise – have matured in the past fifty years or so. I was completely accustomed to the brave hero fighting off the villains while the heroine swooned or uttered pathetic squeaks in the background. It came as a shock when things progressed to the point where she started giving useful aid against said villains by flinging things or something.
    I have toyed with the idea of bringing matters to their logical conclusion by inventing a heroine who is constantly saving a hero who swoons and utters pathetic squeaks in the background.,

    1. There is the odd wimpy male protagonist in this collection but none that I recall who needed rescuing in the traditional way. I think Monty Python and the Holy Grail introduced an effeminate prince (played by Michael Palin) to parody the fairytale and medieval romance stereotypes. Though I can’t think offhand of a good example I have read several late 20C kids stories where the nominal hero has to be rescued by a strong female protagonist.

      1. I remember that, but vaguely so perhaps they didn’t make much of it. Come to think of it, I do have one male lead being rescued by a female, but she is the central character
        and he isn’t exactly swooning or squeaking. Just a bit tied up.

            1. I checked, because I was convinced the victim tied to railway tracks was a common motif in Victorian times, long before moving pictures.

              According to TV Tropes (http://tvtropes.org) this familiar scenario first appeared in the 1867 short story “Captain Tom’s Fright”, although a more rudimentary form of it was seen on stage in 1863 in the play ‘The Engineer’. However, it really entered the meme pool as a result of its inclusion in the 1867 play ‘Under the Gaslight’, by Augustin Daly. (Interestingly, in ‘Gaslight’ the victim is a male, not a fair maiden) By 1868, it reportedly could be found in five different London plays all running at the same time, and remained a theatre staple for decades. It didn’t reportedly appear in film until 1913.

            2. I would never have thought that!
              Then, I wonder which came first: the fictional instances or the actual? Although I haven’t heard of it being done for some time, it used to be a popular way of bumping off someone you really, really didn’t like.

  2. Interesting review of what seems to be an interesting book. I’d never thought of fairy tales being training manuals for young girls before. Do you think it works the same for the male characters? The boys reading / listening all have to be axe weilding hunters or Charming Princes?
    I know hagiographies of female saints were written with this concept in mind – that young Christian women would learn that the way to win favour with God was to remain chaste and if your chastity was threatened – sacrifice yourself to your own virginity. Bizarre way to run a society 🙂

    1. Fairytales (and Saints’ Lives) clearly reflect the prevailing mores of a period, tropes that willy-nilly are absorbed by all and sundry. When I had a young family my obsession was to have a career with which to support everybody, regardless of whether I found it satisfying or not. The ogre I was overcoming for them might have been called Future Penury or Possible Destitution but combating it was still an imperative, just like a saviour woodsman, mythical hero or neighbouring prince.

      These days, when two income households are more the norm how appropriate is such an archetype? Surely an equal partnership model is called for? We need training manuals that don’t assign constricting roles to individuals, whatever their genders.

      1. It’s interesting to see how far our society has come along the road you’re talking about – the equalisation of gender roles – and to what extent we’ve remained the same. We think mothers work more than they used to – juggling a job and childcare – though I’m not sure a female pieceworker, or laundress working from home, kids crawling round her ankles, would agree. Interesting to note that women still do the majority of chores round the home – despite their increase in work outside of it 🙂

        1. I hold my hands up and acknowledge that I didn’t pull my weight when our kids were growing, back in the day when men brought home the bacon and women cooked it — and the rest. I have tried harder recently, honest, but sad to say the meme dies hard.

          1. I do more around the house than my other half, but then he works more hours than I do, so I see that as absolutely fair. It’s when you hear of couples who both work full time and then the woman still does most of the house work – that’s when it’s unfair. I know a very young couple who are like this – they both work but she does everything round the house and deals with the finances and house admin. Something not right there. Maybe she’s a control freak and he’s happy to let her be so 🙂

            1. The dynamics of such partnerships are such complex things, Lynn, aren’t they? As outsiders we may think we see — indeed probably do see — matters more clearly, but without patient and possibly professional probing we may never get the the roots of the unspoken and/or unacknowledged contracts that exist in such relationships, the subconscious trade-offs that partners participate in to justify their actions or to achieve certain goals.

            2. Oh, yes. The dynamics of other peoples’ (and often your own) are mysterious things. Can’t think how many times I’ve seen couples and thought ‘how does she/he put up with him/her?’ And yet the relationships work. Well, a couple of examples I’m thinking of have actually split up, so maybe they work for a time …

        2. What does work out fair and reasonable where the two put in equal time at work and the wife then does the majority of the housework, is where the husband puts in the same amount of extra time on garden, pool, maintenance, renovations, car servicing, repairs and the like.

          1. I suppose that’s just: I compose this between bouts of decorating the stairwell, covering in two coats of paint (in places three) the muddy colour a previous homeowner obviously thought appropriate, maybe even cutting-edge, for an ill-lit space in the house. It’s been a daylong task and I ain’t finished yet, and yet it’s teamwork stuff: Better Half kindly points out bits I’ve missed… But then supper will magically appear, no doubt the household bills sorted online and the wheels of our social network oiled. And the laundry put away. Multitasking while I merely get high on paint fumes.

            1. How right you are! (Not that I’m addicted to fumes or sloshing — I hate decorating and am slow to start, but once I’ve begun I’m a bit of a perfectionist and ultimately am pleased with what I’ve done.)

      2. On the equal partnership model I agree so strongly that it forms the main message of my yet-to-be-published work – invoking ‘the magic of The Power of Two’. My suggestion is that all imposed decisions, or those which require a tiebreaker, are invalid. There has to be consensus before action.

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