This week Road Trip Wednesday asks ” In honor of this month’s Bookmobile book, Marissa Meyer’s CINDER, name a fable or story you’d like to see a retelling of. If you’re feeling creative, come up with a premise of your own!”
In general, women get the short end of the magic wand in fairy-tales. We’ve all heard how the original tellings of such tales at Sleeping Beauty and Snow White involved some kind of rape, but even the sanitized modern interpretations don’t have much to recommend them. More recently this is starting to change. TANGLED ‘s Rapunzel is sort of kick-ass I guess and Tiana in THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG is pretty cool too.
But being a tough heroine is maybe not enough. Maybe these stories need to be picked apart from their core to examine what they said about the people who wrote them and the time in which they were written. More importantly, if we are going to retell a fairy-tale how can we make it say something about US and OUR time?
For example, let’s take on what has been retold again and again, SNOW WHITE. An interesting feature of many of this kind of “princess” fairytale is the pitting of one powerful and already high status women against a younger and lower status and always more beautiful young girl. This is certainly the case in SNOW WHITE wherein the Queen takes against Snow White because her mirror declares the younger woman more beautiful. We see the same kind of girl on girl conflict between Cinderella and her step mother and sisters, and also between Sleeping Beauty and the witch/fairy who curses her.
At the time these tales were written high status and powerful women were maligned and mistrusted, suspected of witchcraft (the villainesses in SNOW WHITE and SLEEPING BEAUTY are both witches) or gold digging social climbers (like Cinderella’s step mother). In retelling these stories with the evil jealous female rivals still in place (EVER AFTER, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN and MIRROR MIRROR all include these rivals) we are reinforcing these old values and neglecting to challenge them historically. The real impediment to young women in this time was not, in fact, older more powerful women in general, but men, and the oppressive state.
Not much has changed today. The difference is, the fairy-tales of old were likely penned by men who projected their own power struggles onto their female characters. Can women today relate to being marginalized and oppressed by older and more powerful women? Possibly but this is hardly a major neurosis of our time (although this is certainly what happens to young men in many milieus). As in olden times, the most dangerous foes for young women are still predatory males and the state. But again, the difference is NOW GIRLS ARE WRITING THE STORIES.
So regardless of what story is being re-spun, what I’d love to see is not only an empowering of the female heroes but a vindication of the female villains. Maybe Cinderella’s MOTHER died leaving her in the care of an evil step-FATHER and two abusive step brothers. This is, after all, a far more likely scenario (in general girls are more likely to be abused by fathers or stepfathers than by mother or stepmothers). Maybe Snow White is marked for death by an evil KING, who views her as a blemish on the honor of the kingdom, perhaps because she was seen consorting with the prince, who is, of course, above her. (this sort of “honor killing” is all too common) Maybe Sleeping Beauty is cursed by a judgmental WIZARD because her mother aborted her previous pregnancy (well, okay, that’s some poetic license but still…).
I don’t mean to paint men as the villains here. I’m completely okay with Prince Charming or whoever riding in to save our fair maiden. Or not, maiden kicking butt works too. All I’d like to see is a re-examination of the source of conflict in these stories and an exculpation of, (full disclosure, I’m 45) meddling old broads like me.