Saturday, April 21, 2012

What "Fairy Tale" Endings Meant, Once Upon a Time

'Little Red Riding Hood', Maxfield Parrish, 1897
Fairy tales are badly misunderstood. When we talk about 'fairy tale' romances, as Chloe Angyal did in The Age recently, we ignore the darker and more subversive history of these ubiquitous stories and the essential part of the women who originally told them. If you only know fairy tales from the simpering princesses in Disney films, then you're missing out on cross-dressing swordswomen, defecating girls and sexually active maidens.

While it is 200 years since the Grimms collected fairy tales as an academic exercise to preserve the folklore of Germany, the passing of time has made us forget that it is not the Grimms who invented them. Fairy tales were usually told by the fireside in the evening as people, mostly women, worked at essential chores such as spinning. It is no surprise then that the tales the women spun, such as Rumpelstiltkin, often included the spinning wheel as a symbol of their labour.

These oral tales were not specifically intended for children and early versions are frequently crude and highly sexual. In one version of 'Little Red Riding Hood' collected by the Grimms, but later made wholesome when the second edition of their Children's and Household Tales was published for a wider audience, the heroine escapes the wolf by telling him she has to go outside to "make a load". Before the Grimms removed references to sex, the witch who keeps Rapunzel imprisoned in a tower knows her not-so-innocent prisoner has been letting down her hair for a man when her clothes become too tight because she is pregnant.
'Rapunzel', Wanda Gag, 1936

Various cultures have their own variants of these tales that are perhaps not 'as old as time' as Disney suggested in their 'Beauty and the Beast', but which have a far longer history than we afford them. The Chinese equivalent of Cinderella, Yeh-hsien, dates from AD 850. In place of a fairy godmother, a ten-foot long fish rewards her with gold, pearls, dresses and food. 

In seventeenth century France, it was women who pioneered the literary fairy tale that adapted oral tales for educated adult salon audiences. History has erased these women from public view, such as Madame d'Aulnoy who coined the term
contes de fées (fairy tales) and wrote several volumes of them. We tend to only acknowledge Charles Perrault, who wrote the version of 'Cinderella' (minus Walt Disney's pumpkin) that we know today.

French fairy tale writers created many stories that did not survive the process of sanitising fairy tales for children that the Grimms began in the nineteenth century. Women were not helpless princesses waiting for Prince Charming in these fairy tales.
In Marie-Jeanne LʼHéritier's 'Marmoisan' (which I read recently at the Monash Fairy Tale Reading Group), the heroine, Leonore, dresses as her twin brother, Marmoisan, to take his place in war and distinguishes herself in battle. Marmoisan died in disgrace after he attempted to scale a rope ladder to rape a married woman and was impaled upon her waiting husband's sword. 

These literary fairy tales and many of the oral versions do not show women as victims and men and heroes as we expect today. Passive and obedient heroines have been gradually introduced by male collectors and re-tellers of the tales across the past two-hundred years, especially as they have sought to socialise children into masculine and feminine roles. The glittery Disney collection of princesses obscures the way that fairy tales often showed girls as mentally or physically strong. They also criticised and punished men for their exploitation of women.

While Little Red Riding Hood can kill the wolf in a pot of boiling sausage water in one early version, by the time of Perrault's first written adaptation in 1697, she is relegated to his dinner. The Grimms then transformed what was often a bawdy story to one entirely about female dependence. Their version introduces the figure of the huntsman who saves Red by cutting the wolf open with a pair of scissors.

The Grimms also excised all traces of sexuality from their heroines and instead promoted stifling ideas of feminine innocence and purity. While this is partially understandable given their intent to revise the tales for children, at the same time as deleting the sex, they ramped up the gory violence in ways not present in the oral tales they were supposedly recording. In their second edition of tales, they decided to punish Cinderella's step-sisters by having their eyes pecked out by birds. 

Paradoxically, if we want our culture to present girls and women with empowering models of femininity, in the main, the seventeenth century versions of fairy tales are better candidates than those of recent times. Some literary writers such as Angela Carter have already rewritten fairy tales in a way that returns power to their heroines. Yet the current crop of film and television fairy tale adaptations, such as Mirror, Mirror and Once Upon a Time, have the potential to overturn the popular trend of passive heroines in fairy tales in the past two centuries on a wider scale.

If we look to the history of fairy tales, we can see amid the hundreds of variants of each tale how much they have changed across time and place. The pink princess culture that absorbs many girls today is something that they have internalised from more recent conservative, sanitised versions of fairy tales that suggest that a woman's greatest achievement is to be innocent and beautiful. If we returned to telling the fairy tales of old, aspiring to be a fairy tale princess wouldn't necessarily be such a bad thing.

As part of the Glen Eira Storytelling Festival, the Monash University Fairy Tale Reading Group is hosting a fairy tale salon inspired by those of 17th Century France on 23 June at Monash Caulfield.

1 comment:

Toysie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.