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Tag Archives: fairy tales

Who is Maleficent, anyway?

Maleficent promotional poster

Maleficent promotional poster

Disney’s newest feature, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role, is Maleficent. It’s unlikely this has escaped your attention. The internet has been abuzz with news of the project since before production began, with early photographs of Jolie on set released to the Daily Mail in June 2012 fueling the fire. The character has captured our imaginations.  Maleficent t-shirts, posters and Barbie-esque dolls, an addictive appthe Disney Marketing Machine is at peak output, with merchandise not just on shops but out in the wild too. People are buying Maleficent plush toys (though I can’t think of a character less suited to such a medium), jewellery and nail polish. MAC has a Maleficent make up collection (and did I mention it was my birthday soon?). She’s everywhere. And we’re lapping it up.

Sleeping beauty has a 400 year plus history. It feels like Maleficent has always been a part of that. In fact, she’s less than 60 years old.

The oldest known variant* of the Sleeping Beauty story is ‘Sole, Luna, e Talia’ (Sun, Moon and Talia). Written by Giambattista Basile in 1634, it tells the tale of  Talia, a baby princess prophesied by astrologers to be grievously  imperilled by a splinter of flax at some point in her life. Though her step-mother does plan to cook and eat her, which is probably worse, there is no wicked woman to endanger the princess.

The beginnings of Maleficent as a character can be found in ‘La Belle au bois dormant’ (from Perreault’s 1697 collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé). Here a nameless wicked fairy godmother curses the young princess to prick her finger on a spindle and in Grimm’s ‘Little Briar Rose’ (from Kinder- und Hausmärchen [1812]) it is the same. Grimm’s version of the tale is much gentler than Perrault and Basile’s efforts, ending with the kiss that awakes the princess from her sleep and cutting out the rape, childbirth, ogres and cannibalism. Read the rest of this entry

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[Review, DVD] Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Fairy tales suffer a lot. They undergo constant revision, both by design and by accident; by people purposely seeking to subvert the traditional tales (a la James Thurber), and by misrememberings and chinese whispers of oral storytelling.

Little Red Riding Hood may well be the most reinterpreted of the classic Tales of Mother Goose: Roald Dahl’s comic verse; Angela Carter’s twisted tales in The Bloody Chamber; Toby Forward’s POV swappage. There’s a plethora of retellings available on Amazon, from  board books for toddlers to long YA tomes that Freud would be proud of. In its lifetime, the story of the hooded one has been a morality tale, a metaphor for sexual awakening, a love story. It has been a thriller and a creature feature, a revenger’s tragedy and a modern satire.

Hollywood has taken the story to heart, with the character having been portrayed on-screen in at least 117 features. The The Weinstein Company‘s Hoodwinked! was released in 2005 to a lukewarm reception, and the latest take on the tale comes from Twlight director Catherine Hardwicke.

Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge is the simplest and most well-known version of the story. In it Red is beat to Grandmother’s house by the wolf because she stops to pick wildflowers, and after running through the ‘what big arms/legs/ears/eyes/teeth you have’ schtick, is eaten up by the wolf. There’s no rescue, no redemption, and the tale ends with a moral:

Little girls, this seems to say,
Never stop upon your way.
Never trust a stranger-friend;
No one knows how it will end.
As you’re pretty, so be wise;
Wolves may lurk in every guise.
Handsome they may be, and kind,
Gay, or charming never mind!
Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth—
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!

Rotkäppchen (or Little Red Cap) by the Grimms differs slightly from Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. Split into two parts, the first half mirrors the Perrault text but has Red rescued by the Huntsman after she’s been eaten. Once bitten, twice shy, the Grimm’s add a second part to the story that sees Red and Grandmother foil further similar attempts to gobble them up by a second wolf. Read the rest of this entry

Disney* Hates Your Daughters, part 1

Disney has, inarguably, done much to uphold the white skinned, doe-eyed, tiny waisted ideal of physical femininity (consider Ursula the Sea Witch and the Queen of Hearts as a counterpoint). The women of the canon are, broadly, split into three traditional archetypes: the maiden, the mother and the crone. The virginal teenage heroine who must overcome a real or imagined obstacle and bag her man (Snow White, Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle); the nurturing, white-haired older woman as advisor or wish granter (Sleeping Beauty‘s three fairies, Cinderella‘s fairy godmother); the striking, red-lipped antagonist, sexually available, clever and evil (Malificent, Cruella De Ville). Up until The Little Mermaid, these women are entirely controlled beings with no real sense of selfhood, directed to their destinies by forces beyond their control. Whether or not these destinies correspond with each character dream (something that she must have) is a matter of chance and accident. Luckily for these girls what they all seem to dream of is love, or, more accurately Disneylove, which is instantanious and all encompassing, blind to flaws and everlasting.

The Disney Princesses (two of whom aren't actually princesses, but let's not be picky).

But Disney’s fairy tales – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and the like – are based on the stories collected by Perrault, Grimm and Andersen, so if they don’t show us a range of images of womanhood, whose fault is it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Has Disney chosen to retell the most famous of the fairy tales, or are they the most famous fairy tales because Disney has chosen to retell them? Whatever the answer, the motivation of Walt Disney, of most entrepreneurial business minds, is not social progress. It is cash, cold and hard. This is not an admirable stance but it is a valid one. Disney will give the public what it thinks it wants and the public will drink it up, because it’s Disney. Read the rest of this entry

Feminism for early starters – More Traditional Folk and Fairy Tales

My last post on this subject was so popular that I felt I had to bring you more. So here we are: three more traditional fairy and folk tales with a feminist message.

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Feminism for early starters – Traditional Folk and Fairy tales

Molly Whuppie steals the ogre's sword

This is without a doubt the most fascinating (to me, at least) Feminism for Early Starters topic I’ve written on so far. Most fairy tales, as I’ve noted before, are inherently misogynistic. Their female protagonists are usually passive (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea and so on ad nauseam) and their mother-figures either evil (Snow White) or uncaring and selfish (Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel). When they do display curiosity or independence, they are punished for it (Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks and the Three Bears) and in order to get what they want they are subject to severe penalty (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) or ignored completely (Patient Griselda). Indeed, there are more than a handful of tales in which women do not feature at all (The Steadfast Tin Soldier). The life of the fairy tale heroine is a constrained one. It’s okay, though. As long as we depict them in pointy hats with scarves hanging out of the top of them no one will mind, because, hey, it’s historic, innit. They’re happening in another time, another place. This land called Once Upon a Time where it’s okay that the adventures of women are destined to be more heir raising than hair raising.

But it’s not all bad. While most fairy tales in their original (where for ‘original’ we can substitute ‘most famous’ or ‘canonical’) are not exactly equality driven, there are a few fairy and folk tales that do have something of a feminist message. Sometimes you have to squint.

These are a few of my favourites, retold, badly and briefly*, by me.

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Feminism for Early Starters: Fairy tales and folk stories retold

Fairy tales are important. They’re a  massive  part of our cultural history and they’re part of curicula in schools world-wide. Children are introduced to fairy- and folk tales in the cradle, and they’re seen as an important part of childhood. Fairy tales are also, on the whole, deeply misogynistic. The traditional versions we know today were written down in cultures that actively sought to suppress women: Perrault wrote down stories told in the salons of France in 1697 in his Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé: Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oie; the Grimm brothers collected tales from German oral traditions in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen of 1812 and Hans Christian Andersen produced his first volume of fairy takes, Eventyr, in 1835.  The first of these works is almost a century before A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the last around 60 years before the first wave of feminism really got going. 

One of the joys of fairy tales is  that they are part of a strong tradition of oral storytelling. They mutate, fudge and grow, transcending arbitrary boundaries to fit the societies and cultures in which they are told. Take Cinderella. There are dozens of tales across cultures:

For many of us twenty-first century dwellers, this oral tradition means traditional tales can easily take on the foibles and sensitivities of modern living, which in turn mean that published fractured fairy tales, political in nature or otherwise, are common.

I’ll be moving on to folk tales from antiquity with a strong feminist message at a later date, but for now, here are my favourite feminist reworkings of some traditional tales.

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Feminism for Early Starters: Young Adult & Teen

So far on my quest for feminism in children’s literature finding overtly feminist titles has not been easy. That’s not to say it’s not out there, it is, but among the mountains of books published every year for young readers, titles that promote gender equality make up only a small proportion. Not so for the teen market: Feminism is strong in Young Adult fiction. For the first time, I’ve had a hard time narrowing my selection down to just three titles. So hard in fact that I forgot how to count.

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