Dispatches | May 17, 2016
Genre Convention: A.A. Balaskovits on Fairy Tales
Genre Convention is the Missouri Review‘s new blog series exploring literary genres and subgenres, written by those who love or loathe them. Upcoming entries will include Cuban sci-fi, locked room mysteries, and gothic children’s stories.
All writing does not, but perhaps should, begin with a confession. Here is mine: I don’t particularly like fairy tales. It is not because they are often dismissed as literature for children, for certainly adults have enjoyed and continue to enjoy them. Nor is it because they are flat and formulaic and full of logic that makes you want to tear at your eyes sometimes: that is actually why they’re so enjoyable. Rather, it is because I am afraid of them. They are a tool, a narrative rifle, and I am afraid for the one who wields them and devastated for those at whom they are aimed.
These stories came to me as they often did for my generation: through Disney. Long has passed since women whispered them to one another and men sat at the edges of the circle and wrote them down: now, we witness their whimsy through technicolor and HD. Occasionally, we go back to the books. Regardless of the medium, we (like to) believe in once upon a time and we believe in happily ever after, even though it would be more accurate to think of them as once upon now, and we continue on, ever after.
On the surface these stories are deeply appealing: the poor boy becomes rich and the princess, while already rich, defeats an ogre (or, more likely, it is defeated for her by the poor boy) and she finds true love. Talking animals hiss warnings and coo advice, and old women may eat you if it takes their fancy, but they might also help you navigate the primeval forest. Little boys slaughter one another for game, and girls grow out their hair to use as rope, and their tears can ward away evil. These are not safe stories. They are presented as if they have the keys to navigate our world.
Sometimes, I think they do more than that: they cut back into our historical body and lay out what we used to be. And what we still are.
Maybe they do, as Jack Zipes said, reach down into our gut of collective desire, or as Franz Ricklin claimed, act as wish fulfilment: Who doesn’t want to be beautiful, clever and rich in a world which values beauty, wit and wealth? Yet if that is the case, then these stories are less thin plots with bare-boned characters and more like small mirrors that we hold up to our faces to see the grime in our pores. While their goal may be to socialize us unto our culture, more often, they reflect our anxiety back at us.
Depending on what that anxiety is, we might be in for a deeper understanding of our own selves. Since the characters of fairy tales are traditionally vague, sometimes getting no more characterization than “girl” or “beautiful” or “red lips”, it is easy for us to slip into their skins and see our experiences played out in the tale. The wolf, perhaps, is not only a talking beast but the banker who denied us our loan, or the man at the bar who gazed too long that one night and followed us to the door. The stepmother could easily be our own mothers or our fathers, denying us what we desire. These are flexible tales, but what about when these tales make the wolf look like a stereotype, and the mother all women?
For example, during WWII, Hitler’s propaganda machine was inclined to swallow anything it could deem useful and churn it out, and Grimm’s had those fears burbling already. You won’t see a Disney production of it (only, I believe, because the old man is dead) but there are a handful of tales where a racist rendition of a Jewish man is tortured by being forced to dance in a thicket of thorns or hung when he is discovered to be a thief. Though the Nazis did bend the tales a little – and these tales are very flexible – by making Cinderella so pure, so Aryan, no one would mistake her dog-like sisters for her, and having Red Riding Hood be stalked through the forest by a wolf with stereotypical Jewish characteristics (only to be saved, in the film version, by an SS huntsman), they didn’t have to bend that much. That ugliness was there all along, as much as there is an ugliness inside us: it only needs one hand to brush the villains into something we were taught to fear, and the other hand to pull the trigger and shoot them dead.
The history of these tales is riddled with a power dynamic: though women may have whispered them to one another and their children, taking delight in imagining their lives as princesses even if only in their minds, they were written down – solidified – by men who listened in or just made up their own version: the Grimms, Anderson, Calvino, Basile, Perrault and others, which is how we know them now, divorced from the voices who used to speak them. In locking the stories down they gave root to our anxieties: stepmothers are unnatural women who will kill the blood children of the father, the beautiful are pure because the divine loves them so, and any who act outside of the order of how things should be are put down. Even the peaceful are violent when they are met with one-note evil: The Scarecrow of Oz weeps when any little thing is harmed, but he does not shed tears for the Witch’s army of crows whose necks he snaps with abandon.
We’re not weeping either: why would we? We were told they were evil. The pure shed tears only for the pure. That is why we do not cry when Cinderella’s cruel sisters cut off pieces of their feet to fit into a shoe: after all, weren’t they foolish in the first place for doing such a crazy thing for the love and financial stability of a rich man?
The fairy tale is not an understanding place. If fairy tales are sometimes considered tales for children, then it is because children have a difficult time indulging in nuance, and there is little room for that in these tales. The thing is, they often operate on a moral binary, and any-thing or any-one whom you want to demarcate as “good” will be Good, and anything else is Bad News, which is why when the NRA recently rewrote the tales with guns as the hero, well – their nature is malleable to our politics. Be careful what you read, and more careful still what you let sink in.
The ones that brought me to my knees were the ones that held up the mirror, laughed at what it reflected, and pierced the assumptions behind the gaze. Of course, Angela Carter did that first, teaching me that mothers fight tigers in Hanoi and young girls lay down with wolves when they choose to, giggling all the way at their own private jokes. Begin with The Bloody Chamber, but find your way to the others: Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” with his righteous wicked stepmother and necrophiliac prince; Joyce Carol Oates’s “Blue-Bearded Lover”, the one wife who will outlast her blue husband, because she is exactly like him, or anything by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and Kate Bernheimer, whose delightful tales prick at the small hairs on your neck. Read Alissa Nutting’s Juniper Tree tale, the one that does not allow the father off the hook for his buffoonery, or Marissa Meyer’s Lunar series, because cyborg Cinderella is going to be fact one day.
The fairy tale is timeless not because it has some intrinsic essential understanding of being, but because it is so supple that it can be reshaped to replicate our culture, no matter what time period. Even Disney has caught on to our growing critique of voiceless, white princesses and gave us Tiana, the frog princess. And while that story had, somewhat predictably, a racist caricature for a villain, we are a part of the change. Just as much as wolves in business suits are and a girl in a red hoodie torturing a pedophile.
Don’t limit yourself: read them all, each any every single one you come across. They’re so perfect for recognizing what we were afraid of before, what we continue to be afraid of, and where next we’ll point the barrel.
A.A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic for Unlucky Girls (SFWP 2017) which won the Santa Fe Writers Program Awards grand prize in 2015. Her work appears or will appear in Indiana Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southeast Review, Wigleaf, The Madison Review and many others. She is the Social Media Editor for Cartridge Lit.
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