Valentine’s Day Confession

As many of you know, Disney has my heart. It’s the kind of love that can withstand many missteps (like tarting up Merida for her princess unveiling, waiting way too long to give us diverse princesses, and making a meeting with the Frozen girls at Disneyworld a logistical nightmare for any parent). For quite a long time it was strictly platonic…and then came Aladdin.

I was eleven when Aladdin was first released in movie theaters. Junior high was already on the horizon, and my elementary school heart was already thinking about boys in a serious way. The thing was, I wasn’t one of those girls who fantasized about getting married. My career was a more exciting prospect and freedom was my main objective. But I still obsessed about boys. Jazmine was relatable to me, she wanted more than what was expected of her—and what was expected was marriage. I can’t remember if I made all these connections as a tween, but I knew I liked her best of all. It also didn’t hurt that we had the same skin tone.

Then I met him. Aladdin. Handsome and clever and completely unafraid of a strong woman. He could sing and he had a flying carpet. His best friend was a monkey and (really thrilling to eleven year old me) he never wore a shirt. Escandalo! Was he real? I fully admit to the fact that I developed a huge crush on an animated character, but looking back it wasn’t as strange as I made it sound. Aladdin is the male protagonist I always look for when I read (and write) a book. We take it for granted in an age where women and minorities wish to be heard and want to be represented in every conceivable way. But finding that elusive unicorn—the well-rounded male—is almost impossible. A man who is strong yet sensitive enough to realized when we don’t need (or want) to be rescued. A male character who shows vulnerability and courage. It was exciting then and refreshing now.

picture of Aladdin with bread

Aladdin with a reassuring smirk

These men exist in nature. I’ve met them and I married one, but why are they rare in stories? We’ve replaced the two-dimensional female archetype from fairy tales and replaced her with an equally underdeveloped male archetype.

Yes, I know this movie sets a lot of people’s teeth on edge with its stereotypes and insensitive song lyrics (which Disney recently changed in the song, Arabian Nights) and I freely admit that my analytical side gnashes right along with them. But this isn’t that kind of post.

I know that by the end of the movie, Jazmine wanted nothing more than to marry Aladdin. The feminist in me wants to rail against that, but honestly I don’t. Once you’ve found the one who lets you be you, it’s reason enough to want to spend the rest of your life with them. So, I don’t begrudge her suddenly going gaga over him. If I ever met Aladdin, my well-rounded husband would have some real competition.

Transformations with The Little Mermaid

Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid in Denmark

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in Denmark

 

Having a blog has taught me some interesting things about myself. Some things I already knew and the blog just solidified the fact (i.e. I thrive on deadlines because without them my default is lazy). Some were funny (like how ridiculously happy it makes me when someone leaves a comment). How guarded I am was a big surprise.

I like meeting people in person. I strike up random conversations on mass transit, waiting for my daughter to be dismissed from school, in elevators, etc. I’ll answer questions, give advice and even share my phone number if I think we’re going to be friends (I know this is totally against what Winnie the Pooh taught me when he sang “Be too smart for strangers.”). I really like to share because invariably it leads to others sharing with you. I’m not a blabbermouth, but I’m rather open.

Not so with the internet. It took me two years to put my real name on the blog. I still don’t have a Facebook account because I’m uncomfortable having people randomly find me (I know what you’re thinking—but you have a blog!) and I do as much as I can to avoid signing up for anything that requires personal information. It’s something I continually struggle with—transformation is tricky. It’s like my relationship with the Little Mermaid.

I have a real problem with The Little Mermaid. The Disney version tells the story of a 16 year old who falls in love with a man she’s only seen once and proceeds to defy her father, give up her legs and voice to a sea witch, and then find a way to make the prince fall in love with her. Being Disney, she is able to persevere and win his love after which her father gives her legs and she and Prince Eric sail off into the sunset happy and married. Her age is my biggest qualm because as the mother of a headstrong daughter I shudder at how easily King Triton gave into Ariel’s hissy-fit. It’s the same reason I really dislike Romeo and Juliet (two teens throwing the ultimate hissy and make good on the threat “If I don’t get my way, I’ll just die!”). Despite writing YA I’m against hyperbole.

But the original story has her trading her tail for legs, which makes her the most graceful person on land but she must experience the pain of walking on dozens of knife points with every step. What did I learn? Real transformation is painful—a constant battle. Even after all that pain the tragic Little Mermaid opted to let her true love be happy with another instead of taking his life to regain her tail. I’ve never been a fan of martyrdom, but it makes a point.

Now, I’m almost ashamed to say, I finally read the original work by Hans Christian Andersen. (Imagine someone with a blog about fairy tales not having read a fairy tale!) In the real story she does lose the prince (and a chance at an immortal soul), but because of her selfless act she’s asked to join the “daughters of the air” who after three hundred years of good service earn an immortal soul. Being air she can bring breezes and “carry the scent of flowers through the air, bringing freshness and healing balm wherever we go.”

What all versions have in common is sacrifice. To get what you want, you may have to give something up. For me it’s anonymity. That’s probably why I started this blog by rewriting fairy tales…it gave me a place to hide.

After two years of blogging, I think I’m finally ready for my land legs even with the risk of stabbing knives (Does that count as hyperbole?). I still have issues with The Little Mermaid, but I understand what it’s like to know where you want to be and pursuing it.

Welcome to the new Fairytale Feminista blog, answering life’s questions one fairy tale at a time. See my new About Me page!

Losing it

I’ve been thinking about loss and fairy tales lately. It’s the prologue to most stories, shaping the hero’s or heroine’s current misfortune. Be they motherless, fatherless, or orphans loss is the beginning of a story in fairy tales. Disney has made this fact into a cliché. It’s been joked that Frozen didn’t become a true Disney movie until (spoiler alert) the parents are lost at sea. I almost think it’s pointless to warn you of the spoiler because as I mentioned before, it’s Disney’s hallmark.

So what can fairy tales tell us about loss? Is it the impetus that makes ordinary people into heroes? Do princesses (or would be princesses) jump at the chance to marry royal strangers because of “daddy issues”? Are feelings of abandonment just the push a boy needs to take on giants and consider thievery as a way of life? Maybe yes, but maybe nothing so blatant.

As a historian, I’m aware that these stories were written in a time when disease, war or poverty would likely tear apart families. But fairy tales don’t care about the mundane. They focus on the fantastical, spinning tales that take us out of the everyday. Wouldn’t you want to escape a reality in which becoming orphaned probably only meant a life of impoverishment and servitude? In the real world, Cinderella would have grown old and haggard at the beck and call of those three spiteful cats. Or she would have run away to the city and been forced into prostitution to survive.

Am I the only one who sees a face?

Am I the only one who sees a face?

But I’m not just a historian. I’m a person with whimsy who sees imprisoned souls in strangely shaped trees. All it takes is a too bright moon and I immediately start to spin a tale about a community of nightwalkers affected by its phases, collecting magical Moonshine. Not all the ideas become a full-fledged story, but more than a fair share get filed in my ideas folder. And one of the most basic things everyone wonders about is death and loss, so why isn’t it a prominent feature in fairy tales? Sleeping Beauty side-steps it with a sleeping spell meant to keep her in suspended animation for a century waiting for her “true love.” Snow White is barely cold in her glass coffin before Prince Charming comes along and dislodges the chunk of apple the dwarves were clearly too short to Heimlich. Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are swallowed whole by the Wolf only to be cut out of his belly by the Woodsman. Even the newest old story, Frozen, gives us a heroine who sacrifices her life and is rewarded by it being returned to her.

In my search for loss in fairy tales, I came across a story from my childhood. It falls under folklore and legend more than fairy tale, and is a popular story in Puerto Rico. It’s called La Leyenda de la Piedra del Perro, or The Legend of Dog Rock. Not far from El Morro in Old San Juan there’s a small beach with a long natural rock wall. At its tip is a rock formation that when looked at from the right angle resembles a sitting dog.

The story goes that a soldier, Enrique, from back when Puerto Rico was part of Spain, was stationed there, far from home and lonely for companionship. One day he finds an injured and emaciated puppy whom he nurses back to health with food and love. In return the dog never leaves his side and becomes his best friend. As is inevitable with all soldiers, Enrique is called to a battle which requires him to leave the dog behind. They part tearfully and as the boat carrying his human companion sails away, the dog (called Amigo) swims to the rock wall and sits there from sun up to sundown awaiting his return. There’s a brutal battle in which all hands, including Enrique, are lost. The dog overhears the news and rushes out to the wall waiting without respite. He stays so long and so still he turns to stone and remains there to this day.

I’m not sure what that story teaches us. On the one hand loss is something that can’t be gotten over and you can remain stuck in a moment of despair without moving on. Or it could mean that loss forces out the very nature of a being. For the dog, it was loyalty. It could be said that for the characters of popular fairy tales, it was a desire to be more or escape their current situation. In both cases, it led to profound change. Fairy tales teach us that no matter how mundane today might seem and yesterday was, tomorrow could be extraordinary–either good or ill. They teach us that loss is not the end of the story.

Sympathy for the Devil?

There’s a new school of thought roaming the halls for fiction. I’ve referred to it in the past as revisionist fairy tale history. The stories handed down through the generations are very clearly morality tales all with the same basic message–being good is better than being bad. There are myriad ways to put that, but the easier to digest the better. Wolves, vain queens, little men who can spin straw into gold are best avoided and it’s easy because they so obviously look evil. It’s Black Hat Syndrome or the Disney-fication of character as I like to call it. But a new tendency, a revisionist modern view, is starting to take root in fairy tales.

I say modern because it’s our modern sensibilities, our post-Freudian minds, that asks the question, “Why does evil exist?” It begs the question, what happened in the evil queen’s life to make her hate the step-daughter so much? Can we really blame a wolf for wanting a meal–a lot of us eat meat? Is it wrong to expect payment for doing all the work while the maiden gets a new life? My question is, do you think our fairy tale reading ancestors would have asked these questions?

It’s a topic I’ve been wrestling with lately regarding the new crop of fairy tales. I’m sure everyone knows about Maleficent, Disney’s new live action take on Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s perspective. I will admit, when it first heard about it I was a little miffed because I was in the middle of writing a novel called The 13th Fairy based on the original story and I set it in Reconstruction America. It was told from the point of view of the overlooked fairy who didn’t make the party list because of a lack of golden dishware. A ridiculous reason to exclude a guest who has the potential to give some great gifts or (as they found out) a truly horrific curse. I started to wonder what happened to the fairy after she dropped the party-killing bomb. I thought her story would be much more interesting than a girl who falls asleep and waits for a prince she’s never met to wake her with a kiss. I always thought it was a little presumptuous of the other fairy to put the rest of the castle to sleep while they waited for the big rescue. Talk about royal prerogatives! Nowadays the castle folk would have sued.

But I digress. I think it’s a sign of maturity when you start wondering more about the bad guys in a story than the heroes. When we’re kids we ask why about everything, but I don’t remember questioning the stories that ended “….And they lived happily ever after.” I figured it went without saying it included pretty dresses and lots of cake, the only happily ever after a seven year old can imagine. Now I wonder about the other characters. Were the castle folk paid for their time in stasis? Were the king and queen relieved to have some new clothes? Most importantly, did Maleficent (the best name for a villain, by the way) regret her impetuous act or did she have a real axe to grind? I still haven’t seen Maleficent, but I can’t wait to find out what happens.

Are there any fairy tale villains you wish you knew more about?

The Danger

All endeavors have their pitfalls. Lawyers can become too jaded. Doctors–to robotic. Policymakers–to self-interested. And it doesn’t stop at professions. A mountain climber will tackle an even taller mountain because she hasn’t found one that has beaten her–yet. Surfers are always searching for that big wave and there’s a moment between doubt and sheer terror where invincibility washes all questions away. For every creative person the next work, the next piece, the next manuscript digs a little deeper (you hope) until you reach a core where only you live. That’s the danger. Living inside your head so much that no one can get in. That’s what all these risks have in common–standing in your own way.

Now that I’ve made this post sound so esoteric, let me bring you back to earth. I’m a writer and one of the things I write (obviously) is this blog. I concentrate on fairy tales, myths, and such and how they speak to us now. Not on an academic level, although it can sneak in there sometimes, but on a everyday human level. What does that mean? It means that I tend to spend a lot of time in my head figuring out what I think, feel, and believe regarding entertaining fiction. But living in my head I have a tendency, as many of us do, to overanalyze–to reach for something that maybe no one else sees. Nothing’s more jarring to an analyst than someone who reads your thoughts and comes back with, “Really? You went there?” “Yeah, I went there! And what?” Okay that’s defensive, but you get the point. But when you can’t find something in your bag of tricks, you tend to reach for snark.

This idea has been swirling around in my head for a while now and it started with Frozen, the new Disney movie sensation. I won’t pretend that I didn’t love it–because I did both as a parent and as a life-long lover of all (well, almost all) things Disney–but it’s gotten a little over the top. People want to dress up like Ana and Elsa, they record themselves singing, Let it Go, for public consumption, and they overanalyze the message. Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate the fact that (spoiler alert!) the main idea is true love which doesn’t involve a prince. I’m writing a series trying to debunk the myth that all girl-power adventure stories have to have a romantic focus. I just think that the cult-like following it’s attracting is…I’m searching for a word that isn’t too judge-y…unbelievable. It’s middle-aged women obsessing over Twilight unbelievable. Okay that was judge-y. Then I go back to my defensive analyst and hear others saying, “Yeah, I went there! And what?” To which I have no response.

We all have our own obsessions. Mine just happen to be quiet and solitary, while others can be loud and in your face. I came to blogging kicking and screaming and still haven’t joined Facebook or Twitter. I’m not secretive or shy, but I find I’m intimate. I’d rather have drinks at a bar than shots at the club. So, to end this long digression here’s the danger of blogging–living in your head and then being too judgmental of other people’s headspace. While it can be constructive, sometimes is can be cruel (like my Twilight remark). And though I don’t promise that I’ll always be big enough to take the high road, I like to think that I’m conscious of the danger.

The Hidden Minority

I have to say that I am encouraged by the current push of contemporary fairy tales. They give women a voice and often make them front and center as heroes in their own stories. The LGBT community finally has a glimmer of hope in seeing protagonists that have the same thoughts and feelings as they do. Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, and myriad cultures are being discovered within the pages of novels which before had almost ignored their existence. I don’t think we’ve reached the goal of true diversity in stories, but I can see light at the end of the tunnel.

Except for one slice of the underrepresented pie…

Now, I’m willing to be proven wrong on this front, but I think stories have failed to acknowledge a particular segment of society. It’s one that exists across all borders, within every culture and comes from every socio-economic background. I speak, of course, of the Plus-Sized protagonist. In an age where we worry that the population is overweight and health issues like diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease are of serious concern, I understand why we are reluctant to glorify a state which could bring about all of these things. Then again, we glorify the bad boy who after years of being a dick can find his heart because of the love of a nice girl.

Here’s the deal. I don’t hate skinny girls. I will admit to the occasional bouts of “big girl rage” when I skip dessert but want to chow down on some cake. But I can’t be angry at someone who can eat anything they want while I have to exercise in order to stay in my favorite jeans. Everyone has something! I just don’t understand why every heroine (and hero for that matter) has to be willowy thin with athletic abilities. How is it that the bookishly smart hero, who spends all his time in the library also manages to have a perfect BMI? Is the chubby sister any less deserving of a prince than her wasp-waisted sibling?

I suppose I can imagine anyone as Sleeping Beauty or the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin. That’s the power of an immersive story. But then I see the story come to life on screen. Yes, I’m one of those annoying people who whispers “The book was so much better”, but we live in a visual age. Even if I don’t want to see the movie version of The Great Gatsby, I can’t help but think of Leonardo DiCaprio whenever I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book. So unless I want to live under a rock, the actors cast as my favorite characters tend to stick in my imagination. Would it be so wrong to hope for The Zaftig Mermaid (something to keep her warm in the big ocean) or a pleasantly plump set of sisters in Frozen (for the cold winter nights)? Red Riding Hood and Cinderella were work horse, traipsing through the woods with heavy packages and cleaning house for an exacting step-mother, respectively, so I understand their thinness. Couldn’t Belle have been just as…belle…if her voracious reading came with a chocolate and croissant habit? Rapunzel was looked up in a tower, for goodness sakes, and you’re telling me she couldn’t have been cute if she were full-figured? Yes, I’m fixating on Disney, but it has given us the most popular versions of these heroines.

This doesn’t only have to apply to fairy tales. I would love to hear about a popular YA series featuring a sassy and shapely girl or a handsome yet husky guy. They would have to be just as capable as their lean counterparts and most importantly not apologize for their size. Just a thought.

The Looney Tunes-Fairy Tale Conundrum

What do Bugs Bunny and fairy tales have in common?

There’s no punch line, although I’ll give points to anyone who can think of one.

Besides the obvious–animals and humans talking to each other without flinching–there is an answer. But first, some background.

I’ve been toying with the idea of allowing my daughter to watch Looney Tunes. I’ll admit I have some reservations about the matter. Bugs Bunny may be beloved, but he’s also disgraceful. He encourages belittling those with speech impediments, has a serious penchant for violence, and is rather found of racist humor. What do I do when she asks me about the decidedly politically incorrect material she’ll be exposed to in seemingly harmless cartoons?

Well, perhaps I can comfort myself in knowing that the Grimm Fairy Tales I read her are just as grotesque and amoral. Have we ever stopped to think about how stunningly violent most fairy tales are? Most characters die, are cursed, or are subject to years of slavery and servitude. And those are the good guys! The bad guys are certifiable, willing to risk life and limb to win against servant girls, princesses, princes and anyone standing in their way. Who tries to kill a baby because she wasn’t invited to a party? A nutcase with antisocial tendencies! Or in this case, a fairy who felt slighted. (Sleeping Beauty anyone?)

I came across this post, which wonderfully illustrates the parental dilemma of big and bad versus warm and cuddly.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/oct/13/adult-content-warning-fairy-stories

So, the truth is, neither fairy tales nor Looney Tunes were meant for kids. The gruesome descriptions and off-color humor were originally meant for adults, who are prepared to see gray where children see only black and white. Does the fact that we have made this material available to children make gratuitous violence acceptable in their TV and literature?

Maybe the answer isn’t so cut and dry.  As a parent, I worry that my daughter’s concrete way of looking at the world will be skewed by the things she reads and watches. As a parent who still remembers being a child, I know I watched way more TV and read books too mature for me. I turned out fine. As a matter of fact all those fairy tales, Disney cartoons, and Looney Tunes gave me more imagination than I can contain. It’s why I write.

Have you figured out the answer to my question? Fairy Tales and Looney Tunes were supposed to be for adults, but when I indulge in either I feel like a kid again. Probably because that’s when I first experienced them.

That’s all folks!