This is a 20-year-old film student's perspective on the fairy and folk tales read in my Sophomore Interdisciplinary Studies class. I'm not shy and I don't hold back opinions--whether good or bad I'm always honest!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Final reflections

I feel like an imposter posting here, seeing as I've missed literally half the blog posts required for this course. I know I missed far too many and it will cost me an A in the course. I can't say I don't care, but I care far more about the incredible scope of discoveries I've made in this class.

I enjoyed folklore before, don't get me wrong. But I didn't realize until I came to this class just how little I knew. I tended to think of fairy tales in the mainly Western/Americanized sense--the Disney culture that feminists argued so hard against; the "princess" marketed as every little girl's childhood fantasy. I knew of other cultures' stories (some of them, anyway)--I grew up on Anansi, Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, and every scattered Native American myth my  mother could remember or look up--but I'd never studied them in-depth. Now I look over my class blog, see my posts relating to Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood (both of whom I scorned as a child) and realize that the parts of this class that truly enchanted me were the ones I never wrote about.

By far the best thing to happen in this classroom was the visit from Dr. Ochieng. It was so organic, so warm and so real. It felt like truly getting a peek at another culture, rather than just hearing about it academically. At the beginning of that presentation, I'd never felt any desire to go to Kenya, despite knowing someone who actually lived there and multiple people who had been there. By the end, I was dying to go on the Kenya JanTerm, just from his stories and the rich, engaging way he told them.

The talks we had about the Arabic and Jewish tales were second runner-up for my favorite days, just after Dr. Ochieng's presentation. I loved the sharp wit, the glorification of intelligence and cunning over beauty and virginity. It just reminded me that we're always on other cultures for "oppressing" their people, but when I read the Arabic folktales in comparison with the American ones, it seemed like they knew what was really important, as opposed to our often-romanticized tales that would never fly in real life. I know people like Djaha, and it was part of what made me laugh so hard in class. I don't know anyone like Cinderella in real life.

I remember the day we had class outside and discussed the von Franz book, and we all tossed around the "magic carpet" mouse pad (and I got hit in the face with it later on), and Dr. Esa sat on his rug outside and teased the boys about sitting in lawn chairs instead of on the ground. I actually remember the chapter we talked about that day (chapters five and six) more clearly than any other section of that book, just because being outside that day was so memorable.

I don't know how much I've grown as a person in this class, but I do know that I've grown as a literature (and orature!) student, and though I haven't had the chance to test this in an academic setting, I feel like I've become a better storyteller...but I won't know that for a fact until I take my fiction writing class next semester. I think I've grown academically, and I like to think I've grown personally. I like to think I'll go to Kenya next year and explore a culture that, until recently, I didn't even know I was interested in. I don't know. I want to, though. We'll see.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fairy Tale or Unfair Advantage?

Pretty Woman looks like the ultimate Cinderella story: down-on-her-luck (but oh-so-pretty!) prostitute Vivian is transformed into a classy, worldly lady when her handsome, good-hearted, rich client falls in love with her. She doesn't exactly have a fairy godmother (unless you count the hotel manager, who helps her find a dress and coaches her on dinner etiquette before her first outing into polite society), but what she does have is her token handsome prince. Edward is successful, rich, polite, reserved, classy and, above all else, least when it comes to Vivian. Of course he's less gratuitous when it comes to his clients (and of course, Vivian's love manages to change him in that respect by the end of the film). And of course he falls helplessly in love with the beautiful, free-spirited, offbeat Vivian, who shows him that business isn't everything and that love can truly conquer all, including his fear of heights.

You may be able to sense that I have just the slightest bit of contempt for this film's general concept. As this isn't a review for the movie, I'll try to keep it to a minimum, but before I fully analyze it just let me say, this was one of the films that I liked much better when I was younger (and I'll throw out here for consideration that the first time I saw this, I had no idea what Vivian's profession actually was--I didn't know what a prostitute did; I was in middle school). When you watch Pretty Woman for the guilty pleasure, it's great. When you analyze it from a feminist perspective, or even just a realism perspective, the illusion of perfection falls apart pretty fast.

This joke poster, found on Yahoo Image search, pretty much sums up my feelings about this film.

Can someone reach success or riches through magic/marriage/charm? Well, in short, yes they can. But does it happen like it's shown in Pretty Woman? I don't think so.

Think about other modern-day Cinderella tales. You could argue that Twilight, in which the shy, clumsy, fish-out-of-water Bella Swan marries the rich, handsome, brooding vampire Edward (what is it with that name and romantic heroes?) is a rags-to-riches tale of sorts. Bella isn't exactly impoverished, but compared to the multibillionaire vampire she marries, she's got nothing. But one of the most frequent criticisms of Twilight is how quickly the relationship blossoms. Within a few weeks of meeting each other, Bella and Edward are professing undying love.

That's basically what happens in Pretty Woman. Within the timeframe of a single week, Vivian and Edward have fallen in love. Fallen in love, after exactly seven days. I can't speak for everyone in the world--and I'm certainly not saying that whirlwind romances are unheard of--but I can tell you from experience that it takes me a good few months at least to say for certain that I am in love with someone, as opposed to merely attracted to them or drawn to them, and I know I'm not the only one. My parents dated for several years before they were married. A former roommate of mine texted me six months after meeting her boyfriend complaining that they had only said "the L-word" once. In fact, I was engaged after five months with my now-fiancee and people constantly texted, called, and e-mailed, telling me I was "moving too fast." I wonder what they would say to Vivian and Edward? Something along the lines of "Are you out of your mind," I should think.

I understand that this is a movie, a romantic comedy, and shouldn't be taken as an accurate portrayal of real life. And I understand that when comparing this to its fairy-tale roots, you could argue that "Cinderella" does the same thing, but what sets that apart is that it was written down and published several centuries ago. Back then, arranged marriages in western countries were common, and it wasn't remotely unusual for women to try to "marry up" in order to secure better situations for themselves or their families, nor was it uncommon for them to take the first offer they got to escape a less-than-pleasant situation or just to escape being lonely (think Pride and Prejudice, or Jane Eyre). Back then, only knowing your intended for a few days--or seeing them for the first time on your wedding day--wasn't exactly a unique experience.

But this movie was made in the 1990s, and arranged marriages are no longer the norm in most Western cultures...and while Vivian and Edward don't marry on-screen, it's implied that they will in the near future. By securing herself a future with a rich, socially advanced man, Vivian eliminates the need for the G.E.D. she was planning to get. If she so desired, she could use a bit of her soon-to-be husband's money to provide for her former roommate. She can have anything she wants now, and all because she's captured the attention of a wealthy "handsome prince."

Vivian admits to her desire for a "fairy tale," but frames it as a desire for love rather than a desire for money. In written tales like "Cinderella" and "Donkeyskin," love plays a big part of the decision to marry--but it's always based on first impression, and beauty usually plays a huge part in it. If Donkeyskin, Juleidah, Catskin, Cinderella, and of course Vivian weren't all classically beautiful, it's doubtful they'd have captured their beloveds' hearts so easily.

Basically, what I find so insulting about the rags-to-riches element of Pretty Woman is this: it makes prostitution look about 1/10th as dangerous as it really is, makes light of prostitution, drug rings, dangerous living situations, childhood abuse, and unhealthy relationships...and then pulls around and says, Don't worry, though--if your life sucks, find a rich man and make him fall in love with you, then make him prove it. You'll get everything you want in the end.

This isn't to say that the feminist element is entirely lacking. Both Cinderella and Vivian have their moments. Vivian is certainly the sassier, more proactive of the two, but in the 90s it's a bit more socially acceptable for women to show independence than it was back in the Grimm brothers' day.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Beard vs. the Bird

I've never cared much for the Bluebeard tale type. I hate horror films and literature--I hate most horror-based art, to be frankly honest--so a fairy tale that's largely centered around a serial killer who chops his wives' bodies into pieces and hides them away to rot in a secret chamber of his house? No, thank you. Keep Bluebeard, Mr. Fox, Fitze Fitcher, and all their other incarnations to yourself. I prefer tales of clever, headstrong women outsmarting their arrogant, devious male counterparts...

...Except, wait. Isn't that what the would-be bride in "Fitcher's Bird" does with a vengeance? 

True, the heroines of "Bluebeard," "Mr. Fox," and "The Robber Bridegroom" escape their husband or fiance's dastardly plans, but in each of those tales, who really saves the day? It's always the men: in "Bluebeard" and "Mr. Fox" it's the girl's brothers, and in "The Robber Bridegroom," it's "the proper authorities" who handle the band of thieves, not the girl or her friends. But in "Fitcher's Bird," it's the bride herself who rescues her sisters and escapes on her own.

Of all the Bluebeard tale heroines, the bride of "Fitcher's Bird" is the only one who seems to possess any intellect beyond basic common sense. The ladies in "Mr. Fox" and "The Robber Bridegroom" hide from the murderers just in time to avoid detection. The finger that is chopped off the current victim's hand falls into the would-be victim's lap, and the girl happens to think of keeping the finger as evidence. In "Bluebeard," the wife manages to buy time by asking for time to say her prayers, and asks Sister Anne to make her brothers hurry up. But that's pretty much all they do, and the rest of it is luck. The finger just happens to fall into the fiancee's lap. The wife's brothers just happen to be visiting that day. Mr. Fox just happens to forget to look behind the cask where Lady Mary has hidden herself. There just happens to be a cook who's willing to help the Robber Bridegroom's fiancee escape.

Meanwhile the heroine of "Fitcher's Bird" cleverly avoids the trap set for her by hiding the egg before she explores the house. She saves her sisters by reassembling their bodies (pleasant image, that) and tricks the sorcerer into carrying her sisters home on his back by hiding them in a basket and covering them with gold. She tells him, "Don't you dare stop to rest" and whenever he tries to stop, one of her sisters calls out, "I'm looking out my little window and I can see that you're resting. Get a move on," so that the deceived sorcerer thinks she's watching him. What she's really doing, however, is setting up a dolled-up skull in the window to mimic her face, submerging herself into a barrel of honey, and rolling in the contents of a split-open feather bed so that she looks like a "strange bird that not a soul would recognize." Her own fiancee passes her on the way to her carefully-laid trap and doesn't see her. The help that she asked her sisters to send is already waiting. She is far out of harm's way, but the sorcerer isn't so lucky: he and all of his fellow miscreants are burned down with his house.

What I love most about "Fitcher's Bird' is that even though the heroine doesn't actually kill her captor, she still triumphs by escaping him. In today's society, popular media has taught us that the bad guy must always be killed, and the hero or heroine must always do it themselves, in order for the main character to achieve any kind of fulfillment. But the heroine of "Fitcher's Bird" is incredibly proactive in planning her escape and his demise. She doesn't need to kill him herself; just the fact that she has forced him to carry two of his own victims home on his back is sweet enough revenge for her.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Snow White and the...Overdose?

I'll admit it, I have a little bit of a thing for foreign music videos, because they get away with things that their American counterparts couldn't in a million years. (It's funny, when you think about it--you can sing about drug addiction, domestic violence, infidelity, suicide, and murder sprees and you get a hit song, but don't even think about explicitly portraying any of that in a music video!) Having been a longtime fan of Tokio Hotel and, more recently, this particular band (Rammstein), I'm somewhat used to the darker, grittier look of German music videos, and as a filmmaker I love that--but "Sonne" blew me away for an entirely different reason.

This is not the Snow White you grew up with: She sexually tempts and abuses the dwarfs, demands a share of the gold that they're forced to mine, and dies not of a poisoned apple, but of a drug overdose. She is provocative, almost sinister--from the moment she appears on the screen, you are well aware that this is not the Disney heroine we all know and love. We see her spank the dwarfs (a.k.a. the band members), who are lined up to eagerly receive such treatment at her hands. She is a darker, more twisted version of Snow White, and she sure as heck isn't going to appear in a Disney film anytime soon.

And make no mistake, to most people, Snow White is a Disney icon. She is beautiful, charming, innocent, pious, and kindhearted to a fault. She's borderline air-headed, letting in a stranger and eating a poisoned apple despite the warnings of those around her. Looking at her in any of the stories we've read, it's not hard to imagine her as a gracious queen, dutiful wife, or nurturing mother...except for one.

The Snow White in the video for "Sonne" is Lisa, from "The Young Slave." Sounds strange at first, until you consider this: if she had continued in the same vein without being rescued by the Baron, and if she had eventually been put in the same situation as her Disney-movie counterpart, Lisa would doubtlessly not have been quite as kind to the dwarfs. In her story she abuses a doll by threatening it with a knife, demonstrating that unlike the other "Snow Whites," the stepmother's treatment has taken its toll on Lisa. She has a rebellious streak and harsh, even cruel tendencies, unlike her more innocent counterparts in the Grimm and Disney versions of the story.

When I imagine most, if not all, of the classic fairy tale heroines--think Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, the Little Mermaid--I think that it's virtually impossible for every single one of them to be as flawlessly pure of heart as they all turn out to be. One of the most infuriating things about fairy tales is how unwavering the heroines are in their apparent perfection: they make one fatal mistake, immediately learn their lesson, and in the end get everything they want and more. If any of these women existed in real life, they would show the mark of what they've been subjected to--they wouldn't be smiling, flawless, and unfailingly innocent as the tales paint them to be.

Snow White is, at heart, an abused child. As a general rule, abused children don't trust easily; if you raise your hand in front of them they will flinch, thinking you're about to hit them. So imagine, then, an abused child running away from home, entering the first house they see, promising to do unlimited housework for the inhabitants, kindly interacting with any woodland animal to come their way, letting a gnarled old stranger into the house while the inhabitants are out, eating food from the hand of that stranger, and to cap it all off marrying the first attractive person to notice them. If it weren't a fairy tale, we'd reject this concept as completely implausible. Imagine a modern Snow White, taken into the heart of a city and left there by the hired assassin--she probably would end up in a very similar situation to the Snow White of the music video: drug-addicted and serving the sexual appetites of her benefactors.

As a general rule I prefer darker incarnations of fairy tales to the happy ending-enhanced "classic" versions that we are spoon-fed by American pop culture. (I'm sorry--I don't mean to bash Disney, I really don't.) I particularly hate Snow White; I always have--I don't know why. Something about her story, particularly her idiocy in letting in the wicked queen, just irked me. When I first read "The Young Slave," I fell in love with Lisa and her spark of rebellion, identifying with her far more than the personality-free girl in the Disney and Grimm versions.

And this, by far, is my favorite interpretation of Snow White:

This is from Jeftoon01's brilliant Twisted Princess collection on DeviantART, a series of drawings that depict the princesses in a more sinister ("twisted") light. You could argue that most of these are actually more realistic than the princesses' classic depictions (Belle, for instance, actually looks like she's just finished fighting for her beast's life). I think this is part of slowly growing out of childhood: When I was little, these pictures would have terrified me (heck, the original Disney films terrified me in most cases), but now I can look at them and not only appreciate them as art, but identify with them more strongly than the fairy tales upon which they were based.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Little Red Riding Hoodie


When I first saw this cartoon, I laughed for about five minutes...and then I stopped and thought about what the cartoonist is actually saying. And I stopped laughing, because that isn't even a little bit funny.

I found this cartoon on a Yahoo Images search, which linked to a cartoon analysis blog which I hoped would tell me the name of the cartoonist, but it didn't. So I don't know the name of the cartoonist, but I get their point loud and clear: Anyone who claims that murdering someone based on your definition of "suspicious" behavior is dead wrong. The real criminal of that situation is, obviously, the murderer.

I love that he chose Little Red Riding Hood as the analogy for this cartoon, because it works perfectly: it's the situation of a naive, unsuspecting person getting attacked by someone who clearly knows better, but chooses to do the wrong thing anyway, just because he can. The wolf in both the tale and the cartoon knows that Little Red has done virtually nothing wrong, but he has the ability--both physically and mentally--to overpower her, and so he does. In the cartoon, the wolf's claim that Little Red's "suspicious" behavior justifies his decision to kill her mirrors the argument of George Zimmerman, the man who killed teenager Trayvon Martin for allegedly "wearing a hoodie and behaving suspiciously."

That's the social aspect of this cartoon, the commentary on the Trayvon Martin case. But what jumped out at me, especially in light of the discussion I mentioned in class (the conversation in which I tried to defend my position of "Little Red Riding Hood" being a metaphor for rape and seduction of young girls to my astonished friends), is how similar this argument is to the one actually used by rapists: she was asking for it.

It reminded me strongly of another cartoon, one that I'd seen on Tumblr almost a year ago:

This cartoon is pointing out that in our country (and, sadly, in many others as well, though the cartoon doesn't draw attention to that), victim blaming is a huge issue. A woman is raped walking home? Hey, it's her fault for walking alone at night--never mind that she didn't ask the rapist to attack her, he chose to attack her! A black teenager is shot crossing through the neighborhood at night? It's his fault for wearing baggy clothing...and for belonging to a race that's stereotyped as criminals, never mind that he didn't ask to be born that way! A gay teen kills himself after endless days of bullying? It's his fault for coming out! And those are just the examples the cartoon points out; I could think of plenty more, but for the sake of staying on-topic, I won't.

If Little Red were real and alive today, she might call the police after encountering the wolf instead of waiting on the huntsman. Instead of watching the wolf die with stones in its belly, she'd be subject to a long investigation wherein she was blamed repeatedly for walking alone, dressing immodestly and "tempting" the wolf, and stopping to talk to him when she "knew" he was likely to try and hurt her. She would be written off as a "slut" who "asked for it," while the wolf would, more than likely, walk free.

People talk about how it's "easier" to be a woman today than it was in the days when these fairy tales were first published. I disagree. I think that the idea of "slut shaming" (victim-blaming, basically) has stuck around long-term. Even in the original tale, both of the retellings (Grimm's and Perrault's) blame Little Red, not the wolf, for getting eaten. It's her fault because she strayed from the path. It's her fault because she didn't listen to her mother (even though she wasn't warned about the wolves in the first place). It's her fault because she was naive enough to stop and talk to the wolf. It's not the wolf's fault for tricking her and eating her. The closest thing the wolf gets to blame is when the huntsman (who only appears in the Grimms' tale, not Perrault's) calls him an "old sinner." Little Red does get rescued in the Grimm's tale, but she still thinks "never again will you stray from the path," not "When I get home, I'm going to ask my mother why the #@$% she didn't tell me there are freakin' wolves in the forest that she's sending me into alone." It's the same case today--women are blamed for walking alone at night, instead of blaming the men who choose to attack them.  At least in Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf got his comeuppance--in most cases today, the rapist walks free.

Am I overanalzying this? Probably. (I did warn you in the first blog post, I can get a little fired up when it comes to feminist issues.) I just saw so much besides what the cartoonist probably intended in that cartoon, and I thought it worked well with the tale. I know that usually, the best interpretation of the tale is the text itself, but in the case of cartoons--especially political or social cartoons--what isn't said is usually what matters.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Who, What, and Why

Well, to jump right into the middle of things: I took this class because I have been in love with storytelling from the day I spoke my first sentence. I have written countless stories, poems, and scripts. When my friends slept over when I was a child, I was always the one to tell the bedtime stories. There has never been a moment of my life, not that I can remember anyway, when I have not considered myself a storyteller.

There, how's that for an attention-getting starter?

I'm sorry it's taken right up to the deadline to get this blog post out. I hate to turn in things that aren't my best work and I wanted to give this post in particular its due, because I wanted to make sure that there are no misunderstandings. I did not take this course because "I have to, McDaniel is making me" or "I had to choose an SIS and this looked like the easiest one" or "Because it's about princesses and I like princesses." No. I did not choose to take a class about folktales because I thought it was an easy A. While it's true that I have analyzed fairy tales in an academic setting before, I certainly haven't done it at a college level and I don't think for a minute that this will be an "easy" class.

In fact, I almost took "Understanding Feminism," because I thought that one in particular would be a less-taxing SIS and since I'm taking a science this semester and science is not exactly my strongest subject, I wanted a lighter schedule. But at the last minute, I asked myself, do I really want to take a class in something that I've already studied and analyzed to death? I understand feminism quite clearly, as you'll see when we start to analyze some of these tales from a feminist perspective. I've had classes in gender studies and I've had plenty of real-world experience with feminism. I don't know enough about fairy tales and I don't think I'll ever "know enough" about storytelling.

I learned to read at a very early age; the first book I recall reading was Dr. Seuss' ABC book. I remember telling stories to my mother, rambling on and on while she frantically wrote and tried to get them down on paper so we'd remember them later. I spoke early and read early; I was homeschooled until age fifteen and one thing my mother always encouraged me in was my love for storytelling, reading, and writing. When I began to study film, she reminded me, "You're a storyteller--a filmmaker is just someone who tells a story with imagery instead of just words." I hope that by taking this class, I will further my own storytelling skills by studying classic folklore and analyzing the mechanics of a well-told, well-remembered story.

As for my favorite fairy tale...well, I'm sorry, but I can't choose just one. I tried, I really tried. But it still came down to three: "Lasair Gheug" (a story of the King of Ireland's daughter, a variant of "Snow White"), "Donkeyskin" (a variant of Cinderella wherein the king wishes to marry his own daughter and she escapes wearing the hide of a donkey to conceal her beauty), and "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" (where a young girl marries who she believes to be a polar bear, only to discover that her bridegroom is a handsome young man whom she must save from a clan of trolls). These three tales seem fairly different in plot and theme until you take a closer look and realize that they all have one thing in common: the protagonist is a resourceful female who overcomes seemingly unbeatable challenges in order to save someone she loves or get something she badly wants.

Like I said...I almost went for a feminism class. I tend to lean towards stories with strong women in the lead (my longtime favorite book series is Harry Potter, which just so happens to feature the second-most powerful female lead in literature, second only to Jane Eyre), and while fairy tales are often busted for being "anti-feminist" you can't deny that what some of these women do in these tales takes serious guts. Lasair Gheug, for example, has several of her fingers cut off, is framed by her stepmother, is poisoned by rice-sized pieces of enchanted ice, and still manages to find a way to evade her forced "baptismal oaths" and tell her children the truth about what happened to her. Donkeyskin escapes her crazed father, lives as a servant, endures abuse at the hands of her new employer, and cleverly manages to capture the attention of the man she loves. Yes, there is still emphasis on family and marriage--but in my mind, that does not take away from the courage and resourcefulness of these heroines.

[End note: I just would like to clarify that while the tales I mention can be read with a feminist angle, I acknowledge that they can also be read as promoting sexism/chauvinism, and there certainly are fairy tales that promote sexist/chauvinist ideals--but I personally believe that the three I just mentioned contain strong female leads and do not promote sexism.]