|Article by: Ann Rakow||
I remember the way my dad used to read me bedtime stories when I was a little girl. I looked forward to climbing out of the steaming hot bathtub, slipping into my flannel pajamas- the ones we called the "pink panther pjs" because in being washed with a red sock, my white pj's had turned pink and I loved the pink panther cartoon so would imagine myself just like the rascally panther. I would scramble up on his lap and my Dad would sit in his big lazyboy chair and read to me. Favorite stories included one called "The Duchess Bakes a Cake" and the Curious George series. I never fell asleep while he was reading because the story would hold me wide awake, wanting to know what next? Occasionally, (almost always at a really good part) Dad would pause and say, "oh, you're too tired to keep going, we should stop"... of course, this would make me protest loudly that I was wide awake. It was one of his ways of building suspense and I do it now whenever I read bedtime stories to my kids. After the story was done, he would carry me to bed and I would lie there, replaying bits of the story in my head while sleep crept up slowly.
My all time favorite bedtime stories were fairy tales. Dad would do the voices differently for me and I memorized bits of dialogue to read with him. The books we used depended- our family believed firmly in library cards, so we would check out dozens of our favorites every time we went to the library. Some would have pictures, which I would gaze at, memorizing details. Some would just be words- but usually, the cover art would hold me just as fascinated. But the stories were what I loved most of all- princesses and witches, unicorns and dragons, curses and poison- all of these things were magic and I couldn't wait to hear what would be next.
As an adult, I found the Grimm's Fairy Tales after reading Anne Sexton's Transformations, which are modern retellings of some of the most famous fairy tales in poem form. Sexton wrote her poems after reading Grimm's to her daughters and the poems retain some of the more dark aspects of the Grimm's, which have been taken out of the Disney versions. I had known already that they were nothing like the Disney versions, which are cleaned up and changed immensely. For instance, in the original Hans Christian Anderson version of the Little Mermaid, the mermaid, scorned because of her difference, commits suicide at the end! Disney certainly couldn't sell that! I also learned that even the Grimm's fairy tales and the Hans Christian Anderson tales are very different from their original sources. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson collected oral folk tales and added a lot of Christian symbolism and a heavy dose of new moral lessons which may have been completely different in early, oral versions of the stories.
For example, some of the various versions of Snow White that appear have her wicked stepmother as really her mother. The part at the end of the Grimm's fairy tale, where the wicked witch dances in red hot iron shoes at Snow White's wedding, was an addition. Other versions of the story have Snow White living not with gnomes but with fairies, or robbers in the forest. And the way the Queen poisons Snow White varies, too. In some, she eats the poison apple, in some there is a magic comb dosed with poison. In one version, it is a dress with poison corset that causes Snow White to fall into her living death. In all of them, as soon as the poisoned culprit is removed, Snow White wakes up. None of the originals has Snow White waking from the kiss of a handsome prince. What bugs me the most about the version most of us know of Snow White is this: in the Disney version, Snow White innocently cleans the Dwarves house, without prompting, because she just wants to be good and helpful. She is the perfect housewife, never complaining that the dwarves drag in coal dust, or that Sneezy leaves his dirty tissues everywhere, or that Grumpy never says thank you. Not only that, but when she's done cleaning up, she dances around hoping for her "prince to come" "someday" rather than doing something that will attract the prince. I realize that this is all part of the 1950s morality that the movie was made under- a good wife and mother is all that many women aspired to back then. But even today, women believe that someday their prince will come. No one ever considers that perhaps the "perfect" match for you is not perfect him/her self. In our quest for perfection, waiting around for a prince/princess to come, we might miss out on a lot of great experiences. And our expectations for perfection will not always happen in real life- and some people will be so disappointed that they do not have the perfection that they will make what they do have miserable.
How does this fit in with feminism? Well, when I learned that the original folk stories had a lot of other kinds of interpretations, I realized that the sanitized versions of fairy tales we get today are really another case of not being told the whole story. So, as a feminist, I want to encourage my daughters and sons to read more stories, to learn that there is never only one way to tell a story. Just like my Dad would tell the same story with different voices, and sometimes with different endings, the fairy tales are really much more adaptable that we may realize.
Feminism doesn't expect perfection. We don't necessarily want political correctness, stories to be cleaned up to not offend our modern politics. But what the whole argument of feminism is that we should be free to have a choice.... we can be either a homemaker OR a working women. We can get married OR choose not to. No choice is inherently better or worse, and all the choices that women can make should be respected. This is what modern fairy tales can teach us- that there is no ONE WAY for feminism to be, no ONE WAY for life to be. We all learn different lessons- and we can teach them to our children via the classic fairy tales, or by new ones, or by telling them the differences in the classics and letting them figure it out for themselves. The story by Kim Wells where she speculates on how to try to encourage the young girls to reach out and ask for more tries to get at this, I think, and might be misunderstood as saying that it isn't good to read fairy tales to girls.... but I think she really means that you should read them, but make sure the girls (and boys) know all the possible different endings those tales could have. Choice. That's the most important thing.
Finally, I recently discovered a series of books that are "fairy tales for grown ups." These books collect famous contemporary authors who retell classic fairy tales, much like the poems in Sexton's Transformations. There is a series of short stories as well as novels, and they are edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling called: Black Heart, Ivory Bones (2000), Silver Birch, Blood Moon(1999), Black Swan, White Raven (1998), Black Thorn, White Rose (1995), Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears (1996) Snow White, Blood Red (1995) and some "scary" ones called A Wolf at the Door: And Other Retold Fairy Tales (2000). My favorite, and the place where I learned all that earlier bit about different versions of Snow White (in the book's introduction), is Tanith Lee's version of the classic story called White as Snow (2000) which combines elements from a lot of the old folk stories with the Persephone/Demeter myth. I think that probably Snow White's story should include the Demeter/Persephone myth the way Lee writes it- it seems that a lot of fairy tales come from old pagan myths that have been changed over time, and if I were a betting women, I'd bet that Snow White does originate in some version of this goddess myth. One great thing about all of these books is that Datlow and Windling include other books like their own that you can read-- so if this ends up being one of your favorite things, you can find more! This is part of a series of novels that Datlow and Windling have encouraged, so even though I don't list all the titles, check them out-- you'll be glad you did.
Editor's Note: You can also read the essay that appears in the front of White as Snow on the not so "pristine" origins of the Snow White story, by series editor Terri Windling, at this link.