By Brook Wilensky-Lanford
Pixar’s latest animated movie, Brave, has been getting a lot of attention for being a fairy tale in which—spoiler alert!—the princess’s story does not end with a wedding. I was looking forward to the tale of Merida, a Scottish princess with the hair of a liberated Pippi Longstocking and the appealing crankiness of Harriet the Spy, conceived by the studio that brought us The Incredibles. Merida’s story is supposed to be empowering in its novelty, but if you haven’t already guessed by the vintage of my cultural reference points, none of this seemed exactly new to me.
Growing up in rural Maine in the 1980s, I wasn’t allowed to read fairy tales. My mother, a children’s bookstore owner and self-described “child of the 60s,” deemed them too violent and too sexist. Why were all the powerful women evil witches? Why was Cinderella’s whole identity tied up with shoes and princes? She believed so strongly that the violence and chauvinism in these stories was powerful enough to harm young people that she declared her opposition in public, in a formal debate with the librarian of our local elementary school (who believed that ancient myths survive for a reason: they explain something essential about ourselves). My mother protested. No Brothers Grimm, no Barbie dolls, no TV.
A friend’s father used to tell her a fairy tale called “The True Story of Dr. Rapunzel.”
Instead, our family’s shelves were filled with correctives for the world’s narratives. There was the good-for-you anthology Don’t Bet on the Prince! which told the tale of “The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet,” and of course, Free to Be You and Me, and other stories in which the title says it all. A friend’s father used to tell her a fairy tale called “The True Story of Dr. Rapunzel.” This genre of revisionist fairy tales, now nearly 40 years old, closely parallels those having-it-all fantasies Ann-Marie Slaughter writes about in her much-discussed Atlantic article. The age of these stories is important: my mother is a little older than Slaughter and her corrective mythology was still very much a part of first-wave feminism. In my family, Cinderella or Rapunzel or Snow White could have her Ph.D. or her law practice, and the prince would come later, if at all, and that was just fine. We didn’t ask if that meant that she was “having it all.”
My mother’s crusade had its desired effect on me: when I was in second grade and my babysitter read aloud Hans Christian Anderson’s original “Little Mermaid” story to a group of kids, I was the only one who hid behind the couch, traumatized. Around this time, I created an imaginary husband, Fred, whose work as a fisherman kept him away from home most of the time, so I could do what I liked. That was about as much thought as I gave the idea of marriage for the next twenty-five years. (It probably didn’t help matters that I refused to shave my legs or wear a bra for many of those years, holding out against the patriarchal conspiracy.)
Stories exploring the dark side of the empowerment imperative were there all along: witness Angela Carter’s badass 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, written in the same fairy-tale guise but subverting it in a different way. Here female characters get sexual liberation and dominance instead of advanced degrees. Carter wrote three different retellings of the Little Red Riding Hood story. In one, Riding Hood is a feral child battling a monster; in another, Riding Hood’s grandmother is stoned to death and she inherits all her possessions; in a third she’s fearless, and ends up in bed with the charming wolf.
On that dark note, back to Brave. Although it does have Disney-fied elements—the friendly totem horse, the preponderance of bears, the singing—the animated blockbuster is really a tightly focused, mother-daughter chamber piece. The queen embarks on a relentless crusade to prepare Merida for her prescribed role: marry the winner of an archery contest among allied clans, thus pacifying a restive kingdom, then sit around and play the lute and weave tapestries all day. It’s instantly clear that the princess will not fall for this. She’s stubborn, and she’s better at archery than all the boys anyway, and she has no memory of the historical wars that motivate her mother’s intense desire to keep the peace. It takes a magical mishap to simultaneously put the fear of warfare into Merida and soften the Queen’s determination to turn her daughter from archer to damsel.
Like Merida, I didn’t understand the experiences my mother had gone through which made her so determined to prescribe mine. Some prohibitions, like that against media violence, chafed early. (When Pulp Fiction appeared in theaters when I was 17, I insisted on driving to the local movie theater in a snowstorm and took pride in my ability to watch it without flinching.) But my mother’s early gender sensitivity training continues to have an influence. I can’t watch TV without spotting those old virgin-witch-or-whore archetypes everywhere. To me, the image of Ariel giving up her beautiful voice for the love of a distant prince is a cautionary tale.
In some ways, absorbing counter-narratives about gender has been incredibly positive—but sometimes I fear the emphasis is all on the counter.
Sometimes I’m surprised at how powerful this influence has remained over time—and not just in matters of media. I shave my legs now, and I’m in a committed relationship with a man who not only supports my career, but bakes bread and cleans the kitchen. We bought an apartment together, then a car, and we dote on our two cats. But we’ve never once discussed marriage.
Why should we get married I keep thinking. My therapist, concerned that I am “opting out” of a normal life in an obscure emulation of my parents, attempted to relate: “You’re a writer,” she asked, “what would you say to a character who refuses to discuss marriage?” In my head, I scoffed: that’s a bad analogy, I write nonfiction, I don’t have “characters.” But she was right, of course, it is weird. In some ways, absorbing counter-narratives about gender has been incredibly positive—but sometimes I fear the emphasis is all on the counter. I’m starting to feel like I’m stamping my foot against the patriarchy in an empty room.
My mother’s librarian debate opponent was right: fairy tales are not going anywhere anytime soon. They’re too primal. Counter-narratives can sometimes deflate or neutralize that power, but organizing your own narrative in opposition to something can just be one more of emphasizing and empowering that which you oppose. Which is why I wish I’d discovered Angela Carter’s tales at an earlier age. In The Bloody Chamber, the identity of the monsters we are battling is never quite clear. The end may often be brutal or painful, but it’s never a foregone conclusion. Women’s lives retain the power of surprise. That’s the freedom I wish for.
Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden and an editor of Killing the Buddha.