One of the things that I loved most about the Tyme series, which is a revisionist retelling of several fairy tales, is its depiction of fairy godmothers. In many traditional fairy tales, the fairy godmother is not particularly expanded upon; she’s simply a deus ex machina to get the protagonist from one place to the other. In the Tyme series’s retelling of Cinderella, it takes the concept of fairy godmother and builds on it in both a worldbuilding and a moral way.
Sadly, I still haven’t gone to see the new live-action Beauty and the Beast yet, but since it seemed timely, I decided to go back and revisit the 1991 animated film first. Ever since it came out, Belle has been lauded as one of the more feminist Disney princesses, especially in comparison to other older Disney protagonists such as Cinderella or Ariel. Belle is book-smart, curious, and outgoing, and she defies societal conventions by being completely unapologetic about who she is. So of course we see her as feminist, and it’s through the use of magic that Disney attempts to capture a feminist message in her narrative. However, despite all of Belle’s potential feminist characteristics, Disney still creates a world in which the only possible option for Belle and the other princesses is to fall in love with and marry a man. The magic in these movies exist to subvert some patriarchal values, but in the end, they adhere to others by continuously rewarding its protagonists with unwanted love interests.
The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer may not have caused as much public excitement as some of the other female-led sci-fi/dystopian YA series of the past several years, but it doesn’t mean it’s less deserving of our attention. In fact, it’s a very solid series, led by a team of awesome kickass teen heroines. The plot is engrossing and action-packed and has an intriguing twist to boot—the main four books of the series offer loose, but still recognizable, retellings of four well-known fairy tales: Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty.
Spoilers below for Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter (the main four books of The Lunar Chronicles).
Plenty has already been said about heroes and anti-heroes. Superman was created over seventy-five years ago, and yet America today prefers its heroes to have a bit more grit, like Tony Stark. What’s undeniable is that a dichotomy exists between light heroes and dark heroes. It’s a way of looking at protagonists that has ancient roots, but manifests differently in male and female characters.
The light and dark dichotomy is very old and very ingrained in our storytelling traditions. On the surface, “light” stereotypes give the character traits that are traditionally associated with positive ideas and symbolism. More often than not these characters will wear white or light colors, have light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. “Dark” characters tend to have dark hair, skin, eyes, and clothing. This color dichotomy is associated with good and evil, for religious and historical reasons. If you don’t have electricity you can be more productive when the sun’s out, while it’s easier for robbers and rule-breakers to hide in the cover of night. White is associated with purity and goodness, especially in Christianity, while black is associated with evil and the consequences of evil (like sin and death).
While light heroes cling to a traditional morality, dark heroes have a more subversive attitude. There’s something bad or wrong or broken with a dark character, which is usually the source of their darkness. Men tend to be gallant, chivalrous heroes or troubled rogues, while women tend to be virginal maidens or seductive vamps. It’s taken generations to move beyond this rigid dichotomy, giving the light and dark new and interesting implications. But if we really care about smashing gender stereotypes, we need to move beyond the light and dark gender axis. Both Luke Cage and Jessica Jones from Marvel’s respective Netflix series take the light and dark dichotomies and smash them to bits.
Spoilers for all of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones below.
I recently enjoyed my honeymoon (which I had to wait a year after being married to actually go on). Because of our current lack of funds, my partner and I didn’t go anywhere, but rather stayed at home and enjoyed each other’s company. One of the things that we did decide to do while on our honeymoon was marathon Disney movies. And so naturally, after years of not having seen it, I re-watched Cinderella. And while the movie still is very problematic, I have to admit that I’m starting to think that maybe feminists (myself included) give Cinderella a little more shit than is really merited.
Cinderella is one of those classic fairy tales that all kinds of little kids (and not so little kids) grow up loving. It’s the kind of story that many of us can relate to: our hero is treated unfairly by people in power, but she works hard and lives virtuously and one day a magical person comes into her life and rewards her for all her suffering. I think most of us would like to think that all of our suffering will one day be rewarded, whether it be the twenty-something paying their dues by slogging through a terrible job in hopes of moving upward and onward to something better, or the ten year old, indignant that their parents insist on cleaning their room again, wishing and hoping for their Hogwarts letter to take them away. Maybe it’s that we’re waiting for our proverbial “prince” (whatever form they may take) to sweep us off our feet.
There are so many versions of the story of Cinderella, and while the core story stays mostly the same, each version sends a different kind of message about what kinds of virtues are worthy of reward, and what kinds of rewards are worthy of which virtues. The results are a mixed bag, especially when we take a critical eye to some of the more popular versions of the classic fairy tale. We have to ask ourselves, should we really want to be like our Cinderellas, and do we even really want her prize?
It’s apparently a good week for reading Cinderella retellings. I only just started reading the steampunk-y Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell, but when I realized that it was Throwback Thursday, I turned to one of my long-time favorites: Ella Enchanted.
My copy of Ella Enchanted is so old that, when I turned it over to read the back cover, I realized it didn’t have a bar code—instead, in the place of where one would be was a message that this particular copy was only available for sale during in-school Scholastic book fair events. So. The likelihood that I’ve owned it since it came out in 1997 is actually pretty likely. It’s pretty well-loved by this point, and it was just as wonderful as I remembered on reread.
If you haven’t read it, beware of spoilers after the jump!