Fairy tales are more popular ever, inspiring hit movies, huge TV shows, and a flood of books. But aren't fairy tales also kind of… regressive? They always feature princesses in trouble, and the dashing princess who rescue them, right? Wrong. Poison author Sarah Pinborough argues that fairy tales should be subversive.
Top image: Annie Leibovitz
I remember when, half a lifetime ago, I took a module on feminist literature at university. As the lecturer passed around a list of additional reading that she thought would help us, a couple of items on it caused the whole class – even me, hungover and a very unwilling participant of anything that started at the inhuman hour of 9am – to pause and frown at her with 'Say what now?' expressions. The said items were 'four Mills & Boon novels of your choice and any Disney fairy tale film.' When questioned on this, our wise teacher smiled and said, 'You're going to need them. Because otherwise, by the time we're finished, you'll have forgotten that love does exist, men can be great, and there's nothing wrong with romance.' To be fair, she had a point. The main reading list was pretty heavy going and pretty grim in places. For a bunch of 19 year old women, it didn't have a lot of good to say about our potential futures out there in a male dominated world.
Twenty years on, and suddenly here I was, planning a series of three subverted fairy tales to appeal to women – and men – and I hoped that I could blend the two elements of feminism and romance. I wanted to write fun, sexy, clever stories to entertain, but as I researched and refamiliarised myself with the stories of my childhood I realised quickly that I was going to have to change a lot stuff in them around. Because let's be straight here – it's very very difficult to read those classic fairy tales and not feel your feminist ire rising.
I had chosen Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty for Poison, Charm and Beauty respectfully, and the central messages of those tales are not exactly overly kind to women. Fairy tales, as a rule, aren't. In Snow White you have a fading older beauty so overwhelmed by jealousy of a younger woman that she's prepared to kill her. In Cinderella a girl's only ambition is to marry a handsome prince and live in a big castle, and in Sleeping Beauty a girl is cursed by a bitter witch (another woman) and falls asleep until, yep, a man saves her with true love's kiss. In some versions of this story, older ones that were not so child friendly, Sleeping Beauty is raped in her cursed sleep and actually has a baby before she wakes up! Cheery stuff. So much for happy endings.
Basically, the message of traditional fairy tales is, 'As long as you're young and beautiful and sickly sweet, if you're lucky enough a rich man will come along and take you for his own. But Jesus, don't get old, lose your looks, and want your own power. That just makes you a wicked witch or bitter, like all those poor girls born ugly.' Or to sum up, 'Just be a good girl.'
I am of course over-simplifying somewhat. It's nice to read sweet stories where the boy gets the girl, but it would be nicer if both sides had to work a little harder for it. The men, to be fair, don't come off great in fairy tales either. They just yearn to meet a beautiful woman then have to risk death to get her. And all this before really having time to get to know her. Fast forward life in those castles after ten years and two kids, and I'll bet both sides are playing away and regretting the foolish impulses of their youth, and about to start a bitter custody battle for the kids and the property.
So, is there a place for fairy tales in our modern, confusing world? Yes, I think there is. Just like there's a place for feminism and romance. I'm a feminist and a romantic. I still have moments of yearning for some handsome man to come and sweep me off my feet. There's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong with fairy tales - you just have to change their inherent message.
In many ways, we need those stories with little moral (for want of a better word) messages more than ever now. We live in the X-factor world where some people think that just wishing for something hard enough can make it happen. Simon Cowell has become those people's fairy godmother. They stand before him, make their wish, and think he's going to make all their dreams come true with very little work on their part. They come unprepared, untrained, straight from singing in their bathrooms and he's supposed to wave his magic wand and bang, that's it, they're whisked away to international superstardom. Mainly it's a deluded wish. It's sad and pathetic and naïve. Everything in life takes hard work. There are no fairy godmothers. None you should trust anyway.
Every day, despite calls for change and exposure of photoshopped images everywhere, women are faced with a torrent of pictures of beautiful, perfect celebrities and models. The supposed ideal of how we're supposed to look if we want success in life and love and so very, very different from the reflections in our mirrors when we stand before them in just our pants and sigh with disappointment. The images are all aimed at women, of course. We're conditioned to do our best to be 'beautiful', to get as close as we can to some ideal of perfection. If we do that then all our dreams will come true. I feel just as sorry for the women in those pictures as I do for the rest of us looking at them. Imagine the pressure. Imagine the fear. Fear of ageing, fear of weight, fear of constantly being judged on how they look. And of course, it's all just surface and irrelevant. And it sure as shit isn't for men. Get in a pub chat with a group of men (grown up ones) and what attracts them will never be the same thing. Look at your happiest married friends – some are skinny, some are fat, some are 'beautiful' or 'handsome' and some are downright 'plain.' Love has bugger all to do with looks. We all get old. Beauty fades. Or perhaps we just become more beautiful when we start to accept our skins. Men and women cheat on gorgeous celebrities every day. Beauty can't save you from any of life's heartache.
But of course, we've also all (most of us anyway – well done if you haven't) been distracted by beauty and wealth and power. It's hard not to be, especially when you're young. We've all been on those dates when you think, 'wow, he/she is hot/famous/rich! And they're interested in me!' and yet by the end we're eyeing up the strange looking guy on the other side of the room who's making people laugh and has a twinkle in his eye. Now that's not dissing all the people who've been lucky enough to be blessed with beauty, but it is only a momentary attraction, a temporary magic spell. It fades if the personality behind the face doesn't hold your interest.
Now, all of that is a bit of rant, but in the books I wanted to get messages across about how the lure of perfection can only ever be an illusion, lasting love is rarely 'on first sight', and you can have happy endings but you've got to work for them. You've got to be yourself. I hope I've got these across in a fun way. I wanted people to smile wryly when reading the stories, because there is lots of fun to be had when adapting age-old stories for a modern audience and using familiar characters but giving them some modern motivations. Take a look at Snow White for instance. I mean, what could drive an older woman to resent a younger one so much? What kind of man falls in love with a woman in glass box he's never spoken to and insist on marrying her as soon as she wakes up? What if the beautiful young woman is independent and doesn't really want to get married? Not to the prince at any rate.
Then take Cinderella. A young woman's single ambition in life is to get married to a rich prince. Can we even trust her judgement on her 'wicked' step-mother and 'ugly' sisters? At what point will she realise that a man who only recognises 'his true love' when her foot fits into an enchanted shoe probably isn't worth loving? What will she do then?
And of course, Sleeping Beauty. For a start, no man should kiss a sleeping woman without her permission. It's just all kinds of creepy. Not to say arrogant. And what if the curse wasn't done out of wickedness but out of kindness? Just because someone looks beautiful, it certainly doesn't mean they're a good person. What happens then?
And what if all this happened to the same prince?
Don't get me wrong – these aren't man-hating books. There are happy endings. People fall in love, the huntsman is hot, the dwarves are kind, and there are other good men throughout. But for me, fairy tales have always been about the women in them, and my focus is definitely on them, from the old crone in the woods with a penchant for eating children, to the wicked queen with the secret in her heart, to the three central leads – I found them all fascinating to work with.
I'm hoping that in the books I've created some strong female characters. They're rounded, sexual women with hopes and desires and dreams that they're struggling to achieve in a fairy tale world where true equality between the sexes is still a fair way off.
Reading that last sentence back, I think we need fairy tales more than ever. Just slightly skewed ones. Like mine.