Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 1: The Princess and the Flamethrower

With the sad news of SF Signal’s closure, I am reposting the first article in my Feminism in Fairy Tales series here on my own blog. It was originally posted on the SF Signal website on 13/06/13.

Tales are not lies, nor are they truths, but something in between. They can be as true or as false as the listener chooses to make them, or the teller wants him to believe.

– Juliet Marillier, Son of the Shadows

I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but I’m pretty sure 2012 was the Year of the Fairy Tale. There wasn’t an official announcement or anything, but the nod was clearly given in secret circles and the retellings spread outwards like ripples on the waters of speculative fiction. Novels such as Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, Sophie Masson’s Moonlight and Ashes and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder were released, there were big movie adaptations Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, there was even a TV series. Hell, there were two TV series! I’m a fiend for fairy tales; I was in paradise. And I was seriously impressed by the ingenuity of all these storytellers for finding something new to say about stories that have been retold over so many years.

But there was also a bitter aftertaste that’s been bothering me for some time. It was so subtle, and so pervasive, that it is difficult to pin down when exactly I first noticed it – in the reviews? The promotional interviews? The posts I read afterwards? What I noticed was this: that when people spoke about a fairy tale adaptation, the assumption was that it would be better than the original. Specifically, that the women would be better.

Because everybody knows women in fairy tales are weak. They are at the mercy of wicked stepmothers and nefarious kings! They always need princes to ride to their rescue! And that’s really pathetic, right? We of modern times are better than that. We know that what every princess really needs is to ditch the frocks and get herself a flamethrower. (Admittedly, I have not yet seen a fairy tale adaptation in which the princess literally has a flamethrower. It is the new dream of my existence that one exists.)

The popular impression of a fairy tale princess is a Disney beauty in a ball gown. The thing is that, like a lot of the other things that ‘everybody’ knows, it’s wrong.

I grew up on the fairy tales retold by Ruth Manning Sanders: a handful of loved-to-death ’80s reprints with missing pages and cracked spines. Manning Sanders covered classics like ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Aladdin’, but she didn’t stop there. Through her, I discovered stories from Jamaica and Iceland, Sicily and Russia, Switzerland, Denmark and Italy. I read about girls who bribed themselves a better destiny, who freed slaves, who met and married wizards or witch’s sons as well as princes. I learned, not by anyone telling me but from my own insatiable reading, that women in fairy tales are not weak. They are not necessarily strong either. They are something more than either.

They are people.

And I kept reading. I found myself heroines like Tatterhood, the hideous elder daughter of a queen, who goes forth to fight witches and rescue her sister; Princess Blue-Eyes, the gorgeous ruler of her own kingdom who beats a Czar and all his three sons in battle; Tokoyo, daughter of an exiled samurai, who saves a sacrificial maiden by jumping off a cliff and fighting a sea monster. Where are their retellings? Why aren’t there movie adaptations of their stories, or an introduction to the Disney canon? If readers of the 21st century are so dissatisfied with the way women are written in fairy tales, why not look beyond the standard Grimm brothers selection pool?

But let’s take a look into that pool, since it is rather irresistible with its sparkling shallows and murky depths. The women in Grimm favourites tend to get the worst kicking, so stuck with labels you’d think they’d been mistaken for a corkboard. Passive! Submissive! Weepy, soppy, weak.

Why? Because they don’t get into swordfights with their evil stepmothers? Because they don’t take on all comers with a metaphorical flamethrower? Modern retellings often put an emphasis on their heroines physically or verbally defending themselves, which can be excellent and deeply satisfactory, but there are other ways of being strong. Surviving in an atmosphere of hatred without letting yourself get infected by it, like Cinderella does – that takes strength. Making a new life among strangers, like Snow White, takes courage. Being imprisoned with no resources for an escape, like Rapunzel, and keeping on hoping for something better anyway, takes fortitude. It’s a quiet bravery, easy to ignore, and so people do ignore it. They pretend that women in fairy tales don’t ‘do’ anything. But they are wrong.

It isn’t about the stories. It is all about the telling. There are very few fairy tales out there that can’t have excellent female characters if they are told by someone who wants them to be that way, and you don’t have to change the stories at all – all you have to do is understand and respect the characters in them. Women in fairy tales can be villains, they can be heroines, they can be ordinary and in between, but they all have individuality until a storyteller chooses to take it away.

Or gives it back.

As Aladdin could tell you, something new is not automatically better than something old. We need them all, the fairy tales that have been transmuted into shining unfamiliar shapes standing beside the ones that are as old as the path in the dark woods. There’s magic, and strength, enough to be shared without belittling either one.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go write a fairy tale about flamethrowers.

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 2: The Demon’s In the Double Standard

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 3: In Dire Need of Dynamite

In Dire Need of Dynamite: Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 3

Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.

– Countess Constance Markievicz, Irish suffragette and revolutionary

Here’s the thing: princesses in fairy tales are not weak, they’re deeply unlucky.

If a princess is the heroine of her own story, the odds are very high that someone will attempt to either abduct or murder her; in some cases they actually succeed with the latter and through morbid magic she’ll manage to tell her story from beyond the grave, which is not what I consider a happy ending. If she’s a side character, she doubtless exists to be married off to the hero, and is very likely to be kidnapped anyway, so that he can rescue her. We don’t tend to tell stories about happy people. Something has to go wrong in order for there to be a plot, and often it is a girl’s life falling apart.

Is this a problematic device? Hell yes. Does its existence automatically condemn the characters involved? I say it does not.

Many popular criticisms of fairy tales frustrate me. Fantastic female protagonists are forgotten or ignored while the famous heroines are belittled and dismissed; older women are held to an impossible double standard while their male counterparts are accepted as default settings. In an attempt to subvert these tropes, many modern retellings go as far in the opposite direction as possible, and that can be a glorious thing. It is deeply satisfying to give a princess a sword, let her break free and find her own fortune.

Unfortunately this is humanity we’re dealing with, and humanity has an unhealthy obsession with binaries.

That is to say, instead of celebrating these heroines on their own considerable merits, it’s becoming expected that all heroines will behave the same way. That it’s always possible to escape on your own; that it’s your fault if you can’t succeed without help. Why don’t you keep a stockpile of dynamite on your person at all times so that when you are unexpectedly kidnapped and locked in a tower without doors or windows, you can just blow your way out? That’s what a real princess would do.

I have a thing to say about that. No, actually, I have two things to say:

1) Keeping a stash of dynamite on hand, should you be transported to the world of fairy tales and manage to get hold of the stuff, is actually an excellent idea. Bringing it with you when you are kidnapped would, however, be rather difficult logistically.

2) Never blame the victim. Just don’t.

And a third thing: there are many ways of saving yourself.

There are young women in these stories who are controlled by transformative magic, who are locked inside all manner of prisons, who desperately need the aid of a valiant swordsman with a getaway horse. These women have usually seen others fail in the attempt to save them. They have endured the gloating of a captor, the humiliations and isolation of imprisonment. So they come up with plans. And if their would-be saviour wants to succeed, he’d better pay close attention.

In ‘The Troll’s Little Daughter’, the hero would have had no chance of setting his love free if she had not given him detailed instructions. It’s a pattern that can be seen in many other tales, including ‘The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body’, ‘Jekovoy’, ‘The Little Tailor and the Three Dogs’, and ‘The Artful Soldier and the Czar’s Three Daughters’, to name only a few. In at least one version of ‘Rapunzel’, the prince brings her silk to weave a ladder. Though she depends on him to bring her resources (why could he not have just brought a ready made rope ladder and saved everybody a lot of trouble?) she is actively participating in her own rescue. In ‘The Wild Swans’, Elise’s brothers swoop to rescue her from a witch’s pyre, but they can only succeed because she has worked to break their enchantment.

This is co-operative rescue, a balance of knowledge and opportunity, and it works the other way around too – trapped male royals have been known to seek out the assistance of capable young women. The enchanted prince of ‘The Nine Doves’, for instance, the reckless protagonist of ‘Yellow Lily’, the talking bear from ‘Snow White and Rose Red’. Strength should not be gendered; all acts of self-defence should be celebrated, whether they take place with an explosion or a whisper. For this reason, co-operative rescue is one of my favourite fairy tale tropes. It subtly inverts your expectations, turning the protagonists into a team, each playing off the other’s skill set.

It takes courage, and trust, and determination.

It takes heroism. There’s more of that around than you might think.

Not Your Moral Metaphors

Trigger warning: references to abuse

Vampirism is a good metaphor for abuse. Vampires, as they are popularly written, are charming and seductive, but they can drain the life out of you. It is in fact a comparison used to describe an unhappy marriage in the 2007BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Vampires are also a staple element in paranormal fantasy, where they are the blood-drinking undead. Herein lies the conflict: in fantasy, what might otherwise be a metaphor becomes a logical plot point. You don’t need psychiatric treatment, there are actually demons in your house. Your estranged parents really are evil. Your boyfriend is not cheating on you, he’s leading the double life of a superhero. To judge a character accurately, you have to take their context into account, and that context might have only the most tangential relationship to the normal world.

I am not remotely qualified for an in-depth discussion about abusive behaviours symptomatic in popular literature. I am a lifelong reader of speculative fiction who thinks psychological analysis of fantasy can be taken too far.

Yesterday, I encountered two articles which break down aspects of Stephenie Meyer’s paranormal romance phenomenon Twilight. I found both well-reasoned, thought-provoking and intelligent. The personal experiences of Ms Mardoll are particularly saddening, and it’s incredibly brave of her to write about them. I can absolutely understand how a book like Twilight might be triggering for her.

But I also disagree with both interpretations. Particularly when Mardoll starts describing Meyer’s readership. Whilst theoretically defending them against the insultingly laughable idea that they all seek abusive relationships, she perpetuates the same idea: this book is bad. People who like it are naïve or in denial.

Longtime readers of this blog will know I’ve talked about my feelings on this subject before, and will realise how annoyed I am now. I like Twilight. I wouldn’t count it as an all-time favourite, but I really enjoyed all four books and was interested enough to locate the draft of Midnight Sun, a reworking of the first book told from Edward’s perspective, posted by Meyer online. Watching the movies introduced me to the music of Linkin Park and Paramore. I have good feelings for Twilight.

I’m also fed up to the back teeth with having to defend myself for that, but as I can, I will. So let’s analyse this series from the angle I see it. Be warned, it will take a while.

Edward Cullen is incredibly fast and strong. He can read minds, even the minds of other vampires, allowing him to glimpse the future through his adoptive sister Alice, which makes him virtually omnipresent. He has been alive for almost a century and has good odds at outlasting modern civilisation as we know it. He has occupied that time by collecting languages like he collects CDs, learning an instrument and going through high school so many times that it’s become a mindless chore. Oh, also, he’s going to remain a stunningly attractive seventeen year old FOREVER.

This is because he is a vampire.

On the flipside, the only interactions he has with human beings are based around maintaining the deception that he’s one of them, he lives with an adoptive family of superpowered recovering blood addicts, and is convinced God hates him. This is the context for his character. How do you expect him to behave?

Like a mind-blowingly arrogant jerk, actually. He’s thoughtless, immature and stuck in an unnaturally extended adolescence, accustomed to thinking he’s better than everyone else (because, superpowers) and that his judgement is infallible (because, omnipresence).

He’s not alone, either. All Meyer’s vampires behave this way. They are carnivorous gods in a world of oblivious mortals; it would be weird if they didn’t. Edward is a different species to Bella, with the alien cultural rules that implies. His first reaction on meeting her is to think: how odd, why can’t I read her mind? The next is: BLOOD. Edward spends the first class of their acquaintance fighting the urge to rip her throat out. He manages to resist, but it’s a close thing. When the situation is explained to them, as seen in Midnight Sun, his family are concerned, not outraged. They are literally a drug addict’s recovery group (Edward describes the lure of blood as being like a heroin addiction), offering ways for him to avoid falling off the wagon but accepting it’s a very real possibility that he might.

Because they are vampires. Even relatively nice vampires have questionable consciences when it comes to human lives. By the standard of his contemporaries, it would be perfectly natural for Edward to abduct, murder and devour Bella within minutes of meeting her. Raised by his pacifistic mentor Carlisle, Edward doesn’t want to do that – but at the same time, he really does.

This does not make it an okay thing. It’s a really, really awful thing! It’s also not a metaphor. To be a vampire means drinking blood; in Meyer’s world, at least, there is no opting out.

This may be the first time in decades that Edward has been confused. He doesn’t handle it well. He convinces himself not to kill Bella, but between her inexplicable unreadability, her mouthwatering scent and the amazing bad luck that dogs her everywhere, he becomes obsessive. His actions are, undeniably, stalkerish and unacceptable. Does it make sense, within his context? I think it does. Edward has a rigid personality. He’s overprotective, judgemental, paternalistic, and completely out of his comfort zone in the modern human world. If Bella finds it hard to relate to people, Edward takes introversion to extraordinary lengths.

Still, being in an unusually enlightened position of knowing just how dangerous the world can be, Edward appoints himself as Bella’s unlikely guardian angel. Is it an excuse to justify the stalking to himself? Probably. Is it useful? Hell, yes. Bella is often in danger. From Edward’s perspective, she is as ephemeral as a butterfly. In consequence, once he decides to risk getting to know her, he wants to know EVERYTHING. She’s the first person he’s had to question in about a century, it’s a bit exciting. He goes absurdly overboard.

As for Bella, he’s this hot supernatural mystery man who frets about her safety and likes the same music. He’s intelligent, generous to a fault, capable and willing to defend her from all harm. She gets on brilliantly with most of his family. Best of all, she could become a superpowered goddess too! She doesn’t actually like being clumsy and disaster-prone; it’s Edward who finds that endearingly unusual. Bella wants to be strong. She wants to be a vampire.

Some people, carrying the Mary Sue metaphor to an extreme, have labelled Bella as religious just because Stephenie Meyer is. They are wrong. Bella is a vague agnostic; she finds magic easier to believe in than hell. Edward is the religious one, and given that he was born in America in 1901, this should not be too surprising.

At the prospect of Bella turning into one of the damned undead, like himself, Edward falls into a flailing mess. He chooses to pretend he was never in love with her at all, hoping she’ll hate him so much she’ll be glad he’s out of her life. Not content with dragging his family away from their home as part of his stupid plan, he then traumatises them by attempting suicide the only way a vampire can, by picking a fight with vampirical law enforcement. He gets it wrong in every single way he could, and goes on getting it wrong when he gets his relationship back together, first by trying to stop Bella seeing her werewolf friends, then by trying to make her abort their baby.

In no possible way are either of those things okay.

It’s important to remember, though, that in both of the latter situations Bella is essentially courting suicide. Teenage werewolves are notoriously volatile, and the most probable explanation for her impossible pregnancy and its unnaturally swift progression is that she’s carrying a monster for which her human body is completely unprepared. Edward, who has lived in the supernatural world a whole lot longer than her, has a set of cast-iron preconceptions that require systematic dismantling before he can believe this thing is not going to kill her. This is a world of extremes. Ordinary human problems, like messy break-ups and unplanned pregnancies, have a tendency to snowball into a carnival of death.

So Bella, who understands that but is willing to take the risk, recruits assistance from her support network to get her through the pregnancy. Edward was right; to all intents and purposes, it does kill her. Edward was wrong; by getting the timing just so, Bella keeps both her baby and her life. She takes that final step she’s been dreaming of pretty much since she met him and becomes a vampire herself.

In Breaking Dawn she’s finally Edward’s physical equal, capable of defending herself against pretty much anything the world has to throw at her. Oh, and she has to fight off an army who come to kill her baby, because disaster follows Bella everywhere. Edward, in his turn, has to learn to trust her, even when her decision-making seems counter-intuitive to him. Time and time again he is struck by the staggering realisation that he is not always right. He has to learn to negotiate, to debate things, to change his mind. He has to grow up.

Did Meyer have to write her vampires this way? No, of course not. Is Edward challenged enough for crossing Bella’s boundaries? Again, I’d say no. Do these negative elements cancel out the positive ones? I don’t believe so.

Analysing problematic aspects in any type of media is valuable. I do it myself with every review I write. Books such as Laurell K. Hamilton’s ‘Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter’ series and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness contain comparable characters – immensely powerful vampires each seeking to control his human love interest, including stalking, drugging and physically threatening her – and I’ve discussed elsewhere how uncomfortable those characters make me.

I feel differently about Twilight. In part that’s because Bella is a slightly directionless teenager, not a grown woman with pre-existing plans for her life – becoming a vampire is a reasoned decision that she makes for herself, not something forced on her by Edward. Quite the opposite, actually. When she really cares about something, she does it regardless of what he thinks (i.e. reconnecting with the werewolves, keeping the baby, maintaining communication with her father even after her transformation). It’s also important to me that he can’t use at least one of his powers on her, and by the end of Breaking Dawn, he has no physical or supernatural advantage over her at all. By then an isolated, insecure girl has developed into a confident, capable woman with a husband who loves, admires and trusts her, and a network of good friends.

I get something very positive out of this story. I understand that not everyone will. Discussing different interpretations of a book is every reader’s right.

But that’s not what’s happening with Twilight. An immensely popular series has been critically degraded to the point where the readers who love it are ridiculed by people who should know better and vastly insulting assumptions are made about them as a result.

The articles that kicked all this off were not, I am sure, intended to be a part of that. They are considered arguments from people who have actually read the books, an approach I appreciate and respect. What I feel both writers failed to do was take into account the fantastical elements of the story, and the ways in which that might affect resulting interactions. They are judging Edward as a human teenager, and he’s not. That doesn’t justify inappropriate behaviour, but it does go some way towards explaining it, and I think most readers instinctively recognise that, particularly pre-existing fans of speculative fiction.

I’m not saying the writer of either article is wrong, either. Everyone who reads a book will get something different out of it. I, for instance, am not a huge fan of William Shakespeare. I find it difficult to see past the misogyny and historical inaccuracies. Charles Dickens is a bit too flowery for my taste. That doesn’t mean I can’t see the immense skill that went into their work, or accept that other people love them in a way I do not.

But of course, they are men. They are classics. It’s much easier to dismiss a woman, a modern writer yet to develop that patina of respectability that only time can provide; it’s easy to belittle a fantasy series about a teenage girl in love. I imagine that a great many people will be outraged by my making the comparison at all. To which I want to say: no one is making you read what’s popular now. No one is taking the classics away – in fact, the authors I refer to are very much respected by modern audiences, if the number of large-scale theatre productions and BBC dramas are anything to go by. But the story you need will not necessarily be the story someone else needs. And their need is every bit as important as yours. If you don’t like the book, for pity’s sake, just put it down.

For those who find Twilight genuinely troubling, it is your right to feel that way, and to talk about it. That’s healthy. But don’t run down other people for not seeing the same thing you did and feeling the same way. It’s unkind and unhelpful. And it’s my right to say so.

An Update from the Shadow of the Witch

The past couple of weeks have been quite full on for me, for a lot of reasons, but any month that includes seeing a 1920s animated fairy tale must be a good one.

The Gallery of Modern Art has recently been running a series of fairy tale themed films and on the 16th it screened ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed‘, an animated fantasy from 1926 that could easily be retitled ‘The Fire Witch Saves Everybody, Always’. It was written, directed and co-animated by Lotte Reiniger, a pioneer of the industry and probably qualifiable as a Cranky Lady. Based on two different stories from the Arabian Nights, it’s like watching exquisitely intricate shadow puppets, and this particular performance was accompanied by gorgeous live music. While there are instances of the racism and sexism you might expect from a creation of the period, there are pleasantly surprising twists too. I’ll say it again: Fire. Witch. Is. Awesome. The princes are there largely to be tricked by sorcery and lament about their unlucky love lives.

In other March news:

Of Cockroaches and Kings

“One of the things about equality is not just that you be treated equally to a man, but that you treat yourself equally to the way you treat a man.”

– Marlo Thomas

Quick question! What is your definition of a strong male character?

Second question: would you ever describe him as feisty?

It is amazing how blatant sexism has to be before it raises eyebrows. The same theoretically positive words often applied to female characters – feisty, spirited, strong-willed – are barely ever applied to male counterparts. It often seems to me that much of the language used to describe female protagonists is trying to set them up as an exception; ‘not like other girls’ being the phrase that springs first to mind. You hear that a lot, either stated explicitly or woven through the subtext. According to this way of thinking, the best compliment a female character can receive is to be unlike other girls. It’s basically an extrapolation of the ‘as good as a boy’ philosophy. That’s where centuries of patriarchal culture tends to get you.

For millennia – actual thousands of years worth of storytelling, from myths and legends to medieval ballads to more recent literature – people of all genders have been pushed into very small boxes, and women in particular have had a hard time kicking their way out. I used to consider the term ‘strong female character’ as praise, a simpler way of saying ‘she’s not a one dimensional stereotype propped on the hero’s arm’. I’m not sure when it became the be all, end all, an arbitrary standard that can be raised infinitely high so that no one will actually meet it. Women have to defend their place in a narrative. They have to hit harder, think faster, prove themselves.

That’s not to say there are not unhealthy expectations laid on male characters too, but that’s at least partially wrapped up in the distorted view of women. Let’s go back to the box metaphor. By the current social standard, women can use things from the male box (and wow did it take some effort to get to that point), but men tend to be shamed (especially by other men) for daring to use anything from the female box. Traditionally female clothing, for instance, nail polish, cosmetics, the colour pink. And from a certain perspective, that’s logical. This box has been graffitied over the centuries with words like ‘weak’, ‘frivolous’, ‘hysterical’, ad nauseum. Femininity has always come with consequences, many of them painful.

I don’t know about you, but I am sick to death of these boxes. Today is International Women’s Day and I have some unpacking to do.

I can remember the first time I read my gender being described as ‘the weaker sex’, in an otherwise wonderful E. Nesbit novel. By then I had absorbed enough positive female stories to build up a degree of immunity – thank goodness for Princess Leia and Liz Shaw – and knew better than to internalise the message, but how many little girls did? How many boys do the same thing, and treat the women in their lives accordingly? These are messages papering the walls of our lives, constantly reinforced from the earliest possible age. Why else has LEGO produced a spinoff brand specifically for girls instead of just making more female minifigs? Why are boys given heavily armed action figures while the best weapon their sisters are likely to get is the sharp end of Barbie’s high heel? Does no one expect these children to play with each other?

I’ve said before that I believe fairy tales are only sexist when they are badly told. There are, however, some that even I don’t know how to salvage. I think of these as cockroach stories – that is, however strong your defences, they always come scuttling back. These are the ones no one bothers to update because it’s just so damn hard, but they’re never quite lost. ‘King Thrushbeard’, for instance, which is essentially a Grimm brothers version of The Taming of the Shrew, or ‘The Red Shoes’ by Hans Christian Andersen, in which angels torture a little girl to death. And let’s not forget the glorification of domestic abuse in ‘Patient Griselda’, from the collection of Charles Perrault.

Actually, let’s forget that, let’s bury it under a volcano for the lava snakes to eat.

All this misogyny is conveniently obvious, because in the days these stories were first told there was no reason to hide it. It’s easy to point out and ridicule. But the thing about stories like these is that they don’t go away. We build ourselves out of stories, our sense of normality and natural order, and with misogynistic narratives layered into our cultural strata, there is an inherent conflict about what normal ought to be. Sometimes the cockroach stories take new shapes – think the mythical Fake Geek Girl, or the deliberate misappropriation of the term Mary Sue to denigrate all female protagonists. Other times they scuttle and rustle quietly in the background, pinpricks of unease that are difficult to identify. Something is wrong, you just don’t know how to articulate what it is.

Which brings me back to the strong female character.

I read a lot of books written by women, many of them about women, and I read a lot of articles about women writing about women, which is not nearly as meta an activity as it sounds. And somewhere in the midst of all this reading, a word surfaced and I finally had a way to describe a recurring pattern I’d been seeing and hating for a long time. Shaming.

Slut-shaming is blaming girls for not hiding their sexuality; fat-shaming is a way of punishing people – again, usually girls – for not being a socially accepted shape. These prejudices show up in stories of all mediums with depressing regularity, but they are not what I want to talk about today. What I’m thinking of is strength shaming: girls lauded for their ability to take care of themselves, but punished when they actually do.

Most of the examples I’m about to list make sense within the context of their individual plots, and this is categorically not a disparagement of the writers involved. It’s a rare piece of media, be that a book, film or TV show, that is completely devoid of problematic aspects, and what I’m referring to might easily be dismissed individually. When looked at together, however, there is a distinct pattern.

Yelena, protagonist of Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study, is haunted by guilt for killing the man who raped her. Kady Cross’s heroine Finley Jane from The Girl in the Clockwork Corset is forced to defend herself against a distrustful ally (a man who feels she hasn’t ‘proven’ herself), but is horrified when she wins the fight. The titular protagonist of Kristin Cashore’s Fire has the ability to manipulate people’s minds and is also a dab hand with a bow, yet throughout the book goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid protecting herself. These are women being punished within the narrative when they defend themselves, as if that is an unnatural thing for a woman to do. I’m quite sure this is not the message any of the authors wish their readers to take away; that unintentionality makes the trend all the more disturbing.

Feminine martyrdom is another aspect of the shaming narrative. You’re probably familiar with the idea; the villain of the work takes a sadistic interest in the female protagonist and offers her a chance at saving her loved ones if she’ll give herself willingly to him. From the moment the device crops up, you know it will be followed through. Bella from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, Tessa from Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess, Emma from Kylie Chan’s Blue Dragon, Ember from Pamela Freeman’s Ember and AshKate Elliott’s Cat, from her Spiritwalker trilogy, bucks the trend by actually having a plan to get away, but given that she is subjected to the demands of multiple antagonists that’s really for the best.

It’s actually very interesting how interactions between significant male and female characters are framed. Many books from all genres have some element of romance, and there is naturally a wide spectrum of relationship types, as there should be. It makes me uncomfortable, though, how many present domineering behaviours as attractive. Rude or aggressive male leads are nothing new – Mr Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mr Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are eternally popular examples – but there’s an important difference here that I should point out. The heroines of both these novels never lose their ability to call out their love interests for bad behaviour. When Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s proposal, he is forced to examine his attitude and is mortified by the unintended impact it had on those around him. Rochester loses Jane because of his lies, and she only returns on her own terms. These are relationships founded on mutual respect.

The modern love interests I’m talking about don’t tend to change. Matthew, from Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, exhibits a pattern of controlling behaviour that noticeably changes the personality of the female protagonist to be more compliant. Calla, from Andrea Cremer’s Nightshade, is routinely dominated by pretty much all the men she knows. The titular character from Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series is experiences something similar, constantly self-monitoring so as not to rile the volatile men in her life. Even smaller gestures of control, like the way Cat from the Spiritwalker trilogy is constantly framed as being fiery for simply saying what she thinks, or the way Mary from Y.S. Lee’s A Spy in the House loses her professionalism when her love interest enters the scene, are concerning.

Of course, it is the legitimate choice of a writer to portray a fictional relationship in any way she or he chooses. Widely varied depictions of all character types are vital to literary diversity. It’s also important, however, to remember that the stories we tell do not come from a vacuum, nor do they go into one.

As I said earlier, the individual stories listed here are not the issue. I may not like a particular plot thread, but that doesn’t mean the book is automatically bad or the writer is being deliberately sexist. My problem is with the prevalent use of shame as a narrative device. Stories that reinforce the idea of male dominance and female subordination have a real world impact; women are shamed for so many reasons, held to an impossible double standard in so many mediums, that anything adding to the pressure requires very careful scrutiny. Is it really necessary to tell the story that way? Is this an intentional and considered choice on the part of the author, or an internalised and unexamined bias? A female character should not have to prove herself worthythrough humiliation and martyrdom. Giving a girl a weapon is not the same as allowing her to use it; describing her as strong is useless if you are afraid of unleashing that strength.

At the beginning of this article, I asked what definition would be given to a strong male character, and this is my answer: he has or develops the self confidence to be who he really is. That’s it. That’s all. And that’s how I define my strong female character too.

If either needs to shame or control the other, something is broken.

Let’s Have A Rousing Discussion About Truth, Dragons and Historically Authentic Sexism

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.

– Virginia WoolfCranky Ladies logo

Tomorrow is the first day of Women’s History Month. Throughout March FableCroft Publishing are running a Pozible campaign for their new anthology, Cranky Ladies of History, and co-editor Tehani Wessely has organised a blog tour to explore the legacy of women who were unconventional, rebellious, or outright revolutionary. Which means we get to talk about HISTORY!

Most girls grow up surrounded by storybook princesses. The ones I liked best were Elizabeth, Victoria and Cleopatra, thanks to a series of fictional autobiographies in my local library’s children’s section. Having been consuming period dramas and documentaries from a very young age, my brain houses a disordered archive of historical detail, from the failed strategies of the Battle of Hastings to what wealthy Tudors used for toothpaste (sugar, if you really want to know. Don’t try this at home!)

History is, after all, one long, unpredictable story with countless fan fiction spin-offs, and I am easily hooked into a good story. All my life I’ve been fascinated by the past, but I have never had the slightest desire to actually go there. It is, as they say, a foreign country, and not a particularly pleasant one if you happen to be female. That we need a dedicated month tells you everything you need to know about the way women have been treated by humanity’s (mostly male) record-keepers.

There was some debate online in late 2012 about ‘historically authentic sexism’ in fantasy and science fiction, kicking off with this article on the Mary Sue and continuing with glorious sarcasm from Tansy Rayner Roberts and Foz Meadows. To summarise, if you find giant fire-breathing lizards more credible than women as active participants in a narrative, you may have problems. The best narratives, naturally, have both, but I digress.

History is a vast mosaic of human experience and for a very long time the pieces about women have been treated as insignificant. The very word woman, derived from Old English, is an amalgamation of wīf (wife) and man (person). According to the actual language, if you weren’t male, you were not really a person; you could only be married to one. Over the course of generations, women’s experiences and achievements have been belittled, forgotten and ignored, sometimes out of deliberate malice but more often from a pervasively misogynistic mindset. The wives of Henry VIII are still forced into the boxes they were given during their lifetimes, their contributions to the Tudor dynasty dismissed, while the nine days queen Jane Grey is held up as a martyr to the ambition of others instead of the intelligent and politically aware young woman she was. The dispute between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots becomes a beauty contest. Cleopatra is treated as a seductress, not a politician. Nuance, automatically granted to male contemporaries, is something women have had to win.

Which is incredibly frustrating, because there are SO MANY amazing women throughout history. If you want leaders, there’s the Iceni queen Boudicca, who struck fear into the heart of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra, the only Ptolemaic monarch who bothered to learn the Egyptian language. The African warrior Amina Sarauniya Zazzua, who led military campaigns while her mother governed then inherited power for a thirty four year reign. Not to forget Elizabeth, the ultimate politician and devastatingly brilliant academic, or Queen Victoria, who ruled over an empire so vast it was said the sun never set on her lands. Then there are the revolutionaries: Harriet Tubman, who escaped a savagely abusive plantation owner and went on to rescue more than three hundred slaves. Joan of Arc, the teenage girl who led a French army with force of conviction alone. Constance Markievicz, an Irish activist and the first woman to be elected to the British House of Commons. When asked to give fashion advice, her reply was “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.”

In the sciences, there was Hypatia, inventor of the astrolabe and hydroscope; Maria Agnesi, so committed to mathematics she wrote solutions in her sleep; Marie Curie, who won a Nobel Prize for her investigation of radioactivity. In literature, well, take your pick. Aphra Behn was one of the first female playwrights in Restoration England and part-time spy for Charles II. The Brontë sisters created heroines fuelled by incontrovertible self-respect. Mary Shelley arguably invented the science fiction genre; Murasaki Shikibu arguably invented the novel.

I don’t require my favourite ladies of history to have been nice, or even on the paler side of moral grey. All it takes to get on my radar is to be interesting. Ching Shih, for instance, a former prostitute who became a pirate queen so unstoppable that the only way to end her marauding was to offer her a comfortable retirement – just knowing she existed makes me happy. But she wasn’t the only female pirate in history, not by a long shot. Every time someone says, ‘women never did that!’, I guarantee you there was a woman who did.

Writers of historical fiction incur an immediate responsibility, because the stories we hear are the realities we believe. Writing about real people from history is an even greater challenge. However detailed the account of their life, there are gaps where fiction can only conjecture – but it can also breathe life and soul into the names of people who died centuries ago. I’m glad those ‘autobiographies’ were waiting for me, and all the other stories from history I have read since. They are an important part of reclaiming women’s lives, so long belittled and dismissed. They remind us of the remarkable achievements of the past, and the limitless potential of the future.

And that being ‘cranky’ isn’t always such a bad thing.

The Demon’s In The Double Standard: Feminism in Fairy Tales, Part 2

Traditional fairy tales are drawn from many sources, including ancient mythology, pagan religion, political allegory, morality plays, and orientalia. Most such tales have filtered through centuries of patriarchal culture and show little respect for women, except as young and beautiful “princesses”. Only to be decorative is the customary female function in these old stories.

– Barbara G. Walker, Feminist Fairy Tales

Okay, let’s take a look at that.

A month or so ago I wrote a piece for SF Signal about the feminism I find in fairy tales and how much it bothers me that it’s so easily ignored. Princesses are dismissed as patriarchal caricatures instead of just accepted as people, and the fairy tale girls who aren’t princesses don’t tend to make the cut into popular culture. Which sucks. Especially when they are off rescuing sacrificial maidens or freeing slaves or otherwise being awesome. And that got me thinking about all the other things that people believe about fairy tales that I don’t agree with in the slightest.

The above quote sums up one such opinion. It’s a commonly held belief that fairy tales are, at best, unfavourable to older women, and at worst, that they demonise them. Think the homicidal queen from ‘Snow White’, the malicious stepmother from ‘Cinderella’, the vindictive witch from ‘Rapunzel’. Each of these characters is in a position of parental authority, directly responsible for the welfare of a younger woman; each, resentful of her ward, chooses to persecute her instead of protect her. And that’s without listing the number of cannibalistic witches who appear to spend their days waiting around in cottages for lost children to come wandering in.

These are, needless to say, not positive examples of female characterisation. And it’s true, fairy tales do tend to favour women who are both young and beautiful – if by ‘favour’ you mean they are the ones who generally get to be injured, isolated and/or incarcerated before marrying someone they’ve only just met. You know, just for perspective’s sake.

The fact is, beauty and youth are good currency for storytellers. Just take a look at the female leads of this year’s most popular films and TV shows and, when you’re over the shock of how few of them there are, try a count of how many are over the age of 40. I somehow don’t think it will take you long. Let’s all gnash our teeth for a minute in perfect harmony.

So the ways we as a culture tell stories could use some improvement, but there’s a rather important difference between acknowledging a chronic shortage of older female characters as principal heroines and declaring all the ones we do have are evil stereotypes, just as there is a difference between useful critique and osmosis prejudice. The latter is the type of thinking that sees any and every female protagonist labelled a Mary Sue or a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and every princess in a fairy tale labelled a passive doll. It’s lazy, simplistic, and doesn’t help anyone.

First of all, let’s think about these women as people instead of psychological symbols. In ‘Snow White’, is it entirely unlikely that the queen might feel threatened by the legal heir to what she considers her throne? In ‘Cinderella’, the stepmother has two daughters of her own who are constantly overshadowed by a girl to whom she owes no maternal loyalty. Is it that astonishing she might want her stepdaughter out of the way when there’s a shot at bringing a prince into the family? In ‘Rapunzel’, the witch treats her ward like a possession, locking her away from the world. Is it so improbable she would resent the prince for ‘stealing’ her? These are villains with emotionally logical motives. They only become infuriating stereotypes when those motives are forgotten or belittled.

It’s also funny how people pay such close attention to female villains while ignoring the innumerable male ones. Predatory wizards, murderous husbands, possessive-obsessive fathers – I mean, every second king seems to think it’s normal to lock up his daughters to prevent them getting unsuitable boyfriends – yet there isn’t the same scrutiny of their characterisation or criticism of their actions. They are accepted as the fairy tale staples they are. Neutral. Defaults.

Wow, if I didn’t know better I’d think that was an impossible double standard or something!

Because there is such emphasis on the negative roles for older women, the positive ones are ignored. What about the brave mothers who stand behind their heroic offspring, like the widow in ‘Snow White and Rose Red’, who gives a talking bear sanctuary from the winter cold without batting an eyelid? What about the fairy godmothers of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, or the elderly spinners from ‘The Three Old Maids’, who might not be official godmothers but turn up when most needed and possess fathomless depths of reverse psychology?

What about the grandmothers? Because one of the stupidest things you can do in a fairy tale is underestimate a little old lady. They’re everywhere and they know everything. If you’re on your way to win a princess, or off to battle with fearsome monstrosities, you’d better hope you come across an elderly woman on the way. The beggar with the spare invisibility cloak in ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’, the Fates in ‘The Three Golden Hairs of Father All-Know’ and the robbers’ cook in its alternative version ‘The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs’, the mother of the four winds in ‘The Garden of Paradise’, Grandmother Jaga from ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’, the wisewomen in ‘The Snow Queen’ – I can keep going for a while. These old women test young adventurers, distributing magical items and detailed advice to those that pass so that their choices will go on to great things, most likely involving a crown.

Those that don’t pass…well, let’s put it this way, you really want to get on that lady’s good side. She might be a Fate or a witch, a Destiny or a fairy. She might just be an old woman who’s a lot smarter than you. Whoever she is, the best thing you can do is pay attention to her.

That way, you might just survive the epic evil sorceress.

Still Talking About Fairy Tales, No One Is Surprised

Anyone familiar with this blog will know by now that when it comes to the subject of fairy tales and feminism, I have a great deal to say, so when I was recently asked to write a guest post for the fanzine SF Signal I barely had to stop and think. In my article I talk about retellings, oversimplifications, and flamethrowers. If you’re interested, it can be found here.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.43 – Tokoyo

Fairy tales, or at least those that have survived into the 21st century, tend to favour an air of mystery. They don’t like being pinned down to specifics. This week’s story, from Samira Kirollos’s collection of retellings The Wind Children and other tales from Japan, is a rare exception, cementing itself in the year 1320. According to ‘Tokoyo’, the Japanese Middle Ages were a time of great conflict between rival chieftains. In the year that the story starts, a chieftain called Takatoki banishes the samurai warrior Oribe Shima to a desolate outcrop of islands for reasons he does not see fit to divulge. Oribe Shima leaves behind an eighteen-year-old daughter, Tokoyo, who must now manage on her own.

Tokoyo is in fact very well-equipped to do that. Her father taught her to fence, fight, dive and swim, and she soon decides it’s time to put her impressive skill set to use. “I am not afraid of the sea,” she reasons. “I must also teach myself not to be afraid of anything that could happen to me on land. What I must do now is leave my home here in Ise immediately and set off to save my father.” She sells off a few precious items to fund her journey, packs the essentials and sets off on a journey that takes her across inhospitable terrain in unforgiving weather. She must walk every step of the way even when she is so exhausted that it feels like she might die before she gets anywhere near her father.

After weeks of travelling, she finally reaches the sea. On the beach, within sight of the islands where her father is imprisoned, Tokoyo allows herself to rest. She wakes up to the sound of the local fishermen arriving and explains her situation to them, asking for someone to point out which island is her father’s prison, and once she’s been told that, for help in getting there. The fishermen laugh in her face. “Do you think we are a bunch of fools here?” one of them demands. “NO ONE is allowed on any of the Oki Islands…Find your own way of getting there. Don’t turn to us!”

They go out to sea without giving Tokoyo another thought. Which is stupid, because Tokoyo is not the sort of person who gives up easily. When the fishermen return that night, she waits for the village lights to go out, then steals a boat and rows herself out towards her father’s prison. It takes her a full day to get there. Reaching a small rocky bay, she lifts her boat onto the shore and collapses at last into sleep.

In the morning, she finds herself another fisherman and asks for directions to where Oribe Shima is being kept. At least this one is polite, but he can’t help her either. “My child,” he explains, “if Lord Tameyoshi, the lord of this island, hears that you are here he could put your father to death for this, and you yourself would be in great trouble.”

Tokoyo tries again with other islanders and receives the same shut-down each time she mentions her father’s name. Eventually she retreats to a Buddhist shrine that is sheltered from the fierce sea wind, prays for help, and curls up to sleep. She is soon woken, however, by the sound of a girl crying. When she gets up to investigate she sees a priest standing at the edge of the cliffs with his hands on the back of a terrified fifteen-year-old girl, preparing to push her over into the sea.

Tokoyo quickly intervenes, dragging her back and shouting furiously at the priest. “What kind of man are you? Why are you trying to kill her?” It turns out that the girl is a sacrifice to the terrible monster Yofuné Nushi, who sends savage storms to devastate the island if he is not placated by the annual tribute of a beautiful young girl under the age of fifteen. So, carnivorous and creepy. “It is sad that a girl has to die every year,” the priest says calmly, “but I am sure you understand that if one girl can save the lives of many fisherman, she must die.”

Tokoyo understands no such thing. She listens to everything the priest has to say and then, before anyone can stop her, she jumps off the cliff in the other girl’s place. This isn’t a sacrifice, though; this is a plan. She has her dagger between her teeth and when she hits the water, she swims, searching for signs of Yofuné Nushi. When she catches sight of a man in the mouth of a cave she flies at him with her dagger before realising that it is only a statue. Not that this lessens her desire to destroy it, because she recognises it as a statue of Takatoki, a different monster in her life. She resists the impulse to break it, deciding to try and return it to whoever the sculptor is instead.

As she swims upward with her new burden, however, the water churns violently and the real Yofuné Nushi appears before her. He is half dragon and half snake, a vast creature covered in white scales with horns and a long moustache. He is floating towards her, sure of his success after so many easy kills. Tokoyo waits for her chance and when he is close enough, she puts her dagger through his right eye. Blinded by blood, he is too slow to escape her – she stabs him through the heart and drags his body to the surface to show the islanders that he is really dead.

The priest and his ex-sacrifice have been waiting on the cliffs to see what will happen. They spot Tokoyo struggling in the sea, weighed down by a statue and a corpse, and hurry down to help her. Soon a crowd gathers to see their island’s saviour. The exhausted Tokoyo is whisked away for some well-deserved coddling, and the news continues to spread, eventually reaching the ear of Lord Tameyoshi.

He, in turn, reports it to Takatoki, who is interested for reasons of his own. He has been very sick for a long time, his doctors unable to help, but as soon as the statue of him was dragged out of the sea he was immediately cured. When he hears the story of Tokoyo he realises that the statue must have been made, and drowned, by another prisoner on the island. By bringing it to the surface, Tokoyo accidentally lifted the curse. Though I’m sure she wouldn’t have done so if she’d actually known, Takatoki rewards her anyway, announcing Oribe Shima’s release on the spot and sending the samurai home with his remarkable daughter at his side.

Of course, there seems to be nothing stopping the unknown sculptor from carving himself another curse. But that, presumably, is another story.

MADE OF AWESOME. I’m sorry, it’s very difficult not to talk about this story in capitals. If I one day compile a list of my top ten favourite fairy tale heroines, and let’s face it, the odds are good I will, Tokoyo will be hanging out near the top with Princess Blue-Eyes and Tatterhood. She is an indefatigable, unstoppable force of justice, and to crown off her general extraordinariness, she does not get married. I love this story, but it makes me sad too, because Tokoyo is the sort of fairy tale character we don’t hear about very often. It isn’t that amazing heroines like this don’t exist; it’s that people don’t choose to remember them, or celebrate them.

That needs to change. Next time someone tells you that fairy tales are all sexist archetypes, tell them about Tokoyo.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.24 – My Lady Sea

I am a feminist who loves fairy tales. This is not a contradiction in terms, I can defend the strength of women in the world of folk lore with a passion and many examples, but sometimes my tolerance reaches breaking point. With Perrault this is ‘Patient Griselda’; with the Grimms, ‘King Thrushbeard’. And with Ruth Manning Sanders, a teller of fairy tales I admire more than any other, it is ‘My Lady Sea’.

A lonely shoemaker, depressed by the silence of his empty home, moulds three beautiful dolls from dough and pretends that they are his daughters. Proud of his work, he dresses each ‘girl’ up in different colours and the next day sets the doll in white by his open window to overlook the street. Before he leaves, he plays at being the strict father, sternly instructing his blank-faced creation not to do anything more than look. “Do not speak to anyone,” he orders, ” do not smile, or beckon, or make eyes at any handsome young man. Remember you have been well brought up; and modest maidens make no acquaintances without their father’s permission.” There may be a reason this man is not married.

In any case, he departs, leaving the doll in the window all day. People passing by see and admire her, mistaking her for a living girl. Among them is the king’s son. He stops underneath the window, sweeping off his hat for a deep and princely bow. He tries to charm a reaction from the doll, an effort that is of course doomed to failure despite his suspiciously rapid declarations of affection and extravagant proposals of marriage. He even bursts into tears, but the doll manages to stare serenely over his head regardless. Eventually he tosses a gold ring through the window into her lap and steals a sprig from the potted rosemary on the sill, warning her that he’ll be returning the next day in the hope she’ll have changed her mind. More precisely, “perhaps you will be kinder”. Because naturally not fancying him is SO CRUEL.

He returns to the palace, and the shoemaker returns home. He is happy at first, still playing his game of paternal pride, but then he goes to lift the doll from her chair and discovers the ring in her lap. It seems somehow that his inanimate ‘daughter’ has been flirting with strange boys after all. Furious, he dashes her from the chair and hurls every sort of abuse at her, before snatching up his shoemaker’s knife and cutting her into pieces. Yes, the doll can’t feel it. She can’t take rings from passersby either. I don’t recall ever telling you this man was sane.

The next day he chooses from the two remaining dolls, placing the one in the blue dress at the same window. “You are not like your shameless sister,” he tells her. “When I come home I shall not find that you have been flirting and taking presents from strange men.” Little does he know that the king’s very persistent son is coming back for a second visit, this time armed with a ruby ring. When grovelling in the street and telling her that she is driving him to public ridicule fail to touch the doll’s heart, he throws the jewel into her lap and goes weeping on his way. And of course, when the shoemaker gets home that night, who is blamed for the unexplained arrival of a new ring? Mad with rage, he seizes her by the neck and shakes her until her head falls off. Then he cuts her up, throws her in a cupboard with the remains of her ‘sister’, and places the last doll at the table with him so that he can bemoan his ill fortune as a father to her blankly patient ear. Are you freaked out yet? Oh, but it gets worse.

In the morning the shoemaker places his last doll at the window. You might think he’d have learned by now that this not a good idea, but instead he delivers his third ineffectual lecture and leaves the house shortly before the instigator of the whole tragedy arrives for another day’s pleading. The prince makes every promise under the sun in an attempt to change his true love’s mind, somehow failing in all his agonies to notice that she is not actually alive. Not, you know, breathing or blinking. When he fails yet again to draw any kind of response, he throws a third ring, this time a diamond, into the doll’s lap and goes back to the palace, leaving the shoemaker to find the evidence. I expect you can predict the result. Vicious rage, foul language, the knife and then the cupboard.

When the prince resumes his campaign the next day, he finds the window boarded up and no answer when he rattles the door. Every day he comes back, and every day goes away again disappointed, until he wears himself out to the point where he lies bedridden with depression. The doctors produce a brilliant diagnosis. “This is no ordinary illness,” they inform the king. “Your son has a secret sorrow. You must question him, and find out what it is.” An excellent way of escaping royal outrage, that, and the king is duly impressed. He begs his son to confide in him and at last the prince tells him of the shoemaker’s lovely daughter, who ignores his every plea. The king’s reaction? No problem! It’s just a girl, I can bully a girl into a forced marriage with a snap of my fingers!

Which he then attempts to do. Two terrible fathers come face to face when the shoemaker turns up at the palace and is demanded to produce a daughter. As it would be kind of awkward to tell the king, “Oh, I made some dolls then chopped them up and stuffed them all in a cupboard”, the shoemaker tries to insist he has no daughter, but the king is having none of it. If he does not somehow produce the required girl, he will be hanged, and that’s all there is to it. Don’t you just a love a nice old fashioned tyranny?

The shoemaker wanders off into a wood to reflect on his impending execution. As he literally beats his breast in dread (yet not, I think, remorse) he encounters an old woman gathering firewood who inquires with some curiosity as to what is wrong. “Leave me alone!” the shoemaker cries. “I am going to dash my brains out over a precipice!” Taken aback, the old woman manages to talk him out of it and obtain his version of events. She has a solution. Of course she does. She’s a little old lady gathering firewood, obviously she will be the repository of all secret and arcane wisdom. Offering the shoemaker a stick from her basket, she instructs him to go down to the sea and strike the water, repeating as he does so the same rhyme three times, calling for the Lady Sea. The shoemaker, having little faith but no better option, follows her instructions. After he has called out the rhyme for the third time, a wave washes over his feet and he hears a voice, telling him that the girl the king wishes for will arrive in three days time.

Well, the king grudgingly permits the delay. Hearing the news, the prince bounces straight out of bed. Yay, Daddy has managed to bully my dream girl into matrimony! The shoemaker returns home with suicide still in reserve, but when the third day comes he goes down to the beach just in case something should happen. And happen it does. The waves draw back and standing on the wet sand is a girl, the most beautiful he has ever seen, resembling the unfortunate dolls but so much lovelier and dressed like something from a dream in a robe that shimmers with moving pictures. The shoemaker just stares. The girl stares back. Then she holds out her hand and the shoemaker, wakened from his daze, leads her to the palace.

The prince is delighted. Same girl, different girl, who cares, she’s prettier than ever! But then he tries to make her speak, and she will not. So there is a quandary. The prince cannot marry a girl who will neither speak nor nod her head during the ceremony. There’s nothing for the king to do but set her up in a pretty apartment at the palace where the prince can pester her night and day to change her mind. Which she does not.

Exhausting himself with pleading, he falls asleep on her sofa. While he sleeps the girl makes two small dolls and places them on the window sill near where he lies, and they promptly break into violent argument, shrilling at each other so loudly that the prince wakes. The quarrel turns to the subject of his pathetic love life. One doll decides he’s an idiot. The other is more sympathetic. As they fight it out, they reveal that the silent girl is merely waiting for him to say the right words – to say, specifically, “I wish you joy of your sire the Sun, and of your mother, my Lady Sea.” The dolls at last agree on the prince being a fool and spring out the window into the sea, changing as they do so into two small fishes. The prince immediately turns to the girl and says the magic words. She leaps up, hugs him, and agrees to get married straight away.

That’s depressing enough, but the worst part comes right at the end, when the tale returns to the shoemaker. The prince, perhaps still under the mistaken belief that this man is his father in law, installs the shoemaker in the royal household. Here he meets and marries a dairymaid, who soon gives birth to a daughter. And if that doesn’t freak you out, I don’t know what will.

Ruth Manning Sanders is, as a rule, excellent at collecting stories that treat their heroines well. None of them are her own inventions, of course, so I can’t blame her for the creation of ‘My Lady Sea’ – it is a Greek folk tale that she has only retold – but it is an ugly piece of folklore that pushes its female characters into an impossible position between a raging psychotic for a father and a bridegroom who uses tantrums to get whatever he wants. Both men are rewarded for their abysmal behaviour. And this is another reason that I, as a feminist, review fairy tales. Not even a character from ancient folk lore should get away with something like that.