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Once Upon a Modern Time: Fairy Tales as a Way to Address Modern Issues

in Current Issue/Reviews

by Alena Gašparovičová

Shared by creatifrankenstein under Pixabay License via pixabay.com

 

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young woman in a desperate situation and in need of a prince to rescue her. However, she is the protagonist of a different story. Despite the name of the famous fairy-tale character Cinderella in the title of the book, Laura Lane’s and Ellen Haun’s Cinderella and the Glass Ceiling: And Other Feminist Fairy Tales offers adaptations of a range of well-known traditional fairy tales. The authors use the familiarity of the fairy-tale settings and characters and mould them into a new form. Aimed at a more mature audience, these stories not only present self-sufficient female characters who do not need any man to save them, they also address issues like class, ethnicity and gender identity that resonate through today’s society. All of that is packaged in the form of a fairy-tale rewriting in a humorous and parodic manner. This article offers a review of the collection as well as an analysis of how selected stories in the book challenge the traditional fairy tale stereotypes and address the issues of modern society.

The educative power of fairy tales has been addressed by many fairy-tale scholars, mainly in terms of the influence fairy tales have on young girls. “The ostensibly innocuous fantasies symbolically portray basic human problems and appropriate social prescriptions” (Rowe 239). It is generally acknowledged that as such, fairy tales play a significant role in the development of children’s behaviour and what society expects of each gender, which can have a negative impact on the development of expectations, especially in the case of young female readers. Many authors have rewritten fairy tales with the aim to point out and subvert these issues or to provide better role models for young female audiences. 

Lane and Haun make a point of their protagonists in Cinderella and the Glass Ceiling being women who “get the last word on their own terms” (Lane and Haun). However, the authors also add another layer to their stories by focusing on more than the issues of the stereotypical portrayal of female characters and address other issues that affect today’s society in each story, be it gender-related or stemming from another way of drawing lines between people, for example, class, education, ethnicity, or others.

A noticeable strength of this book is the range of topics it covers. Each of the stories is based on a different fairy tale, and addresses a different issue of modern society. Some of these issues are more readily available to be linked with feminism than others. The most obvious way to challenge the traditional beliefs perpetuated in fairy tales is to challenge the idea that female happiness only lies within marriage. As the authors claim in the introduction, the fairy-tale ending happily ever after is “a myth created by the patriarchy” (Lane and Haun). They elaborate on this notion in several of their rewritings. The most readily available example is the main protagonist of “Under Nobody’s Thumb”, Thumbelina, who seems to be perfectly content living as a single woman, much to the dismay of her frog friends and the nosy Auntie Mouse, who all try to set her up with any available bachelor they can find. Through Thumbelina, the authors also point out the double standards that are applied to unmarried men and women: “We’re both unmarried, so why do you think this mole guy—who is two decades older than me—is independent and sophisticated, while I’m desperate and lonely?” (Lane and Haun). This story makes it clear that marriage should not be considered the single way to measure how successful a woman’s life is and, perhaps even more importantly, to determine the scale of her own happiness. 

The authors take the idea that women can do well on their own even further in the titular short story “Cinderella Breaks the Glass Ceiling”, where they address not only the issue of marriage but also the unfairness of the class system. Although at first Cinderella considers marrying the prince an easy way out of her bad domestic situation and retrospectively admits that she was hoping to “win the royal lottery by coming tonight, hoping I could easily move up social classes by becoming one of [the aristocracy]” (Lane and Haun). Although the prince seems to “promptly [fall] in love with her” (Bottigheimer 67), he equally quickly changes his mind once he realises that she is poor. As Ruth Bottigheimer points out in her study of the origins of fairy tales, historically, “a union between a noble and a commoner… [were] improbableand in some places in Europe even “illegal” (21). The legality of such a marriage is never discussed in Lane’s and Haun’s story, however, the protagonist realises fairly quickly that it is highly unlikely the prince would be interested in marrying her because of her poor background. In the end, she decides she does not need to marry a prince she barely knows to get what she wants and move up on the social ladder. Instead, she opts to get her education and “[shatters] the glass ceiling into as many pieces as she had shattered that stupid glass paperweight” (Lane and Haun), becoming a successful working woman in her own right.

The issues that are related to gender do not necessarily have to entail marriage. Some of the heroines struggle with the inappropriate behaviour of men around them, such as Little Red Riding Hood, who has to stand up to a creepy “wolfcaller” who keeps harassing her or Sleeping Beauty, who has to give the prince a lecture on consent. Mulan, in contrast, becomes a fighter for equal opportunities for female soldiers in the Chinese army. Although all of these characters have to face some sort of mistreatment based on their gender, each of these problems manifests in a different manner and thus prompt the characters to deal with them in a different way.

The problems the main characters face do not necessarily have to be related to the female gender. Some of them are more universal and could fit male characters as well, albeit some of them are still more likely to happen to women. This is obvious, for example, in “Beauty and the Beast & the Other Kidnapped Women You Probably Haven’t Heard About”, where the authors touch upon the issue of the so-called “missing white woman syndrome”. This syndrome denotes the notion that “missing persons with certain [demographic] characteristics are more likely to garner media attention than others: namely, white women and girls” (Sommers 275). The authors note that Beauty is not the only woman to have been kidnapped by a cursed prince-turned-beast, however, she is the one who receives the most attention as she gets the best media coverage because of her ethnicity. Therefore, instead of focusing on the story of a “pretty white woman named Belle” (Lane and Haun), the authors opt to tell a lesser-known story of “a daring and intelligent young black woman named Jamila” (Lane and Haun). While her family struggles to draw attention to her kidnapping, Jamila befriends some of the animated household objects “a Succulent (the former gardener), a Bar Cart (the former bartender), and a Doormat (a former door-to-door salesman…)” (Lane and Haun). It is noteworthy that Jamila never considers the option to stay with her captor and marry him, which effectively also draws attention to the questionable side of “Beauty and the Beast” – Beauty’s decision to marry the man, who was once her captor. Once she realises that nobody will come to her rescue, she devises her own plan to escape her captor and, with the help of her friends, flees the castle and reunites with her family. As such, this story is a nice example that not all contemporary issues the authors address have to be necessarily directly linked to gender, even if gender still influences the likelihood of it happening. Jamila’s problems stem rather from her ethnicity, which predisposes her to be taken less seriously than Belle.

Other stories that deal with issues that are not based on the protagonists gender can be found “@therealgoldilocks and #thethreebears” where Goldilocks learns that the price for her entitled behaviour is very high or “Some Princesses Are Gay”, where the female protagonist decides that it would be better for her and the prince to stay friends because, as suggested by the title, she is gay and thus not interested in a romantic relationship with the prince. 

As it can be seen, the range of fairy tales and issues the authors cover is quite wide, and as such, if a reader does not like one of the stories, it does not mean that they will not like the whole book since some of the other stories might suit their taste more. However, with this strong side of the book comes also its biggest weakness. The variety of issues that are dealt with in the stories necessitate changes to the plotline and while the authors draw their characters from the traditional fairy tales, they frequently need to alter the actions of the characters, so they can address the issues they want to. In some stories, these changes to the overall storyline are only minor. Out of the examples that were mentioned in the previous paragraphs, stories like “Under Nobody’s Thumb” or “Cinderella & the Glass Ceiling” remain fairly close to the traditional plotlines, although protagonists in these stories end up not marrying the prince. However, in other stories like “Beauty and the Beast & the Other Kidnapped Women You Probably Haven’t Heard About”, the authors had to make significant changes to the overall plotline to address the issue of lower media coverage when women of colour go missing. Belle’s story is only summarized in a few sentences before the authors switch to Jamila and her escape from the beast.

A separate category could be devoted to stories, where the plotline becomes extremely faint, and the chapters are more devoted to the characters discussing the issues that need to be addressed. The whole story of Snow White “Snow White & the Seven Microaggressions” is about Snow White’s stepmother talking to her magical mirror which tries to teach her how to avoid microaggressions by being more careful about her language and more respectful to Snow White’s wish to be referred to by the non-binary pronoun they, to be more polite towards her henchpeople; one of whom is disabled and the other of a different racial background. Throughout the whole story, the Evil Queen learns a lot about the hurtful effect microaggressions can have on others, but the story does not move beyond her decision that she still wants to kill them all, even if she wants to be more polite to everybody. Therefore, the readers should not expect a straightforward retelling of the popular fairy tales in a modern setting from this book, as not all of the stories can offer that.

Overall, Cinderella and the Glass Ceiling: And Other Feminist Fairy Tales is a book worth reading. A reader who expects a nostalgic re-reading of popular fairy tales with black and white characters, regardless of their motivation, and a straightforward plotline where “good” behaviour is rewarded and “evil” actions are punished might end up disappointed. On the other hand, a reader who expects a bit of an unusual rendition that asks them to open their minds to look beyond what the traditional fairy tales offer and reflect on problems society faces today in an intelligent and witty manner might just find what they are looking for. 

 

Works Cited:

Bottigheimer, Ruth B. Fairy Tales a New History, State University of New York Press, 2009. 

Lane, Laura, and Ellen Haun. Cinderella and the Glass Ceiling: and Other Feminist Fairy Tales. Seal Press, 2020.

Rowe, Karen E. “Feminism and Fairy Tales.” Women’s Studies, vol. 6, no. 3, Feb. 1979, pp. 237–257. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00497878.1979.9978487.

Sommers, Zach. “Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, vol. 106, no. 2, 2007, pp. 275–314., 

https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/jclc/vol106/iss2/4

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