Indeed, Barbie and fairy tales induce parallel anxieties in gender-conscious parents. But while Barbie, despite having taken a critical beating, still dominates the toddler/preteen doll market, an alternative fairy-tale culture has sprung up in recent decades for families who don’t like their princesses tricked out, locked up or comatose.
This new genre, in which classic stories are revamped or fairy tale-like narratives are given progressive twists, is not to be confused with its adult counterpart, penned by authors such as Anne Sexton, Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. These are kids’ titles, yet they address adult concerns about fairy tales: that they pit women against each other in struggles for husbands and status; that they’re filled with dead mothers and negligent fathers; that they equate virtue with youth and beauty and promote a feminine ideal of purity and compliance.
This last complaint is what drives many current reformers, who do their magic by transforming passive heroines into doers or subverting traditional scenarios in order to skewer the values the original stories reinforce.
One of the most successful contemporary revisions is Frances Minters’ lighthearted “Sleepless Beauty” (Viking, 1996). Written in verse and exquisitely illustrated by G. Brian Karas, it stars a resourceful Beauty who both saves herself and gets her prince.
This Beauty grows up in a swank Manhattan apartment. After she pricks her finger on the needle attached to an “old time vinyl record” player brought by a witch who crashes her 14th birthday party, she falls asleep. But in this tale, Beauty calls the shots:
“We didn’t sleep a hundred years?
The witch did us no harm?”
“She couldn’t,” I said proudly,
“‘Cause I set the alarm.”
Beauty writes a thank-you note to the comely rocker whose music helped her “fool the wicked stranger.” They meet, and the rest is fairy-tale history.
What makes “Sleepless Beauty” so effective is that Minters doesn’t compromise her story in the name of upgrading its sexual politics: The witch is creepy, the threat is real and Beauty triumphs romantically in the end. Minters’ tale, of course, reworks just one popular rendering of “Sleeping Beauty” — a saga with many incarnations. One of its earliest recorded versions is Italian Giambattista Basile’s “Sun, Moon and Talia,” (published in 1636), in which Talia, pricked by a poisonous thorn, falls asleep and gets raped by an opportunistic king. The story later morphed into Charles Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods,” and later still into the Grimm Brothers’ “Little Briar-Rose.”
Purists may question the ethics of meddling with such time-tested stories, but a bigger concern might be on which “original” to base a rewrite — since even classic fairy tales sometimes recycle shared scenarios. As Maria Tatar explains in “Grimm’s Grimmest” (Chronicle, 1997), the Grimm Brothers modified their own stories: Originally collected as tabloid-style diversions for adults, the tales were later modified to boost sales, and then again to appeal to children. In the originals, for example, Snow White’s stepmother danced to death in hot iron shoes, Cinderella’s stepsisters got their eyes pecked out by doves and Rapunzel got pregnant in her tower.
One of the greatest risks for writers adapting fairy tales is sacrificing their mythic elements for the sake of modernizing their sexual mores. Babette Cole’s heavy-handed “Princess Smartypants” (Putnam, 1986), for example, opens with a doctrinaire thud: “Princess Smartypants did not want to get married. She enjoyed being a Ms.” When her parents pressure her into finding a husband, Smartypants scares off her wimpy suitors by assigning them impossible tasks for winning her hand in marriage. Just one, Prince Swashbuckle, unexpectedly succeeds, so she kisses him, turning him into a toad, and sends him home.
Witty though it is, “Princess Smartypants” is tainted by its low-grade male-bashing and its mean-spirited conclusion. Interestingly, while many fairy tale princesses are plunged into post-pubescent states of arrested development (one critic calls it the “jar syndrome,” in which inginues like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are “pickled” just as they reach their sexual maturity), Smartypants secures her own perpetual adolescence: She holes up in her parents’ house where her only friends are her pets and her TV. No transformative journey or rite of passage for this materialist ’80s princess.
Less overtly misandrist, “The Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch (Annick Press, 1980) features he-and-she teen royalty planning to marry until a dragon attacks them and kidnaps the prince. The princess, whose clothes are burned — along with her castle — by the dragon, dons a paper bag and saves her friend by outwitting the dragon. Instead of thanking her for his life, the prince tells her to come back when she’s dressed like a “real princess.” She responds, “You look like a real prince, but you are a bum,” and there the romance ends.
It’s refreshing to see a fearless and discerning princess, but this one gets no reward for her courage, and because the prince is a cad from the start, it’s hard to get behind her rescue effort (and why, having discovered her true love is a turkey, is she running exuberantly into the sunset on the last page?). Both “Princess Smartypants” and “The Paper Bag Princess” indulge in a ’70s impulse to solve gender inequities by eliminating men from the picture altogether. Because fairy tales seem to function largely as romances for many contemporary kids, most recent revisions preserve a romantic drama.
“Cinderella,” for example, which has more than 500 variants going back to ancient China, continues to inspire adaptations. In “Cinder Elly,” Minters updates it ` la “Sleepless Beauty,” but her heroine is as helpless as her namesake. Cole, meanwhile, arranges a role reversal in “Prince Cinders,” casting the prince as the younger brother of three macho guys who frequent the disco. In this send-up, which collapses under the weight of its cartoonish happenstance, the prince is accidentally changed into a hairy monkey too big to get into the Rock’n Royal Bash. He frightens a princess while waiting at the bus stop just before midnight, and when he turns back into himself, she thinks he saved her from the monkey, and marries him.
More successful is Charlotte Huck’s “Princess Furball,” (Greenwillow Books, 1989), an embroidery of the Cinderella story, similar to the Grimms’ “Many Furs” or “Thousand Furs,” and charmingly illustrated by Anita Lobel. Huck’s heroine is “strong and capable and clever, besides being beautiful.” She escapes an arranged marriage to an ogre, and through her own resourcefulness wins a king, who surprises the reader by noticing something beside her beauty: “You are as clever as you are lovely,” he tells her before proposing.
In “The Glass Mountain” (Morrow, 1999), author Diane Wolkstein revives the lesser-known Grimm tale of the same name. In this story a king builds a glass mountain for his daughter’s suitors to climb for her hand in marriage. She decides to help the one she likes best, but slips on her way up the mountain and falls captive to an old gold miner who makes her his servant — dubbing her, revoltingly enough, Mother Houserot. She outwits him and climbs back to daylight, where her prince and her father await her.
A wonderfully eerie Norwegian folk tale retold and finely illustrated by Lauren Mills, “Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins” follows twin princesses, one “fair and mild” (Isabella), the other “wild and strange” (Tatterhood), who are separated when hobgoblins steal Isabella’s head (replacing it with a calf’s head) and, weirdly, mount it on their mantel. After the fearless Tatterhood saves her sister, the girls go adventuring at sea until they meet an army of knights and find their royal mates.
Tatterhood is unusual for its depiction of sisterly devotion and team adventure. But while it undermines the stereotype of the passive heroine, it reinforces that of the beautiful one, albeit with a distinctly postmodern twist. The pretty Isabella snags her prince immediately; not so Tatterhood, that “bedraggled creature.” She taunts her sister’s royal brother-in-law at Isabella’s wedding, prodding him to ask her why she wears a tattered cloak and weeds in her hair. He guesses that she has the power to appear beautiful whenever she wishes, and she proves him right by turning into “the most magnificent princess he could ever have imagined.” With post-feminist relish, Tatterhood reveals herself to be a beauty who isn’t afraid to show men what she’s got, when she wants to.
Where are the studies proving that traditional fairy tales damage girls’ self-esteem or narrow their pantheon of female role models? There are none. In “Don’t Tell the Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature,” Alison Lurie points out that much European folklore was originally told by women, and featured strong female characters, many of whom possessed magical powers. She calls it “exactly the sort of subversive literature of which feminists should approve.”
But the tales she mentions haven’t survived into the Disney era, which, until “Mulan,” has enshrined submissive heroines while neglecting assertive ones. Grimm stories “The Robber Bridegroom” and “Fowler’s Fowl,” says Tatar, in which women saved themselves from danger, “have both undergone a kind of collective cultural repression in this country and only recently been recuperated by feminist writers.” Fairy tales may be decontextualized (“Once upon a time”) on the printed page, but they are solidly grounded in the values of their age, and evolve with them. So, hearteningly, we have HBO’s new celebrity-studded feminist fairy tale series, “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child,” which premiered this summer and continues through the winter. The series casts women as both heroines and villains, and dispenses with damsels in distress, thereby bolstering women’s identity as people, not personality traits.
Even so, it’s important to approach reconstituted fairy tales as a supplement to rather than a replacement for the classics, which have their own transgressive beauty and irresistible folkways. I like to think my 3-year-old’s home schooling in feminist fairy tales complements her experience of the “originals”: She may run around the house in her nightgown singing, “Someday My Prince Will Come” in an earnest soprano as she test-drives her Snow White persona, but she’s also inclined to ask why, for example, the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin would marry a king who wants her only for her money.