Reclaiming Fairy tales


New Age Fairytales

Fairy tales have never had it as bad as they do in recent times. But they’ve never got it quite as good either.

They’ve been receiving a bad rap for promoting stereotypes among little girls—persisting in upholding the idea of the damsel in distress, waiting for a prince to rescue her— and with good reason. For times have changed and the stories we tell our children need to change as well. The good part, though, is that instead of discarding them altogether, writers, especially young writers, are reclaiming the fairytale. The fantasy, the magic, even the love— transforming and adapting to a new world.

One such reclamation is ‘New Age Fairy Tales’, a book of short stories published by The Write Place, written and illustrated by teenage author Ariana Gupta. The book comes accompanied with a jigsaw puzzle too, featuring all the heroines from the cover. All of 16, Ariana has not just adapted the timeless tales of The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, to the world she lives in and the world she wishes to see, but has also given them a distinctly Indian flavour—with the dauntless heroines sporting sarees and lehengas and bindis!

And Ariana has the freshest take on all these fairytales; certainly not your usual predictable fare. So for instance, Cinderella is not the poor orphan forced to do housework day and night, but the career girl forced by her boss to do double the work at half the pay her male colleagues are given! What’s worse, her contribution is never acknowledged and her unique ideas for the company get appropriated by the boss. So, how does Cinderella get to the grand official ‘ball’ where the new owner would be chosen, and present her ideas as her own? That’s for you to find out!

Then there’s Snow White who takes colourism head on. Instead of merely doing a binary retake and pitting Black against White, the author transforms Snow White into a breathtakingly unique creature altogether, with a face that’s a multi-hued shimmering canvas of all the shades of skin there can be! Now that’s a real fairy tale.

Most importantly, though, the book also reclaims other female characters from the stories. The witch in The Little Mermaid, for instance, instead of being a conniving creature, becomes an advisor and a guide, helping the Mermaid understand how love does not ask you to give up your selfhood. The Evil Queen in Snow White isn’t evil at all, but a caring step-mother. Despite that, her love is typically rooted in tradition, making her the very portrait of an Indian mother—forever trying to find cures for her daughter’s unique skin, forever trying to make her fair!

The stories are refreshing and delightful, not just for children but also the mothers out there. They make you chuckle and nod, and they take you by surprise.

And lest you think the men are all missing, there are positive male characters as well. And that’s important, for our society is unfortunately going through a bit of ‘feminism fatigue’. People look askance at gender rights advocates, and conversations are beginning to reflect alarm and concern at ‘men being alienated’. So people begin to predict what a ‘New age’ fairy tale would perhaps look like—wiping out the men from the scene and vilifying them, which would just be sexism in another form, truth be told. But that’s not the case here.

Prince Charming helps Cinderella in her ultimate goal, but the goal isn’t merely marriage, and one doesn’t necessarily need to be in love to help out a friend in need. A very important message for children, there.

Beauty’s Beast doesn’t morph into a handsome Prince but she loves him nonetheless, for his beautiful mind and for being supportive of her scientific research, for being a person with a golden heart who does not see her merely as a superficial ‘Beauty’ but stands by the love of his life in her intellectual pursuits. Now that’s the kind of love story I would want not just my daughter to read, but my son as well. So that he knows that being handsome is not enough (or even necessary) to be a good partner for someone, unless you are kind and smart and supportive and caring as well. And also, that the person who loves you will not love you for something as superficial as your looks.

While on the subject of sons, though, there is one flaw in the book that needs correcting—and I speak from experience as the mother of a young child. As you turn the cover of the book and come to the very first page, here’s what you find written: “For Little Girls With Big Dreams.”

My 6-year-old son, whom I am doing my best to bring up with an understanding of gender equality and respect for all humanity, was quite excited to see the book when I tore off the envelope that enclosed it. He opened it eagerly because he loves a good story and has not been taught to be prejudiced against things that are apparently “girls’ stuff.” But then he turned the page and saw that it was meant to be a book for “little girls with big dreams.” And he put it back down.

“This is a book only for girls,” he said. I tried to convince him otherwise, by pointing out the other books that had male protagonists in them, but were read by girls as well—Harry Potter being an excellent example. I didn’t succeed too much, though. And learnt something myself in the process.

Stories with girls and women need not be positioned and marketed as only for girls and women—in the same way that stories with boys are not positioned only for boys. Fairy tales are for children, regardless of their gender. Boys need to know about girls and girls need to know about boys. Men need to understand women and women need to understand men. And if we don’t read about and listen to each other’s perspectives, how do we begin to understand each other?

The entire point of reclaiming the fairy tale is to spin a new narrative and set in motion the process of building a more balanced world. A world where both genders can thrive, where all colours are beautiful, and where a relationship isn’t a competition of dominance, but a picture of all-embracing love.

That’s when we all live happily ever after.

 

 

 

Is Feminism anti-love? {Feminism vs Fairytales-II}


fairytales-beauty

Lend an ear to a lesser-known tale, the love story of a real life Prince. This is a fairytale with a difference.

In the year 1936, Edward, the Prince of Wales, succeeded to the throne of Britain and became King Edward VIII. But his reign lasted merely 326 days— less than a year— after which he chose to abdicate his throne to the younger brother. Why? Because Edward, the Prince, had fallen in love. Wallis Simpson, an American woman, had become the queen of his heart, but the throne of Britain refused to accept her as the Monarch’s official Queen. Wallis was a divorcee, and it was against the Church’s decree to marry a divorced woman while her former husband was still alive. Edward couldn’t keep both the crown on his head and the woman in his heart—he would have to make his choice. The young King proposed various alternative options through which he could be both Monarch and lover true. But the Church— and the people of England—rejected each one of them.

And so on the 11th of December, 1936, King Edward VIII stepped down from his throne, with these words addressed to his people— words worthy of a lover and a king: “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.” Within a year, Edward and Wallis were married in a private ceremony in France.

Edward gave up what few men can claim to ever possess—a real crown and an actual throne. He gave up the highest title of his land; from the King of England he stepped down into the position of Duke of Windsor.

There’s always that thing, that little thing, which makes you renounce every treasure, yet leaves you the richer for it. The trivial, insignificant thing that makes you relinquish power yet leaves you the stronger for it. A tiny, inconsequential thing.

A thing called love.

“It was love, love, love, love, love alone
Caused King Edward to leave his throne…”

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Fairytales don’t go down well with feminists.

The argument is that you shouldn’t ‘need a man’ to get you happiness; you should be able to find it yourself.

I see it all the time—the web is full of it. The ‘we don’t need a man’ declarations. I swear I saw a poster on social media that declared ‘Fairy Godmother, bring us the perfect career instead.’ Which is absolutely fine, but does this mean that a career is supposed to replace love? More importantly, as a feminist myself, this is what completely confounds me—do the same rules apply to men; do you ever admonish men for going full speed in the pursuit of love? I know the classic feminist is supposed to hate fairytales; so let me bring you a brief, reverse rendering of two of my favorite ones—from the male perspective instead. (I’m using the Disney versions, of course, not the original Brothers Grimm tales.)

Cinderella

The heir to the throne, the charming and handsome Prince falls in love with a peasant girl—a girl without title or fortune or ‘provenance’, so to speak, and puts on hold every royal activity even as he sets upon a veritable wild goose chase— glass slipper in hand, seeking nothing but the foot that fits it—that one woman who ruled his heart. And when he finds her, ragged and dirty, amid the cinders, he gives no thought to social mores and princely conventions, but takes her hand and leads her to his palace—making her the Queen of the Land.

Beauty and the Beast

The Beast in his huge and haunted castle has been waiting years upon years for a woman whose kiss would save him from this dreaded curse that robbed his human form. When one day a brave and well-read girl arrives to rescue her father from the clutches of the terrifying creature, the castle is filled with hope. The Beast’s kind and gentle side begins to resurface and the two bond together. But when Belle goes to visit her father and is unable to return, the Beast loses hope and languishes in the castle, pining away for his love. In the end, it is only Belle’s love that breaks his curse and makes him whole again.

Now that we just re-read the fairytales, what did we discover? A fairytale is not a tale of escape, it is not a tale of achievement and ambition; it is a story of finding love. Perhaps finding escape and redemption through love, too, but chiefly finding love itself. The actions of the heroes in the above-mentioned tales, or indeed, any other fairytale, are all guided by the quest for love. The thing to be noted is that the women they loved were not for beauty alone—they loved them for their kindness, intelligence, wit and charm. Perhaps, like Prince Charming, they cast aside social conventions and royal concerns, or like the Beast, they let go of their aggression and ego and open up for the healing touch of love. Like King Edward who gave up his throne— it’s love, love, love alone.

So to come back to my question—why don’t you ridicule, downgrade or put down men for casting the world aside in the pursuit of love? Why is a man not labelled as ‘disempowered’ when everything he does is for the sake of a woman? Do you ever hear men say ‘we don’t need a woman’? (Quite the contrary, of course.)

The reason a man never has to say this is because men seldom need to choose between ambition and love. Barring King Edward of course, who heroically tossed it all away—but is still considered a hero, not a disempowered sissy. (And that pretty much displays the inherent sexism in disparaging women when they give it up for love.)

For women, though, choosing love very often means an end to whatever other dreams they had. As Gloria Steinem and her ilk so succinctly put it in their slogans: ‘Sink into his arms and you may end up with your arms in his sink’. Because marriage would be, well, a dead end. Because women went into love expecting a fairytale, and then found that real life never lived up to it.

That was the reason why fairytales were so hated by the feminists: they wanted women to not sit around waiting to be rescued; they wanted women to stand up for themselves and rescue their own selves.  And that’s where it all started—the ‘we don’t need a man to be happy’ philosophy. Find your own happiness; be your own power, your own saviour.

Sisterhood of the liberated, I completely endorse your stand. But then there are different kinds of power, different types of powerful, and not all are the ones we’d want to be. Let’s just sit back and take note: fairytales are rife with powerful women— but they’re almost all evil. The Queen in Snow White, the Stepmother in Cinderella, the witch in Rapunzel. And that’s not sexism, sorry. Powerful men and women, in general, tend to choose the path of evil, simply because evil seems to pay higher—and faster. My point? Power is, in itself, a vile and terrible thing if not exercised for a noble cause. And in this regard, the heroines of fairy tales are far better ideals to aspire to, for they are kind and noble and brave.

The one really powerful and generous woman that springs to mind from fairytale universe is the Fairy Godmother. Think about it—how can you disregard her or forget her role in saving Cinderella? She’s that powerful woman who uses her gifts for positive ends. The sad part, of course, is that all she gives Cinderella are pretty dresses and slippers, and a Coach to get her to the Royal Ball. And this is where the reality of the bygone era steps in—the only ambition a woman could aspire to was a fortunate marriage, hopefully filled with love. Times have changed since then—drastically so. Why then do fairy tales still appeal to girls of all ages, in all generations, no matter what the era? Because, as I said, the fairytale is not a story of escape, it is not a story of ambition. It is a story of finding true love, and deep in the core of all our hearts—ambitious or otherwise—none can deny the desire to be truly loved.

So yes, little girls need to hear tales of women that rescue not just their own selves but others folks too—for that is the nobler thing to do. They need to be told that the purpose of their life is not just to be someone’s wife. Let them hear stories of real women, good and strong, who fought for a cause and either won or went down fighting to the last.

But let them also revel in the fairy tale, for in her heart, every girl is a princess.

Equally important is to let boys hear fairy tales too. When boys hear no fairy tales, they scarcely learn how to value love—and romance. A man that grows up hearing stories of a Prince that braved it all for his love would know much better how to love a woman and not let her down.

Here’s the little thing though—when we write the modern fairy tales this time around, let’s not make love the end. Let the stories step into the future, where the King and Queen both chart their noble paths, both ride their way to glory—side by side —lovers, friends, equals. Let man and woman both be each other’s support and realise their dreams together.

The need to be loved is as ancient and natural as life itself. To accept it is not weakness, to deny it is not strength. Ambition and love are meant to co-exist beautifully, boosting up each other.

Just like feminism and fairy tales.