Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Beauty and the Beast

We all talk a lot about Beauty and the Beast—especially me. Of all the fairy tales I’m obsessed with, this has always been my favorite. And right now, I think the Beast is an excellent way to continue this discussion on rape.

What do you know about him, you who grew up on Disney?

The Beast was a jerk, right? He was mean to some fairy, so she turned him into a monster as a well-deserved punishment.

My favorite version of this story is La Belle et le Bete, a novella by a Madame Villeneuve. It’s the version of this story type that our current version is most directly descended from. And it doesn’t focus a lot on this aspect of things, but here is what I have always taken away from this story: The Beast is the victim.

He’s young. Young enough that he can’t be left home alone when his mother the queen goes off to war. So they leave him with a fairy woman.

The fairy falls in love. The Beast—future Beast—doesn’t feel the same way. That—not wanting a romantic relationship with his guardian—that is what he’s being punished for.

So we’ve got a young man, sexually harassed, at the very least, by a woman he trusted to take care of him. He gets tossed into some new body, monstrous and unfamiliar. But wait!

There’s more. Part of the spell is that he must seem as stupid as he is hideous. You’ve got this child, abused, tortured, transformed, and not even able to properly express himself—able to think just as he normally does, but unable to express those thoughts, unable to communicate effectively, unable to even let the Beauty get to know him as he really is.

I’ve read a lot of weird, intense, depressing fairy tales, but I’ve never encountered a character I felt more sympathy for than the Beast.

Now, let’s talk about what we’ve done to this story over the years, and what it says about us as a society.

This awful thing that happened to the Beast was his own fault, naturally. A very young man is sexually abused, essentially, by an older woman who is supposed to be taking care of him, and we change this into the story of an unpleasant young man being justly punished by a good woman. And then—then we do the exact same thing Beauty spent the entire story learning not to do. We immediately assume that ugliness of body must signify ugliness of spirit, and we adjust the story accordingly.

This is meant to be a story about a girl learning to see past appearances—about Beauty becoming a better person. Instead it’s become the exact opposite—Beauty helping the Beast to become better. It’s a redemption story now. The Beast never needed to be redeemed. He needed to be rescued.

I love Beauty and the Beast, in all its versions. I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with the version we tell now. It’s a good story, if a different one. What I am saying is that the way the story has changed over the years can be connected in interesting ways to how we handle the issues it contains in real life.

How many times have you heard the words “Men can’t be raped?” We have this bizarre inability to accept the idea of the guy as the victim in any situation. Anyone who gets raped, our society tends toward the mindset of “They deserved it.” Or we pretend it didn’t happen. And in the meantime, we’ve got all these people suffering the way the poor Beast does.

Imagine how traumatized he must have been. Imagine going through that, and having everyone siding with the evil fairy, everyone saying you deserved it, everyone assuming that because you’re big and ugly, you couldn’t possibly have been a victim here, and in fact, you were probably the perpetrator.

Let’s think less about magic flowers, and more about the incredible abuses of power at play here. The Beast is magnificent. And so many people are going through the real-life equivalent of his problems. We need more Beauties to see the worth in the people we push off to the side. No one real should ever have to suffer like the Beast.    

Sunday, September 27, 2015


Hecuba. Hecuba. Hecuba. Mother, captive, queen. I don’t know what to say about her, but I know that something must be said. So we interrupt our scheduled programming to talk about last night, when I saw Euripides performed in Stratford-upon-Avon. There will be time for Sexual Abuse in Folk Traditions another day. And tomorrow, of course, we see Shakespeare, but how, even here, could it possibly compare to the beauty of Hecuba?

Don’t get me wrong; Shakespeare is great. But Euripides, guys. I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to see a Greek tragedy on stage. And technically, I guess I didn’t. It was all rewritten, perspectives shifted, a new and different story. But Euripides was there. And Hecuba. Hecuba. I have no words for her, or none I can think of now. Fortunately, there’s an entire blog to be spent searching for them.

I have always had a soft spot for the women of Greek tragedy. I have risen to their defense, every time, no matter how little there was to be said, since the first time I read Sophocles.

Medea, well, there’s not much wiggle room there. She did what she did, and it was an awful thing to do. But oh, how she must have paid for it after, when she saw what she’d done in her madness. Medea, sacrificing everything she had for Jason, Medea, rejected and abandoned, Medea, alone with the blood of her sons on her hands. Medea.  Antigone, poor Antigone, always in the right, and always doomed to fail.

And how I fought for Clytemnestra. Her daughter dead, her husband gone for ten years, fighting for another woman, returning with another and the two children she’d born him. I would have killed him too. Agamemnon, that monster, so many words to describe him that I dare not type—I know my grandparents will be reading this post. I have seen a thousand-thousand portrayals of Agamemnon, that killer of daughters, that killer of nations, that monster disguised as a man. A thousand-thousand portrayals, and never once have I felt an ounce of sympathy.

In Hecuba I did. In Hecuba I saw him slaughter children, and for his sake—for his sake as well as theirs—I nearly cried. Agamemnon, a man in an impossible situation, the blood of his daughter still wet on his hands, Agamemnon, fighting only to survive the war, Agamemnon fighting harder for the trust of his troops than the gold of the Trojans. Agamemnon, eternally alone, the ghosts of little girls and boys to haunt his nights, and nothing but death awaits him in his longed-for home. For this monster I could have wept.

Cassandra, the girl who bore him those two children, the un-believed prophetess, the Trojan princess who foresaw the end, Cassandra was perhaps the greatest feat of the show. Bitter and angry in modern dress, a beautiful anachronism on the Grecian stage. I had never imagined her portrayed like this, but the classical character, always set apart from the world by her gift and her curse—of course she was bitter, un-trusted, unloved. She could never belong with the rest of them, never fit in with anyone of her world. Her presence on the stage was jarring, disconcerting, utterly perfect.

And Hecuba, Hecuba, the woman herself, her husband and her sons all dead, sitting on his throne with weeping girls around her, holding his head in her hands. There were few props in the performance, but that head, oh, I could see it, though she held only air.

You may have read the original play by Euripides—I have not, though I was given a detailed summary. That is a story of the Greeks, the victors. This was a story of Troy. In the original Hecuba goes mad after the death of her last and youngest son, blinds a man, kills his sons in turn.

This Hecuba did not. She was anger and agony and mercy, fighting fiercely for her children’s lives, failing, yielding, ultimately, with dignity and grace. She died still a queen.

I have another two months now to spend traveling across Europe. We leave the day after tomorrow. But if it were up to me, I think I would just stay here, watching every performance of Hecuba until it ended.

(Also, it was my birthday, and oh my goodness, what an amazing way to spend it. Twenty-three, you have a tough act to follow.)

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Sleeping Beauty

Let’s talk about Sleeping Beauty. No, let’s talk about Talia. “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” published in Giovanni Batiste Basile’s Il Pentamerone. Let’s talk about consent. Let’s talk about all the little girls who never had the chance to say no.
I could write an analytic paper about all the themes and elements in this story. I could get cute and ranty and give you a snarky list of reasons why it pisses me off. But I’m too upset, right now, for that kind of rant, so let’s skip straight to the part where the story gets interesting.
It doesn’t say how old Talia was when her story begins. Let’s assume that she’s a child. An unmarried Italian princess from a story recorded in the 1600s? Let’s go ahead and assume she’s a little girl. Let’s say fourteen. That’s how old I was, the first time I read this story. I was innocent at fourteen. Naïve. Clueless. More innocent than most fourteen year olds ever get the chance to be. I read this story three times before I realized it was about rape.
She falls asleep. Talia falls asleep, like Sleeping Beauty does, and she wakes up a mother.
Let’s talk about the kind of despicable person who does this kind of despicable thing to some defenseless girl.
He was a king. He was married. He found a comatose child in the woods and had his way with her.
He went home and forgot about her, and she woke to find herself utterly alone with two infants. It was several months before he thought to stop by and check in on his human blow up doll again, and when he found her awake, he took her home.
I could talk a lot about how this scumbag’s poor wife is the villain of the piece, but let’s save that for another day. All you need to know is that she dies in the end, and Talia marries the king and, of course, lives happily ever after.
Let’s talk about young women being manipulated by older men. Let’s talk about the number of girls who were raped while unconscious last year. Let’s talk about the number of girls who were raped, period.
Let’s talk about the number of viral videos the rapists have made about it.
Let’s talk about how children, who have been hurt in one of the worst ways imaginable, who have been violated in the cruelest possible way, are afraid to tell people what happened. Let’s talk about how many real life Talias have been blamed for waking up with two children, and let’s talk about how many of them would go home with the king because they’re afraid to do anything else.
Let’s talk about how this story, in which the rapist gets to live happily ever after with his victim, is four hundred years old. Four. Hundred. Years. Kingdoms have risen and fallen. We’ve gone through slavery, and suffrage, and we’ve done all these things that are supposed to make the world better—we have made the world better, in some ways, but something that was acceptable in fiction four hundred years ago still happens in real life, like it’s no big deal, every single day.
Lives are destroyed. People are hurt in so many ways, people lose their agency, people get pregnant and get STDs, and no one cares enough to stop it.
Newsflash: when the newspaper reads like seventeenth century Italy, you’re doing something wrong.
I will defend fairy tales to the death, but I won’t pretend they don’t have issues. So let’s take this opportunity to learn something. Forget about the monsters. Kill Prince Charming.
This isn’t a fairy tale. This is real life. And the rapist lives happily ever after in both.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sexual Abuse in Folk Traditions

I’m writing this from Manchester. For those of you who don’t know, I am currently studying abroad, and it’s awesome. But last night, I ended up going out for dinner alone, because I’m spacey and lose track of people. I walked back to our hotel alone, in the dark. Manchester is the largest city I’ve ever been alone at night in, and I wasn’t scared. Not really. But I think I should have been.

I texted one of my friends before I left the restaurant. The gist of the message was “Help I don’t know how to use my pepper spray and I have a pocket knife but I can only cut to kill.” My friend thought that kill shots were acceptable if I was under attack, but I just didn’t know where the American Embassy was if I ran into complications.

Anyway. I wasn’t really in danger last night. I’ve never really been in danger. But a lot of girls—a lot of people—are. And it sucks, and it makes me really, really angry. So I think right now is a good time to introduce the series I’ll be doing over the next couple weeks: Sexual Abuse in Folk Traditions.  These are all, or mostly, essays that have been published on Tumblr before, but I think it’s a topic worth revisiting. The next three posts, maybe more, are going to be about the seriously creepy stuff that happens in some versions of popular fairy tales, and how I think it pertains to our culture now.




My cover is finished!!!!!!!

It’s coming soon!

Thought I’d bring this back. When I say it’s coming soon, this time I actually mean it.

konglindorm: Thank you so much for helping me with this, Jenny!

The reason I’m telling you about this in advance is my friend Io. Iona Gale wrote and created a cover for a collection of short stories called Beast and Other Stories, which I helped to format, design, and publish. This book will be released on October 1st, and it’s got some fairly dark stories in it. For the title story, especially, Io was inspired by the same version of Beauty and the Beast that I’ll be talking about on this blog.

So this upcoming series is advertisement for her, too. And I want to make sure you know about it, but I’m not going to talk about it on these posts, because I don’t want to take away from the seriousness of these topics. Just remember, as you read, that Io is working with the same issues, just more fictionally.

You can find out more about her book here, and the Kindle edition is available for pre-order now. You can also visit her general blog and her writing blog.   

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Golden Root

All right. I'm in Scotland right now, so enjoy an old summary with commentary on one of my least favorite fairy tales!

Last Christmas I was given Il Pentamerone, by Giovanni Batiste Basile (also called Giambattista Basile—I swear this man has a different name in every edition). This is the collection of fairy tales that contains the infamous story where Sleeping Beauty gets raped. So right away you know it’s gonna be interesting, at least. (The weird part is that I asked for this book.)
But Sleeping Beauty is old news. Let’s talk about The Golden Root. No one knows about it, and it is definitely worth knowing.
The Golden Root actually shows up immediately after Sun, Moon, and Talia (Sleeping Beauty). Fourth Diversion, Fifth Day. (Il Pentamerone has a frame narrative. Kind of like The Arabian Nights. There’s this group of ten people telling stories to this pregnant girl. Each person tells her one story every day for five days. The guy who got this girl pregnant is supposed to be with another girl who’s one of the storytellers. The pregnant girl is black. Remember that. That’s important. The black girl stole some other girl’s charming prince and then got pregnant.)
So The Golden Root starts with this girl, Parmetella, the third daughter of a poor gardener. Parm takes her pig out to the forest because her sisters are taking their pigs to the pasture, and they won’t let her come. But in the forest she finds a really cool pasture ground, and a tree with golden leaves. She takes these leaves home to her father every night, until the tree is bare. Then she notices that the tree also has a golden root, so she goes home for an axe, then she chops it off and pulls it away from the tree.
Under the root there’s a staircase. Parm goes down the staircase, finds a palace, and meets a black guy. (Again, this is important. Remember this.) The black guy proposes, and she says yes, and they take a flying carriage to a different palace.
Then we get a whole bunch of weird euphemisms. Like, really weird. He cards her wool, but he doesn’t comb it. He sucks the first egg of the beauteous chicken. Anyway, basically they sleep together, but first he makes her put out the lights. Then, when she can’t see him, he becomes a handsome youth.
So what we have here, basically, is the specific type of Enchanted Bridegroom story that I like to call “Only Hot When You Can’t See Them.” Think Cupid and Psyche, East of the Sun West of the Moon.
And then think about how when the prince in East of the Sun West of the Moon wasn’t hot, he was a POLAR BEAR. Think about Enchanted Bridegroom stories. Think about Beauty and the Beast.
And now, remember that during the day he was a black guy.
Someone cursed him to be black. His Beast form is a black guy. Like turning a guy black is the same kind of thing as turning him into a polar bear.
Now remember how the pregnant girl who stole someone else’s boyfriend in the frame story was black, too? Also, a whole bunch of girls in other stories, evil stepsisters and evil boyfriend-stealing servants, rotten girls who take everything from the innocent heroine—they’re black too. All of the black girls are evil. I can’t remember if there are other black guys, but this one is playing the Beast in our enchanted bridegroom story.
Now sometimes I misunderstand these things, but this is racist, right? Like, really, really racist? Because I read this book for the first time when I was thirteenish, and even more clueless than I am now, and I didn’t even notice, that first time, that Sleeping Beauty was getting raped. But this I noticed right away. Like seriously, Basile, dude, what is your problem?
Anyway. Back to the story. Parm, of course, is curious about who or what she’s sleeping with. So she lights a candle and sees how incredibly hot and white he is, and then he wakes up. He wakes up and begins to curse and swear, and this is my favorite moment, this is the one moment that’s actually good, as opposed to so-messed-up-it’s-kinda-funny, because if I’d been this close to being uncursed, and some dumb girl did that thing I’d specifically told her not to, I would totally be swearing. I would be so incredibly pissed at her. You never see Cupid or the polar bear getting mad.
When he’s done swearing, Hot Guy tells Parm that he’s gotta be a black guy for another seven years now, and then he takes off. Parm goes outside and meets a fairy, who tells her to find seven girls on a roof, then gives her a bunch of presents that’ll keep them from hurting her.
She finds the girls. She also finds out they’re Hot Guy’s sisters, and then meets their mom, who is inexplicably an ogre. No word on why Hot Guy is not an ogre. But they’re all pissed at her, because Hot Guy is black, and they can’t hurt her because of the fairy, and somehow she ends up sort of working for them.
Ogre Mom gives Parm some impossible chores. Hot Guy (who is no longer black, so those seven years sure went fast) yells about how stupid she is and then helps her. Also, we find out his name. Hot Guy=Thunder-and-Lightning.
Ogre Mom is pissed about this, and sends Parm to get something from her sister. The sister is also an ogre, and the fairy did nothing to protect Parm from her. So Parm goes, not knowing that it’s a trap, and Thunder finds her. Because apparently just not going to see the crazy ogre lady is not an option, nor is sending Thunder in her place, he tells her how to escape after she gets there. This is very complicated and has several steps, but basically what it comes down to is “Throw her baby in the oven, grab Mom’s box, and run.”
That’s right. He tells her to bake his baby cousin. Don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter, it’s just an ogre’s kid.
Um, Thunder? Last time I checked, you were also an ogre’s kid.
So Parm murders the baby, opens the box, gets rescued and yelled at by Thunder, and delivers the box to Ogre Mom. Then it’s time for Thunder to get married.
His bride is an ogre, too. I’m still wondering why he’s not an ogre, but whatever. They have the wedding. They have the reception. Thunder sits between Parm and Ogre Bride. Thunder’s a little drunk by now, and he’s shamelessly flirting with Parm, right there in front of his new wife. It’s kinda the first time he’s been nice to her since he was black.
Thunder wants Parm to kiss him. Parm is like, “Dude, you just married that girl over there. Like, five minutes ago. I’m not kissing you.” But Ogre Bride says, “Oh, just go ahead and kiss him. He’s really hot. Once I kissed a shepherd who gave me two chestnuts.”
Ogre Mom and the sisters take off, so then it’s just Thunder, Parm, and Ogre Bride, and Thunder’s whining some more about how Parm won’t kiss him, and Ogre Bride says the same thing again.
Thunder flips out. He slits her throat, buries her in the cellar, and gets with Parm, who, oddly enough, has no problem sleeping with a homicidal maniac who killed his last wife on their wedding day, literally half an hour ago.
Also, he calls her an “ass of honour.”
When Ogre Mom finds out what happened, she’s pissed. She goes to see her sister, but after Parm murdered her baby, the sister threw herself into the oven, too. Ogre Mom is so upset by this development that she turns into a ram and headbutts the wall until her skull cracks. Then Parm and Thunder and his sisters live happily ever after. Racism, infanticide, weird double standards, alarmingly unbalanced relationships, this story just has everything. So if you’re ever looking for a new fairy tale to read—
Actually, you should probably just stick with King Thrushbeard or something. At least no one dies.