I have a reading recommendation for feminists (and non-feminists as well, actually): Andrew Lang.
Lang, a Victorian-era writer learned in folklore and mythology, put his academic knowledge to commercial use when he published The Blue Fairy Book (1889), a collection of stories which spawned a series of twenty-five books, mostly named in the same style (the last “color” book, The Lilac Fairy Book, was published in 1910, and the final book of all, The Strange Story Book, in 1913.)
Our regional library owned most of the series; and I devoured them in middle school and high school. Weaned (I exaggerate only slightly) on Tolkien and Lewis, I graduated
… some would say regressed; but where was there to go but down?
… to fairy tales. The Lang books were a long and largely rewarding (if occasionally repetitive) sop to my fantasy-starved mind. And it was not an unhealthy sop: more of a porridge, really: basic, but fundamentally nourishing.
Oddly enough, the stories were also what a person sensitive to political correctness might call “gender neutral.” Oh, not always in the particular stories, any given one of which might have featured a long-suffering damosel in distress. But it was interesting how often meek male characters were the butt of stepfamilial abuse, or the committers of Pandora-like errors, and often a female character showed up everyone around with her courage, wit, and resourcefulness. The fairy tale genre, if it is offensive to either sex, is, like the melancholy Jacques, an equal-opportunity offender.
Thus, when I encountered a certain video ad for Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, I found myself muttering “Gag me with a spoon.” To be fair: the authors express laudable intentions. In answer to the query “Why a Book for Girls?” they explain:
Because we are girls. Our entrepreneurial journey made us understand how important it is for girls to grow up surrounded by female role models. It helps them to be more confident and set bigger goals. We realized that 95% of the books and TV shows we grew up with, lacked girls in prominent positions. We did some research and discovered that this didn't change much over the past 20 years, so we decided to do something about it.
And indeed, the collection of stories of real women, from Elizabeth I to Serena Williams, looks promising (though I haven’t read it). Nor will I attempt to take issue with the authors’ judgment that there is a high proportion of shows that fail to show women at their best. Nevertheless, I took umbrage at the video, for two reasons.
The first is simply that, as suggested above, the video’s rhetoric is based on a flawed understanding of the fairy tale genre, an understanding that would have been corrected by a knowledge of (for example) Lang’s work. The video begins with a cartoon man, blond, buff, and handsome in a stereotypically over-muscular Hollywood style, who is introduced as the victim of his stepbrother’s beatings and general highhandedness. There is a ball, a princess, a rescue of this Cinderfella, and then—the warm and comforting narrator is swallowed by a black screen, supplanted by stark white text. We wouldn’t read this to our sons. Why read it to our daughters?
I was yelling “stop” a long time before that, right at the part where Cinderfella was submitting meekly to his stepbrother’s maltreatment. Because—let’s be honest—while both boys and girls can be sensitive and submissive, and both boys and girls can be feisty, boys tend to be more punchy than girls. For every Anne Shirley who (admirably) breaks her slate over the bully Gilbert Blythe’s head, there are perhaps a dozen girls who would simply have burst into tears at his teasing. With boys, the ratio is reversed. This Cinderfella parody had a plausibility issue from the beginning. You can tell a Cinderella-esque tale about a male character—cf. Andrew Lang’s collections, or google any of the following: “Iron Hans,” “Puss in Boots,” “The Glass Hill,” “Billy Beg and His Bull.” But that particular Cinderfella was inconceivable. A jacked, jut-jawed lad who weighs double what his brothers do and could easily bench press them in one hand each, cowering under the onslaught of brooms … The video’s creators have weighted the dice from the beginning, making the whole story feel absurd.
Of course, the tale is a clear parody not just of any Cinderella story, but of what had become, alas, our culture’s most prominent version thereof: the admittedly somewhat absurd animated film that hales from the studios of a man whose name begins with “W” and “D” and rhymes with Dalt Wisney.
Which sounds like the name of a foolish side
character from the Harry Potter franchise ...
A good deal of the ridiculousness that the video’s creators see in the tale, then, has to do with the particular version of it they have chosen to ridicule—a version in which Cinderella is, in fact, more helpless and less resourceful than she happens to be even in Perrault. Probably if the video’s creators had been exposed to anything more substantial (dare I say, “wholesome”?) than American film growing up, they would not have picked fairy tales for their whipping boy.
This sort of cultural ignorance, of course, is not their fault. But there are other assumptions in the video that troubled me. Most basic of all, the presentation of the problem-solving book suggests that their notion of “Women at Their Best” may differ from mine. Indeed, it suggests a difference in our notions of “People at Their Best.”
The collection’s title, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, may serve for a launching point. The idea communicated is surely that women (and girls) who lead noteworthy and/or admirable lives can only do so if they are willing to stand out, whether that means bucking societal notions of what girls “should” do, or simply working really hard to develop their talents and interests. Put in these terms, there is nothing wrong with the idea: choose almost any female saint of the Catholic Church, from Cecelia to Clotilde to Hildegard of Bingen to Margaret Clitherow to Mother Teresa to Giana Molla and you will confront a woman who stood out, in many cases defying her society. Heroic virtue of the obvious sort (which is what it nearly always takes to be canonized as a saint) entails taking a stand when it’s tough. And the same, of course, can be said on the male side: secular male figures and saints, like their female counterparts, are canonized because they did extraordinary things, difficult things, things that their society may not have supported, and of which it often disapproved.
Mind you, they are all saints because they loved God.
But they’re canonized saints because they demonstrated
this love in sometimes surprising ways …
Granting all that, take issue with the concept of rebel. We are Americans, whose country was founded out of a rebellion. We love to imagine ourselves the scrappy underdogs, the buckers of trends, etc. We may be the richest nation on earth, but we love Jean Valjean. We tend to forget that there is nothing inherently virtuous about being rebellious. It all depends on what the rebel stands for and against. Queen Elizabeth was indeed a bit of a rebel, but so was Bloody Mary Tudor; and depending on your historical viewpoint, you may regard either or both as loathsome, as readily as you regard one or the other as heroic. Jezebel was a bit of a “rebel,” and a wicked woman.
As one character in the Hollywood film
of the same name memorably remarks) …
Lucrezia Borgia. Wu Zetian. Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde). A handful of female Nazis who worked as guards in the concentration camps. A handful of female serial killers. And of course, this is just the women: history records the names of thousands more men who were outstanding in their fields, but frankly nasty to live (or die?) with. There’s nothing inherently great about being a rebel.
Conversely, notwithstanding my acknowledgement of heroic virtue, there is nothing unheroic about meekness. And herein lies the real crux of my uneasiness with the Rebel Girls project. I suspect that any version of the Cinderella story, Disney or Lang, male or female, which seemed to praise meekness would have met with their scorn. Meekness is an underrated virtue. We tend to read it as weakness at best, prissiness at worst. We cannot abide Fanny Prince. We find it paradoxical that “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
What we forget is that meekness itself requires a great deal of strength. Turning the other cheek and forgiving those who persecute us or even merely “trespass against us” is a terrible burden to bear. “Lead us not into temptation!” we pray. “Do not require us to be meek!”
The great question, requiring considerable discernment, is when to rebel and when to suffer. The recent Cinderella movie directed by Kenneth Branagh, while in many ways excellent, could have tackled this question head-on but failed to do so, though the key line, “Have courage and be kind,” at least attempted to address the issue. Any “realistic” or live or “grownup” adaptation of the move really does have to deal with the question of why Cinderella accepts her abuse: it’s the motive for doing so, not the fact that she does, which determines whether or not she is worthy of emulation, and embodies the final paradox of virtue: the meek rebel: the womanly woman who also outshines every man born.
For example …