The Fairy Tale Hero’s New Clothes

The other day, I was enraptured by this tweet:

Yes, I do get a little excited at seeing exquisite historical embroidery. 😊 Also, doesn’t it remind you just a little of a recent Disney Prince? The waistcoat panel was embroidered a couple of decades after Villeneuve published her tale, but there is a nice correlation. Indeed, there is a court suit at LACMA that also dates from around the period of the panel and another waistcoat from around 1740, closer to Villeneuve’s publication date, and again these examples confirm that the Prince’s wardrobe has tangible roots in historical reality. The softer blue, the rich silver embroidery, are even, dare I say it, almost Cinderella-esque?

I did repine on Twitter that it is a shame fairy tales are not as expansive on the topic of masculine fashions. There are plenty of details about feminine fashions, but aside from a few peacock feathers, there is little effusion on what princes and kings and other men wear.

In ‘Belle-Belle ou Le Chevalier FortunĂ©,‘ d’Aulnoy does spend some time on the masculine wardrobe gifted to her heroine in support of her cross-dressing endeavours:

[The fairy] struck the ground with her crook, and out came a big trunk covered with Levant morocco, and studded with diamonds: Belle-Belle’s initials were on the lid. The fairy sought in the grass for a gold key made in England, and opened the box with it. It was lined with embroidered Spanish leather. Inside were twelve coats, twelve cravats, twelve swords, twelve ostrich plumes; everything by the dozen. The coats were so heavy with embroidery and diamonds that Belle-Belle could scarcely lift them. (see SurLaLune)

The descriptions are largely perfunctory, although the weight of embroidery and diamonds does recall the finest gowns of heroines like Finette Cendron. Detail is spent, rather, on the trunk. Keeping in mind that Louis XIV was himself a fine peacock of a man and masculine fashion in the French court was a colourful, rich cacophony of expensive fabrics and wondrous tailoring, it seems odd that this didn’t translate to the tales themselves.

A popular theory is that while men could dress beautifully, the expression of an interest in fashion was seen as feminine. In effect, men could wear fashion if they simply didn’t discuss it. However, this doesn’t account for why female authors like d’Aulnoy likewise skimp on the prose around masculine fashion.

Where masculine fashion does become of plot interest, it is often as a means of ridiculing the male fashionista. Hans Christian Andersen presented the world with ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ Once again, though, while fine fashions are eluded to, they aren’t detailed. Indeed, the tale itself has become best known for its use in political satire, as evident in this linked cartoon.

Which gives me another excuse to link to this clip of Adam Ant’s ‘Prince Charming,’ in which the unlikely Prince steals Cinderella’s fashion status for himself.


What Could Belle Read?

Fragonard, The Reader

(Note: some minor spoilers of the recently released film.)

Beauty has always been a reader. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve tells us Beauty enjoys reading and was deprived of the pleasure when her father was obliged to sell his books. Beauty is delighted to find a great library in the Beast’s castle: “Her great taste for study could easily be satisfied in this place, and could easily guarantee her against the dulness [sic] consequent on solitude” (PlanchĂ©, Four and Twenty Fairy Tales). The 1991 Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, made much of Belle’s love of reading, promoting her literary interests as a feminist quality. Moreover, Belle is reading a fairy tale in the animated film, one in which the heroine fails to recognise her prince charming before chapter three. It is a metafictional nod that actually occurs in the tale’s pre-history.

Before Villeneuve presented “Beauty and the Beast” to the world, tales of young women and beasts were already common fodder for fairy tale authors. Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy presents us with two interesting antecedents for the tale, “The Ram” and “The Green Serpent.” In “The Ram,” Merveilleuse is exiled by her father, the king, for not showing him love and respect in the grandiloquent manner he expects. She finds herself in a pastoral paradise of streams running with Spanish wine, trees hung with dressed partridges, and dark places where it rains lobsters and white pudding. This freakish landscape is presided over by the Ram, a prince who has been transformed into a sheep. He is bedecked in diamonds and pearls and carries her off in his great, verdant pumpkin coach, while his companions, a whole herd of enchanted sheep, sip coffee and sherbets. The tale follows the path of “Beauty and the Beast,” with Merveilleuse returning for her sisters’ weddings under assurances of later rejoining the Ram. However, her father recognises her and is so contrite, he presents Merveilleuse with his very own crown. She forgets all about the Ram in the excitement of becoming Queen and the Ram consequently dies of a broken heart at the gates of the palace. So much for romance.

It is “The Green Serpent,” however, that foreshadows “Beauty and the Beast” more closely. The heroine, Laidronette, is cursed to be ugly by a fairy who has a complex about her height. Indeed, Laidronette’s name indicates her ugliness, not her beauty. She chooses to remove herself from court, but on her travels becomes lost at sea. The Green Serpent wishes to help her, but she finds him too monstrous and rejects him, even in her plight. Instead of being lost, however, she is rescued and bestowed in an incredible palace, courted by an invisible lover who, of course, is the serpent. She reads a book about Psyche and Cupid, but while she sensibly believes she should learn the lesson of the tale and not seek to uncover the nature of her mysterious lover, her family convinces her otherwise. It is the kind of metafictional twist we see in the animated film three hundred years later. Laidronette’s actions unwittingly abort the breaking of the curse upon the prince/serpent and so she must go through a series of trials to be able to finally, consciously, break it. In the process, she is herself made beautiful.

The live action Beauty and the Beast (2017) retains the sung line about the fairy tale, but there are so many other literary references, that it loses some of its power. It is terrific to see a wider range of reading represented. I was, nonetheless, a little disappointed to see more focus on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which doesn’t work metafictionally with Belle’s own story. I did enjoy the Beast’s response to it, however, and his immediate determination to introduce her to some wider reading! Quite so! Nonetheless, it would have been nice to see more female authors represented – for instance, rather than give Villeneuve’s name to the patriarchal horror that is Belle’s village, why not allow Belle to read Villeneuve’s actual literary works? The heroines of previous tales rely upon feminine advice and stories in understanding their own fates. Indeed, when Beast is caught reading about Arthur and Guinevere – Belle teasing him that it’s a romance – it becomes more about Beast reading about male characters and interests.

What could Belle be reading? Of course, it would be delightful if she were reading Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” or even d’Aulnoy’s “The Green Serpent” or “The Ram,” but here are some other options:

Margaret Cavendish, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World or The Female Academy

Aphra Behn, The Fair Jilt

Henriette-Julie de Murat, “The Pig King” or “Bearskin” (in this case, Beauty is in animal form)

Marie-Jeanne LhĂ©ritier, “Marmoisan” or “The adventures of the discreet princess”

Claudine Alexandrine Guerin de Tencin, The Siege of Calais

Françoise de Graffigny, Letters from a Peruvian Woman

Eliza Haywood, Fantomina; or Love in a Maze

Louise d’Épinay, L’Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant,

Of course, the film does plump for more recognisable works, although “A Crystal Forest” by William Sharp is rather more obscure and was actually written much later than the period in which the film is ostensibly set. Part of the problem, however, is that people aren’t exposed to the history of women’s writing to the degree they are exposed to men’s writing. Indeed, I was somewhat vexed to see Paul Young quoted in a Huffington Post piece on the film: ““[’Beauty and the Beast’ is] a story written and published by a woman, with a strong female character at its lead, who is very reflective and intelligent and she makes her own choices, which is not something you saw in French literature or in French society at the time.” Perhaps it was not as common or well-known, but it was certainly not completely unknown in the eighteenth century or even earlier.


The Future of Fairy Tale in Film


The other week, the Monash Fairy Tale Salon set off to see the Christophe Gans La Belle et la BĂȘte (2014). It is a scrumptious film and while some found the transformed dogs a little too on the nose and the emotional transformation of the Beast a little undercooked, the visuals were more than enough to delight a fairy tale fan. I particularly loved the giant stone sculptures that were the Beast’s hunting comrades transformed and Beauty’s devotion to her pumpkin patch. As always, the Beast is better as a Beast. It’s always a little disappointing when he becomes a prince again.

There is a lovely, short piece on animal transformation on the Fairy Tale Review site, particularly notable for including female examples.

There is so much cinematic potential in animal transformation and while I’ve loved watching multiple versions of the Beauty and the Beast narrative, I really would love to see filmmakers break out a little.

What about d’Aulnoy’s The White Cat, for instance?



Not only would it be a film beloved of cat people everywhere, but whenever I read about the disembodied hands, I think of Labyrinth (1986), so I can see definite potential!


Not to mention d’Aulnoy’s other transformed Princess, Babiole.

a9442These tales have largely fallen out of our popular fairy tale corpus, but they’re amazing tales and have so much to offer the adventurous filmmaker.

Inverting Pygmalion: Fairy Tales and the Male Model

Sometimes I do wander the web, clicking on tumblr posts. I’m having a coffee, a short break from grading papers or providing feedback. Yes, sometimes I am procrastinating! I’ve long ago learned to accept procrastination as part of my writing process – procrastination is often, after all, an opportunity to break from a faltering thought process.

But sometimes, on my wanderings, something catches my eye and I’m on a new research path!

Today I was looking through some posts and I came across “Why, this is my dream prince!” The post features a juxtaposition of Disney princesses with statues and homemade models of their prince charmings. I had never put all the examples together to realise there really is a theme.

It’s a theme that has deep roots in fairy tale. For instance, in Basile’s tale of Betta, the merchant daughter, the erstwhile heroine disdains all the men of her acquaintance. Instead, she moulds her own man, giving her father a bit of a start when a strange man suddenly appears from her room. It is a delightful twist on the Pygmalion myth in which the woman now sculpts her own ideal man. Indeed, Betta does such a wonderful job, the Queen steals away her creation.

The fairy tales of late seventeenth-century France are filled, on the other hand, with portraits of princes and princesses, some of which speak to their future lovers. In d’Aulnoy’s “The Hind in the Wood,” the prince’s portrait utters endless compliments to the princess he has never actually laid eyes upon. The princess, in turn, falls in love with the portrait, for she has not yet met the prince. Portraits were often utilised in the royal marriage market. A flattering portrait along with lands and cash could ensure a profitable marriage between distant strangers.

The use of models and portraits in fairy tale is quite common. I’m now investigating whether it is most common for the princes to be sculpted and painted and how other scholars have thought about this issue.


D’Aulnoy in Comics Form

I recently came across a stash of old French ‘comics’ from the early twentieth century.

La Biche au Bois

La Biche au Bois

They’re beautiful, A3 size productions of d’Aulnoy’s fairy tales.  The paper and print is quite cheap, there’s only a couple of folded pages and only the covers are in full colour, but the illustrations are stunning.

The dragons of "La Belle aux Cheveux d'Or"

The dragons of “La Belle aux Cheveux d’Or”

What I particularly love about the illustrations is that the artists have captured the frankly bizarre aspects of d’Aulnoy’s imagination. So, for example, they captured her fascination with odd modes of transport.

Flying turkeys of "Le Nain Jaune"

Flying turkeys of “Le Nain Jaune”

They also captured the splendour that is the fairy who gets about as a crayfish/lobster.

The magic lobster of "La Biche au Bois"

The magic lobster of “La Biche au Bois”

It’s actually quite amazing that they’ve survived at all. They’re not the oldest in my d’Aulnoy collection, but their large, awkward size and flimsiness suggests how easy it would be for them to be torn and discarded. Likewise, while the artwork isn’t polished, the energy and sense of fun more than makes up for it.


I may get slightly cranky…

This morning, I learned about Moana, a Disney animated film in development for 2018, when I saw a friend’s tweet, which began ‘what is Disney culturally appropriating now?’

I may have made some grumpy noises and gone into the kitchen to get more coffee.

The problem is, recently many were complaining about Frozen: ‘oh, another white Disney princess.’

It’s oh so easy to fall into those extreme camps, particularly when Disney is the topic. I’ve seen quite a few people commenting of Frozen and Tangled, too, that Disney marketing doesn’t trust that films about girls will be successful, hence Tangled rather than Rapunzel and trailers for Frozen that toot the comical snowman. Yet Disney seems almost single-minded about continuing to produce films about female heroes/princesses.

I think part of the problem is that Disney is often viewed in a vacuum. As I look at all the ‘blockbuster’ films, Disney’s engagement with gender and ethnicity is looking quite a bit better. It’s not perfect, but go take a look at Lilo & Stitch, which I think is under-rated, yet a great celebration of how well non-white, female characters can be portrayed. Again, it’s not absolutely perfect, but it’s good.

That Lilo & Stitch is so under-rated may have a lot to do with audiences and the film industry in general. A good friend, Michelle Smith, recently wrote about politics in children’s television for The Conversation. She notes: “Writers for children do not generally sit down with a devious plan to embed left or right-wing views in their children’s works. Yet they largely cannot help but reflect the cultural norms of the period in which they are writing.” Perhaps part of our problem with Disney is that we don’t always like what it reflects back? Often I note critics overlook the positives and I think part of the problem is they want to blame Disney for the sexism and racism they see. Is Disney to blame? In part, yes. Yet, it needs to be understood in context. There are problems in society that Disney reflects and that Disney alone can’t put to rights. We can expect it to get better at portraying more positive messages – and I actually think it is getting better at that, for all its missteps – but it isn’t the whole solution. Then again, perhaps in the incessant critiquing of Disney princesses, such critics are also helping to affect change?

Incidentally, as I was doing some research, I was quite surprised by how little was written on race in fairy tale in general. There’s a great deal about depictions of race in Disney, but what of the wider fairy tale genre? Particularly older, literary tales? Race isn’t absent from these tales. Basile and d’Aulnoy, for example, include black princesses in their tales.

D'Aulnoy's "La biche au bois"

D’Aulnoy’s “La biche au bois”

I’m interested to explore how fairy tale’s engagement with race might better help contextualise Disney’s engagements with the issues today.

“The Blue Bird” board game

L'Oiseau Bleu

L’Oiseau Bleu

I thought I’d share with you a recent addition to my personal fairy tale collection. This is a French board game based on d’Aulnoy’s “L’Oiseau Bleu” or “The Blue Bird.” Although the attribution is a guess! D’Aulnoy’s name is not cited, but it certainly appears to reference the fairy tale.

Actually, it’s not the board game itself, but the print from which the board and box etc would be cut to assemble the game. I am giving thought to copying it and constructing the game as best I can. There’s the odd bit missing, judging by the game rules!

Still, even simply as an image, it’s rather glorious. I do like that on the board itself, there is a figure who looks quite a lot like Hermione. And she even has an owl!

The first Harry Potter board game?

The first Harry Potter board game?

You didn’t know about magical lobsters?

There are days when I really love my research. There’s a brilliant essay in Women Writers in Pre-Revolutionary France: Strategies of Emancipation. It’s Kathryn Hoffmann’s “Matriarchal Desires and Labyrinths of the Marvelous: Fairy Tales by Old Regime Women.” She had me at “The childless queen in La Biche au bois [The Hind in the Woods] complains that she is unhappy, and at the moment of her complaint, a magical lobster appears” (283).

Magical lobster

Magical lobster

I wish a magical lobster would appear whenever I was sad!

Hoffman’s essay captures the spirit and the humour of writers like d’Aulnoy. After reading her article, I settled down with my collection of tales to re-read them anew. There’s something inspiring about her descriptions and her insights into how desire is constructed in the tales. Her writing is absolutely beautiful too. She concludes, “Drawing from the myths of old, adding new elements of their own imagination, they traced new paths of fantasy, palimpsests of female desire written over and among the tracings of the patriarchs” (295). Brilliant!