Dirty Dancing, Fairy Tales, and Pregnancy

I’ve learned my lesson from Anne with an E (although I did enjoy parts of the series). I am not watching the remake of Dirty Dancing. However, a few interesting articles popped up that drew attention to Penny’s storyline in the film. Penny is the young dancer. She picks up gigs to earn a living. She is romanced by a scion of a wealthy family and imagines that he’ll marry her. He doesn’t. She is pregnant. She won’t be able to work. She has no money, no apparent support beyond her friends, and no access to safe abortion. Her plight drives the plot. Baby learns to dance because Penny can’t afford to lose her spot at the Sheldrake. Penny’s livelihood is that precarious.

Kaitlin Menza puts it thus in Harpers Bazaar:

Not only did the film portray a character choosing an abortion, but it got gruesome about the reality of such a procedure in 1963, when the film is set. That dirty knife wrecks the woman’s body, leaving her unable to work or even talk very much. She needs money, she needs a doctor, she needs someone to pick up her shifts at work so she won’t lose her job.

Who knows how many of us, watching Dirty Dancing in our teens, unconsciously became aware of such life-and-death consequences for women ‘in trouble.’

I’ve often compared Dirty Dancing to Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Both foreground the young female protagonist’s gaze. Both Ariel and Baby are their father’s favourites, self-actualised girls who want something more than society is currently offering them. They both encounter and gaze upon young men who are forbidden to them, entranced by the way their bodies move as they dance. They both lie to their fathers in order to pursue their desire and in both cases, they have to confront the consequences. However, in the case of Ariel, she pursues the kiss of true love in order to keep her legs and not become a polyp. In Dirty Dancing, the stakes are higher in many respects for Penny.

Yet, fairy tale has a long history of grappling with just those stakes. Ruth Bottigheimer’s piece in Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches (ed. Donald Haase, 2004), addresses how the playful sexuality of early female heroes in medieval literature disappeared from fairy tale:

Coincident with women’s loss of fertility control was the emergence of the new literary genre, fairy tales. As the genre developed toward its modern form, two notable changes occurred in their plots. Men became a danger to women, and newly disempowered women cowered in fear […] The dangers then men posed sexually were generalized into a fairy-tale world in which women suffered wicked abductors, relentless captors, long captivity, and increasing isolation. In short, the modern fairy-tale heroine was born. (50)

Many know that the forerunner to Sleeping Beauty, Basile’s Talia, is raped in her sleep and consequently gives birth to twins. Once she is awake, her agency is virtually removed. The king continues to visit, having a delightful time with her, and then Talia’s life is threatened by the king’s wife, before she is rescued and lives happily ever after. It is a strange tale, not least because Talia appears to fall in love with the married man who raped her. Yet, in her circumstances, she has few options and Basile’s storyteller even reflects that she is lucky. Indeed, the unlucky Talia who didn’t meekly accept the king into her life would doubtless die alone and hungry, along with her children.

Basile’s Petrosinella is the forerunner to Rapunzel and the tale is very much grounded in female fertility. Petrosinella’s mother is pregnant and has a craving for parsley, a herb which, incidentally, was and still is regarded as an ingredient for inducing abortion, placing a rather nuanced slant upon her cravings. The ogress, whose garden the father raids, makes them promise to give up the baby. The mother, however, does raise Petrosinella for some years, until she is irritated by the ogress’s constant reminders and tells Petrosinella that the next time the ogress reminds her of the promise, to tell  her to ‘take her.’ Petrosinella is whisked away and placed in a tower and from there, she encounters a passing prince. Basile tells us that their negotiations go well and they become lovers. What is intriguing is that the lovers escape when the ogress discovers their assignations, but there is no mention of Petrosinella becoming pregnant. The relationship appears consensual and the pair are unpunished. In later versions, the young woman becomes pregnant and she and her lover suffer misadventure before being reunited. There is an undercurrent in Basile’s tale of women taking control of their sexuality and its consequences. Children and pregnancy are not unquestionably desired nor wanted, sexual relations can be consensual, and a woman need not be punished for having sex outside of marriage.

Basile’s tales are a cross-section of attitudes to women’s sexuality and fertility and of the fears and dangers of sex and pregnancy for women. As Bottigheimer argues, social attitudes around sex gradually altered the stakes for fairy-tale’s heroines, giving them less agency in relation to matters of reproduction. Lheritier’s ‘The Discreet Princess’ features a father determined to safeguard the virginity of his daughters while he’s away. He doesn’t merely lock them up in a tower, he also gives them glass distaffs that will break if they have sex. Finette is the virtuous heroine while her sisters are lazy and talkative. When they yield to the seductions of a wicked prince and consequently give birth, Finette takes charge and takes the babies straight back to their father, giving him an apoplexy. At least the tale offers a thought to the father’s responsibility. Unfortunately, the sisters are nonetheless punished for their lack of virtue, as are most women in fairy tale who consent to sex outside of marriage.

Today, feminist revisions of fairy tale often focus upon agency, but very rarely tackle the issues of fertility and sex that are so fundamental to a woman’s ability to control her social and financial security. Once Upon A Time briefly tackles the stories of Emma and Cinderella as single mothers, but by and large, motherhood itself becomes a matter of aspiration in fairy tales even now. In Maleficent, for instance, the sleeping beauty is woken by a kiss from the woman who has learned to love her like a mother. Perhaps it is time that, like Dirty Dancing, fairy tales grapple more directly with the consequences of fertility for women.

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 Fortuné,‘ 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.

The Future of Fairy Tale in Film

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The other week, the Monash Fairy Tale Salon set off to see the Christophe Gans La Belle et la Bête (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?

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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!

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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.

“Baba Bobs Her Hair” and other bits and bobs

I recently published a fairy tale over at Timeless Tales Magazine as part of their Baba Yaga issue. Baba Yaga tales are always such great fun! Who doesn’t love a house on chicken legs?

The tale has a 1920s spin, with loads of fantastic 20s slang and a little movie glamour. Just a little! This is a Baba Yaga tale, so most of the story takes place in a less than savoury setting. I also recorded an audio version of the tale, which for a little magazine patronage, you can download. I’ve been incredibly nervous about that audio! It seemed like such a fun idea to record until I started trying to get Baba’s voice right!!!

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I’ve also published a short piece in The Victorian Writer, “The Heart of the Princess.” I explore the glamorous history of princesses, because it never does to forget the glamour.

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I’m also happy to be in such great company in the issue. Louisa John-Krol‘s story, “The Yellow Mansion,” ends with gold slippers, which made me very happy! Kate Forsyth also has a darker take on fairy tale history. It can’t all be about sparkly things!

The Australian Fairy Tale Society is calling for presentation submissions for its annual conference in June next year. The deadline is January 29. The conference will be in Melbourne next year, which I’m really excited about! The theme is “Into the Bush: Its Beauty and its Terror.” I wonder if we’ll run into Prince Eucalyptus  in the Bush?

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Evil and Fairy Tale’s Female Senior Citizens

This morning I came across Elizabeth Blair’s piece “Why Are Old Women Often the Face of Evil in Fairy Tales and Folklore?” It’s a valid question and one I’ve often contemplated (see Deb Waterhouse-Watson and my chapter here, for instance).

The problem is, we’re often saying the mean, old woman is a negative stereotype – or even evil. Actually, sometimes the mean, old woman just doesn’t care and gets on with what has to be done. Granny Weatherwax taught me that being liked shouldn’t be an object in life.

Nanny Ogg: “No one would come up here this time of night.”
Magrat Garlick: “What’s to be afraid of ?”
Granny: “Us.” 

Granny: “I’ve never claimed to be nice, just to be sensible.”

Yes, Terry Pratchett! It was a little rough this semester. I was teaching The Wee Free Men just after his death and it was difficult to deliver the lecture without tearing up. I definitely read a good portion of his last novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, through a watery haze. I’m just incredibly grateful that he gave us a last novel with Granny (by the way, it’s worth reading Neil Gaiman’s comments when you finish the book) and the novel, while not Pratchett at his most brilliant – it wasn’t, after all, completely polished – is an amazing farewell and leaves Pratchett’s readers with just a little more Granny-style wisdom to keep us going.

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Social media trains us to seek more and more ‘likes’ and to keep clicking ‘like’ even if we just give something a cursory glance and don’t hate it. In fairy tales, life is too difficult, decisions too momentous, to tackle with a click of a ‘like’ button. The old women of fairy tale know that not everyone will love them or protect them and they act accordingly. Granny Weatherwax is not always loved or even liked, but when the going gets tough, you need Granny in your corner, even if Granny herself worries that she’ll turn a corner and follow in Black Aliss’s wicked footsteps.

Not all old women in fairy tale are evil, though. Disney gave us Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, three incredibly loveable old women.

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One of the reasons I disliked Maleficent (2014) was that the film turned the old women into bumbling fools. In Sleeping Beauty (1959), they are a little silly, but there is no underestimating their power. They take charge when the baby princess is cursed with death. They can wield their wands to bake a cake or send a sword swift and true to defeat a dragon. Their magic and their generosity saves the kingdom.

And when old women are evil, they can be rather wonderful. One of my all time favourite, bad, old women is Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). While we may be wary of the negative stereotypes attached to the old woman in fairy tale, I don’t think it hurts to occasionally celebrate her in all her snarky, reckless, insouciant glory. She reminds us we don’t always have to be liked to be incredible women. Indeed, sometimes it’s a lot more fun to be wicked.

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The Female Gaze and Fairy Tales

The male gaze is a fixture of cinema and, to an extent, of literature. Women, more often than not, experience storytelling through a masculine perspective.

However, the female gaze does exist and it’s a wonderful thing. Lately I’ve been encountering examples. I’m working on my own take on the female gaze in Disney, so I was highly amused by a recent Buzzfeed post, “This is What Disney Princes Would Look Like in Real Life.” Prince Eric is particularly noteworthy! I’ve actually always argued there’s a nice parallel between The Little Mermaid (1989) and Dirty Dancing (1987) in which the young heroines peek and openly goggle at their respective princes. The audience is invited to share their gaze. It’s the female gaze in action. Even when Johnny sneaks a peek at Baby changing in the backseat of his car, the audience – and Baby – is watching him sneak that peek.

As I’ve been researching, I’ve come across other examples. Jupiter Ascending (2015) caught my eye because I first read Donna Dickens’ piece on HitFix. I saw the film recently when I downloaded it, having missed it at the cinema. It’s amazing. It really is Cinderella in space. It is trashy and kitschy. It’s not a perfect film – there’s a good review here about the queerness of the villain, for instance – but I really enjoyed the scene with the bees and Jupiter’s female-dominated family life. I also enjoyed the space skates. I would like a pair of those. The film also understands fairy tale. The plot is a little barmy and inconsistent and concerned with capitalism. These are all traits of fairy tale. Logic should never get in the way of a good celebration of and take-down of capitalism!

Then this morning I discovered this great post on Tumblr. I always recommend George of the Jungle (1997) as an entertaining film. I had never explicitly thought about it in light of the female gaze, but it is utterly about the female gaze. I think I’ll have to rewatch it now! The post doesn’t mention one of my favourite scenes, in which George dresses unself-consciously in a short, summery dress. He even does a little twirl! It’s not quite a fairy tale, but it does have many of the elements. The lost son raised by animal friends, the princess from far-off lands who has to be rescued. Yet the tale takes many of the tropes and re-realises them to create a very positive feminine experience.

One of my very favourite fairy tales about the female gaze, though, is that of Betta. A tale by Basile in the 17th century, this is a tale about a girl who rejects all her marriage prospects and literally creates a husband of her own with her own hands. He is beautiful. The Queen even desires him and steals him away. Oh, there should totally be a film about Betta!