Sleeping Beauty Has Always Been About Sex.

November 29, 2011 § 15 Comments

Before I begin with Breillat and Campion’s sexy new Sleeping Beauties (trailers below), Mr. Jack Zipes and how he sees into the insides of my brain, and the vast sweeping problem of internet trolls, let me admit fully: I can see what this blog has become. If I could tell wee little Cate of October to give her blog a name that more obviously advertised her overwhelming obsession with fairy tale retellings and her desire to sink her ineffectual teeth into the hides of those who would desecrate the names of Grimm, Andersen, and Pushkin, I would. But you can’t live in the past, dear readers, and that’s a fact. Oh, how long ago October seems, and already this blog has found a pretty clear focus.

Stick with me, readers. I’ve found a niche.

That said, let me give you a piece of worldly advice: never read comments on articles you like. You’ll want to. You’ll read an article that speaks to you, or just generally amuses you in a pleasant way, and you’ll see the “30 comments” button winking at you.

My goodness, you’ll say. How delightful! 30 people who surely feel the same exact way I do about what I just read and who couldn’t possibly have anything negative to say about it! Let’s meet them!

Don’t meet them. You’ll hate them. In all likelihood, if given the chance, they’ll hate you too.

We all know that there are, out there, your obvious “u suk!” internet trolls out there (and fellow blogger Amy at Lucy’s Football has a hilarious tutorial on how to be an effective one here), but possibly even worse–or just more irritating–are the ones who really want to show everyone how effing smart they are. Like, SMARTER THAN A COLUMBIA PHD smart. Smarter than SOMEONE WHO’S BEEN STUDYING THIS SHIT SINCE BEFORE YOU WERE BORN smart.

Case in point: this article, from August, on Salon.com, interviewing fairy tale expert Jack Zipes on the subject of the myriad of fairy tale film adaptations this coming year.

I know that Jack Zipes doesn’t know who I am and certainly doesn’t need me to defend him from the masses at Salon.com. So I hardly need to mention, to you readers or to the complete moron who sarcastically jabs at the interviewer calling Zipes an expert, this little achievement:

No biggie. Just the translation that’s most relied on, in any edition, by scholars and critics. WHATEVS. He’s “clearly not a film critic”? NOPE. NOPE, HE’S NOT. He’s a friggin professor emeritus who’s published nine books and so many articles and essays that his bibliography is ten pages long on the subject of children’s literature and fairy tales. LET’S BE SNIDE, SHALL WE?

Jerkoffs.

…Ok.

I’m glad I got that extremely nerdy rant out of my system.

But here’s where I inch closer to a point, one a tad more constructive (I hope): many of the commenters didn’t feel that Zipes had addressed the question, “Are dark fairy tales more authentic?” Well, this blogger/die-hard fan thought he did overall, but judge for yourself, I guess.

In the context of this larger question, the interviewer asks how the cultural role of fairy tales has changed over the centuries:

[Fairy] tales themselves, they were never for children. There’s a “myth” about fairy tales that makes it seem as if they were naturally generated and universal, designated primarily for children. The tales were always told and later written down for adults…

…Has the function of a fairy tale changed? Of course it has, because technologies and the way fairy tales are disseminated and packaged have. Fairy tales were never commodities; up through the beginning of the 20th century, they were either told or read for pleasure (and also [some] of them were didactic) … Unfortunately, in the 20th century, with the rise of the consumerist society, a lot of fairy tales — particularly the ones that are developed by Disney, and Disney-like corporations — have [become] commodities to consume, simply for the purpose of the brand or the corporation that produces these films.

A little context: Zipes’s own niche within the larger world of fairy tale scholars is one in which he reads literature through the lens of socialism and economics–to put it simply (which is tough), he writes about how the fairy tale has gone from a community-owned entity with the freedom to become deeply personal, to one that is a capitalist commodity, something bought and sold in branded versions. The more branded one version of the tale becomes, the more you’ll hear people say, “well that’s not the right version,” because the version they’re being told doesn’t follow Disney’s. By being discouraged from claiming one’s share in the communal ownership of fairy tales, we are being discouraged from remaining open-minded about them, from recognizing their malleability and their seemingly endless capacity for personal symbolism.

But now I’m getting sidetracked.

The interviewer (Emma Mustich of Salon) then asks whether the new versions of “Snow White,” which promised, at the time the article was written, to be “darker” versions of the tale (before the laughably light trailer for Mirror, Mirror was unveiled), would actually deliver on this promise. Now, the interview is edited and condensed, but even if Zipes didn’t actually say “they can’t be darker versions of the story because the authentic stories are already dark, that’s my implied answer to your article’s over-arching question, moron,” he didn’t really need to. He goes on to say:

You know, all they’re doing [with these films] is trying to stir your prurient interest. Really. They’re trying to titillate you, to say that this is going to be the film that will expose the deep darkness, the profound darkness of these tales. And by chance, they might, you know. But [first of all], this is a paratext. They’re preparing discussion already to get you ready to buy a ticket to see this film…

THANK YOU. For real.

This is such a pet peeve of mine when it comes to fairy tale retellings and adaptations. They’re called “dark,” they’re called “new twists,” when in fact, the stories have always been dark. “Snow White” has always been about virginity and female sexuality and a child’s fear. “Red Riding Hood” has always been about fear of the woods and sex and death and men. “Beauty and the Beast” has always reflected a bride’s apprehensions of marriage, and her “wifely duties.” “Sleeping Beauty” has always, always, always, been about fantasies of the untouched virgin, and a woman awakening to sexual maturity. Fairy tales have always been about fear and imperfect people and beating the big scary bad guy and getting your just desserts. Toes have been cut off, grannies have been eaten by their own granddaughters. Women have had sex with wolves, murderers, frogs, their own fathers, you name it, in the metaphorical quest for maturity. Men have chopped off heads, arms, fingers, slept with immortals, princesses, frogs, you name it. Every time someone, in an article, blog post, or movie review betrays their own lack of research by claiming that fairy tales used to be cuddly things but now that Catherine Hardwicke has made Twilight 2 Red Riding Hood, the game has changed, I can feel my ulcer waving to me from the future.

Zipes does like to harp on how the masses are being “bought” by Disney, but you know what, “It interviewee just came off as rather unprofessional”? One, edit your grammar. Two, he’s made a career on that gripe.

I can skim over the Disney-trashing (though I heartily agree) and revel in Zipes’s dissection of a bit of marketing copy that bugs me every time I see it written out–the “dark” version you’ve never seen before.

It bugs me, this marketing phrase, because I think those readers who already know that fairy tales are dark, and who would love to see another dark version, aren’t the ones being spoken to here–we already know that a “dark” Snow White is not a new thing, and it’s ok, the more the merrier. If your goal is a dark fairy tale that will truly delight, surprise, and possibly scare your audience, then those folks would seem to be your target lot. But by implying that your version of Snow White is “a dark twist on the classic tale,” when the classic tale was already pretty twisted, thanks, you seem to be trying to get (again, I sound like a broken record) the people who’ve never seen a dark version. It just makes me feel left out. And I shouldn’t be left out of my favorite genre.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, like Zipes, I’m putting myself out there and looking closely at something that no one gives a shit about, which I’ll only get chided for: “Sounds like somebody didn’t have a good day at Disneyland. Jeesh!”

I’m thankful, at least, that Mustich’s article is well researched, even if her commenters are out for blood, and that she knows full well that it’s Disney’s and most of the other animated films of the 20th century that fluff-ified fairy tales: “Does this ‘dark turn’ in fairy-tale filmmaking represent a return to older, more forbidding versions of stories Disney gussied up for 20th-century kids? Or are these new movies simply cogs in the wheel of folk tale re-telling?”

As I mentioned last week, re: Snow White: a Tale of Terror, not only are the dark tales old news, but so are dark film versions. Mustich doesn’t discuss this, but Zipes sure does, citing films such as Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik and Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. He also mentions Catherine Breillat’s fantastic Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard), which, by brilliant coincidence, I had just finished watching before finding this article which has me so worked up.

I would love to do a full review of Breillat’s Barbe Bleue, so I won’t go into it too much now. Got to save my juices.

But I do wonder what Zipes will make of some of the films Mustich did mention, one of which is another film from Breillat, The Sleeping Beauty. Like I said, the tale of Sleeping Beauty has always been about sex. How could it not be? She’s asleep through puberty and then wakes to a man’s touch? Come on. So while “darker” film versions are hardly news, I’m sure we’ll see some intense commentary about how the story of Sleeping Beauty is being treated in these two contemporary films, which both seem to be pushing the extreme sexuality of their heroines to new heights, for the fairy tale genre. While fairy tales have always been sexy, I have to say that I’m not familiar with too many films–films, mind you–that are playing this explicitly with the sexual themes (print, no problem. Fairy tale erotica and literary “adult” retellings abound. Films do a great job of hinting at sexuality, but in comparison to these two SB films, well…). Bruno Bettelheim, author of the Freudian fairy tale analysis The Uses of Enchantment, would be either very proud or very disturbed. See what I mean:

The dueling Snow Whites might be the talk of the popular film-scape this summer, but I have a feeling that there are many readers out there, perhaps lurking on the comment threads of Salon.com, who’ll have something to say about the dueling Sleeping Beauties once they’re both available to view (though Campion’s film is not in wide release, Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty is available on Netflix, so look for a Breillat-centric post very soon here on the Train). I just hope they can keep the snottiness to themselves…or at least on their own blogs, like the rest of us.

*12/7/11 Correction: Sleeping Beauty is not directed, but produced, by Jane Campion. The film is directed by Julia Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay.

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§ 15 Responses to Sleeping Beauty Has Always Been About Sex.

  • Andrea says:

    I wonder… When Disney first started making princess tales all cute and fluffy, if the masses were shocked at how much they strayed from the original tale, or please to see the tale family friendly?

    I luv reeding ur blog.

    • crfricke says:

      That’s a really interesting question… I’d be curious to find out, myself.

      • I don’t believe so, because Disney wasn’t the one who started making them cute and fluffy first: the Grimms brothers did, when they saved Little Red AND Grandma. Since they coincided with the so-called Age of Enlightenment, though, when fairy tales (and really, all romantic fiction) was being shunted to the nursery, the “sanitization” of those old wives relics went, I’d suppose, mostly unremarked.

        I find it more interesting (and C. S. Lewis, Tolkein & G. K. Chesterton all wrote about this) that the Enlightenment folk essentially shunted the fairy tales to the nursery because they knew how powerful and dangerous they were.

        But now I’m sounding all snooty! Excellent article! Keep ’em coming!

        • crfricke says:

          Thanks for reading Emily, and never be afraid to sound snooty here! I think it’s funny how the term “dark” has circulated in and around discussions of fairy tales, and we forget that, for as “dark” as the Grimms’ tales seem to us in comparison to Disney, they were very sentimental that way–Perrault, as you know, just lets Red die as a lesson to young ladies who would put themselves in harms way by speaking to strangers (or by wearing short skirts in public, in a more contemporary read). It’s impossible to say “this is a dark fairy tale” or “this is a bright and happy fairy tale,” because those descriptions are meaningless–is “The Robber Bridegroom” dark? Sure, because a bride sees her future husband mutilate and murder and innocent girl and keeps the finger as proof to hang him with. Then again, no, because in the end the bad are punished and the meek prevail. Maybe not cute and fluffy, per se, but definitely tidy, depending on how you read it. Great comment, I’ve been meaning to brush up on my C.S. Lewis lately!

        • crfricke says:

          Emily, I feel like a complete dolt because I only just realized that you’re the Emily C. A. Snyder, playwright, who wrote “Charming Princes” (aren’t you? there can’t be two of you!)–I just mentioned you in a post! Did you find me through the Playscripts blog, or is this just an odd coincidence? Thanks so much for hopping over to my blog, either way! So glad to hear from authors I admire!

      • Naw, don’t feel like a dolt. Yup, I’m the Charming Princes lady – and I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I was for the shout-out in the excellent Playscripts blogpost! I’m even more humbled that you like my work!

        I found you through the happy stalkerage of these here interwebs, because I wanted to thank you. Imagine my elation, then, to discover that not only did you blog about fairy tales, that you very much know whereof you speak!

        As for your taking exception to the word “dark” – I whole heartedly agree. I think that Chesterton put it best when he said that the difficulty with modern works (he was writing at the turn of the last century) was that:

        “In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.” ~ Orthodoxy, “The Maniac” http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Gilbert_K_Chesterton/Orthodoxy/The_Maniac_p2.htmlhttp://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Gilbert_K_Chesterton/Orthodoxy/The_Maniac_p2.html

        I believe that Lewis’ writings are mostly in his “Abolition of Man.” I don’t have the quote on hand, although I can look it up. This idea that fluffy=light, or that happily ever after isn’t hard won, is bothersome to me. My first novel, “Niamh and the Hermit” (terrible title, I know) is subtitled “A Fairy Tale” and I wrote it for adults. Of course, it’s only doing well among middle school girls–esp. homeschoolers who tend to have better verbal skills and more time (and will) to read! It’s not a perfect book, but it has been criticized b/c of it’s “dark” parts. *sigh* What DO they teach them at these schools? 😉

        Anywho, it’s loverly to “meet” you, even cyberly! And sweeter to discuss fairy tales and their perceptions thereof!

  • My friend, to paraphrase PT Barnum, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the comments section of any publicly available Internet forum.

    Good post, though!

  • Oops! I meant HL Mencken, not PT Barnum. Still, sentiment holds.

  • Jennifer Lynn Krohn says:

    The trailer for Campion’s Sleeping Beauty film reminds Kawabata’s “House of the Sleeping Beauties,” only focusing on the perspective of the girl instead of the customer.

  • Jack Zipes says:

    I just happened to come across your blog, and though, yes, I can defend myself, I am always grateful when people like yourself come to my defense. I enjoyed your witty and astute comments. My work is often misunderstood and misquoted, and I am often labeled some kind of radical intellectual out of touch with the world. It is nice to be read by some one like you who is thoughtful and takes folklore and fairy tales in a serious way.
    Jack Zipes

    • crfricke says:

      I’m honored that you read it! I was also very grateful for the time you took to talk to me at the Grimm Legacies conference in Cambridge–be on the lookout for upcoming posts on the films you recommended to me. Thanks so much for reading, and for the compliment. You’ve made my day.

  • You smashed it once more my friend continue the great work I constantly get entertainment from your articles.
    . !

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