The compendium has flipped the genders of our childhood princes and princesses, a simple switch-up that makes the stereotypes embedded in our traditions appear even more troubling, says the Independent’s books columnist Ceri Radford.
If you have a reactionary uncle you feel like trolling, here’s a shopping tip: wrap up a copy of Gender-Swapped Fairy Tales, the new Faber & Faber anthology by Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett. As Sleeping Beauty becomes Sleeping Handsome and powerful princesses ride to the rescue, it’s enough to make any hard-baked gender traditionalist cough up a mince pie crumb or two.
Fairy tales are often the first stories children hear, the cultural memes that allow ancient stereotypes to be whispered from generation to generation, hardened into an irreducible core like the last bit of blackened lasagne you can’t quite chisel off your oven. They’re easy to dismiss, but impossible to escape. That’s why the straightforward premise behind Gender-Swapped Fairy Tales is so powerful: the co-authors used an algorithm to flip all gendered language (‘he’ becomes ‘she’, ‘daughter’ becomes ‘son’) in the classic Fairy Books, a series published in the late 19th century that collected and popularised many traditional folk tales. While fairy stories have been rewritten countless times to make them more palatable to changing tastes, this is the first experiment to revisit the originals with a purist gender reversal, leaving the text otherwise untouched.
As Jonathan Plackett, a creative technologist, explains in an author’s note: “Right before our eyes, fascinating new characters were created and stereotypes were laid bare. We saw princesses in shining armour racing to rescue their sleeping princes. Kings sat by windows sewing and longing for a child. Kind-hearted young men were rewarded for looking past the flaws of beastly princesses. The stories took on a new dimension, effortlessly highlighting the gender biases within the original text.”
So far, so reasonably predictable. To be honest, when I first saw the title it struck me as a clever and worthy gimmick, but not something I would find particularly surprising. After all, it’s 2020: I read Angela Carter’s subversive fairy tales back in the Nineties and have decades of solid experience rolling my eyes at Disney princesses, while blockbuster films from Ghostbusters to Ocean’s 8 have already surfed the gender flip trend.
But when it came to it, actually reading the collection was a strangely disconcerting experience. It’s one thing to know that misogynistic stereotypes exist, another to peer into the machine that creates them. After countless run-ins with scheming wizards, I started to find myself feeling hostile and suspicious towards any old man strolling across the pages. With the genders reversed, it became stark and ridiculous how almost every reference to a young guy concerned his appearance and his clothes. In a scene from “Cinder, or the Little Glass Slipper”, for example, an old queen drools over the gorgeous young man at the ball, telling the king: “It was a long time since she had seen so beautiful and lovely a creature.” It’s not just the word ‘creature’ that dehumanises: reading all about the exploits of “Handsome” in “Handsome and the Beast” gives you a similar jolt. His appearance is his identity. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
The thing I found most unnerving was that even after just half an hour of reading manufactured tales with a cynical hat on, I started to get sucked into the belittlement of young men, beginning to expect them to be nothing but weak window-dressing. In reality, when there are centuries of cultural norms combined with structures that encase real-world gender roles, it’s no wonder that the pace of change towards equality makes the average glacier look like Usain Bolt being pursued by a bear.
It’s not just the words, of course: as every parent will tell you, the pictures are what really captures a kid’s imagination. This new collection features gorgeous and thought-provoking artwork by Karrie Fransman, who explains in an introductory note that she “drew inspiration from the textiles and furniture of the countries and centuries in which the stories originated”. The illustrations also back up the aim of the book by disrupting stereotypes. There’s nothing like seeing a Brienne of Tarth-style knight looming over a supine, sprawled, half-dressed boy to make you feel on a visceral level how weird and creepy the assumptions underpinning the original Sleeping Beauty are.
If Disney are the Brothers Grimm of our times, they have summarily failed to get the memo on updating their aesthetics. When the first Frozen film came out, it was before I had a baby, so I was blithely ignorant of the whole phenomenon beyond picking up a vague sense of approval that this was, finally, a mainstream feminist fairy tale. Listen to the film with your eyes shut and it is. But the first time I actually saw the characters, I thought I’d made some mistake. The blonde one with the starvation waist and Manga sex cartoon eyes is the new feminist role model for little girls? The bizarre sexualisation of female cartoon characters, whether they’re rabbits or mermaids or under-age princesses, is a well-documented facet of the way gender stereotypes play out in pop culture. Where Fransman paints in intricate watercolours, many others have come before her with internet memes that swap the gender of cartoons or superheroes to hilarious effect.
Gender-Swapped Fairy Tales, with almost all the original language untouched, may not be the ideal cosy bedtime reading for all (“red hot iron shoes had been prepared for the wicked old King, and he was made to get into them and dance till he fell down dead”), but it’s an important reminder that the way we tell stories matters. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with liking pretty clothes, caring for people or playing on a golden harp with a bluebird perched on your shoulder. Equally, there’s nothing wrong with being brave, taking control and fighting a giant or two. The problem comes when these traits are rigidly assigned from birth into binaries that come with social, emotional and economic penalties attached. Children need the freedom to choose their own path through the forest, and even silly stories play a serious role.