8th Jun 2010 in Thievery, Writing
Thievery is a series of blog posts about my story inspirations.
‘Storytelling’, published in Seven Letter Words.
I am a nerd for fairy tales. I wrote my undergrad dissertation on fairy tales. I teach a class in writing fiction based on fairy tales. I’ve written handfuls of fairy tale and mythology–inspired poems. But I hadn’t retold a fairy tale.
This is because I have studied retold fairy tales, and I know how tricky it is to subvert them effectively. Cultural myths are ingrained in us from childhood and stepping outside them is no easy task, but there would be no point in me just retelling a story in pretty language. It’s been done before, and better.
So I started thinking about Snow White.
When I tried to sum up Snow White’s character, it seemed that the most important thing about her was her youth. Sure, she was beautiful and innocent and pure, but all that was intrinsic to her youth. So I decided to subvert the fairy tale by changing the most vital part of little Snow: I made her old.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl with lips blood-red, hair ebony-black, skin snow-white. She had a child, a soft blonde angel. When the child was raised, the beautiful girl’s work was done: she had fulfilled her role as a woman. Her breasts emptied, her hands softened, her insides shrivelled like dead leaves. She moved slowly, thoughtfully. There was nothing to hurry for now. She was above the dirty business of men, of sex, of children. Her body did not bleed; it did not sweat or scream or cry.
Snow White is an object. She’s a doll, a statue: a thing to be looked at and fought over. It seemed to me that an old woman – a woman past childbearing, past sex, past everything that we’re told it means to be a woman – could be even more objectified. She could be even more of a china doll: fragile, slow, quiet. She could be owned and controlled.
I also wanted to look at the themes of female competition in the fairy tale. My favourite Snow White retellings subvert this (for example, Emma Donoghue’s The Tale of the Apple), but I wanted to highlight it. It seems to me that feminism in 2010 is not about women’s relationships with men; it’s about women’s relationships with women.
Feminism is about not using words like ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’.
It’s about not seeing other women as competition.
It’s about not commenting negatively on the way other women look.
We’re taught from childhood – in stories like Snow White – that women compete. We’re taught that a woman’s value is in how attractive she is to men and how much they want to fight over her. We’re taught that being beautiful is the most important thing there is, and if another woman is more beautiful then she is more powerful, and you must tear that slutty bitch’s hair out and steal her man, and then you too will have power.
In this story, I wanted to highlight that. I wanted to show what happens when women compete instead of working together. And it’s not a happy ending.