Fairy tales are often the first stories kids hear, the cultural memes that whisper old stereotypes from generation to generation, hardened into an irreducible core like the last piece of blackened lasagna you can’t quite get. emboss from your oven. They are easy to dismiss, but impossible to escape. This is why the simple premise behind Gender Swap Fairy Tales is so powerful: the co-authors used an algorithm to reverse all gendered language (“he” becomes “she”, “daughter” becomes “son”) in the classic Fairy books, a series published at the end of the 19th century which collected and popularized many traditional folk tales. While fairy tales have been rewritten countless times to make them more palatable with changing tastes, this is the first experience to revisit the originals with a purist genre reversal, leaving the text otherwise intact.
As Jonathan Plackett, a creative technologist, explains in an author’s note: “Right before our eyes, fascinating new characters have been created and stereotypes have been laid bare. We’ve seen princesses in shining armor run to save their sleeping princes. The kings were sitting by the windows sewing and dreaming of a child. Kind-hearted young men were rewarded for looking past the faults of the bestial princesses. The stories took on a new dimension, effortlessly highlighting gender biases in the original text. “
So far, so reasonably predictable. To be honest, when I first saw the title, it struck me as a clever and dignified gimmick, but not something I would find particularly surprising. After all, it’s 2020: I read Angela Carter’s subversive fairy tales in the ’90s, and have decades of solid experience rolling my eyes at Disney Princesses, while blockbuster movies from ghost hunters at Ocean’s 8 have already surfed the gender flip trend.
But when it came to that, reading the collection was a strangely baffling experience. It’s one thing to know that there are misogynistic stereotypes, quite another to scrutinize the machine that creates them. After countless clashes with scheming wizards, I began to feel hostile and suspicious of any old man who walked through the pages. With the sexes reversed, it became austere and ridiculous how nearly every reference to a young man was about his appearance and clothing. In a scene from “Cinder, or the Little Glass Slipper,” for example, an old queen drools over the magnificent young man at the ball, telling the king, “It has been a long time since she saw such a beautiful and beautiful creature. charming. It’s not just the word “creature” that dehumanizes: reading all about “Beau’s” exploits in “Beauty and the Beast” gives you a similar jolt. His appearance is his identity. It’s that simple and that deep.
What I found most disconcerting was that even after only half an hour of reading manufactured tales with a cynical hat on, I began to be sucked in by the depreciation of young men, starting to expect that they are nothing but weak showcases. In fact, when centuries ago of cultural norms combined with structures that encompass real-world gender roles, it’s no wonder the pace of change toward equality makes the Middle Glacier look like Usain Bolt. chased by a bear.
It’s not just the words, of course: as any parent will tell you, pictures are what really capture a child’s imagination. This new collection features beautiful and stimulating works of art by Karrie Fransman, who explains in an introductory note that she “drew inspiration from textiles and furniture from the countries and centuries in which these stories were born”. The illustrations also support the purpose of the book by shattering stereotypes. There is nothing quite like seeing a Brienne de Tarth knight looming over a boy lying on his back, sprawled out and half-dressed to make you feel on a visceral level how the assumptions underlying the original are weird and scary. The Sleeping Beauty are.
If Disney are the Grimm brothers of our time, they summarily failed to get the memo on updating their aesthetic. When the first Frozen movie came out, it was before I had a baby, so I was blithely ignorant of all the phenomenon beyond the vague feeling of approval that it was, well, a traditional feminist fairy tale. Listen to the film with your eyes closed and it does. But the first time I saw the characters, I thought I had made a mistake. The blonde with the hungry waist and Manga sex cartoon eyes is the new feminist role model for little girls? The bizarre sexualization of female cartoon characters, whether they are rabbits, mermaids, or underage princesses, is a well-documented facet of how gender stereotypes play out in pop culture. Where Fransman paints in intricate watercolors, many others have preceded her with internet memes that reverse the gender of cartoons or superheroes for hilarious effect.
Gender Swap Fairy Tales, with almost all of the original tongue intact, may not be the ideal comfortable read for everyone (“red iron shoes had been prepared for the wicked old king, and he was forced to walk in and dance until let him fall dead ”), but it’s an important reminder that the way we tell stories matters. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with loving pretty clothes, taking care of people, or playing a golden harp with a blue bird perched on your shoulder. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with being brave, taking control, and fighting one or two giants. The problem arises when these traits are assigned rigidly from birth in binaries that come with social, emotional, and economic penalties. Children need the freedom to choose their own path through the forest, and even silly stories play a serious role.
Gender Swap Fairy Tales is now available on Faber & Faber