When we bought my youngest son a set of Ladybird stories to satisfy his love of fairy tales, it took me a while to notice that these were the same stories I’d read as a child. The pictures had changed but gradually it became clear that the words remained the same. I remembered the rhythms and metaphors, almost hearing my mother’s intonation as she’d once read them out to me.
At first I thought “oh, how cute! A blast from the past!” Then I read on and the feeling morphed into “bloody hell! No wonder I’ve always had a love-hate Stockholm Syndrome relationship with heteronormative patriarchy! It started right here!”
This goes beyond the usual “it’s all about needing to find a handsome prince!” critique of fairy tales. That I can live with. After all, if he’s a nice prince, there are worse ways to end up, right? But these stories are riddled with psychological abuse and rape culture. For years I didn’t notice, just as my son isn’t noticing now. I sit by his bedside, reading aloud, struggling to make excuses for old friends who suddenly seem far more sinister than I ever recall them being.
It started with The Princess And The Pea, which I’d simply remembered as a cool story due to the huge pile of mattresses the princess got to sleep on. Turns out it’s not about mattresses, or peas. It is, quite obviously, some freaky pre-marriage virginity test:
“I do not know what was in the bed,” replied the princess, “but there was something hard in it. Now I am black and blue all over.”
Then the queen knew that this was a real princess because she had felt the pea through twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. Only a real princess could be as tender as that.
Unlike, say, a commoner, who’s no doubt been putting out for pea after pea and possibly the odd root vegetable. No, our princess is pure and even has the bruises to prove it. Unfortunately, rather than leg it in response to this sneaky experiment, she opts to marry into the family who carried it out. Because that’s what princesses do. Of course, I didn’t think any of this at the time but I start to wonder: just what foundations are being laid when you read a story so weirdly unpleasant and it’s sold to you as happy ever after?
Next my son and I tried Rumpelstiltskin. Like many I remember Rumpelstiltskin as the baddie in the tale. It did not cross my mind that locking up a young woman and telling her you’ll kill her unless she can spin straw into gold is a pretty mean way to start a relationship. But hey, the man who does this is a king so I guess there’s some incentive to forgive and forget (not much, mind, and it seems their marriage is for life).
Then there’s Beauty and the Beast. Here it’s not just the imprisonment, but the emotional blackmail that had me reaching for the sick bucket:
“I cannot live without you, Beauty,” he whispered, “so I am starving myself to death.”
Sadly, rather than tell him to stop being such a melodramatic cry-baby, Beauty immediately tells the Beast that she loves him, what with his “kind heart”. A similarly dubious escape from the friendzone is granted the frog in The Princess And The Frog, who blackmails his way into the princess’s bed by rescuing a stupid gold ball:
Once more the frog spoke up. “I am too tired,” he said. “I want to sleep beside you on your silken sheets. Please lift me up.”
Again the Princess began to weep. “If you do not lift me into your bed,” went on the frog, “I shall have to tell the king, your father.”
The princess knew she had no choice, for her father would insist she kept her promise. So, with tears running down her face, she picked up the frog, climbed back into bed and put him on the silken pillow beside her.
Thankfully, the frog picks that moment to turn into a handsome prince. Phew! See, ladies? No need for enthusiastic consent; just force yourselves and who knows what might happen?
The thing that puzzles me about these stories is how selective my memory has been. All of these creepy little details that I’ve absorbed without thinking return to me now. I focussed on the pile of mattresses, not the function of the pea beneath them. I worried about the starving beast and the poor little frog, feeling no sympathy for the mean young heroines as long as they withheld their favour. I cursed Rumpelstiltskin without noticing that the miller’s daughter was being threatened not just by him, but by her future husband. Of course, they’re just stories, but looking at them now, I’m not surprised women of my generation now fall for the abusive “romances” such as Fifty Shades of Grey. We’ve had years and years in which misogynist fantasies have lain within us, undisturbed. You don’t mess with fairy tales. After all, you tell yourself, you can’t change the story. It’s tradition.
Looking at the stories in a different light, what strikes me above all is the overriding sense of male entitlement. Don’t be mean or haughty, girls. Kiss the frog, even if you don’t want to. What is my son learning from this? What did I learn, if not that women must be both virginal yet never so cruel as to turn a man down? I can choose not to think of it in this way – it’s just a story, just a stupid story – but once you start joining the dots, it’s hard to stop.
When I first came to feminism, I saw the oppression of women as an odd sort of accident, some random misjudgement in the allocation of gender stereotypes. I assumed that education would sort it out. What, you mean to say women don’t naturally prefer being treated as inferior? Well, why didn’t you say so? Of course we’ll change our ways! Yet that wasn’t happening, despite the best efforts of countless brilliant women, and it’s still not happening now. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to think about it too deeply. I was afraid that any kind of structural analysis – any attempt to show that it was not just a strange global coincidence – would either prove that women were inferior, or that men hated us far more than any of us, male or female, cared to admit.
These days I don’t think, given both the continuation of male violence against women and the painfully slow rate of change, that we can afford not to see what is right there before us. Moreover, I don’t think women are inferior to men. We are every bit as human; they just don’t see it and most of the time we don’t, either. And yes, I know, not all men consciously despise us. I am pretty sure my sons and my partner do not despise me. Even so, we are all of us functioning within a social, political and cultural context which can only find moral justification if it is agreed that women are not as human as men. We are objectified, threatened and exploited. We live with a fear that is usually below the surface, never fully articulated because that is too terrifying. It is real all the same.
I have experienced male violence and sexual assault but it has taken me years to put this into any kind of context. It’s always a series of isolated incidents, or that’s what we’re led to believe, and yet it’s everywhere. And if it seems far-fetched for me to find the same dynamics of oppression within fairy stories, then where? In page three? In sex work? In the undervaluing of female labour? In rape culture? In restrictions on reproductive freedom? In the way male politicians speak about women? In rape jokes? In two women murdered by their male partners every week? Just when it is enough to join the dots? When will we have reached the point at which self-styled liberal, non-sexist men stop telling us not to get carried away and that each individual incident must have some context that we women don’t yet grasp? When is it more than coincidence? How many women have to die before we reach that point?
I see this in current responses to Elliot Rodger’s shooting rampage. The misogynist motivations for this man’s actions couldn’t be more obvious from the video he left behind:
I’m still a virgin […] You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls are not attracted to me but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime. […] I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men.
He is the Beast expecting love from Beauty. He is the frog forcing his way onto the pillow. He cannot believe that after all he’s been taught these women – these haughty women – just won’t put out. He is killing people because women, any women, won’t let him stick his cock into them, him, “a nice guy”. It’s male entitlement and misogyny write large and it runs from the smallest thing to the most extreme. It is the air we breathe.
I refuse to shut my eyes to the signs, every single one, and I refuse to see this as coincidence. Women are hated. Until we admit this I see no point in begging for crumbs from the equality table.
PS If you are about to tell me I have written this too soon – that I am “jumping to conclusions” – then I don’t accept that. If anything, these things are always written too late.