Tuesday, December 18, 2012

All I Want For Christmas...

Being a scholar in English Lit., I need books, of course?

I'm especially eager to read Fairy Tale Queens. There's a chapter, "The Queen's Wardrobe: Dressing the Part," which could have been written especially for me! Although I'm also intrigued by "The Fairest of Them All: Queenship and Beauty." Every chapter looks fascinating and I have high hopes.

Yesterday I was thrilled to discover a collection of essays, "The Wider Worlds Of Jim Henson: Essays on his work and legacy beyond The Muppet Show and Sesame Street" that has just been released. It has essays on Labyrinth, once of my all time favourite films! "Anti-consumerism in Labyrinth" particularly caught my eye. I'm very interested in the correlation of fairy tale and consumerism.

I'm also hoping to pick up Marvelous Transformations: An Anthology of Fairy Tales and Contemporary Critical Perspectives. There's some fresh translations of some of my favourite tales.

Away from books, I could really use the boxed set of Once Upon A Time. What began as a cursory interest is developing. The latest episodes featuring a quartet of fairy tale princesses on a quest have won me over, not to mention scenes of Rumplestiltskin and Belle eating hamburgers on their date. I really love the latter romance. Belle is one of those fairy tale heroines who has always been strong, but always within patriarchal space. This Rumplestiltskin is a different kind of Beast, though. He has a feminine quality that goes beyond his deftness with a spinning wheel. I want to see where this goes.

Incidentally, could I include a spinning wheel on my list?

On a craftier note, I could definitely use some Pride and Prejudice fabric. The designer even has the zombie version, as well as some cute Wizard of Oz fabric. Damask fabric featuring Austen quotes is also good. And who wouldn't like some Walter Crane mermaids?

I hope everyone has a great holiday season.

*Note: I think I might already have some of these under the tree... shhh... I don't suspect a thing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Let the gender games continue

I spent Monday and Tuesday at The Gender Games in Melbourne. No one died, though we had a good go at patriarchy! Seriously, though, it was wonderful to see such a diverse crowd of academics working in different fields coming together. I sat in on any number of interesting sessions and chaired a session that I flippantly referred to as 'the panel about dead women'. Seriously, the number of papers given on the topic of how often women are portrayed as 'dead' was fascinating and not a little alarming. Is our culture still more comfortable when women are represented as dead?

The coffee was good, too.

I'm still thinking about gender and I'm still engaged in my favourite topic - pink. This morning, a friend tweeted this boing boing link. It's titled "Girls' crappy fake toy laptop is pink, and half as powerful as boys' crappy fake toy laptop." I heartily agree with the sentiments, but I have a couple of issues.

1. Both boys and girls' laptops are referred to as crappy and fake, but the girls' laptop is described as pink, while the boring old grey, white and black of the boys' laptop is not mentioned.
2. The inference is that the girls' laptop being pink is part of its 'crappiness' (I admit, it's an awful shade of pink and the design could be better - the iBooks of yore did it better - but pink in itself does not make for a 'crappy' product).
3. The fact that the laptop is pink seems to be more significant than the fact that it is less powerful, has fewer features, and is comparatively more expensive as a result.

I'm really kind of tired of products getting away with being more expensive and offering less quality by being 'pink'. I'm also really tired of people getting upset at the colour, rather than the way pink products are made and priced and restricted to usage by females.

I'm also interested in how people construct their ideas of 'gender neutral'. The boys' laptop looks very masculine to me. All straight lines, boring colours, ruthlessly corporate (okay, I may be exaggerating slightly). Often people respond to pink for girls by complaining about the lack of gender neutral products. I have two points.

1. Pink should also be available to boys. Boys like pink. I know, it's amazing.
2. What is gender neutral?

I think that's a really difficult question today. There are some obviously gender neutral toys and objects. A toy penguin, providing it isn't clothed, can easily be gender neutral. But otherwise?

This question amused me when the controversy over the 'Bic for Her' pens arose. Look at how the linked Jezebel article approaches the topic, asking "I mean, women can use men's pens but all that comes out is pesky math and science. And what are we going to do with that!?" The default is that pens are masculine! Yes, the author is being snarky, but why can't women have pens designed to look feminine? Many pens are designed to look masculine - dark, utilitarian colours, metal, 'techy,' large and chunky features. They don't have to tell us they're made for men, because it's so obvious, right? And gender neutral pens? What do they look like? I mean, really? Think about it. You could say a plain old bic pen is gender neutral, but it usually comes in blue and black, colours we associate with masculinity, not gender neutrality. They're supremely, almost aggressively, functional. Again, this is something we usually associate with masculinity, not necessarily gender neutrality. Is our default for gender neutrality actually masculinity in disguise? Or at least, perhaps more troubling, the absence of femininity?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Leia as the new Disney princess?

Since the announcement that Disney bought Lucasfilm and with it, the Star Wars franchise, there has been much speculation, many rumours and countless bad puns.

Of course, my main interest has been in the fate of Princess Leia. The moment Star Wars fell under the Disney banner, Leia became, in effect, a 'Disney Princess'. This has provided great material for fan artists and makers. Here's just a sample of my favourites.

An all-singing, all-dancing version of "Bonjour" with Princess Leia.

A pocket princess cartoon of princesses comparing weaponry.

A SMH article about Carrie Fisher's thoughts on Leia as a Disney princess.

Actually, since Star Wars is a fairy tale (in space), Leia isn't really a fish out of water, particularly when you look at Disney heroines like Mulan, Merida and Rapunzel. She already has great hair and she can talk to Ewoks and Wookies.

Aside from all the angst about this news, I think it's a positive sign for Leia. What has happened? Leia has, in many respects, become the focal point of speculation about Disney's Star Wars. Since Disney is known for fairy tale and fairy tale, for better or for worse, focuses on princesses, Leia is the obvious point of convergence of the two franchises. People are already calling for, to quote Charlie Jane Anders, more "women with blasters." Maybe I'm a cock-eyed optimist, but perhaps Disney can provide that.

And really, can it be worse than one of my all time favourite Christmas numbers?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sneak Peek ATS3300 Fantasy Literature

The first unit I taught as a full time staff member of Monash University was 'Introduction to Fantasy Narratives.' It was a first year unit. It was large. But I was always bothered that there was an 'introduction' and nothing more. We set out to change that.

ATS2915 Roots of Fantasy ran earlier this year, in which early works and influential works of fantasy were studied, and next year I'm taking the helm of ATS3300 Fantasy Literature, in which we look at what's happened in the genre since.

I'm just finalising the text list, but we have authors (in no particular order): J.R.R Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, Robin Hobb, Cory Doctorow, Phil & Kaja Foglio, Anne McCaffrey, Jasper Fforde and Terry Pratchett. It wasn't the easiest list to settle upon, but I'm hoping it'll be an enjoyable semester.

Friday, November 2, 2012


Every year I really do mean to celebrate Halloween. I mean to join in on the All Hallow's Read. I mean to remember to stock up on candy. I mean to watch one of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Halloween episodes.

Alas, every year, I'm spooked not by goblins and ghouls... but by piles of papers to grade, Excel spreadsheets, and requests for the following year's reading lists. That kind of takes the fun out of it.

I did briefly get into the spirit though. I'm working on an essay about - what else - fairy tale princesses and I was scouring Henriette Julie de Murat's "The Savage." This is fast becoming one of my favourite tales and has more than a little Halloween spookiness to boot. Take this passage:

"Obligeantine had a chariot prepared that was made from the skull of a giant who had been found on her lands and whom she had exterminated through her art. This giant had been ninety-six feet high, and the fairy had the skull crafted in such an admirable way that one could find there all that was necessary with regard to attendants and wheels. Since she only wanted to travel at night, she had it given a black gloss. She harnessed two large mastiffs to it, and they were provided with bat wings from the Indies that were as large as cows." (from The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, selected and edited by Jack Zipes)

Murat is such a fantastic character in her own right. She arrived at the court of Louis XIV at the age of sixteen, wearing her Breton folk costume, and flung herself headlong into a life of scandal, excitement and danger. Zipes mentions that she also wore a red cloak to church... I can't help but briefly wonder if she inspired Perrault's wolfish censure?

There's some great scholarship coming out on fairy tales. I can't wait for my copy of The Teller's Tale: Lives of the Classic Fairy Tale Writers (Ed. Sophie Raynard). I'm also looking forward to reading Jo Eldridge Carney's Fairy Tale Queens: Representations of Early Modern Queenship

A quick side note, I saw good friend and colleague, Dr Michelle Smith's recent talk at the Wheeler Centre, "From Prim to Poledance: Girls, Sex and Popular Culture." It was terrific and the video is up here. I think she had one of the best opening lines. Watch it and see if you agree!

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Earlier this week, I went to the "Rodgers and Hammerstein: Understanding the Phenomenon" conference. This was the inaugural conference of the new Australian Centre for Music Theatre Research and Development, a really exciting step for those of us with a research interest in musicals. I was especially pleased to pop in as my PhD supervisor, Professor Peter Fitzpatrick, was one of the speakers. Peter was an amazing supervisor and I'm still grateful for everything he taught me and for his brilliant sense of humour. His paper was a wonderfully witty and insightful overview of the art of lyric writing.

I'm hoping to find a little time to re-engage with my earlier research interest in musicals. I was a bit of a musical theatre geek in high school and later when I lived in the UK. Alas, I can't really sing. My high school choir teacher suggested that I could lip synch! So eventually I discovered I could funnel my interest into academia. My own PhD was largely concerned with the adaptation of Disney animation to the stage and I also published some work on French and Austrian musicals. And a review of We Will Rock You, which I published in theatre journal to my own amusement!

Before I went to Prato this year, I 'stole' a couple of days in London to catch up with old friends and see some theatre. I finally went to the Globe and it was an amazing experience I recommend. I saw Henry V and there's something magic about seeing a Shakespeare play in the kind of theatre he was most familiar with! I'd always planned to be a groundling, but to be honest, after a day on my feet, I'm glad I decided to sit in the stalls. The groundlings have to stand throughout the performance! Jamie Parker was a great Henry V and distracted me from wondering if the Carrionites were going to show up.

I also really loved the gates to the Globe.

I finally saw Wicked.

I'm not sure who the random man in my photo is! He looks a bit like Buddy Holly. Back to the story, I delayed seeing the show and now I have no idea why. I had heard just a little of the Broadway cast recording and it was a bit brash. I thoroughly enjoyed the London production, though. The leads were incredible and can I just say how fantastic it is to see a show where the two leads are women?

I didn't actually surprise anyone by admitting I favoured Glinda. She gets to travel by bubble and wear a tiara. That was a foregone conclusion.

For a change of pace, I also saw Sweeney Todd. Very, very dark. Michael Ball surprised me. I hadn't quite expected him in that role! It's a good production and Imelda Staunton is wonderfully horrible and sympathetic. It's not personally my favourite Sondheim. I love Into the Woods, which I'm teaching later this semester, Sunday in the Park with George and Company best.

It felt good to be catching up on musicals, though, and I hope that I never lapse again.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ogres & Gelati

It was that time of year again. I was teaching 'Fairy Tale in Italy' at Monash's Prato campus... and eating all the gelati that obviously goes along with that assignment. 

I love teaching this unit. It allows me to discuss any number of rude bodily functions in the name of scholarship. It's a tight programme and there's a lot to cover in those two weeks, but how can you complain when your campus is Tuscany?

This year we did an additional field trip to Collodi, where there is a Pinocchio theme park. It has, we might say, seen better days, but the whale was pretty quirky.

If you ventured up the spiral staircase in his throat, you could stand on top and spy the world's tallest Pinocchio peering over the trees.

Although everyone agreed there was something rather creepy about the mechanical, bicycle riding Pinocchio figure in a dark gully. I've heard reports that nightmares were experienced.

In between teaching, I ventured out to the local museums, which I happily rated on the basis of their shoe collections. The Medieval Museum in Bologna rated particularly well, with a glass cabinet filled with medieval shoes, including pattens... Cinderella's pattens, as I like to think! No one else quite shared my excitement. Il Museo Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence was another favourite, though the shoes were considerably less ancient. The craftsmanship was still awe-inspiring and there was a Marilyn Monroe exhibit and they had this dress, which I actually write about in my book. 

I'm back in Australia now and still teaching fairy tales. We've just covered the women of the ancien regime and I'm finishing up the lecture slides for the 1001 Nights. I'm hoping to finalise those today, because on Monday I'm planning to be off to the Rodgers and Hammerstein conference. I'm catching up on my musical theatre research, which was put aside for a while there. But more on that next blog post!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Fairy Tale Salon

The Fairy Tale Salon last weekend was a success, I'm happy to report. The team did a fantastic job and our guests were universally charming and enthusiastic.

I really had very little to do other than figure out how to dress as Puss in Boots.

I came up with an ensemble based around my blue boots and quickly explained that before Perrault, Puss had been female (see Basile's 'Cagliuso'). Of course, she only got boots when she became male... but I wasn't about to let that deter me.

There's a wonderful write-up, along with photographs, of the event here on the Storytelling Australia (Victoria) blog. Jackie herself gave a fantastic performance of the rather bizarre tale of 'The Three Surgeons' from the Grimms. It has the whiff of urban legend about it. In fact, we were all enthralled by the storytelling! It's easy to forget about the power of telling stories when you're working at the computer, cups of coffee to hand. I'm hoping we can find more opportunities to merge the worlds of scholarship and storytelling.

We've also decided that all such events require music, cupcakes and spinning wheels!

I couldn't thank those who came along, participated and pitched in enough for making it such a memorable afternoon.

We're catching our breath for a few months, but you will soon hear about another, more traditionally academic event in the works. It goes by the name 'The Gender Games' and is scheduled for November. There'll be a CFP out soon.

But for now I have some catching up on housework... both actual, physical housework and writing about housework in fairy tales. I've just been researching Joliette of d'Aulnoy's 'The Good Little Mouse.' She grows up to be a turkey keeper and catches the eye of a wicked prince. She disdains his offer of marriage and a crown, preferring her beautiful turkeys to a future of corruption and vice. Fortunately, there's a coup d'état and Joliette is installed as queen in her own right. It's one of my favourite tales.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Guilds are cool

We're putting the final touches on tomorrow's Fairy Tale Salon (2pm at H2.20, Caulfield campus). As I have a great team working on everything, my work tonight mostly involves fashioning a dashing hat to go with my Puss in Boots inspired ensemble. (Okay, there is more to it, but I'm thinking mostly about the hat!)

I did want to do a quick shout-out to the local guilds who have been so helpful and supportive. The Victorian branch of the storytelling guild has been promoting the salon and the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria helped us to locate a friendly spinner, because we, as a group, felt that a salon wouldn't be complete without spinning.

This may be slightly ironic, since my talk will argue that the French authors tried to distance themselves from the lowly, spinning storytellers promoted by Perrault and the Grimms. Yet, there is an aristocratic, intellectual heritage for spinning, too. Spinners and weavers like Helen and Penelope loom large in the Classics, for example (pardon the slight pun). Likewise, one wouldn't want to denigrate the efforts of the lower class spinners who provided the thread that clothed all ranks.

In short, I feel that although we do want to question the dominant mythology of the spinning peasant woman, we don't want to throw out the spinning wheel either.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tweeting a fairy tale

Our Fairy Tale Salon, in conjunction with the Research in Literary Studies unit at Monash University and the Glen Eira Storytelling Festival, is coming up in just a fortnight (June 23). As part of the run-up to the event, we thought it'd be fun to set a challenge. We'd like to challenge people to write a fairy tale in a single tweet. Tweets should have the hash-tag '#fsft' so that we can find them. The best tweet will be read at the salon.

If you need some inspiration, the BSFA recently ran a similar challenge for science fiction tweets.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Just a quick drop-in to the blog (preparation for fairy tale teaching in Tuscany and fairy tale salons is swallowing up chunks of time), but in the last couple of weeks, I wrote two quick pieces. One, with Deb Waterhouse-Watson, has just been published on The Conversation. It's about the latest proliferation of Snow Whites and I managed to wiggle into the piece my current obsession with Finette.

The other is a piece on mermaids. It doesn't cover everything, but it points to some interesting background to the cultural idea of the mermaid.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Bits & Bobs: YA and Fairy Tale mostly

It's getting a little frantic as I prepare to take flatulent ogres and mischievous cats to Italy while at the same time planning ahead for a semester's worth of beasts, fairy godmothers and poisoned apples. In between, of course, tying up the first half of the year's academic activities.

And yes, I'll admit that I was distracted briefly in planning what to wear while lounging about and eating in gelati in Tuscany.

Still, a few things have come my way that I wish to share.

Friend and colleague, Patrick Spedding, just blogged about a survey into e-book reader use (blog post). It seemed to suggest that most people are ashamed of their YA reading. I did remark to Patrick that I saw plenty of evidence of readers tweeting, blogging, facebooking etc their YA reading, so I wasn't entirely convinced people are that ashamed of it. Of course, this may have a great deal to do with the circles in which I move. I do think, though, that there is something to the act of being seen to read versus discussing your reading. In discussion you can, of course, add caveats and explain and defend your choices. In being seen to read a book, people can make judgements without knowing you, your motivations, your interests, your education. They judge you simply on what you are reading in that moment. The freedom of e-book readers is that we don't have to be judged by something as simple as the cover on our book. Mind, things are changing. I love Felicia Day's 'Vaginal Fantasy Hangout' concept. It's okay to read these books. Reading is good. All kinds of reading.

This i09 link to a short clip about Snow White in Hollywood is simply gold.

And I have been continuing my fairy tale heroine hat series. So here is Viola.

Just a quick word - it may seem odd to give names to knitted items. Some readers may be perplexed. It's a habit that I picked up courtesy of Ravelry. Ravelry is one of the awesome examples of what social networking can achieve. Knitters, crocheters, spinners and dyers of yarn all meet on Ravelry to share information about the craft. We also log our projects and... yes... give them names. So, while Viola is actually a pattern by Ysolda Teague called Rose Red (yes, another fairy tale name - Ysolda is fairy tale influenced), I obviously didn't knit the hat in red, but in a very pretty Vintage Purls' lavender called Christabella, so I chose another name to distinguish my project.

The pattern looked a little baroque and Renaissance inspired to me, so I named the hat after my favourite of all fairy tale heroines, Viola. She's a close cousin of Beatrice of Much Ado fame. She's a working girl, the daughter of a merchant, and she greets the Prince, "Good morning, son of the king. I know more than you do, hey!" This is also the story from which my apparent fascination for flatulent ogres grew.

Incidentally, I've been reading Ruth Bottigheimer's Fairy Tales Framed. Is it bad that I was delighted to see a 1780 essay by Luigi Serio entitled "The Fart. Response to On the Neapolitan Dialect"?

Soon I will be updating with more information about the Fairy Tale Salon that runs next month. We're just finalising a programme and discussing cupcake options.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Series of Hats Dedicated to Fairy Tale Heroines

Melbourne has turned cold and rainy. It is, in short, perfect weather for knitted hats.

I've been thinking a great deal over the past weeks about the earlier fairy tale heroines, as you can tell by previous posts. Over Easter, I knit myself a new red hat and as I was looking at it, I dubbed it 'Finette.' It occurred to me that I could knit a series of hats named for my favourite, early fairy tale heroines.

So, here is Finette, knitted in Malabrigo. The pattern, incidentally, comes from the fabulous designer at Tiny Owl Knits, who is herself inspired by fairy tales. This pattern is called Orchids & Fairylights. I admit, I do have my eye on Free Rapunzel.

But I already have the next hat on the needles and should hopefully be posting it soon.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Call for Participation in a Fairy Tale Salon

As part of the Glen Eira Storytelling Festival, the Fairy Tale Reading Group at Monash University will be hosting an enchanted afternoon of fairy tale magic. Long before the brothers Grimm and Walt Disney, a circle of seventeenth-century French authors gathered in Paris salons to read, perform and discuss fairy tales. For one afternoon only, we will be recreating our very own Parisian salon to celebrate this French fairy tale tradition.
Come along and learn about the authors who shaped fairy tale history and first gave us the phrase, contes des fées (tales of the fairies). The afternoon is open to readings, performances and discussions about all things fairy tale. For the bold at heart, come dressed as your favourite fairy tale character and be in the running to win a prize! This event is open to anyone who has a love for fairy tales and will take place at Monash University Caulfield, on June 23rd at 2pm.
We are looking for interested participants who would like to present original work and/or papers on fairy tale. Preference will be given to material dealing with or inspired by 17th century French tales, but other material will certainly be considered.
Areas of interest:
·       Scholarly analysis of fairy tale (incl. literary studies, translation studies, film & TV, drama studies, gender studies)
·       Live performance of fairy tale (incl. new & established fairy tales)
·       Fairy tale readings (incl. new & established fairy tales)

Please send a 100-200 word summary or abstract to arts-fairytale@monash.edu by April 26, 2012 for consideration.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Teaching the 90%

Recently, I've been thinking about two pieces I've read. One is by Steven Lloyd Wilson, "Pick Your Poison: Sturgeon's Law and Why We Love Bad Fiction." He writes:

"Like the 10% of quality? Congratulations, everyone likes the brilliant stuff. That’s the stuff that crosses all boundaries and appeals to absolutely everyone. Appreciating the ten percent is like appreciating a perfectly cooked steak. You’re not a gourmand if you do, it’s just that you’re hopeless if you don’t."

They key is really the 90% that not everyone agrees about. Universities tend to predominantly teach the 10%. Yes, because academics can all agree that these books should be taught. Thus we help perpetuate the 10%.

Even more problematic, the 10% tends to be dominated by male authors, because Wilson's argument intersects with Doug Barry's in the colourfully titled, "The Literary Canon is Still One Big Sausage Fest." While Barry argues, "Fewer women — and less new blood, as professors hold onto their posts longer and longer — in the literary academy means fewer advocates for including more women in the literary canon," it's also true that many women also work with the 90%. We often actually don't agitate for canonisation of our preferred authors and it'd be difficult (read 'nigh on impossible') to get agreement anyway (the 10% problem). The 10%, conversely, continues to be acknowledged as 'brilliant,' but includes few female authors... which, I would argue, would mean that it really can't represent the epitome of brilliance.

In part, this 'bind' is behind my growing desire to promote the great female fairy tale authors. Within fairy tale studies, the 10%/male dominated canon is readily apparent. Perrault, the Grimms, Anderson, Disney. All men. Yet a woman, d'Aulnoy, coined the term 'fairy tale' and even male authors assert female origins of the tales. It just doesn't make sense that the canon of fairy tale is nonetheless dominated by men.

What is the answer? Do we argue for inclusion of more women in the canon, thus challenging the 10%, or do we argue for more recognition and celebration of the 90%, which would naturally bring with it more female authors?

*Of course, the canon and the 10% aren't identical, but they're pretty close.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Blizzard of Snow Whites

Why is Snow White the fairy tale princess who rose to prominence in the early part of the twenty-first century? And what do we consequently collectively call our cohort of contemporary Snows?

One of the factors at play in Snow's current popularity is her reinvention as, alternatively, 'feisty' and 'bad-ass'. Often this personality change is achieved by putting a sword in her hand. Bill Willingham gives her the Vorpal Sword in Fables and ever since the new Snow Whites have added a blade to their ensemble.

Obviously, this is all an effort to re-imagine Snow White as an assertive, proactive heroine and I won't here debate the feminist implications, which are complex.

But why Snow? Why make Snow, in particular, a feisty, go-to fairy tale princess for the twenty-first century?

In the Grimms, where she properly emerges as Snow White - or Schneewittchen - she does very little about her predicament, apart from some house cleaning and knitting.* Perhaps that's it. Since she does so little - since so little is known of her life beyond her tricolour lottery win in the fairest stakes - it's easier to fill in the blanks and reconstruct her as a fairy tale princess for the twenty-first century. Plus, she comes with name-recognition and a scenery-chewing, evil stepmother. Much is made of the dark origin of fairy tale in the Grimms...

There's a problem, of course. In the popular imagination, the Grimms are still viewed as the earliest source for ancient oral tradition. Their tales of dark woods, creepy witches, and innocent maidens are seen as the core of fairy tale. Oddly, at times they are evoked in contrast to the twentieth century authority of Disney, but as Once Upon A Time illustrates, Disney was highly influenced by the Grimms and really simply updated their tradition.

The Grimms, however, came to the fairy tale stage comparatively late and in the attempt to rehabilitate their passive, innocent and boringly virtuous heroines, contemporary writers are overlooking earlier sources of smart-alecky, cunning, often violent women. I blogged last about Finette, but she's just the tip of the iceberg. Often in glittering palaces, bucolic fields and overcrowded, bustling towns, these streetwise heroines earned their livings and demanded equality in marriage. The Violas, Rosellas and Sapia from Basile, for instance, are all able to assert their worth.

As we see fairy tales again become a vogue, it's worth reminding people that we don't need to simply rehabilitate the often mawkish heroines of a Romantic yore, but that we can rediscover a host of feisty princesses and working girls who, ironically, fell out of favour precisely because of the authority given to those like the Grimms.

* Of course, knitting and housework isn't doing 'nothing.' Such labours were essential to the running of a home economy. More than a few heroines were able to turn their clever fingers, used to ply needles or spin spindles, to good use, but we don't even know what knitting Snow White does and it doesn't appear to achieve anything. This is possibly, simply, because the Grimms didn't know a great deal about it, whereas writers like Basile picked up a thing or two about the value of a spindle or the cut of cloth.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Where are the Finettes?

I've been watching Once Upon a Time and reading Fairest and Fables and I wonder...

Where are the Finettes?

The Snow Whites, the Sleeping Beauties, the Cinderellas and the Rapunzels are all with us. Even the lesser known Rose Reds. But the Finettes?

Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy (above) and Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon (immediately above) each wrote a tale featuring a heroine named Finette. These were actually different Finettes, so my question is a little off point. Nonetheless, two of the great names of fairy tale produced a heroine whose name means 'cunning' (you can actually find the contemporaneous definition in a French dictionary from 1694 on google books... which is one of the reasons I love google books). L'Héritier, whose cousin was Perrault, went so far as to subtitle her tale "The Clever Princess" (L'adroite Princesse).

These Finettes are beautiful, yes, but they are named for their intelligence and ability to think quickly and act with great shrewdness. They can not only see through trickery, they know how to be tricky when they need to be. These are women who can use their minds to figure out how to succeed in adversity.

Yet, these are not simply intellectual women. When it's called for, they're able to physically defend themselves. D'Aulnoy's Finette can bake an ogre as easily as lopping the head off his monstrous wife. L'Héritier's Finette has a hammer and isn't afraid to use it when a villain tries to seduce her.

These are the heroines I'd love to see in the meta-fairy tale extravaganzas that are so popular today. You get the feeling that writers are trying to recast the Snow Whites and Cinderellas as Finettes, but the legacy of the Grimms, of Perrault, of Disney weighs heavily. I'd like to see writers rediscover the Finettes (yes, d'Aulnoy's Finette is actually a Cinderella, so it wouldn't be difficult) and bring them into twenty-first century popular culture.

And I'd like to look up Finette without running across my own blog posts quite so often. Here's the challenge, if you blog about fairy tale, blog about Finette!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cupcakes and Feminism are not incompatible

For a meeting of my feminist-orientated reading group, I made cupcakes. I made green velvet cupcakes, to be specific, because it's almost St Patrick's Day and half my ancestors hail from Ireland.

The reason I'm blogging this? Lately, I've been running into quite a bit of negativity around the issue of whether feminists should be quite so interested in cupcakes. A specific example? I discussed Linda Grant's recent piece in The Guardian with a friend and colleague. Grant concludes:

"And I don't care if some people think feminism is a dirty word, because without it, we'd still be back where we were, stuck forever, too scared to open our mouths in case men think we're not feminine enough. Enough of cupcakes and high heels, they have their place, but they didn't win me the right to buy them."

Well, aside from the fact that I bake my own cupcakes, I was a little baffled as to why cupcakes and high heels (after all, Louis XIV made heels fashionable - he liked the way his legs looked in them) should feature so strongly in her conclusions. I might not open my mouth while actually eating a cupcake - that's rude - but buying/making/eating cupcakes certainly doesn't stop me from speaking up. Likewise, I'm not quite so sure why 'feminine' appears to be used in a quasi-patriarchal manner here. You can be very feminine indeed - and still be an outspoken feminist.

I'm not saying every feminist should bake cupcakes and develop a fondness for shoes. Nor am I saying that every woman who bakes cupcakes and has a fondness for shoes is a feminist. It's just that they aren't actually mutually exclusive.

And there are bigger issues than cupcakes and high heels... which is in part why I'm puzzled that some feminists seem to think these are issues at all. They aren't, unless you're thinking of the implications of the rise of the domestic/maker culture. They're simply part of my life as a woman and feminist - an enjoyable part through which I can celebrate the fantastic baking skills of my grandmother and great grandmother and countless other women who were crazy creative in their kitchens, often keeping families fed and clothed in the most trying of circumstances.

Such anti-cupcake rhetoric trivialises and ridicules feminists who happen to enjoy a certain baked good, but who do believe passionately in women's rights. The thing that really disappoints me is that this ridicule comes from fellow feminists.

In any case, my reading group very much relished a range of baked goods while we hotly debated politics and literature and planned future events.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Introverts

I'm just downloading Susan Cain's book onto my iPad after listening to her talk at TED. It was one of those amazing moments where I really learned something about myself.

I'm an introvert. I think many academics probably are. It makes sense, doesn't it? We were often the children who liked to read a book rather than play sport. Yet I always felt pushed to be an extrovert.

Cain's comments about our teaching environments really caught my attention though. I've often 'inherited' subjects that involve 'class participation' marks. These have always made me uneasy and I've often dropped this assessment from the subject when I've had the chance. While I like students to get involved in discussion and experience frustration when no one talks, I've also been perfectly happy if some students choose not to talk.

Because, the thing is, they may not talk, but that doesn't mean they aren't listening and thinking and those are equally important aspects of participation. They're aspects that can't be reliably assessed as participation, that's all.

In school, I very rarely raised a hand to answer a question. When the teacher would try to prompt a response from me, I'd go blank and look a great deal like a deer stuck in the headlights. The teacher would inevitably be confused. My grades were good. I obviously knew things - I obviously thought a lot. Why didn't I contribute? It's simple really. I was absorbed in thinking about what everyone else was saying. I was contemplating. I wasn't ready to say what I thought. So I've always had sympathy for students who don't like to talk in class.

Moreover, as the tutor or the lecturer, I myself am paying attention to the discussion - I'm listening, I'm thinking about what's said. I'm not always paying attention to who is talking and who isn't. This makes it very difficult for me to sit down afterwards and assess participation. If I'm paying attention to who is talking and who isn't, I'm frustrated, because I really want to follow what's happening in the discussion itself. I also don't want to interrupt that discussion to ask 'Betty' a question just because 'Betty' hasn't spoken in three weeks. 'Betty' might simply not have anything to say yet. That's okay by me. I hope she will have something to say at some point and I hope I can create an environment where she'll feel able to say something about what she's thinking, but I don't want to put her on the spot. I know how it feels.

This is not to say that class participation works the same way in every group, for every teacher. It's just that, for me, class participation is stressful and unnatural.

On the other side of the coin, I create reading groups. I encourage my students to make time to talk to each other. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a group of students talking over coffee (okay, I'm lying, there are other things that make me happier, but you know what I mean). The time I spend in reading groups or talking to students and colleagues is wonderful and inspiring. However, as Cain points out, introverts do like to share ideas, to talk and discuss. It's just that we need time to be alone, to contemplate too.

I usually excuse my habits of avoiding my office on my restlessness, my need to play music loudly, my inability to focus in an office. Really, it's just that I'm an introvert. I need my own space to think and write. I could shut the door and put a sign up, but I'd feel caged in. I like to walk around, play music, make a cup of tea. My biggest breakthroughs in thought have often occurred when I'm picking tomatoes or when waiting for the kettle to boil or going to collect the mail. I then have the freedom to rush back to a pen or the keyboard and jot everything down before I lose it.

So, I'd encourage people to listen to Cain's talk and really think about the positive contribution introverts make. We do live in a society that values the extrovert and tries to turn introverts into extroverts. I hope as she suggests, this might be changing.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is the Wolf the Bad Guy?

This morning I did a quick double-take when I saw the Guardian's commercial for 'open journalism.' It's based around a fairy tale.

From the Guardian:

"This advert for the Guardian's open journalism, screened for the first time on 29 February 2012, imagines how we might cover the story of the Three Little Pigs in print and online. Follow the story from the paper's front page headline, through a social media discussion and finally to an unexpected conclusion."

It's a dramatic commercial with fantastic visuals. I won't comment on the concept of 'open journalism.' What intrigued me, of course, was the use of this particular tale.

The tale of the three little pigs has always straddled fable, fairy and nursery tale. It's a rather peculiar tale from that perspective. I like the Joseph Jacobs version (1890) with the rhyme:

Once upon a time when pigs spoke rhyme
And monkeys chewed tobacco
And hens took snuff to make them tough
And ducks went quack, quack, quack, o!

In Jacobs version, only the last pig survives, having successfully dispatched the wolf and eaten him for supper. The big bad wolf, of course, is a stereotypical villain. Tales of werewolves and Little Red Riding Hood did the wolf no favours in our earlier history. However, in recent years, the wolf has been increasingly vindicated and suspicion thrown on the pigs, as in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs or The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, or on the girl, as in Honestly, Red Riding Hood Was Rotten. And remember Enchanted, where Giselle is tucking Morgan in?

Giselle: I remember this one time, when the poor wolf was being chased by Little Red Riding Hood around his grandmother's house, and she had an axe... oh, and if Pip hadn't been walking by to help I don't know what would've happened!
Morgan: I don't really remember that version.
Giselle: Well, that's because Red tells it a little differently.

Indeed, even Oz and Team Jacob have redeemed the wolf. (And I keep hearing about a pilates wolf in Grimm.)

The Guardian's 'open journalism' likewise suggests the wolf's innocence, first through video of the wolf with an inhaler (being asthmatic, how could he blow down the houses?), second through showing that the pigs were covering up their own crime, being in financial difficulty due to high mortgage payments.

The redemption of the wolf is almost so familiar now that the surprise would be to discover an actual bad wolf (well, outside of Doctor Who).

Nonetheless, fairy tales have long been used to speak of politics and social problems. Some have suggested that by using a fairy tale, the Guardian's commercial appears 'silly' and at times the men-in-pig-suits do jar with the hype and promise of 'open journalism.' Yet, the fairy tale take on housing difficulties and crime is not so ridiculous. Tales like The Three Bears, Jack and the Beanstalk, Puss in Boots and Hansel and Gretel have long responded to problems of poverty and homelessness and their links to crime.

Speaking of fairy tales, I discovered today that the 'Fairy Tales Re-Imagined' panels are up as podcasts and can be located here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Today in Craft News

I usually check in on Craft at least a few times a week. Today was a good day.

I've taught Gaiman's Anansi Boys and as you may remember, Fat Charlie had some bad memories of President's Day. Too bad he hadn't seen these crafty ideas.

I then scrolled down and what did I see? A Frog Prince! I love his toes. That sounds a bit odd, I know, but if you go through to the pattern site, you'll see what I mean when you look at the detail. I've always loved the Frog Prince and had particular fun teaching it. It's a great example of the impact of retelling for fairy tales. Not only does the princess smash the frog against a wall (thus turning him into a handsome prince) in earlier versions, but she also spends rather a pleasant night with her new prince before they see to social niceties like marriage.

The princess's actions in these earlier versions are indicative of the violence utilised by fairy tale heroines when their freedoms are threatened by men. There is still a presumption that the fairy tale princess is a passive creature. If you go back far enough, you discover she's really not.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Feeling Witchy

Today I learned about Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron (the preorder price is pretty cheap I'll add). It's an anthology of short stories about witches. That can't be bad. Even better, it includes authors like Neil Gaiman, Holly Black and Jim Butcher. I'm really looking forward to it. It's edited by Jonathan Strahan who has some great podcasts up here.

I've actually been doing some witch-related research over the last couple of days. A colleague and I are working on a little project about aging in fairy tales and children's literature. The heritage of fairy tale is delightful contradictory on the topic of old women. Marina Warner has written: "Both the linguistic link between godmothers and old gossips, and the social link between aging women and secret, wicked powers, are crucial in the world of fairy tale; wrestling control of that evil tongue occupied the energies of many of the pioneers of nursery tales" (From the Beast to the Blonde, 48). I personally can't wait to have 'secret, wicked powers.' My part of the project is just starting to investigate how old women exist beyond political and social hierarchies. Not merely 'outside,' but actually beyond. Terry Pratchett's witches, for instance, are some of the best contemporary examples of the older tradition in which witches, godmothers and fairies would reorder kingdoms according to their whims and deliver chaos through blessings and curses.

Got to love some chaos.

On a side note, I just read a piece on fighting cheating through the promotion of learning on BoingBoing. Click through to the blog post itself on 21k12. I'm not in 100% agreement with everything - I think learning goals have to be phrased so that they aren't prescriptive, since students often learn what teachers never expect, and, in any case, goals work better for some topics than others - but it's something to consider when improving curriculum.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fairy Tales Are Weird - Take This Tale About A Twig

This morning, I was absolutely delighted to read "10 Totally Psychotic Fairy Tales That Hollywood Should Film Next" on io9.

Fairy tales are mad.

Take Basile's "The Myrtle."

A woman desires a child so greatly, she "wouldn't care if it were a branch of myrtle!" She presently gives birth to a twig. She cheerfully plants the twig in a pretty pot and puts it up on the windowsill, watering and pruning it tenderly.

As if that isn't odd enough, a Prince passes by and falls head over heels in love with the twig. He begs and pleads to be given the twig and then scurries away with it to his bedroom where "he hoed and watered it with his own hands." In the middle of the night, he senses something getting into bed with him. It's all soft and lovely. He cosies up to it. However, by morning, his bedmate is gone. This occurs several nights, so, of course, in order to discover who's sharing his bed, he ties the girl's plaits to himself, calls for candles, and discovers that she's both gorgeous and a fairy. They become very happy.

But when the Prince has to go away on a trip, the Prince's spurned "women of vice" come and grab the myrtle, summoning the fairy. Seeing how gorgeous she is, they immediately rip her into little bits and flee. The Prince's servant comes upon the crime scene and hastily tidies up all the blood and flesh and hides it away in the pretty pot, watering it for good measure.

The Prince is devastated to discover he has lost his lover. Fortunately, however, she's regrowing in the pot and seeing him so miserable, she pops right back out and consoles him by telling him she is still alive despite being ripped into little pieces by the women.

The Prince invites the women and the lords of the land to a great feast. He asks them all what punishment would be just for someone who would hurt such an attractive fairy. The women come up with all kinds of colourful responses involving gallows, wheels, pincers and being thrown off cliffs. The Prince puts these punishments into effect and he and the fairy live happily ever after.

(Quotes taken from Nancy Canepa's translation in Giambattista Basile's The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones, 2007: pp 52-60.)

You can't make that stuff up...


You can.

Monday, January 16, 2012

2012: Is it the year of the fairy tale?

Shhhhh... I am working on writing up an article. Honest I am. I am not distracting myself by figuring out whether I can make a trip along the Italian Riveria during the weekend off from teaching in Prato. I am not distracting myself with Golden Globe fashions. No siree.

However, I am wondering if this year is the year of fairy tale. Those of us in Australia have started seeing the channel 7 promotional spots for Once Upon A Time, which is excellent news. Grimm went to cable and I don't have cable.

There are fairy tale films due out soon, including Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Jack and the Beanstalk.

There is a lot of buzz about a cyborg version of Cinderella in Marissa Meyer's Cinder. You can see the prequel short story here on Tor.com.

The trouble with what appears to be a resurgence of fairy tale is that people will expect the trend to end. Admittedly, we still haven't seen the end of vampires and Harry Potter doesn't seem to be melting away into obscurity (although, SNL has an especially funny take on his adult years), and I'd be thrilled if fairy tale keeps getting 'bigger' as the twenty-first century progresses. What I would like to see, though, are new tales and less popular tales emerge from this trend. It's incredible how limited the canon of fairy tale really is. It is time to expand that canon and introduce new generations to Viola, Finette, the Ram and their like.