Anne Sexton - Nov 9, 1928 - Oct 4, 1974
In 1987, Jack Zipes published a collection of fairy tales called, Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. The two authors who stood out for me were Anne Sexton and Margaret Atwood, although I am predisposed to both of them. The feminist poetry of Anne Sexton wasn't news to me; I'd discovered it during my senior year in high school in the time period I like to think of as, Heather's Epic Time Out. I spent at least three hours a day sprawled on the library sofa with a stack of books on the floor. The stack of books didn't move, unless I moved them. The librarians weren't even remotely surprised to see me and periodically contributed to the stack on the floor. Before I left the library sofa forever, I'd been introduced to more feminist literature than I could have imagined. Almost all of this was written during the seventies; by a generation of women bound only by their voices, not their dates of birth. This was the decade of The Greatest Generation. They blew down wall after wall, shattered ceilings, changed more laws than most Americans will ever recognize. And finally, they tore the shackles from a sisterhood that may not have been ready to let go. In case you're wondering, this is why the majority of American Women, of any age, will not be able to name more than two significant events from that decade.
We wanted to know we could, should we actually want to do or have a thing. Those of us who walked in their footsteps did so with the naive belief that just because the law said we could, did not mean we wouldn't have to fight for a thing. Think about it. We've changed so many laws in the last hundred years, Jim Crow should have blown away like so many dust bunnies under the bed. Instead, Jim Crow is as alive and well as ever. The same can be said for women, although the Jim Crow comparison isn't remotely close to equal truth; it's just the best I've got at the moment.
I'm not angry about the stories that came out of the seventies; they were reflective of newly discovered power and freedom. The message that chained the stories together was this:
I am powerful. I do not have to put up with this shit. I won't let you do this to me. This thing you say I can't do, I will do better. But these women were still princesses; they were just princesses who woke up. If 'woke' were a thing in the seventies and eighties, then these women and supportive men would have defined 'Woke'. I'm glad that didn't happen. I wouldn't have read another word.
These stories were and still are relevant. They opened eyes by presenting an alternative telling of the stories in which we bathe and breathe. And yet, the Disney Princess is still the female icon. And yet, women still opt out at an alarming rate. And yet, girls still grow up dreaming of the big white dress. And yet, women still turn over their names and identities at the alter. She is first introduced as her whole new self, at the reception when she enters the room on her husband's arm and they are announced 'for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. His Name.' I am fifty-seven years old, and I don't believe I have attended a single wedding, other than one of my own, that did not involve the bride happily dispensing with her name on the march back down the aisle. My daughter, even, would happily have dropped her surname on the floor had her husband not looked at her like she had two heads during a discussion. This is an exceptionally independent and successful woman. I don't know for a fact because we don't discuss these things, but I'd be shocked if she wasn't maintaining control of her own finances. But still, the name, as if we have no inherent value until we presented with the mantle of protection.
But it was a start and I still have these books.
Politically Correct Bedtime Stories deserves mention only because it jumps off a cliff. In 1994, the word 'woke' hadn't been verbalized as such, but should you pick up any of the trilogy and read a page or two, you'll recognize who we have become today.
From Little Red Riding Hood:
"He grabbed Little Red Riding Hood in his claws, intent on devouring her. Red Riding Hood screamed, not out of alarm at the wolf's apparent tendency toward cross-dressing, but because of his willful invasion of her personal space."
She's thinking about the invasion of her personal space? Really? The dude is about to take her out.
And that's benign, it gets worse, but this makes the point. It would be funny, except it's not. The stories are about self-righteous women, not empowered women. She and Granny might take the wolf out in the end, but it was never about survival. It was just a lecture. Her screams were heard by the woodsman, who rushed in, because she was screaming. The words Neanderthal, Sexist, Speciesist, and Womyn shoot from her semi-automatic mouth. Her life is in danger and she is focused on an entitlement. Her life is in danger and she emasculates the person who responded to a scream. And THIS is why we're here today.
It was only funny the first time I read it. Decades passed before I recognized the seeds of cancel culture. Just because we smack a thing over the head and call it bad, does not make it go away. We just get to be right. We also get to be dead, raped, financially captive, blah, blah, blah.
Fairy tales have always had a purpose. Initially, they were told and written for adults. The earliest versions of the universal collection are horrifying. The oldest version I've found of Sleeping Beauty is as dark a story I've ever read. It brought to mind Media after Jason left her. She chose to take the things that mattered most and killed his children. The end of Sleeping Beauty is a cross between Hansel and Gretel's witch who gets pushed into the oven by Gretel and the Grimm Brother's version of the thirteenth fairy. It was never meant for children, not that version, but it was meant to drive home the same points. Women are dangerous but men are stronger.
The fairy tales from the seventies removed the first part. Those stories suggested the world would be a better place, that women were gentle and non-warring by nature. You could save yourself and still be a sweet young thing. The sweet young thing is the wife card in your back pocket, just in case things get a little tough you want to opt out.
The most damaging sentiment of all: All women are good, all women will take care of each other, no woman will hurt another. All for one and one for all and all that. Want to know a secret?
That's not even remotely true.
Someday I'm going to write a book about women in Corporate America. I'm going to tell the truth and expose us all as human. Do you know what will happen? Men will justify their own behavior and women will burn the book in effigy. We do ourselves a grave disservice in the stories we tell. In my experience, women fight dirtier and with far less honesty than any man I've ever met. Don't defend us with that one thousand years of oppression business, either. We are who we are, all of us. We are good, not so good, downright horrid, a combination of those things and many more. We are human. All of us together.
About two and a half weeks ago, I rewrote a fairy tale. That hadn't been my intention, but it's the way the story rolled itself out. This is not unusual; most of what I write drives itself. I'm often just as shocked as anyone at the content or the ending. She. was written for my oldest daughter as an explanation for the vanishing act I'm about to pull (it's not like they don't know where I'm going). While I typed and rearranged words in sentence or paragraph (this is my favorite part), an amalgamation of several stories retold themselves.
There was a lot of power in that story, but none of the women were perfect. In fact, we are far from perfect. We cause each other pain, we turn away when perhaps we should not, and yet, we are powerful. Nothing about us had to be cleaned up or made glossy. We just were who we are and an epically old set of stories twined around themselves and told the possibility of a far different truth.
I thought that was the end of it.
Eleven stories, one right after the next, told themselves from different perspectives. One was even true. The same two women turn up in almost all of the stories which are out of order in time, if time really exists like one long linear string. A combination of Norse and Slavic mythology runs like a thin gold chain from start to finish.
The retelling of Sleeping Beauty suggests very strongly, that Sleeping Beauty was an absolute terror. Or maybe she wasn't. Maybe she just didn't fulfill the expectations of the time. Sleeping Beauty is rescued because she has failed to rescue herself. She is rescued by a woman who is so furious with traditional female behavior that she slaps her silly and calls her on her shit. There's a fine line between getting in somebody's face and shaming them. I'm not a fan of shame; it's not particularly effective and tends to create or open some pretty egregious wounds.
However, as a culture, we don't have a problem slapping the shit out of that asshole down the hall who's behaving badly. Why is it we think our sisters' collective shit don't stink? There are more men than I care to think about who hold their tongues for fear of retribution.
We are LIVING in the greatest time of shame. We use it like a semi-automatic mouth, but we don't call it shame. We call it, standing up for what's right. We call it getting in the faces of people who behave badly and we do this with complete impunity. And our shit surely don't stink.
There's a war going on out there. I think we can do better.
Also, why is it we assume being a Rusalka is a bad thing? Have we asked one? Or did we just take up a cause that supports our current belief system?
Honest to dog, I had no idea where this was going.