Fairy tales fascinate – for whatever reason we are so engrossed in these stories (be it those of the Brothers Grimm or maybe Hans Christian Anderson) that we are prone to pick them up again when we’re adults, either to read them to our own children or maybe even reminisce on our own. Everybody and Hollywood does, and especially the latest interpretations of the old texts tend to be different, many try their luck at feminism. Emma Donoghue takes it a little father still, not by empowering women in fairy tales per se but by making it all about them.
Bonding between women is what her tales are all about, and they’re recognizable tales by the Grimms and Anderson that she changes into modern art. But she doesn’t simply change them, she weaves a tapestry where they are interconnected and puts them in beautiful prose of the female narrators.
While these are already wonderful accomplishments, her stories wouldn’t be half as fascinating if Donoghue stopped here. What I find truly captivating are her observations on how female stereotypes are being created. The witch is certainly a most central figure of female deviance – but can mere circumstances turn an innocent girl into a witch? Society’s glance (or maybe it is the ‘male gaze’) can turn a woman into pretty much anything. Prejudice can turn you against a step-mother whether she may be cruel or not just by the mere mention of the moniker – and fairy tales certainly add to the mystical evilness of a father’s second wife (while it is always she who is in the wrong not the father/king who often only marries for the sake of a male heir or his sexual pleasure, as these stories go). Donoghue looks behind the blinding curtains of prejudice and stereotypes and shows us what goes on behind them, how female roles are being created and contorted.
If you’re looking for a heterosexual love story among these texts you will be disappointed. Donoghue’s heroines may not all be of a lesbian occupation but her texts do not cater to heteronormative tastes either. The males that do appear here are mostly stupid, weak, or cruel and do not play significant roles at all. The woman stands at the center of these tales, not as she was wont to be represented by medieval times but how she most likely was.