The Sisters Grimm

Can a centuries-old literary tradition tell us anything useful about modern life? The continuing vitality of the fairy tale in contemporary culture would suggest an emphatic yes. And the vast ...

Can a centuries-old literary tradition tell us anything useful about modern life? The continuing vitality of the fairy tale in contemporary culture would suggest an emphatic yes. And the vast portfolio of fairy tales revised and reimagined by feminist writers highlights the genre’s particular relevance to ongoing questions about gender, difference, and power. Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection Her Body and Other Parties—a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, and a staple of 2017’s literary best-of lists—joins this alternative canon, spinning the ancient web of fairy-tale forms into new narrative knots of feminine suffering, self-destruction, and resistance.

Classic fairy-tale plots often hinge on the problems of inhabiting a female body. In realms full of perils that range from witches and wolves to domestic violence and rape, heroines must not only survive as physically and socially vulnerable beings, but also be good daughters, wives, and mothers besides. Fairy-tale femininity has always been weird and horrifying, even if the old tales do not say so directly: in a few familiar examples, girls must undertake impossible labors (Rumpelstiltskin), spend adolescence locked in a tower (Rapunzel), and find true love in their sleep (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty).

Modern retellings bring the horror into sharp focus. Drawing upon the fantastic, otherworldly logic and familiar narratives of the fairy-tale genre, Machado’s stories dwell upon the inescapable queerness of embodied life for women in a patriarchal world—where queerness describes not only unruly sexual desire, but also a whole spectrum of peculiar, delightful, and devastating things that can happen to a body. If living in a feminine body is a party, as the book’s ambivalent title may suggest, the precise nature of the occasion might be more Donner Party than Cinderella Ball. Some conditions are often mundane in their horror: the pressure to conform to beauty norms, the difficulties of pregnancy and childbirth, the lasting trauma of sexual assault.

Others are supernatural. In “Real Women Have Bodies,” a mysterious plague causes women to vanish, turning solid flesh and bone into voiceless, ethereal wisps. “Especially Heinous,” a darkly comedic rewrite of all 272 episodes of Law & Order: SVU, seasons 1–12, features a gaggle of ghostly girls with bells for eyes, young victims of unspeakable crimes driven into spirit form to seek justice. And in “The Husband Stitch,” an ordinary romance is complicated by the curious fact that women’s bodies, in this narrative universe, are held together by ribbons. Men hunger to untie them, without understanding the ramifications of their desire; women lack the language to explain their condition, or perhaps simply long for their loved ones to respect their boundaries without explanation.

This casual blend of the everyday and the surreal is characteristic of the feminist fairy tale, a raucous and delightfully chaotic genre. The doyenne of the tradition is Angela Carter, whose 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber seized fairy tales back from Disney to revel in their violent, sexual, and deeply subversive potential. Carter’s breathtaking rewrites of classics such as “Bluebeard,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Little Red Riding Hood” pry open the fairy-tale genre’s implacable rules about the limits and purpose of a female life: the old dichotomy of innocent victims and wicked crones is shattered by a series of complicated girls and women with unruly desires and shifting degrees of fidelity to their social station, gender, and species. Recent contributors to the lineage include Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Helen Oyeyemi, who launch Carter’s project into the 21st century in part by writing a more diverse range of women into the fairy-tale universe.

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Carter’s The Bloody Chamber burst forth against the backdrop of second-wave feminism, at a time when cherished myths seemed particularly ripe for revision. Her Body and Other Parties comes at a similarly fraught moment. Its widespread critical and popular acclaim suggests that the book—published in the midst of serious cultural turbulence in the United States, including a long-overdue reckoning with the pervasiveness of sexual violence—strikes a nerve for modern readers. Yet it would be a mistake to reduce either The Bloody Chamber or Her Body to a straightforward political stance; they are far too complicated, both as literary objects and as imaginative visions, to translate into the real-world language of laws, rights, and duties.

In this moment when marginalized bodies and voices are under particular attack, why return to fairy tales as a staging ground for difficult questions? What is the role of the speculative, reiterative form of modern fairy tales in shaping meaningful feminist politics? With its metafictional attention to the power of storytelling, Her Body and Other Parties suggests at least one answer: as long as patriarchal myths continue to circulate, it remains an urgent feminist project to mutate them toward creative, queer, and revolutionary ends. Machado’s collection is conscious of the ways it engages with existing discourses of feminine vulnerability; even the most painful old stories cannot be left behind. The task becomes, then, to retell the stories with a difference, to weave their threads without getting trapped in the same old snarls.

Stories, old and new, shape the horizon of possibility for Machado’s women, as they do for Carter’s. One of their shared methods is to incorporate storytelling into the diegesis: Machado’s narrators include a writer working on a troublesome novel and a compulsive list maker who self-consciously narrates her own life through enumeration. Another formal tactic both authors employ is to explicitly retell a classic tale. “The Husband Stitch” draws its contours from an old source—the ghostly folk tale of the woman with a ribbon tied around her neck. But it revises and enriches its origin story in the same way Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” treats the fairy tale “Bluebeard,” adding depth and nuance to what began as a more or less flat morality tale. One shared moral for both old stories might be: women are different and not to be trusted. Carter imagines Bluebeard’s young wife as an innocent longing to be corrupted, her budding desires stoked by her older husband’s sexual viciousness—a longing that, even after she is rescued from his brutality, can never quite be excised.

What is the role of the speculative, reiterative form of modern fairy tales in shaping meaningful feminist politics?

Machado’s beribboned narrator is another desirous woman. Bucking conventions, she actively pursues her man, picking him out at a crowded party and making him hers. Throughout a teenage courtship that matures into marriage, they enjoy an enviable sex life, full to the brim with mutual desire. They almost live happily ever after—but not quite. A few obstacles stand in the way of a fairy-tale ending: the division of reproductive labor, which inflicts lasting trauma on the wife’s childbearing body; the casual injustice of patriarchal society, which deems a woman’s truth necessarily less important and believable than her father’s, husband’s, or son’s; and, of course, that pesky green ribbon, the slip of silk around her neck that teases her husband into erotic frenzy and, sometimes, into rage. “A wife,” he declares, “should have no secrets from her husband.” “I’m not hiding it,” the stricken woman replies. “It just isn’t yours.”

Yet what is not yours can so easily become yours, if you have the means. The husband never gives in to his urge to untie the ribbon by force (though he comes close); his tactic, instead, is to never let the matter drop. “He is not a bad man at all,” his wife assures the reader. “To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep disservice to him. And yet—” It is finally with her verbal consent—a reversal of decades spent guarding this single unshared piece of herself—that he unties the ribbon and watches, aghast, as her head falls to the floor. He is the only one who is surprised. Clearly, the man is not a reader of stories.

Machado’s tales echo ancient myths of passive, breakable women, but, like Carter, she refuses to let a character’s vulnerability be the first and last thing that matters about her. What loops the two authors within the untidy genre of feminist fairy tale is a shared desire to grapple with their literary lineage, to dig into the sedimented stories about female difference that too often form the bedrock of our society. They are eminently ready to expose glaring errors in the old stories, but not to toss them out entirely, for both glean beauty and inspiration even from a largely misogynistic heritage.

Their stories often arise from a tired axiom—women are commodities to be exchanged, alien creatures, or negligible objects, for example—then build it outward in unexpected and often radical ways. “Do you ever worry,” one female artist asks another, “that you’re the madwoman in the attic?” The thinly veiled accusation is that playing with tropes can only ever yield regressive, anti-feminist art—a critique lobbed at Carter’s oeuvre over the decades. Yet the writer under scrutiny in Machado’s tale takes comfort and strength in being a “madwoman in her own attic,” ready to inhabit the trope in her own way. Claiming ownership of the stereotype, she transforms it from a patriarchal prison to a generative identity for a defiantly queer, unsociable, and neurodivergent artist.

The fictional writer’s perverse identification with a maligned trope helps articulate the powerful narrative politics of Her Body and Other Parties. The journey from the first story to the last yields nothing so straightforward as an evolution of feminist consciousness, but rather an increasingly open field of possibility for women’s relationships to stories. The narrator of “The Husband Stitch” is a walking compendium of cautionary tales about girls who fail, in one way or another, at proper femininity (as bad daughters, bad wives, bad mothers, etc.); such failure is always fatal. The stories she knows have no room for women’s well-being: she has learned, rather, that “stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.” Her own story ends the same way.

In contrast, the narrator of the book’s final piece, “Difficult at Parties,” uses storytelling as a mechanism for survival after a sexual assault. By turning herself into a character—specifically a porn character, that most flat and hackneyed of all personae—she is able to rediscover herself beneath the wreckage of trauma. Capturing her body on camera, transforming her most intimate moments into a story to be observed, offers a way to reignite her previously snuffed-out happiness.

These broadening possibilities explain, perhaps, why feminist writers and readers are still drawn to fairy tales and other old stories, and why it remains an urgent project to retell, revise, and remix them—especially at a moment, like this one, of growing momentum toward deposing some of our culture’s oldest myths about power and difference. “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me,” declares Machado’s ribbon-necked narrator in a surge of self-authorization, “and I am unafraid to make more of them.” The stories that have always been told—about girls, women, nonbinary people, and other parties—are not big enough to encompass the nuances and contradictions that make up a life. A new canon of stories, made for and by the parties in question, is exactly what we all need.

 

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

Featured image: L. Whittaker, Bookmarks I (2008). Photograph by L. Whittaker / Flickr