The fact that faerietale-inspired fiction is crossing over into visual media more and more is worrisome. Not just for the standard geeky “the book is always better than the movie” reasons either; there is obviously a market for turning shitty, stereotypically “girly” books into equally shitty movies. Take ‘The Twilight Saga’ for example. The series is a classic example of an abusive relationship, and the creepy faux-vampire Edward Cullen is the sort of person you’d get a restraining order against in real life. He reminds me of every skeezy guy who’s ever tried to hit on me under the assumption that being feminist means being sexually liberal and promiscuous. He’s controlling and possessive, but it’s okay because he “loves” Bella.
Then there’s the appalling ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (or as I like to call it, Fifty Shades of Abuse). The fact that this trilogy was originally fanfiction is not at all surprising; having spent considerable amount of time within fandom, I’ve seen my fair share of disturbing misogyny in those stories. The entire concept of fanfiction is to play out the writer’s fantasies, and in books and TV shows that specifically target the 16-40 demographic, the fantasies are often sexual in nature. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the fantasy remains within reason, not into the realm of incest or pedophilia for example. So fanfiction based on Twicrap was never going to be empowering in the first place. Fifty Shades is your typical, poorly written erotica, and the fact that Anastasia keeps returning to a terrible man, apparently drawn by twisted notions of love and desire, is depressing to say the least.
In 1979, Karen Rowe wrote about faerietales and how they reaffirm societal attitudes towards love and marriage, emphasizing that these patterns were not confined to children’s fiction alone, but also frequently found in women’s fiction and erotica. Thus, adult women “internalize romantic patterns from ancient tales.” Stephanie Meyer even went as far as ruining ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by producing the movie Austenland, about a woman obsessed with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy and hell bent on finding a real Mr. Darcy for herself. Considering that Jane Austen is cited as one of the female writers who subverted classical faerietales in her own writings, it’s tragic that Meyers produced something that would have made Jane Austen turn over in her grave.
Classic faerietales have always emphasized the beauty of its female heroines, and while not much has changed there, patriarchal concepts of beauty have also been infected with the happily-ever-after virus. Take, for example, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. One of their ventures included plastering images of overweight women on billboards to portray as beautiful, regardless of their size. The same Dove also uses overweight women on ads for its cellulite firming cream. It all sounds odd, but unsurprising considering that Dove is owned by Unilever, the same company that markets Axe body spray by promising men plenty of sexual conquests. Women are sold these ideas about Real Beauty and weight because a woman is only worth her appearance. There is nothing empowering in telling women that they’re beautiful thin or overweight, not when the emphasis still remains that their happiness & success in life is contingent upon their physical appearance.
And therein comes the faerietale element; classic faerietales insist that “good” women aren’t just submissive and oppressed, but beautiful because of their oppressed state. Many feminists find fashion and cosmetics oppressive because of the false ideals they place on women, and emphasize that a woman’s worth is somehow intrinsically dependent on her looks. Like I said, tale as old as time; pretty women get good grades, good jobs, good husbands, good children, good lives in general while unpretty women struggle through life. In fact, that was the point of one of Dove’s True Beauty campaigns: women who don’t think they’re pretty are holding themselves back, because if they just believed they were pretty, then they would be better friends, better professionals, better mothers. As Naomi Wolf stated in The Beauty Myth, “A girl learns that stories happen to ‘beautiful’ women, whether they are interesting or not.”
The basic problem is that toxic unrealistic expectations of womanhood inherent in faerietales are pervasive in all forms of media today. We can no longer subscribe to the simplistic school of thought that faerietales are exclusively damaging to young girls and children. This is nothing new of course, feminists have been warning against it for years. But now, in the age of new and emerging media, is the time when we need to use images of Barbie dolls and princesses and use them as cautionary tales against reinforcing gender stereotypes. Nor can we ignore the impact of doing so any longer, not when mainstream media is awash with tales of women who undergo horrific surgeries to look exactly like Barbie or anime characters. There are those who would say that feminism is dead, that feminism is outdated because women have no need of it any more. But as long as we’re still making “chick flicks” (and refusing to acknowledge how offensive that term is) about women whose lives mean nothing without love interests, we will need feminist theory to deal with the repercussions of adult women chasing unrealistic happily-ever-afters and fantasies of terrible men.
Ghausia Rashid Salam is Junior Articles Editor for the magazine.