Where the author negotiates sexual power plays in the arts
By Ghausia Rashid Salam
I like to revisit movies, TV shows, and books. It’s fascinating to see how my perception changes over time, and it’s particularly interesting to relive childhood experiences as an adult. Take, for example, “Family”, an episode from the fifth season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Willow’s shy Wiccan girlfriend Tara is visited by her family. Her father, the epitome of a stern patriarch, reduces her to a stuttering, nervous wreck. Legend goes that when the women in her family turn 20, they become demons and Tara’s family arrives with the sole intention of taking her back home, since Tara is still practicing magic. “The women in our family had demon in them. Her mother had it. That’s where the magic comes from,” her father explains. “She belongs with us. We know how to control her… problem.” It is implied that she was “allowed” to go to college away from home under the assumption that she would “get over” the silly magic phase. But when Tara declares she has no intention to leave, her cousin Beth lectures her, telling her she’s selfish to live her lifestyle while Tara’s father and brother fend for themselves. After an epic battle with the demons of the day, it’s Spike (vampire and occasional good guy) who figures out that the tale of women being demons is just a family legend “to keep the ladies in line.” And Tara, for the first time in her life, is happy in her own skin.
Whether you’re sex-positive or sex-critical, can we really deny that body autonomy is anything but empowering, especially in a patriarchal setup that aims to suppress every aspect of female sexuality?
The tradition of exerting control over women in narrative is an almost time-honoured one, dating way back to ancient faerietales. Disney may have cleaned them up for children, but at their root, faerietales were intended to control female sexuality, to impose morality upon women and curtail their independence. ‘The Sun, Moon, and Talia’ for example, is Giambattista Basile’s version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in which the protagonist is raped and impregnated in her sleep. She gives birth and awakens to thank, fall in love with, and eventually marry her rapist. Even older versions of ‘Red Riding Hood’ involve Red getting raped by the wolf (thus, her cataloging of his body parts explained, and our collective childhood ruined.)
The debate on female morality under the control by male editors goes back a long time in the field of feminist cultural scholarship. The origins of modern debate on the subject can be traced back to Alison Lurie in 1970, with her then-controversial essay, ‘Fairy Tale Liberation’. But despite Lurie’s efforts in bringing the issue to light today, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were far from silent on the discussion of faerietales and female sexuality. Writers such as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte recognized the gender construct in faerietales and used this knowledge in their own stories. Jane Austen’s heroines for example, “bold” as they are, reflect a role reversal from the women of traditional faerietales. Christina Rossetti’s ‘The Goblin Market’ is a racy poem about the social controls of female sexuality, with a heroine taking charge of her own body, and ending with obvious insinuations of incest between the two sisters.
Be that as it may, it is important to note that we have only begun to reclaim the narrative from Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, and the rest of the patriarchal lot who turned female characters into regressive, submissive creatures by subjecting faerietales and folk tales to the male gaze. It is important not just to explore how faerietales are responsible for the way we see female sexuality today, but also to see how a masculine editorial control over a historically matriarchal narrative was institutionalized in the first place, and the original, less misogynist narrative lost to the ages
Transgressive faerietales serve only to reaffirm gender stereotypes; Susan Brownmiller argued that classical faerietale characters such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella condition and train women to be rape victims. As horrific as that statement might sound, it is true. Sleeping Beauty is kissed by a prince while she is asleep. Snow White, in her enchanted sleep, is brought back to life by a complete stranger, with a kiss. She owes him her life and thus cannot tell him that he is violating her, this is the message children get in the guise of “true love”. We often read of rape cases where a woman realizes years later that she was raped, because we have learned to operate inside a socially perpetuated victim mentality. In ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Red Riding Hood’, Jack Zipes points out how, throughout history, Red has been subjected to a reinforcement of the cultural ideology of the middle class. Thus, morality became intertwined with female modesty, chastity, the exaltation of the mother, and the inculcation of the Madonna/Whore complex in ambitious women.
We see this last aspect play out in contemporary pop culture all too frequently. Whether it’s a typically misogynist South Asian soap opera, or a Taylor Swift pop song, the trend remains the same. Women who are modest, humble, submissive, and who endure myriad hardships tend to get their happy endings, whereas women who take charge of their own destiny are “harlots” with insatiable sexual appetites who eschew monogamy. What are these but contemporary attempts to curb female sexuality?
Forget mainstream media or pop culture, look to society itself. Men are lauded for their masculinity based on how many women they date or have sex with, but women everywhere will talk about needing to hide their sexual history from prospective partners (as evidenced by advice columns everywhere).
Researcher Jack Zipes confirms that authors such as Perrault and the Brothers Grimm altered the course of faerietales by removing references to female power or sexuality, thereby projecting the male fear of sexuality. Perhaps this is why in feminist circles, sexual liberation is embraced as a form of empowerment. And why not? Whether you’re sex-positive or sex-critical, can we really deny that body autonomy is anything but empowering, especially in a patriarchal setup that aims to suppress every aspect of female sexuality? In this specific narrative, the male perception is valued and the subject of all tales, reinforcing a heterosexual, patriarchal social order wherein the woman altogether becomes a mere passive plot device to tie the man’s tribulations neatly together, and to provide the man with a prize at the end of his heroic trials of manliness and strength. As such, the female perspective becomes irrelevant.
Anti-porn feminist Catherine MacKinnon wrote, “Sexual objectification is the primary process of the subjection of women. It unites act with word, construction with expression, perception with enforcement, myth with reality. Man fucks woman; subject verb object.” While she wasn’t talking specifically about faerietales, her words do ring true for the subjugation of women in various narratives. The sacrifice of women, whether as mothers, daughters, sisters or wives, is a trends that has been repeated in mainstream media since, well, forever. The problem here is not with sex or sexuality, but rather, that one form of sexuality is exalted while another is suppressed. As long as the hetero-normalisation of mainstream media continues, the narrative will favor the masculine bent, leaving female characters to chase their ever-so-elusive happily-ever-afters.
Gillian Andersen stars in The Fall, a TV show about a female detective who loves sex and doesn’t hide it. When judged for seducing a policeman, her character snarks, “Woman subject, man object… it’s not so comfortable for you, is it?” The TV show Once Upon A Time offers a more female perspective into the once-oppressive classical faerietales. In shows like Elementary, the narrative changes as a female Watson transforms the internal machinations of a traditionally Orientalist, misogynist Sherlock Holmes and single-handedly takes on Holmes’ judgment of her sex life and occasional sexism. On the other hand, a female Moriarty first seduces Sherlock, then destroys him, then re-enters his life as he begins to heal, only to almost ruin him again. Unlike the hyper-sexualised Irene Adler of the BBC series Sherlock, this female antagonist is witty, sexual, and lethal, and it’s a combination of all three that sends Sherlock crashing. Even as long ago as Buffy, as the Wiccan lesbian character Willow struggles under a spell, her new girlfriend simply says, “I think I know how magic works now. It’s like a faerietale,” and kisses Willow, destroying the power of the hex.
Even in contemporary cinema, we see offerings like Frozen, loosely based on Hans Christen Andersen’s The Snow Queen. While the cartoon does away with much of the original tale, Frozen offers a more complex, multi-layered character to viewers instead of just a stock evil queen; you may not agree with her actions, but you can understand, and perhaps even sympathize with her point of view. Moreover, it gives you a Prince Charming, only to reveal that he’s the bad guy, not the knight in shining armour. True love’s kiss, expected to come from the prince to save the day, comes instead in the form of sisterly love. It’s a clever way of subverting the traditional prince-as-saviour happy ending, and providing a more feminist message to children.
Not much has changed, and yet, much is changing. Events around the world such as the Steubenville rape, the Delhi gang-rape, the Dubai rape victim jailed for reporting her rape: these all serve as evidence that rape culture still thrives, that female sexuality is still considered worth controlling,even by violence, if necessary. But amid all the campaigning to end slut-shaming, rape culture, homophobia, there has been a shift in the representation on mainstream media as well. The shift grows more visible by the day. While Hollywood may still be churning out unrealistic expectations of romance in fluff films, the existence of more intelligent television shows and artists to counter the impact of such regressive gender stereotyping is an encouraging trend, and one that helps fretting feminists sleep easier.
Ghausia Rashid Salam is Articles Editor for the magazine.