Taming The Unicorns

If you’ve visited the girls’ section of a chain store recently you’ll have noticed that unicorns are in this season. These 2020 unicorns are a particular type of unicorn — coloured in soft pastel colours and with their eyes closed. It’s not just unicorns with their eyes closed this year — all the cute animals seem to be sleeping. Below are three of the products available at Target Australia this season:

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There is quite a bit of commentary around this, as in, is this an example of retrograde feminism? Over at Think or Blue, Catherine makes the following point about the sleepiness of modern cartoon characters marketed at girls:

Over the course of history, women and girls, especially women and girls of color, have been told to relax. Don’t be hysterical. Anger isn’t flattering. Stop being so over-emotional.

We expect girls to sit nicely, behave, smile, and speak politely. As if that weren’t enough, we now expect them to sleepwalk; go about life in a dreamy daze.

Think or Blue

Pair this article with this week’s episode (42) of the Fuckbois of Literature podcast: “Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today” and with the entire corpus of feminist literature and the sleepiness of these femme coded unicorns does feel a bit icky. Why are we still hung up on unironic “Sleeping Beauty” narratives, with the implication that girls are waiting around for things to happen to them?

Continue reading “Taming The Unicorns”

Symbolism of Shoes

The Modern Magic Shoes by Maxfield Parrish

Shoes and footwear contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Horse shoes are different again, but I’ll include horse shoes here for comparison.

Early Nancy Drew stories were high concept hooks which generally paired two disparate things which are nonetheless related in some obscure way. In The Clue of the Tapping Heels, those two things are tap dancing and morse code. Tap dancing is a girl thing; Morse code is a detective thing. Both involve tapping, voila, there’s the basis for a story.

Why does the imagery of disembodied shoes with a life of their own intrigue us? Why does it work beautifully as horror comedy? There’s a long fairytale history of dancing shoes. Some of these stories end in genuine horror and are commonly dialled down for a young audience.

Seven League Boots

A league is an ancient measure of distance, equivalent to about 3 miles. Seven league boots come up frequently in fairy tales. These were boots which allowed the wearer to traverse vast distances in a single leap. The mythology clearly influenced the modern superhero narrative. In children’s literature, Roald Dahl‘s The BFG is also able to traverse vast distances. Ostensibly this is because the character is a giant and has very long legs, but the distances covered suggests he is aided by some kind of fairytale magic akin to the seven league boots of fairytale.

More widely, then, shoes symbolise travel. This symbolic meaning precedes the era of quick and easy motorised transport. Your shoes were your vehicle.

In some Northern European territories (The Netherlands, Germany and Iceland) children leave shoes out instead of stockings. Father Christmas fills the shoes with gifts. The symbolism is two-fold:

  • Father Christmas has himself made an arduous journey
  • His gifts help children with their ‘journey’ over the coming year. (In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas appears — weirdly — and gives the children gifts which are very clearly meant to help them on their journeys.)
J.C. Leyendecker- Christmas stocking

Uncomfortable Shoes

Iron shoes come up in fairy tales all the time. They’re sometimes a punishment, sometimes a trial to be endured, in order to achieve something or expiate some ill. Everything in fairy tales is both real and a metaphor. That’s the way that they work. In this case … (it’s) all the horrible poisonous narratives that women kind of have to drag around with them in order to navigate the world. Early on in this story, Tabitha is thinking about shoes and thinking about, isn’t it odd that in stories, the shoes that men get to wear make everything easier – their seven-league boots or their winged sandals – but the shoes women wear are made of glass or are iron shoes that are heated red hot? I definitely feel like there are two governing metaphors in this. These are two women who have very different lives. One of them is governed entirely by constraint. She can only survive if she holds completely still, and someone else has to constantly endure hardship. These are equal and opposite terrible situations.

Amal El-Mohtar

First Pair of Heels by Amos Sewell (1901-1983) The Saturday Evening Post cover March 1956
First Pair of Heels by Amos Sewell (1901-1983) The Saturday Evening Post cover March 1956

Even more famous than the iron shoes of fairytales: The glass slipper dropped by Cinderella. Early versions of Cinderella have no glass slipper. It was an old European tradition that a potential suitor would show his sincerity by making a pair of fur boots for his potential wife. The word for ‘fur’ was vair. Scholars think that vair was confused with verre, meaning glass. The glass slipper may have started as a mistranslation but caught on because this is a beautifully resonant and unexpected detail.

Untitled 1936 Claude Cahun 1894-1954

The Shoe As Sexual Symbol

Feet and footwear are traditionally linked to sexuality. Going back to the Cinderella example, the old word for fur happens to share its roots with a word meaning ‘sheath’.

Shoes and slippers are historically very sexualised in parts of China, where foot-binding practices occurred until late in the 20th century. In Northern China the word for ‘slipper’ and ‘mutual agreement’ are homophones, which is partly why slippers are given as wedding presents.

Joe Veno illustrator, Dexter Shoes ad, 1971
Joe Veno illustrator, Dexter Shoes ad, 1971

The Shoe As Status Symbol

Perhaps more than anything else worn on the body, shoes indicate how much money you have. While it’s always been possible to buy a cheaper coat or a cheaper dress, shoes have until very recently remained a major expense even for middle class families.

This is why shoes are a status symbol. Since slaves generally went barefoot, to wear shoes meant you were not a slave.

Shoes As Ownership Of Territory

In many sacred places around the world visitors must remove shoes before entering. Why is that? It’s partly about dirt and wear-and-tear inside ancient buildings but there’s more to it than that. Why would the wearing of shoes offend the gods?

Symbolically, when you place your foot upon the ground, you are taking possession of the earth beneath it. This is why some people get so irrationally cranky about trespassers.

Territory at a holy site does not symbolically belong to humans. It belongs to the supernatural realm. This is the main reason why you take your shoes off. You are acknowledging to the gods that you are a visitor in this space and have no claim to sacred territory. The space really belongs to the gods.

Footprints

Famously, there’s a scene in Robinson Crusoe where the hero discovers a footprint. At this moment he realises he is not alone. Any scene in which one character discovers footprints will be reminiscent of this famous one.

Illustration by Louis Wain of Robinson Crusoe as a cat

Oftentimes when we go somewhere, we may aim to leave nothing behind but we can’t help but leave footprints. Therefore, footprints are of use to characters in chase scenes, whether in detective stories, thrillers or Westerns. Footprint is a proxy for any sort of left-behind-evidence, especially in stories relying on easily recognisable tropes, such as picture books. The footprint is the ‘storybook forensic evidence’.

Horse Shoes

First, horse shoes may be older technology than you realise:

Writers and artists like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin popularized the image of the Middle Ages as an unmechanical, rustic arcadia. This latest revision has greatly influenced our own view of the Middle Ages, and has given rise to the idea that medieval society was both untechnological, and uninterested in technology.

This notion is altogether mistaken. The Middle Ages not only produced illuminated books, but also eyeglasses, not only the cathedral, but also the coal mine. Revolutionary changes occurred in both primary industry and manufacturing. The first recorded instance of mass production — of horse-shoes — occurred during the Middle Ages.

Home by Witold Rybczynski
Shoeing exhibited 1844 Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Okay so horse shoes are technically also ‘footwear’ but the symbolism behind horse shoes has nothing to do with the symbolism behind human shoes. The symbolism of the horse shoe comes entirely from its shape.

The horse shoe is shaped like an arc. The arc was one of the first sacred symbols to represent the vault of the Heavens.

Upside down, the horse shoe resembles the last letter in the Greek alphabet, the omega.

Turn it again. Now you have a crescent moon. Now the shape invokes the Moon Goddess. Added to that, it kind of reminds people of yoni (the womb). (Does everything end up reminding people of penises, breasts and wombs?)

Apart from that, the horse shoe is made of iron, a heavy, protective metal. This imbues the horse shoe with the apotropaic power of an amulet. The horse shoe is therefore a good luck charm. People nail them over doorways, give them to newlyweds as gifts.

No one can agree which way up the lucky horse shoe should go. I’ve been told to hold a wedding souvenir horseshoe as if it’s a vessel, so its imaginary luck can’t ‘tip out’. But in the pre-Christian era, it was meant to be held the other way so it resembles the sky (and also the womb, with a vaginal opening the right way down, presumably).

Header illustration: The Modern Magic Shoes by Maxfield Parrish

Dinner Time In Picture Books

What does dinner time look like in your house? Do you see your own family tradition reflected in children’s books?

I remember hearing once — perhaps on the yak track of Downton Abbey — that, for film makers, table scenes are the most difficult to shoot and edit. Unlike in any other scene, the characters sit close together, side-by-side, talking in what’s basically a huddle. More than that, camerawork has to create the illusion that characters are speaking to the right characters, so they have to be looking in the right direction.

Illustrators of static table scenes have it a bit easier — there’s no need to fit a massive camera into tight spaces, for one thing. But illustrators still have the problem of staging. And tables say so much.

The long table, with one character at each end, is often used to depict a cold, stand-offish, antogonistic character web. You can see this in films such as American Beauty. Fighting parents at one end, child stuck in the middle as reluctant piggy-in-the-middle.

In the classic painting below, the table separates two characters. The blue tones suggest coldness between them. All of this is emphasised with the positioning of the vase, which creates a visual barrier.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing – A Reading

In picture books, with their bustling, happier atmospheres, illustrators want to avoid anything like the asparagus scene of American Beauty.

Joyce Lankester Brisley’s hygge, happy scenes also feature a long table with Mother at one end, Father at the other, but there’s no coldness whatsoever. There’s the expanded cast, for one thing, but there’s also Milly Molly Mandy in action, about to get out of her chair, and the pets in the foreground, also looked after. The house itself is cosy, with its patterned curtains and view to the hint of nature outside.

Milly Molly Mandy table scene

FICTIONAL FAMILIES WHO DON’T EAT AT THE TABLE

This is still rare, from my own observations. In broader pop culture, the fictional family who eats with the TV on, or in front of the TV, is portrayed in that way because they are dysfunctional. Picture books teach a clear lesson: Good families eat together, sitting on Western chairs, at a Western table.

  • Mog’s family sits at the table, though Judith Kerr wrote those in an era where more families did sit at the table. In fact, the formality of eating came in handy for Kerr when writing The Tiger Who Came To Tea, in which a carnivalesque visitor upturns social conventions. The more formal that convention, the more fun it is to subvert it. Admittedly, this is part of the reason why table dinners are so popular with picture book creators.
  • Another reason animals might sit around a table: To make them more human. This explains why Olivia the Pig has to sit at a table. Olivia the Pig sits at a round table, which admittedly is less formal than a long, rectangle.

PHOTOGRAPHS OF FAMILIES EATING DINNER

This photo series shows how many cultures around the world sit on the floor to eat dinner. This could be reflected in picture books, but largely is not.

Here’s a photo series of Americans eating dinner — a significant proportion are in the sitting room rather than at a table, though does skew towards table when people eat as a family rather than as a couple or alone. (Kids are messy, which is one good reason to eat in the kitchen, or on a hard floor.)

And here’s a series of British people eating dinner, which includes a tea trolley. I did actually see that in use when I worked at a high school in England. Each morning the principal ordered breakfast which was delivered to him on a trolley. Coming from New Zealand, this struck me as foreign.

In Australia, Annabel Crabb made a series about the history of Australian life, with emphasis on food. The images look more staged than you’d want in a typical picture book, but a lot of thought has gone into the colour palette, which can be inspiring for illustrators.

What The World Eats is a photo series in the same vein, and sobering. I doubt I could personally survive on some of those weekly rations.

DADS COOKING IN PICTURE BOOKS

There is a tendency across all fiction to idealise the 1950s and 1960s middle class of America, in which mothers stayed in the home, happily raising the children and preparing elaborate meals. There remains a tendency in picture books to replicate that hygge imagery.

Here’s what we need to see more of in picture books:

  • Dads doing the cooking
  • Dads actively involved in helping children eat their food (rather than, say, reading the newspaper)
  • Happy, active families who aren’t necessarily eating dinner at the dinner table. There’s nothing especially magical about the dinner table. Families can eat happily outside around a BBQ, on the floor, and even as they watch TV together, especially if they’re talking about it as they eat.

The joke relies upon the fact that we rarely see fathers cooking in fiction.

RELATED AND INTERESTING

SNACKS HAVEN’T ALWAYS BEEN A THING

Search and destroy, kids!...The mad rush for an after-school snack. ~ 1955
Search and destroy, kids!…The mad rush for an after-school snack. ~ 1955

How Snacking Became Respectable: Before they became standard fare in American life, snacks drew suspicion and even scorn from WSJ

What is a fractured fairytale?

Maleficent film poster fractured fairy tale

A fractured fairy tale is a story which makes use of a traditional fairy tale but restructures and reimagines, with the aim of greater nuance and with a contemporary sensibility in mind. The writer might be offering a critique of the ideas in an earlier version. This makes some of them subversive. Fractured fairy tales are often aimed at an adult audience.

Sometimes called parodies or transformed tales, fractured tales are humorous or exaggerated imitations of an author, a particular traditional tale, or a style. Fractured tales are currently popular in picture book format. Beginning with The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989). Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith began a trend that shows no sign of abating. Traditional tales from “Little Red Riding Hood” to the “Three Little Pigs” to “The House That Jack Built” have been retold in a humorous vein in picture book format. Picture book examples are The Dinosaur’s New Clothes (1999), illustrated by Diane Goode; Little Red Riding Hood: A New Fangled Prairie Tale (1995), illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst; The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza (1999), illustrated by Amy Walrod: and Beauty and the Beaks: A Turkey’s Cautionary Tale (2007), illustrated by Mary Jane Auch.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka

Bear in mind that classic tales are always, forever undergoing evolution, even when the re-teller doesn’t intend any changes:

Retelling stories is about as old as storytelling itself. Each generation’s storytellers takes elements from stories they heard as children. They’ll mash those elements with their own ideas and suddenly the story becomes something completely new. No story has survived untouched throughout the ages– even the so-called “classic” fairy tales do this. If you’re familiar with the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche there are an awful lot of similar elements from that tale in the French story “Beauty and the Beast” as well as in “Cinderella.” And elements of “Beauty and the Beast” also turn up in the Norse tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Storytellers love to take familiar plots and give them a twist. When you take an existing story and adapt it for your own you are making a connection – a connection with every storyteller who told their own version of that story, and a connection with every audience that has loved some variation of that story. It allows the writer to create a kind of shorthand with the audience – if you like “x,” then you’ll find familiar things in this new version of the story. We take comfort in the familiar and relish the new that’s mixed in, and something fresh and original is created from that mixture.

Christina Henry

Fractured fairy tales can be of any genre, written for any demographic:

  • Fantasy — Most recently we’ve had a lot of dark fantasy
  • Horror — Horror has gone hand-in-hand with the dark fantasy. In horrors, villains such as witches don’t tend to have a back story — they serve as the evil force.
  • Dramatic musical
  • Thriller
  • Comedy

Fractured fairy tales are very popular at the moment, for YA and adults. In film and television there was a proliferation between 2010 and 2016, and many of these are available on Netflix, for example.

  • Into The Woods — a stage play running for two years from 2002 by Steven Sondheim which weaves Grimm and Perrault tales together; produced for screen during the ‘proliferation’ period.
  • Once Upon A Time
  • Grimm
  • Shrek — This franchise takes a classic monster from a fairytale (the ugly ogre) and turns him into a sympathetic character.
  • Descendents
  • Beastly — a retelling of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast and is set in modern-day New York City.
  • Maleficent —  a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy’s point of view.
  • Hansel and Gretel — horror
  • Witch Hunters — horror
  • Snow White and the Huntsmen — horror
  • Half Baked — horror

Three Types Of Fractured Fairytale

The Cross-over Narrative

Cross-over fractured fairytales intersect various fairy tales to create one big story. Examples are Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

The Subversive

Subversive fractured fairy tales force the viewer to look at a familiar story from a unique perspective. Examples are Beastly and Maleficent. Often these subversive tales take on the narrative point of view from a different angle — perhaps the viewpoint character is the villain, recast as a sympathetic character. It’s rare for witches to have backstories in the traditional tales, but modern fractured retellings often give us the witch’s perspective.

Many tales which aim to be subversive nevertheless uphold traditional ideas:

  • Youth is beauty
  • Age is ugly and to be avoided
  • It’s not so bad being ugly, but your ugliness still prevents you from marrying someone beautiful (Shrek)

Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Subversive fractured fairy tales tend to take this view. Sure, Maleficent is evil, but once we know her back story, the morality changes. A common technique in retelling old tales from different perspectives is to name previously unnamed characters.

Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

So wicked witches are named, Cinderella is known to us by her more familiar name, Ella and so on. Subversive tales can be juxtaposed against another type of ‘re-visioning’, described by Jack Zipes:

There are literally hundreds of publishers who produce and market cheap versions of the Grimms’ tales as pretexts to conceal their profit-making motives. These duplications merely reinforce static nations of the nineteenth-century fairy tales and leave anachronistic values and tastes unquestioned. Whatever changes are made in these duplications—and changes are always made—they tend to be in the name of an ignorant conservatism that upholds arbitrary notions of propriety, for many people believe that there is such a thing as a “proper” Grimms’ fairy tale. In contrast, the reversions of the Grimms’ pre-texts, to use the terms coined by Stephens and McCallum, adulterate the Grimms’ tales by adding ingredients, taking away some elements, and reconstructing them to speak to contemporary audiences in different sociocultural contexts.

Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

The Inspired

Inspired fractured fairy tales are only loosely based on traditional stories. Examples are Hansel and Gretel (the film), Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman.