The Ideology Of Persistence In Children’s Literature

persistence

If you work hard you will find success. Persistence leads to success is a comforting truism, because we feel the future is under our own control. Work hard, you win.

An episode of a Freakonomics podcast provides a strong, economically sound argument for sometimes giving up.  But you’ll be hard pressed to find a book for which encourages quitting. When a child character quits a sports team or skips out on piano, it will probably be because they’ve replaced their parents’ dream with another hobby of their own. Quitting to hang out on the corner? Hard to find that in a non-tragic story.



This is a ‘truism’ because it contains an element of truth. Modern parenting and teaching gurus have spread the message that we should praise children not for being smart but for trying hard, moving away from ‘talent’ mindset into ‘growth’ mindset. Becky is good at math because she worked hard. Johnny knows all the characters of Harry Potter not because he has a superlative memory but because he’s read the complete series three times.  That’s ‘growth mindset’.

This generation of parents has also been exposed to Malcolm Gladwell’s principle: 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to mastery. According to this theory, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Though the number 10,000 has since been shown to be limited to certain skills with stable structures, the thinking behind it rings true; you, too, can master a complex skill if you put in sufficient time and effort.

This ideology is especially strong in Japanese narrative. In the Hayao Miyazaki animated film Spirited Away, the child hero Chihiro gets locked inside a fantasy theme park world and must save her parents from ending their days as bacon by… you guessed it: working hard.

In the West there is no shortage of gritty fictional kids.

PERSISTENCE IN PICTURE BOOKS

  • The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper   This is the ultimate persistence picture book, known to many of us. It has even entered popular vernacular as a shorthand trope for believing in yourself:
    So how do you overcome the parasympathetic nervous system? Is it as simple as just being like the Little Engine and saying, “I think I can”? No, although that doesn’t hurt. Saying something doesn’t mean you believe it, and frankly, your brain has no reason to trust you. You need to convince your brain that it is safe.
    The Science Behind Why “I Think I Can” Actually Works This from a Goodreads reviewer: “The lesson of this book isn’t perseverance, it’s that 3/4 of people you meet will leave you to die on the side of the road. An important lesson, sure, but I think I’d rather wait until at least kindergarten before I start teaching my son that.”

Little Engine That Could persistence
“I am a persistent person,” says man, citing evidence.

  • The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss A boy plants a carrot seed. Throughout the story various people tell him the seed won’t grow, but the boy never gives up. Another picture book using a garden as a metaphor for patience is The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. A little boy works hard to grow a lush, green garden only to find out the winter snow has ruined most of it. But he doesn’t get discouraged and, together with some neighbors, works hard to make it green again.
  • Brave Irene by William Steig This is basically a mythological hero(ine) in picture book format Irene Bobbin has to brave snowy, stormy weather to deliver a ballgown. She meets lots of obstacles on the way but doesn’t give up. She is rewarded at the end with kindness, a hot meal and personal satisfaction.
  • Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems  Elephant and Piggie meet a new friend, Snake, who wants to play catch with them. Snake has no arms. The characters never give up on trying to find a solution to include Snake.
  • How To Catch A Star by Oliver Jeffers A boy really wants to catch a (highly metaphorical) star. He comes up with all kinds of ways to try to catch one, but none of the ideas seem to work. He doesn’t give up. The message is pretty clear with the text: “But in his heart, the wish just wouldn’t give up.” He gets his star, though in a humorous, ironic twist, it might just be a washed-up dead starfish. This saves the story from being 100 per cent sap.
  •  Stuck by the same author is also a story about persistence. Oliver Jeffers’ persistent boys are a running theme in his picture books.
  • This Moose Belongs To Me could be the ultimate anti-rape culture book in the right hands.
  • Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges  Ruby, the main character, is determined to go to college when she’s older instead of getting married and staying home as is the normal tradition of her family.
  • The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires  A girl sets out to make the most magnificent thing, assuming it will be easy. She knows exactly how it will work; all she has to do is make it. But making this most magnificent thing turns out to be anything but easy and she tries and fails repeatedly. Eventually, she gets really mad and decides to quit. But after her dog convinces her to take a walk, the girl comes back to her project with a new perspective and manages to get it just right. We have the full range of emotions in here. The journey towards death is perhaps overkill when it comes to picture books, but in storytelling speak, the near death experience is ‘almost gave up’.
  • Salt In His Shoes by Deloris Jordan & Roslyn M. Jordan A biography of Michael Jordan, as written by his mother and sister. Message being: Never give up and you too can be a great athlete. Though you’ll find this on lists of ‘picturebooks about perseverance’, there’s a hefty dose of magical thinking in there, too. Michael feels the reason he isn’t very good at basketball is because he’s short. His mother suggests he put salt in his shoes and say a prayer to help him grow. This is apparently why he grew. (Around age 8 I prayed every night to become tall, too. Didn’t work for me.)
  • Luigi and the Barefoot Races by Dan Paley Another story about sport and perseverance, though this one is fictional. This is not about an underdog trying to beat the fast kid but about the fast kid being pressured from below by a contender. Kids who are great at sport are thereby catered for in picture book world.
  • Matthew’s Dream by Leo Lionni A mouse dreams of becoming an artist when he grows up. He works hard to fulfil his dream and ends up displaying a painting in a museum.
  • A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams Rosa, her mother, and her grandmother save up coins to buy a chair after their furniture is destroyed in a fire.
  • Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats A boy really wants to whistle. He tries really hard and eventually whistles to his dog.
  • Ready, Set, Skip! by Jane O’Connor is another book about mastering a particular skill.
  • Froggy Rides a Bike by Jonathan London Whistling, skipping, riding bikes… these are all childhood skills where parents first realise whether they’ve got a naturally persevering child or not.
  • Betty Bunny Wants A Goal by Michael Kaplan When kids get a bit older, sports is a good way to learn perseverance, so long as the child is the competitive type.
  • Stickley Sticks To It! A Frog’s Guide To Getting Things Done by Brenda S. Miles A picture book with an overt didactic purpose in the title, probably purchased by parents who know their kids need to hear the lesson.
  • The Pout-Pout Fish Goes To School by Deborah Diesen This going-to-school book underscores the message that school requires hard work you won’t necessarily magically learn how to read. (Though some kids seem to.)
  • Flight School by Lita Judge It’s easy to exhaust the skills that need to be mastered by toddlers and young kids (at least, the interesting ones) but there’s a whole other list of skills to be mastered once we turn to the animal kingdom. In this story a little penguin is determined to fly. The bird-literature reader knows that penguins can’t actually fly. The ending is similar to what Oliver Jeffers did in How To Catch A Star when the dream is impossible, the writer can modify the ending so the kid character still gets what they want, albeit modified. This penguin learns to fly with a little help from technology. The front cover shows him with feathers tied onto his little wings, somewhat ruining the denouement. You Can Do It, Bert is a similar book but features a nervous bird who can actually fly. He’s just a little anxious.

A commonality in the best of these picture books is that the main character goes through a range of emotions: disappointment, fear, frustration and satisfaction. Sometimes elation. The model children manage their emotions, keeping them in check at all times. Comedic characters might have a hissy fit at some point. Comedic characters are relatable, and they’re funny because of that.

A lot of these main characters are anxious types. According to my kid’s paediatrician, ten per cent of children fit the criteria for anxiety, and it’s worth pointing out that ‘reluctance to try something’ or ‘reluctance to try again’ correlates with anxiety.

The most contemporary of these books sometimes star highly imperfect child characters. Older style stories seem more likely to set these kids on a character arc where they turn out better at the end. This makes the older books seem more didactic. There is a movement against overt didacticism at the moment, though I do notice that didacticism is just fine if the book is also very funny.

PERSEVERANCE AND MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS

By the time readers are into middle grade books, there isn’t much difference between middle grade and adult character arc in any good story the main character needs to be one of the following:

  1. Active
  2. Actively Passive

What does it mean to be ‘actively passive’? This is when the character has received the Call To Adventure but goes out of their way to avoid getting involved. That in itself is doing something.

A typical pattern involves:

  1. a reluctant main character who wants things to stay basically the same
  2. something happens a problem, a spanner in the works
  3. character resists change but is forced to get involved anyway
  4. at some point in the story (often around the mid point) the character buckles down, deciding that this journey they’re on needs to be seen through to the end.

If that’s not a ‘perseverance’ character arc, I don’t know what is. Perseverance ‘perseveres’ throughout stories for all ages.

PERSEVERANCE AND YOUNG ADULT BOOKS

“There’s a lesson in real-life stalking cases that young women can benefit from learning: persistence only proves persistence—it does not prove love. The fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn’t mean you are special—it means he is troubled.” 

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

PERSISTENCE AS PROBLEMATIC ROMANCE TROPE

In Hollywood films for adults there is a recent history of stories which rewards men for persistence in the pursuit of romance:

If a man in a movie researches a woman’s schedule, finds out where she lives and works, even goes to her work uninvited, it shows his commitment, proves his love. When Robert Redford does this to Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, it’s adorable. But when she shows up at his work unannounced, interrupting a business lunch, it’s alarming and disruptive.

If a man in the movies wants a sexual encounter or applies persistence, he’s a regular, everyday guy, but if a woman does the same thing, she’s a maniac or a killer. Just recall Fatal Attraction. The King of Comedy, Single White Female, Play Misty for Me, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and Basic Instinct. When the men pursue, they usually get the girl. When the women pursue, they usually get killed.

Popular movies may be reflections of society or designers of society depending on whom you ask, but either way, they model behaviour for us. During the early stages of pursuit situations in movies and too often in life the woman is watching and waiting, fitting in to the expectations of an overly invested man. She isn’t heard or recognized; she is the screen upon which the man projects his needs and his idea of what she should be [I call this the Pygmalion Principle of storytelling, in which a woman is moulded into a full human being only by [her relationship with] a man).

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

The films listed by de Becker are well-known problematic storylines but we see it too in more recent stories. When a woman stalks a man, she is rarely rewarded for it.

Ghost World is a 2001 film based on a graphic novel. But our main female character is pretty far from ‘adorable’. Enid is snarky, sarcastic and self-destructive. Every time someone offers her an opportunity to succeed, she sabotages it. In a Pigman type storyline (harking back to the Paul Zindel novel from the 1970s), Enid and her friend start stalking a vulnerable man for kicks. While she ‘gets the guy’, suggesting her stalking persistence has paid off, the viewer can see that playing wifey to this much older loser is not in Enid’s best interests. She ends up leaving town. In his review, Roger Ebert nevertheless calls this a happy ending:

The movie sidesteps the happy ending Hollywood executives think lobotomized audiences need as an all-clear to leave the theater. Clowes and Zwigoff find an ending that is more poetic, more true to the tradition of the classic short story, in which a minor character finds closure that symbolizes the next step for everyone. “Ghost World” is smart enough to know that Enid and Seymour can’t solve their lives in a week or two. But their meeting has blasted them out of lethargy, and now movement is possible. Who says that isn’t a happy ending?

Roger Ebert

The Notebook

The Notebook based on a Nicholas Sparks ‘love tragedy’ is a classic example of a man who won’t take no for an answer. It is so irritating to watch his obsession rewarded as the film progresses. Bear in mind that Noah has already asked Allie, “Do you wanna dance with me?” “No,” she says. “Why not?” The boy with Allie with steps in and says, “She’s with us,” (because he knows that other men only listen to men), but still Noah won’t take Allie’s clear no for an answer. Noah has been taught that persistence pays off, even if it means ignoring a woman’s feelings altogether.

Even people who dissect romantic stories pointing out all their plot problems tend to skip over the biggest problem  of all.

TURNING 20: HOW AN ICONIC ’90S FILM NORMALIZED STALKING regarding There’s Something About Mary, from Bitch Media.

Groundhog Day

Pop Culture Detective pinpoints Groundhog Day as the ultimate example of creepy stalking and also uses a bunch of other Hollywood movies as examples.

Ratatouille

Showing men kissing women against their will hurts kids and leads to date rape. Folks, in Ratatouille, there are THREE females – two characters and one bridal caketopper – that are kissed against their will. Each of these is presented as humorous or romantic.  Are you kidding me? When kids see these images, 1) they learn that when girls say no, it is romantic or funny to kiss them anyway, which can lead directly to date rape. 2) Girls learn that what they want or say is not important, and that what a guy really wants is for them to put up a half-hearted fight and then submit.  Is this really what you want to be teaching? I fervently hope that Ratatouille is the last time we will ever see that kind of thing in a Pixar movie.

Bitch Flicks

Twilight

Famously in Twilight, Edward Cullen is so persistent he ends up creepily stalking Bella in her actual bedroom, watching her as she sleeps. This is nothing if not persistence. According to the setting, Edward has some kind of animal instinct and can’t help himself. (Plain old persistence by another explanation.)
 

Ready Player One

I’ve noticed Ready Player One called out for problematic stalky tropes on Twitter.
 

Bollywood Films In General

College student Shakti Singh, 20, said he would like a girlfriend but has no clue how to get one.

With little help from their conservative parents but with easy access to the Internet, he and his friends model their behaviour on the swains in Bollywood romance movies. The genre — often with a hero who breaks down a woman’s reluctance — has been criticized for glorifying stalking and rape.

“There is a lot of effect from movies,” Singh said. “Even though the girl says no he continues chasing her, and she still says no. But in the end he gets the girl.”

Now multiply that impression by the several million unattached young men watching these movies nationwide. The state recently launched a program to curtail these misguided “Romeos,” with special police squads to patrol shopping malls, college campuses and bus stands where chronic harassers gather.

“I won’t tease in the village. I will get beaten up. But outside I do,” boasted Lal Singh, a field worker, 31.

Too Many Men, Washington Post

PERSISTENCE CALLED OUT

Disney/Pixar really does have a speckled history of getting things really right and other things spectacularly wrong. That’s because although the funding all comes from the same corporation, the ideologies of writers differ quite a lot.
 
Sometimes Disney writers are able to see through the persistence-as-romance bullshit. The writers of Disney’s Hercules (1997) did a great job with Megara’s dialogue in this scene:
 

Megara Rape Culture Hercules

 
Writers Ron Clements and John Musker were making a parody of a Greek tragedy, and to modernise it without the film being completely misogynistic and violent and so on they had no choice but to make the characters more modern and woke. This is how the film begins:

Long ago, in the faraway land of ancient Greece…
there was a golden age of powerful gods…
and extraordinary heroes.
And the greatest and strongest of all these heroes…
was the mighty Hercules.
But what is the measure of a true hero?
Ah, that is what our story is…
Will you listen to him?
He’s makin’ the story sound like some Greek tragedy.
Lighten up, dude.
We’ll take it from here, darling.
You go, girl.
We are the muses…
goddesses of the arts and proclaimers of heroes.
Heroes like Hercules.

Norsemen (2016)

Norsemen is a Netflix series for adults.

The tides may be turning on the ideology of persistence in fiction, at least in certain genres. The pilot (“Homecoming”) episode of this Norwegian comedy features a great scene in which a man clearly about to die (it’s no real spoiler to say that he does die) is told by his nonchalant wife that if he only thinks outside the box and tries his best he will survive.

For an alternative take on the persevere at all costs mentality, take a look at discussions in AD/HD world: The Empowering Effect Of No Longer Denying Your Limitations.

WHY DARCY IS SUCH A SWOONWORTHY CHARACTER

Persistence in Pride and Prejudice

What is a heterotopia?

heterotopia

I have previously written about utopias, snail under the leaf settings, idylls and dystopias. I thought I had -topias covered. Then I came across the word heterotopia. What’s that, now?

Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.

thanks, Wikipedia.

That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.

After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In ‘the real world’ you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something. But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever (delight and) trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork. This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm and helpful rather than show your human side.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA

Heterotopia is based on the concept of utopia.

  • The Greek ‘u’  bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’.
  • The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’.

So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. Whereas the word ‘utopia’ has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More. The word ‘utopia’ is a bit confusing, actually, because it was based on a Greek pun. Of course, the pun got totally lost in translation. So in Thomas More’s pun, utopia meant both ‘place that is not’ and ‘good place’. (ou-topos vs. eu-topos). In modern everyday English, when we say ‘utopia’ we’re generally referring to the good place.

Heterotopias differ from these ‘good’ utopias because they allow for the inherently unpredictable nature of human contexts to disrupt this space.

The word heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.

The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. At least he wasn’t making any puns. Maybe he confused his own self as he was explaining it. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Some have picked up the word and ran with it.

Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into  — children’s literature.

WHY WAS HETEROTOPIA INVENTED IN THE 20TH CENTURY?

Heterotopia is a 20th century concept because it best describes 20th century life and beyond.

In the Middle Ages there was a hierarchic ensemble of places when it came to humans here on Earth:

  1. sacred places and profane places
  2. protected places and open, exposed places
  3. urban places and rural places.

In cosmological theory, there were:

  1. the super-celestial places (as opposed to the celestial)
  2. the celestial place was in its turn opposed to the terrestrial place.

(Galileo put an end to that. Galieo’s new theories made people realise the universe was way bigger than they’d thought. They also separated ‘time’ from ‘the sacred’, but that still hasn’t happened entirely with the concept of ‘space’.)

HETEROTOPIA IN A NUTSHELL

  • Heterotopia is a ‘real world utopia’. A utopia has no real place. A utopia is a ‘perfect version’ of a real place — a society turned upside down. But heterotopias are fundamentally unreal.
  • The mirror is a kind of utopia. (It is a placeless place.) The mirror is also a kind of heterotopia as well as a utopia. The mirror does exist in the reality of your bathroom. But while the person you see in the mirror is real, but the image in the mirror is unreal. The mirror is the ultimate link between the real and the unreal. That’s why mirrors are so fictionally interesting.
  • A heterotopia, similar to a utopia, is a kind of ‘unreal’ space.
  • Time works differently in a heterotopia.
  • Heterotopias have a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place. Either the entry is compulsory, as in the case of entering a barracks or a prison, or else the individual has to submit to rites and purifications.
  • A heterotopia is a place that represents society, but in a distorted way which calls to mind particular idealised aspects of the culture.
  • Heterotopias attempt to encourage transition from a space of chaotic governance and leadership to a mapped, organised one.

EXAMPLES OF REAL WORLD HETEROTOPIAS AND ANALOGUES FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Every culture has the concept of a heterotopia: privileged, sacred and forbidden places reserved for certain people.

Crisis Heterotopias

There are ‘crisis hetereotopias’, where you find adolescents, menstruating women (See Menstruation In Fiction), pregnant women, women in general, the elderly. We have fewer of these ‘crisis heterotopias’ in modern society. It’s considered not-nice to lock people away when we don’t want to deal with them.

retirement village heterotopia of Ponyo
The retirement village of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo soon turns into a genuine utopia where all the old people regain use of their bodies.

We still have boarding schools and many countries have the military service for young people.

Boarding Schools

Hogwarts is a well-known example. Harry Potter’s boarding school is a heterotopia because it is both separate from but also intimately connected to the world beyond its walls. Zooming in on more specific spaces within the Harry Potter universe we have some even better examples of heterotopias:

  1. 12 Grimmauld Place, the ancestral home of the Black family, located in the Borough of Islington, London, in a Muggle neighbourhood
  2. The tent that Harry, Ron and Hermione share in book seven
  3. The Room of Requirement is a space within the place of the school proper.  Itonly appears when a person is in great need of it. The room is thought to have some degree of sentience, because it transforms itself into whatever the witch or wizard needs it to be at that moment in time, although there are some limitations. For example, it cannot create food, as that is one of the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. It is believed that the room is Unplottable, as it does not appear on the Marauder’s Map, nor do its occupants, although this could simply be because James Potter, Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew never found the room.

Those two spaces exist in the margins of safety and danger. There are shifts from order to disorder, from safety to danger. The idea J.K. Rowling is pushing forth is that young adults can be powerful when it comes to opposing the abuses that permeate the spaces in our own world. What the trio does in Hogwarts does not stay in Hogwarts. The teenagers go against authority, learning the limits of their own power. For this they need to operate in a fictional space which is part fantasy, part real-world.

Train And Steamships

Many children’s stories still feature steam trains even though most modern kids have never ridden one in their lives. The steam train, or the ship (offered as an example by Foucault himself) are especially good as heterotopias because they operate like alternative worlds. They are kind of like a portal in a portal fantasy, One obvious reason to linger in a portal is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are. But there are other reasons.

See also: The Symbolism of Trains

When the fantasy portal is something like a train or a ship, this gives the writer some space and time to:

  1. Establish the logic of this new universe
  2. To subvert it
  3. To have it clash with the logic of the existing, real world universe.

(In the real world, the ship which inspired the film Pirate Radio (2009) existed in a kind of heterotopia, able to broadcast non-classical music due to floating outside the reach of the rule makers.)

steam ship heterotopia in The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Anne With An E, the Netflix miniseries based on Anne of Green Gables, also features a steamship during the episode when Anne is sent away from Prince Edward Island.

The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development… but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

— Foucault

Pirate stories set on ships are likewise heterotopic.

Honeymoon Destinations

In the past the ‘honeymoon trip’ had the purpose of removing a young woman from society so that she could lose her virginity elsewhere (out of sight, out of mind — because everyone’s always been scared of young female sexuality). So the honeymoon destination is a kind of heterotopia, without geographical markers.

The honeymoon destination is the closest real world analogue I can think of for the portal fantasy that takes a character (and her sidekick) away to a fun and fabulous land where children can eat as much as they like of whatever they like and get up to other carnivalesque mischief. After all, in children’s literature food is basically sex.

Libraries and Museums

A 20th century heterotopia. Time works differently here because in these places time never stops ‘building up and topping its own summit’.

A lot of children’s books feature libraries — probably because children’s authors are huge fans of books. For instance, A Series of Unfortunate Events contains memorable libraries.

Cinemas and Theatres

Juxtaposition is very important when it comes to the importance of a heterotopia. Cinemas and theatres are heterotopic because they are capable of juxtaposing “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”. There’s the audience, sitting comfortably in their chairs, juxtaposed with whatever mayhem’s going on on the screen or stage.

These are sites of temporary relaxation.

The theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space.

Foucault

Drag queen cabarets are especially good examples of heterotopias because the men dressed as ‘women’ are not mimicking real women at all, but a particular kind of ideal woman, with exaggeratedly feminine attributes. They caricature feminine traits. What is the raison d’etre of kikis and drag queen cabarets? The kinder interpretation: Drag queens highlight the ways in which femininity is a performance. And through a misogynistic lens: by highlighting that femininity is a performance, women are seen to be performative, duplicitous and basically liars when we put on ‘masks‘ such as make-up, and dress to make our legs look longer and so on.

In children’s books there are few (if any) drag queen cabarets — this is considered adult entertainment. But we do often get a form of cross-dressing. This is most often done to disempower boys by comparing them to girls, long considered a lesser gender. This is not a form of heterotopia but a kind of gag. There is a drag performance in the movie version of Coraline — not a gender transgressive one but one performed by the two women who live together next door. (Are Miriam Forcible and April Spink cis women? I like to think they are not.)

Forcible and Spink from Coraline

Whenever a character in a story visits the cinema or the theatre and watches fiction on the stage, this might (or might not) be metafictional, depending on whether the author calls attention to the fact that, Hey, look, this character is watching a play and you’re reading a book about them watching a play.

Gardens

Perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden. We must not forget that in the Orient the garden, an astonishing creation that is now a thousand years old, had very deep and seemingly superimposed meanings. The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center (the basin and water fountain were there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm. As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).

— — Foucault

Since heterotopias represent a society’s idealised version of reality, each culture has its own raison d’etre. Japanese gardens are all about balance, because balance is important to Japanese people. French gardens are made of straight lines whereas English gardens mimic the irregularity of nature (with the emphasis on ‘mimic’). Gardens are attempts to recreate an ideal, utopian nature.

Heterotopia is also about the side-by-side, the near and far, and simultaneity.

Botanical gardens in particular are driven by the desire to reconstitute the whole world in a walled enclosure.

The golf club is a kind of massive, over-manicured garden — another example of heterotopia. Malcolm Gladwell did an excellent podcast on American golf clubs, and how taxpayers are all paying for them even though they are accessible by very few.

Cemeteries

A cemetery is a heterotopia because the tombs form a sort of ideal town for the deceased, each placed and displayed according to social rank. Our local graveyard divides people according to religion — we have protestants on one side, Catholics on the other. The odd atheist (I assume) is over by the fence, as far as possible away from the religious folk. This represents some sort of idealised town, in which people of different/no faiths don’t have to deal with each other.

Also, a cemetery gives the illusion to its visitors that their departed relatives still have an existence and status, symbolised by the stone of their tomb. This is a simulated utopia of life after death, but it is also a representation of the real world, where things like your religion and status — as described briefly on your tombstone — actually matter.

Take the strange heterotopia of the cemetery. The cemetery is certainly a place unlike ordinary cultural spaces. It is a space that is however connected with all the sites of the city, state or society or village, etc., since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery. In western culture the cemetery has practically always existed. But it has undergone important changes. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the cemetery was placed at the heart of the city, next to the church. In it there was a hierarchy of possible tombs. There was the charnel house in which bodies lost the last traces of individuality, there were a few individual tombs and then there were the tombs inside the church. These latter tombs were themselves of two types, either simply tombstones with an inscription, or mausoleums with statues. This cemetery housed inside the sacred space of the church has taken on a quite different cast in modern civilizations, and curiously, it is in a time when civilization has become ‘atheistic,’ as one says very crudely, that western culture has established what is termed the cult of the dead.

Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language. In any case, it is from the beginning of the nineteenth century that everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay, but on the other hand, it is only from that start of the nineteenth century that cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities. In correlation with the individualization of death and the bourgeois appropriation of the cemetery, there arises an obsession with death as an ‘illness.’ The dead, it is supposed, bring illnesses to the living, and it is the presence and proximity of the dead right beside the houses, next to the church, almost in the middle of the street, it is this proximity that propagates death itself. This major theme of illness spread by the contagion in the cemeteries persisted until the end of the eighteenth century, until, during the nineteenth century, the shift of cemeteries toward the suburbs was initiated. The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place.

Foucault

Cemeteries are a good example of how time is different in a heterotopia. In a cemetery humans have met with broken time — starting at the time of death.

graveyard heterotopia children literature

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Fairgrounds
[Fairgrounds are] marvelous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune-tellers, and so forth.

Foucault

Disney World is the ultimate real world heterotopia. The characters are really nice to visitors not because Donald Duck is best friends with every visitor but because friendliness and photo opportunities are the service parents have paid for. The place is open only to those with enough money to enter — poverty and beggars are absent. The ‘city’ itself is a miniaturised version of an idealised world. For more on Disney World as the ultimate heterotopia see this article.

Madeline and the Gypsies heterotopia of the circus
In this carnivalesque story Madeline gets stuck at the top of a ferris wheel at the heterotopia of a ferris wheel.
Malls

Although this describes Disney World it applies equally to malls:

Stephen Fjellman explains in Vinyl Leaves that the ‘magic’ of Disney World is actually a cognitive overload associated with decontextualization. ‘Cognitive overload’ simply means that the visitors’ senses are constantly overloaded by stimuli: music, stories, animatronics, cute characters, pretty buildings, rides, simulations and more. The visitor is overwhelmed and loses part of his capacity to discriminate information or think.

Philosophy Now

In  our local mall we have:

  • Booths in the middle of the ‘street’ with salespeople trying to sell you mobile phone plans, insurance and do your taxes, depending on the time of year
  • The sub-heterotopia of a children’s entertainment arena, again different depending on the time of year. Before Christmas you can pay for the simulated intimacy of a photo with Santa. During school holidays you can be tied up to bungee ropes and jump and flip up as high as the third level of the mall. For younger kids we have mechanical horses which ‘run’ if you rock them the right way.
  • Music which is different depending on the store
  • Smells — some unintended, like the chemicals coming out of the nail salon; others intentional, such as the smell of baking coming out of the gourmet bakery.
  • Lighting which highlights some features over others
  • Massive advertisements, often of semi-naked women, always young and either smiling or seductive.
  • A help desk which supposedly caters to your every need, including telling you where to find things and dealing with misplaced items, like a patient mother
  • Tiny cars with flags on the top, so toddlers can imagine the mall is a city
  • Balloons with ‘Westfield’ written on them, simulating a party atmosphere
  • Mechanical animals, which take you to an imaginary other world if you put two dollars in the slot.

While malls are the ultimate shopping heterotopia, individual shops do their best to emulate the exclusivity of their stores — the very definition of ‘brand’.

Vacation Villages

Quite recently, a new kind of temporal heterotopia has been invented: vacation villages, such as those Polynesian villages that offer a compact three weeks of primitive and eternal nudity to the inhabitants of the cities. You see, moreover, that through the two forms of heterotopias that come together here, the heterotopia of the festival and that of the eternity of accumulating time, the huts of Djerba are in a sense relatives of libraries and museums. for the rediscovery of Polynesian life abolishes time; yet the experience is just as much the,, rediscovery of time, it is as if the entire history of humanity reaching back to its origin were accessible in a sort of immediate knowledge.

Foucault

Gated Communities

Like a permanent vacation village, the gated community is a phenomenon of the 21st century. In America, the same companies running prisons are guarding gated communities.

The ‘trailer park’ or the ‘mobile home community’ is a compulsory form of gated community — made compulsory due to poverty.

Rapunzel lives in the ultimate gated community. Rapunzel is the ur-Story of any overprotected girl who has lost freedom to move around her environment due to real or perceived danger.

Harlen Coben’s novel Safe was adapted for TV, starring Michael C. Hall, Michael C. Hall’s mish-mashed, weird-ass British accent, and a gated community which may not be so safe after all.

Harlen Coben Safe gated community
Religious Spaces

There are even heterotopias that are entirely consecrated to these activities of purification -purification that is partly religious and partly hygienic, such as the hammin of the Moslems, or else purification that appears to be purely hygienic, as in Scandinavian saunas.

Foucault

In a children’s book the tree house can function as a kind of religious space, letting in only those who perform the ritual of a password (e.g. Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven). In The Three Investigators the boys have a caravan in one of their uncles’ scrapyard.

Religious Communities

The first wave of colonization in the seventeenth century, of the Puritan societies that the English had founded in America and that were absolutely perfect other places.

Jesuit colonies that were founded in South America: marvelous, absolutely regulated colonies in which human perfection was effectively achieved. The Jesuits of Paraguay established colonies in which existence was regulated at every turn. The village was laid out according to a rigorous plan around a rectangular place at the foot of which was the church; on one side, there was the school; on the other, the cemetery-, and then, in front of the church, an avenue set out that another crossed at fight angles; each family had its little cabin along these two axes and thus the sign of Christ was exactly reproduced. Christianity marked the space and geography of the American world with its fundamental sign.

The daily life of individuals was regulated, not by the whistle, but by the bell. Everyone was awakened at the same time, everyone began work at the same time; meals were at noon and five o’clock-, then came bedtime, and at midnight came what was called the marital wake-up, that is, at the chime of the churchbell, each person carried out her/his duty.

young adult novel cult as heterotopia

Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much—-if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.

But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle—-who already has six wives—-Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.

Brothels

Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia.

Foucault

In YA fiction featuring the heterotopias of brothels we have Naked by Stacey Trombley, Dime by E.R. Frank and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, among others.

‘Love’ Hotels

There are others, on the contrary, that seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions. Everyone can enter into these heterotopic sites, but in fact that is only an illusion—we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded. I am thinking for example, of the famous bedrooms that existed on the great farms of Brazil and elsewhere in South America. The entry door did not lead into the central room where the family lived, and every individual or traveler who came by had the right to open this door, to enter into the bedroom and to sleep there for a night. Now these bedrooms were such that the individual who went into them never had access to the family’s quarter the visitor was absolutely the guest in transit, was not really the invited guest. This type of heterotopia, which has practically disappeared from our civilizations, could perhaps be found in the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.

For children, a hotel doesn’t have to be a sex destination in order for it to function as a getaway.

BEAUTY PAGEANTS

I would include the world of beauty pageantry as a heterotopia. This world is explored in films such as Little Miss Sunshine, Whip It! and Dumplin.

IS HETEROTOPIA A USEFUL CONCEPT FOR TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?

The word is probably more useful for architects than for students of literature, because it describes the function of a real world fictional place such as a Spanish garden or a games room. The truth is, every story with elements of realism features a heterotopia. Some sort of closed arena is a requirement for a story, after all.

The word is still useful for students of literature and here’s why:

[Disneyland] is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation.

—Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1981)

Certain kinds of stories, including many children’s stories, are likewise presented as imaginary in order to make us believe the rest is real. Yet the very existence of these stories draws attention to the fact that the ‘real world’ is pretty fucking far from ‘real’. We’re actually living in a simulcrum of reality. I’m wearing a graduation gift that is a $300 dress ring, and it looks like it might be a lot more expensive than it is. Outside I have planted natives which I hope will look like they’re self-sown, if I can get them to establish.

When The Tiger Who Came To Tea leaves the house, the young reader’s attention is drawn to the fact that their real life is bound by certain rules and expectations. Foucault considered heterotopias escapes from authoritarianism, much like the carnivalesque settings in picture books. Subsequent thinkers have expanded his original meaning. Hetereotopias can also be dystopias, in fiction as in real life.

Children’s literature in general is very concerned with truth. Middle grade fiction in particular is read at a time when children are learning not only to lie, but when it is okay to lie. The concept of heterotopia is useful when considering the difference between reality and a shiny veneer which is not genuine at all. Is this expensive boarding school your parents have sent you to really all that great? Does this teacher in charge of your welfare really have your best interests at heart? Do the ‘popular’ kids in your class have real friends, or does popularity really mean ‘social status’? Is this world created for you by adults anything like the world you’ll be thrown into once you enter adulthood?

All children — at least, all well-cared-for children — live in a heterotopia, where they are protected from certain news stories, from the full spectrum of adult sexuality, from toxic food choices and their own bad decisions. The best coming-of-age stories — not the ones solely concerned with losing one’s virginity — are at their base about a young person realising the extent to which they’ve been living inside a heterotopia, and how much they’re willing to come out of it.

Heterotopia is also a useful concept when talking about the ‘Disneyfication‘ of children’s stories. This has been going on for more than half a century, and is an interesting look into how the West thinks of childhood.

It is also useful for getting a handle on your own personal philosophy of children’s literature. To what extent are you comfortable with people/children living in multiple levels of reality? Do you think that when children read magical stories like Harry Potter this affects their real-world understanding of science? At what age should children be exposed to what? If we allow privileged child readers to remain in the heterotopia we have created for them will this affect how they identify with people less privileged than themselves?

Also, the words used to describe “non-realistic” narratives have not been specific enough. Academics were overlapping different words and using them interchangeably. This was no good. Take the word ‘fantasy’ itself. Different scholars call it a ‘genre’, a ‘style’, a ‘mode’, or a ‘narrative technique’.  Believe it or not, people have big arguments about this. When describing children’s literature in particular, anything that’s not realistic is generally called either ‘fantasy’ (for long works) or ‘fairy tale’ (for short ones). This distinction is pretty useless really. Fairy tales and fantasy may seem related at a surface level, fairy tales came out of myth and have roots in archaic society. But fantasy is definitely a product of modern times. Heterotopia can be useful when talking about concepts related to modern fantasy stories, especially those with no portal. Portal fantasy most often has just the two distinct worlds — the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’ through the looking glass or whatever. But modern fantasy often involves a multitude of ‘secondary’ worlds. Traditional fantasy is all about simplicity, stability and optimism, whereas modern fantasy can explore reality in a much more complex fashion, emphasising uncertainty and ambiguity. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is a good example of this kind of fantasy.

Perhaps it might be especially useful for talking about fabulism,  magical realism, and especially the typical modern child’s relationship with computer games. The word ‘spaces’ is often used to describe the imaginary worlds of computer games but we might use ‘heterotopia’ to be more specific.

ISLANDS

Islands in children’s literature are often considered a heterotopia — both a fantasy portal and a fantasy destination rolled into one.

PRISONS/JAILS

From a distance the prison might be an out-of-town shopping mall, Texas Homecare, Do It All and Toys ‘R’ Us. There’s a creche at the gate and a Visitors’ Centre, as it might be for Fountains Abbey or Stonehenge. Reasoning that I am a visitor myself, I big struggle across the windswept car park but when I put my head inside I find it full of visitors of a different sort, the wives and mothers (and very much the children) of the inmates, Birds of a Feather territory, I suppose. At the gate proper I’m frisked, X-rayed, my handprints taken, and am then taken through a series of barred gates and sliding doors every bit as intimidating as the institution in Silence of the Lambs.

– Alan Bennett from Untold Stories

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Heterotopian Studies, an entire website

Rapunzel The ur-Story Of Young Female Sexuality

Rapunzel Michael Foreman

Whether it’s women locked in attics, teenage girls protected by their fathers, children living in gated communities, missing girls or dead mothers, Rapunzel is a significant ur-story.

Rapunzel in her tower by Anne Anderson

THE HISTORY OF RAPUNZEL

The life of a fictional woman hasn’t diversified much over the years.  Rapunzel is not the only girl who was locked up — take the Irish myth of Ethlinn, for instance. Ethlinn was a moon goddess whose father imprisoned her in a tower so that she could not produce the son prophesied to kill him. Kind of like a cross between Oedipus and Rapunzel, don’t you think?

It seems so obvious it’s not even worth mentioning: The girl locked in a tower thing is a metaphor for how family members would gather around to protect a young woman’s virginity. The fertile woman’s body has historically (and into the present) never been considered her own.

Patrisonella — ‘Neopolitan Rapunzel’ by Giambattista Basile (1630s)

This story predates the Grimm version by about 200 years.  ‘Literary’ means it was written down rather than started orally.  Neapolitan Giambattista Basile, like the German Grimm Brothers, was a collector of fairytales rather than a creator of them. He wrote down the story of Petrisonella. His sisters published a couple of volumes of his collections after he’d died.

In this version our heroine is an active participant in the tale. She works out her own way to escape the tower. She is named after the vegetable which grows in the ogress’s garden.

  • Petrosinella isn’t given over at birth as Rapunzel is.
  • There’s still that backstory with the mother who has cravings for, steals the petrosinella. In this retelling it’s the wife herself who takes the parsley (In Neapolitan, petrosine is parsley.)  The mother promises the ogress that she can have her unborn child. The ogress is going to kill her if she doesn’t comply. (Sounds fair. Parsley IS delicious.)
  • The child, Petrosinella (Little Parsley), lives with her parents but every day on her way to school she passes this ogress  who whispers, “Tell your mother to remember her promise!”
  • The daughter doesn’t know the backstory of this, and repeats this to her mother day after day. The mother eventually advises her own daughter to say to the ogress, “Take it!”
  • Poor Petrosinella is taken. Dragged by the hair, in fact, and locked in a tower in the woods.
  • We might assume Petrosinella suffers from PTSD. If a human were to be locked up as Rapunzel was, she would not be thriving. We actually know this from real life examples, such as the case of Blanche Monnier. She knows what it’s like to have a family and friends. She’s basically been sacrificed by the mother who didn’t even tell her the truth. In this way, Petrosinella is an ancestor of ‘Ma’ in Emma Donaghue’s Room. It’s no surprise, really, that Donoghue is a writer who has a strong grasp on the history of fairytale and folklore. Apart from Room she has also written Kissing The Witch: Old Tales In New Skins. Another author with a strong background in fairytale and folklore is Australia’s Kate Forsyth, who brought Petrisonella — or rather the version as written by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force — back to life in her historical novel Bitter Greens.)
  • The ogress has no real motivation in this story because at this point in storytelling history it was assumed that certain women are inherently evil, ugly and dangerous.

I have no real issue with the enduring publication of fairytales, which come out year after year after year (presumably at the expense of original tales, because they sell), but I do wonder why publishers insist on continuing under the influence of Grimm rather than purposefully looking back further in time, when heroines were not such unilateral victims.

Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (1698)

Charlotte-Rose also wrote a Girl In The Tower tale closely related to the Neapolitan Petrosinella. She wrote a bunch of things but is best remembered for “Persinette”.

In this version it’s Persinette’s father who takes the parsley. He doesn’t even have to take it. He makes a deal to exchange the baby for the parsley when the witch catches him in her garden. This makes no sense to a modern reader, but Jack Zipes explains that pregnancy cravings were taken very seriously in earlier times. It was thought that if pica cravings were not met, bad luck would befall the pregnancy, because cravings were given prognosticatory significance. “It was incumbent on the husband and other friends and relatives to use spells or charms or other means to fulfill the cravings.” (The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes). Other examples of stories in which pregnant women crave fruit and vegetables:

  • Cherry Tree Carol (The Virgin Mary tells Joseph she’s pregnant by asking him to pick some cherries for her.)
  • Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (apricots were believed to induce labour, a belief utilised here)

Anyone who has been pregnant lately will be keenly aware of all the rules around what expectant mothers are and are not allowed to do; even before cigarettes and the ready availability of soft cheeses, pregnant women were controlled via superstition taken seriously: It was thought that if a woman gave in to her cravings she would cause supernatural intervention which would bode poorly for the baby. This ties in with pre 20th century ideas that ‘control’ is what people valued in antiquity. Michel Foucault wrote about this, especially in regards to sex. (The idea that one’s sexual orientation defines you is modern. For ancient civilisations control over one’s own impulses is what defined you. Look to the Ancient Greeks.)

De la Force spends a lot of time describing all the luxuries that Persinette has in her tower.French culture at the time was all about having the best and newest luxuries. You’ll find similar descriptions of the Beast’s castle if you read the original French version of Beauty and the Beast. In both tales, the reader is encouraged to believe that the female prisoner is actually very lucky, having all these nice things around her. She’s, like, almost not even a prisoner at all!

In this version Persinette falls in love with the handsome prince in no time at all. Charlotte-Rose skirts around the wedlock issue by having them ‘married within the hour’. The speed at which Persinette goes from scared to fully in love is more than a little creepy by modern standards:

“He fell at her feet and kissed her knees with persuasive ardor. Persinette was frightened. She cried and then she trembled, nothing could calm her. Her heart was full of all possible love for the prince.”

In this version the fairy finds out Persinette has been ‘seeing’ the prince and is furious, but instead of banishing her to the forest she banishes her to a cute cottage by the sea which provides her magically with food.

For more on the author see here.

When Paul O. Zelinsky illustrated a modern retelling of Rapunzel he chose to paint in an art style reminiscent of this period.

Paul O Zelinsky

What Did The Grimm Brothers Do To It? (1812)

As usual, the Grimm brothers modified it — or picked the best of many versions — to suit their own morals at the time. Specifically, they changed the ending, because remember they were trying to monetize their work by selling collections to kids instead of sitting at home while people sent them their stories. Oral fairy tales such as “Rapunzel” were never created specifically for a young audience:

The Grimm’s (sentimental) ending to the story of Rapunzel (where the Prince’s blinded eyes are magically restored after Rapunzel’s tears land on them) cannot be found in the oral tradition of this tale.

OUP

Here’s what else the Grimm brothers always did to classic oral tales: they took a brave, intelligent heroine and made her passive and naive.

In order to avoid the controversial issue of Rapunzel getting pregnant before getting married, the Grimms have her instead ask the witch (as if she’s a true fool) why she’s so much heavier than the Prince. Some have argued that this Rapunzel is smarter than critics give credit for. For instance, it’s Rapunzel who comes up with the Prince’s plan when she says, “I will willingly go away with thee, but I do not know how to get down. Bring with thee a skein of silk every time that thou comest, and I will weave a ladder with it, and when that is ready I will descend, and thou wilt take me on thy horse.”

As you can see, our ‘ogress’ is now a ‘witch’ — basically another version of an inherently evil woman. The green vegetable stolen from the witch’s garden is now ‘rampion’ which actually refers to three different green, leafy vegetables. The rampion bellflower had leaves which were used like spinach and a root used like a parsnip. These days you don’t really hear about rampion outside this particular retelling of Rapunzel. (Unless you’re a keen gardener, I suppose.)

Barbie As Rapunzel (2002)

Similar to lots of feature-length films starring girls, appealing mainly to girls, the Barbie version of Rapunzel went straight to video. It was produced by Mainframe Entertainment and Mattel. A film like this is never going to get good critical reception and this is no exception.

Say what you will about the Barbie franchise — this version of Rapunzel is probably a bit better than the Grimm’s version. I mean, at least Barbie has agency. She ‘paints’ her way out of the tower. It passes the Bechdel test because Barbie is telling a story to her little sister, Kelly, who doesn’t have confidence in her own painting abilities.

I don’t want to oversell the feminist aspect. My argument is simply that this version looks no worse than the many, many book versions which are told to kids today.

What Did Disney Do To It? (2010)

I have a complicated relationship with Disney/Pixar. Like churches everywhere, they sit consistently slightly behind the times. Okay, Pixar are starting to do some genuinely good stuff. (Inside Out, Moana.) They get a lot of undue credit for sometimes ameliorating what are truly outdated values set in stone by the Brothers Grimm. For instance, when Disney made Rapunzel, they at least gave Mother Gothel a good reason to want a girl in a tower. In earlier versions of similar stories the ogress was given no motive. As 20th C feminist Marilyn French has written, it is important that female characters in stories are given motives for their evil doings:

Myths transforming or diminishing female figures like Hera elide such suggestions. Instead, they omit the past and transform the character of the female into something venomous, ugly, dark, mysteriously threatening. By erasing any reference to an earlier power or power struggle they make the hostility of these female figures appear unmotivated, a given. Social charter myths at least acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not — thus the evil power of females appears to be biological, natural. Such a procedure penetrates the moral realm and affects an entire society’s view of women.

Marilyn French

The other thing Disney is credited for: keeping these tales alive. Without Disney/Pixar, I wonder how many parents would still be buying fairytale collections for their kids. Perhaps these fairytales would be getting lost to history right now, and reading them to our five-year-olds would seem as quaint and hipster as reading them The Jungle Book or tales from Norse mythology.

I’m surprised Disney didn’t get to Rapunzel earlier. Tangled was released in 2010, with a screenplay written by Dan Fogelman. He’s also known for Cars, Bolt, Fred Claus (for kids) and Crazy, Stupid Love (a rom-com about a middle-aged man who is forced to grow up after his wife says she wants a divorce).

In Fogelman’s own words, describing the story of Tangled:

It’s a really a two-hander of a movie. It’s really more than anything it’s about this love story at the center of the movie between the girl, Rapunzel, and the guy, Flynn.

Go Into The Story

Not surprisingly, we have the usual gender ratio of one female to two male characters, despite this ostensibly being a tale about a girl. (The anthropomorphised horse is gendered male.)

Let’s take a look at the enduring appeal of Rapunzel.

You probably think of a pretty girl up in a tower who lets down her long hair so her boyfriend can climb up to see her. True, it’s a little weird that she was imprisoned there by a witch, but still: kind of romantic. How’s this version: When the witch sees what Rapunzel and her boyfriend are up to in that tower room (hint: it’s not knitting), she cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and drops her into the wilderness to wander around alone. Then the witch sneaks up on the boyfriend, he jumps out of the tower window in fright, and blinds himself on thorn bushes. There is a lot of blinding in fairy tales.

Riveted

STORY STRUCTURE OF RAPUNZEL

There are so many versions of “Rapunzel” that I have to pick one to focus on for the story breakdown. I will take a look at the Grimm version, not because it’s my favourite at all, but because it’s the version I grew up with. I’m reading it from a sky-blue hardcover anthology published by Cathay Books in 1979.

In the Grimm version, the girl can no longer be the main character. It just doesn’t work because she is so passive. She might as well be a mannequin. So who is the main character? The main character is the one who changes the most. This does not refer to changes in circumstance (e.g. from rich to poor/alone to married). Who had some sort of awakening? The Grimms’ version posits the Prince as the main character. The prince is active.

The other difference in story structure when it comes to these really old tales: Modern readers don’t want to hear about the parents’ stories. A young adult novel these days isn’t going to regale the reader about how the heroine’s parents met. I guess family background was more important a few centuries ago, perhaps because it was thought that bloodlines were truly significant, and that if misfortune befell you, it must have had something to do with you deserving it, somehow, in a caste system of sorts.

How did the blind man get like that? Jesus’ disciples ask. Was it he who sinned, or his parents? My New Age mind/body connection was just another way to force the lepers outside the town walls. Vulnerability cannot enter here. Mortality cannot enter here. It was another way to push my fears away from myself and onto someone else. If you are ill, you can fix it yourself. If you cannot fix it, then you are to blame. It was, I realize looking back, pseudo-spiritual eugenics.

Superbabies Don’t Cry

Today it’s enough to write a tragic tale about anyone from any background because according to modern morality, bad things happen to anyone at all. (There is still the rose-tinted idea that anyone can pull themselves out of hard times just so long as they work hard, but that’s an evolution for a future Golden Age of Children’s Literature, perhaps helped along by the Trump administration.)

Rapunzel by English Art Nouveau and Pre-Raphaelite illustrator, Emma Florence Harrison

SHORTCOMING

The prince, like any young adult, is considered incomplete until he has found himself a wife. I guess he can’t become King until he finds a beautiful wife. So that’s his main problem.

DESIRE

He wants that young woman with the beautiful singing voice. Unfortunately there is no door into the tower. He can’t get in.

OPPONENT

The witch has locked his prize in a tower to keep her away from the likes of him.

PLAN

He waits and watches. The witch climbs up the girl’s hair, using it as a rope. He’ll do the same. (Because the girl is pretty stupid she doesn’t notice that a young man sounds different from an old woman, I guess.)

BIG STRUGGLE

That bit where the prince flings himself in despair from the ledge after seeing the old woman instead of Rapunzel. Part of me wonders if he assumes Rapunzel has transmogrified into that old woman. If he lives in fairy tale land he might well have thought so. Anyhow, if he can’t have Rapunzel he’d rather be dead. Unfortunately, he suffers a fate worse than death. He is blinded on some sort of thorny bush. If he were dead, at least he’d be in Heaven. At least, that’s how readers saw things a few hundred years ago. For the same reason a tale like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl is not actually a tragedy — it has a happy ending because the little girl gets to see her dead grandmother in Heaven. Nope, going blind here on Earth is worse than being dead in Heaven.

ANAGNORISIS

He roams about in utter misery. He can do nothing but lament. He does this for ‘some years’. At last he finds himself in the wilderness. Now I’d like to draw your attention to The Symbolism Of The Forest. The Forest is where you will go to find yourself in the very pit of despair. We can assume he had some sort of epiphany. Oh, hang on, nope, he would have continued to be miserable but he stumbled upon Rapunzel who had also found herself in that very same forest.

NEW SITUATION

Rapunzel has been caring for a couple of twins all this time. We assume they’re his. Yes, let’s do that. He takes Rapunzel and his twins back to his own kingdom where they are joyfully received. They live long in happiness and contentment together. And by the way, he’s not blind anymore — not in the Grimm version, because Rapunzel has magical eye-healing tears.

SEE ALSO

Singing The Bones Rapunzel episode (podcast)

Kate Forsyth is a Rapunzel expert and has written both fiction and non-fiction based on Rapunzel stories. Check out her blog.

Sleeping Beauty And Cannibalism

The Sleeping Beauty Scottish illustrator Anne Anderson ( 1874 - 1952 )

If you’ve already read Angela Carter’s short stories, in which she rewrites famous tales as feminist ones, you may well hear her scoffing silently in your head as you read these tales, mostly by Charles Perrault, who added his own paternalistic, misogynist morals as paragraphs at the ends. And if you’ve never read these tales by Perrault — and you may not have, because many different versions have been written since — it’s worth a look. This tale is quite different from any I read as a child. This is probably because modern tellers of this tale have simplified it.

This 1982 collection of fairytales translated into English from French by Angela Carter is illustrated by Michael Foreman, who has had a prolific career since then. You may have seen his work in the books of Michael Morpurgo for instance. He’s been working from the 1960s through to now. It seems he can produce up to about 8 or 9 books per year — a phenomenal work rate, especially considering his painterly style.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PERRAULT’S TALE AND MODERN VERSIONS OF SLEEPING BEAUTY

Sleeping Beauty Ladybird well loved tales

In Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty from the 1700s, there is not one but two wicked women — the version I remember from the childhood stories is one of the Ladybird Well-Loved Tales.

In this much simplified story from Ladybird there is no second ‘chapter’. The prince arrives, Beauty and Prince get married and they ‘live happily ever after’. In order to beef out the story a bit we have a succession of princes who try to get through the thick brambles that grow around the castle, but none of them is able to get through until the lucky dude who arrives at exactly the right time, at the 100 year point.

Both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White have been bowdlerised for modern children in a similar way, to the point where you might even get them a bit mixed up if you’re out somewhere and your kid asks you to recount a fairytale from memory. In modern adaptations of both stories Beauty is awakened by a passing Prince, she marries him and they live happily ever after. It’s all good.

There is no happily ever after in the earlier version of Sleeping Beauty; nor is it a tale easily conflated with Snow White.

Illustrators vary in how they portray the fairies. In the Ladybird version above, the fairies all look like youthful Miss America finalists from the 1970s, with their long, blonde hair contrasting with the part witchy/part nunnery black costume of the old, evil fairy. Think a bit harder about what this says about women’s worth in general: Women are only ‘good’ if they are sexually alluring. An old woman dressed in a cross between a witch’s costume and a habit is as far away from sexual as you could possibly get. Therefore, we are to assume, she is no good. It’s therefore a slight feminist improvement that the most recent adaptations of Sleeping Beauty tend to feature ‘Tinkerbell’ type fairies rather than this Ladybird woman from the 1970s.

Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty isn’t even the worst one. It seems he sanitised it his own self.

Still older versions of the same tale type, among them Sun, Moon, and Talia, replace the prince with an already married king. In these versions, he rapes the princess while she lies sleeping and she gives birth to twins before waking up when one of the babies sucks the splinter out of her finger. The cannibalistic queen in this case is the king’s wife. Compare The Brown Bear of the Green Glen“.

TV Tropes, Sleeping Beauty entry

Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty” describes the enchanted castle in Gothic terms: blood-chilling and full of death. A frequent element of gothic novels is the heroine who falls into a death-like state. The links between death and sleep appear in many gothic works, not just in this very well-known tale. They tend to feature entrapment and towers.

CHARACTERS IN SLEEPING BEAUTY

In Perrault’s version we have not one but two evil women: first the evil fairy, next the evil mother-in-law. The girl never sees her own parents again, for although they’ve made all their staff and attendants fall asleep so she will be well looked after when she awakes, the bereaved parents leave their castle forever and go somewhere far away. There are two distinct parts to Perrault’s version, translated by Angela Carter in 1982. Honestly, it’s not ‘going-to-sleep’ book, as the title may seem to imply. This is a young adult tale, designed to warn young women not to rush into marriage. Now, it baffles me how Charles Perrault drew this particular moral from the tale, considering the girl in question had already been asleep and dreaming of this prince for 100 years!

Sleeping Beauty’s transgression is that she attempts to spin when it’s actually beneath her social class to do so. Spinning kept peasant women alive but will kill her.

STORY STRUCTURE OF SLEEPING BEAUTY IN THE WOODS

Whose story is this? While the title tells us the tale is about ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the girl is only a plot tool of a character. She has zero agency. At first I thought this was a story about the girl, but when I try to fill out the story structure it becomes obvious that actually the main character in this story is her evil mother-in-law. The whole thing about the evil fairy, that’s what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin: an event to get the story going. In the end, we don’t even think about what happened to that evil fairy.

maleficent-fairies
The good fairies from Maleficent

WEAKNESS

The mother of the prince — I assume — feels usurped by the beautiful new daughter in law and is envious of the time her beloved son now spends with her.

DESIRE

She wishes her daughter-in-law gone and her son back.

OPPONENT

Sleeping Beauty, whose very beauty and privilege of birth mean she has lost her own boy forever.

PLAN

She will first eat her two grandchildren and then she will eat her daughter-in-law. (She is part ogre.) But her plans change once she realises the son’s wife and children are not dead at all, that they have been hidden in the cellar by a sympathetic servant man. Now she plans to kill Beauty in the most heinous way herself. She orders a huge vat to be brought into the courtyard, filled with horrible creatures. She’ll have the daughter-in-law and her children thrown into it.

BIG STRUGGLE

This part is much truncated and rather unsatisfying in Perrault’s version. All we know is that the king comes back early from faraway. He gallops into the courtyard and presumably there is some sort of showdown that the reader doesn’t get to read about. The evil queen rather impetuously, I feel, throws her own self into the vat of vipers instead.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorises of Perrault’s tale are actually ‘reader revelations’ and they come by way of the ‘Moral’ tacked onto the end of each transliteration. Don’t rush into marriage or you’ll end up with a mother-in-law who wants to eat you, is what Perrault gets from the story.

NEW SITUATION

“The king could not help grieving a little; after all, she was his mother. But his beautiful wife and children soon made him happy again.”

SLEEPING BEAUTY AND CANNIBALISM

Sleeping Beauty in the woods love quote

Strangely enough, the cannibalistic nana has been left out of modern versions for kids. But look around at other fairytales and you’ll find that kid-munching mummies aren’t all that rare. These tales date from much earlier eras in which famines were common, and mothers did occasionally eat their own children:

George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

But Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by their own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child. The child eating mothers of yesteryear are therefore mostly a myth, but have captured the public imagination and been incorporated into oft-shared tales, much like an urban legend of today. (Urban legends often have their origins in plot points taken from real-life heinous crimes which have been sensationalised by the media.)

Maleficent promised to be excellent, as a dive into the backstory of that evil fairy. But the 2014 film did not get good critical reviews. When will filmmakers understand that when you change the best known version of a well-loved tale too much you’re going to run into strife? The other problem for filmmakers though: Which version do you take as the ‘true’ version of the tale? Fairytales change so much, it’s not surprising they make huge alterations themselves in the name of original art.

In 2011, Australia produced a film called Sleeping Beauty — a rather disturbing look into a certain kind of sex work. (The girl is drugged unconscious and used by men with a certain kind of fetish.)

Sleeping_Beauty_film

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Sleeping Beauties: Transformation and Codification from Karen Healey

Sleeping Beauty, zombified and turned into a comic from Mary Sue

Angela Carter utilised Perrault’s  Sleeping Beauty in her radio play Vampirella and in its prose variation The Lady of the House of Love.

…she felt as if she had become the heroine of “The Sleeping Beauty” and this feeling started manifesting itself in her daily behaviour.

a documented case of someone hallucinating a fairytale

The ‘Forced Sleep Trope’ is used in many different modern stories, in which a character is forced to fall asleep by means of a spell or magic potion. This can get very dark in stories about date rape and so on.

Review: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Rests Uncomfortably and Unsuccessfully Between Nightmare And Wet Dream, from Film School Rejects

Short Film Of The Day: Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty from Film School Rejects

La belle au bois dormant : The sleeping beauty

Also check out the Japanese version of Sleeping Beauty, directed by Kihachirō Kawamoto, married Bunraku sensibility with Czech puppetry. This adaptation was co-produced with the Jiří Trnka Studio in Prague. It’s in Japanese without subtitles, but the puppetry alone will give you a creepy vibe.

Maxfield Parrish created artwork for various magazines throughout the 1910s and 1920s

Header image: The Sleeping Beauty by Scottish illustrator Anne Anderson ( 1874 – 1952 )