BY MILA PHELPS-FRIEDL
I grew up with fairytales. I listened to books on tape while falling asleep, devoured Grimm’s twisted stories as soon as I could read, and had a real fascination with the hero cycle of Greek Mythology. When I was about 6 years old, my mom first let me watch the “Clash of the Titans,” a masterpiece filled with green screen animation, a stop-motion beast and lots of horrible acting in togas. This particular cinematic feature told the tropic tale of Perseus, son of Zeus, as he quests to find a way to kill a beast called the Kraken, before it murders the helpless Grecian princess of Argos, for man’s defiance of the ancient Gods. After visiting the three Stygian witches who can see the future, Perseus ventures to the edge of the river Styx to find and kill Medusa, a woman cursed into a serpent like beast, whose gaze turns any living thing to stone. Using her head, Perseus is able to defeat the Kraken and save the princess, the hero wins again and everyone is happy — except for Medusa and the Kraken, of course.
It is a tale of love and sacrifice, bravery and courage, with a steaming side of patriarchal bias that entirely warps the killing of an unfortunately cursed woman into some kind of happy ending. The hero cycle of Perseus is echoed in a million other versions of a million other stories, imitation being the finest form of flattery, it is quite common to draw on ancient myths to revamp, retool and rework old material into new stories for new generations. What’s the scary thing about the cyclical nature of traditional storytelling? It tends to normalize a lot of things that maybe shouldn’t have been alright in their original version, let alone a Disney, sugar-coated alternative.
Only quite recently did I look into the actual story behind the curse of Medusa, and the fact that Clash of the Titans was remade in 2010, with the same exact fate and almost zero sympathy for Medusa’s history, is worrisome — to say the least. Being raised in a family that encouraged most kinds of character analysis and always asking questions, I always liked Medusa and wondered if there wasn’t more to her story. In truth, she was one of the first scary and powerful female characters I’d come across that actually had a shot at beating the good guys. But as I watched her stop-motion movie version slain at the hands of the handsome Perseus, I realized Medusa would likely always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop, because once she’d played her role as an antagonist and her head was taken from her body, she was of no value to the story of Perseus and his journey to hero-dom. Medusa would never beat the men who came to try and kill her, and she could never break her curse — because that would ruin the cycle of heroes that has been ingrained into our literary heritage, all the way from the ancient Greek myths to modern fairytales. The ‘good guys’ win, again, and the evil stepmother, cursed woman combinations, and their very significant backstories, are completely forgotten, overshadowed by the glorious light of victory.
Historically, Medusa, was once a beautiful and powerful priestess to Athena, Goddess of wisdom and warfare. Other stories paint Medusa as a ethereal beauty with numerous suitors — the title is not as important as what comes next for Medusa. In all of the traditional versions, her beauty tempted the God Poseidon and he took her, assaulting her on the floor of the temple of Athena. In the midst of her deflowering, Medusa began to pray to the Goddess Athena, and this is where the tale becomes a little murky. Some versions say Medusa had promised her celibacy to Athena, and so this little “incident,” with Poseidon angered the Goddess so, and that’s why she cursed Medusa. Other versions explain that Athena was merely disgusted that Medusa had somehow happened to be sexually assaulted in the Goddess’s sacred temple — that’s right, blame the victim, not the God.
Zeus, the head Honcho of the Greek Gods, was renowned for having his way with women and then turning them into animals once he was, quite literally, finished. Hephaestus, God of fire and metal, consistently approached his half sister, Athena in an effort to have children of his own and incest aside, Athena usually ended up bearing some kind of child, despite the fact that she had firmly told him no.
This kind of “unGodly,” behavior wasn’t only privy to the Greek Gods either — Indian culture has a widely celebrated epic entitled “Ramayana,” which tells the story of a woman named Sita who is kidnapped by the Demon King Ravana and separated from her husband and Lord, Ramayana, the prince of Ayodhya. After a great battle ensues and Sita is rescued, Ramayana fears that she has been unfaithful to him during her time with the Demon King and to prove her virginal status, she must walk through fire, which she does. As she does, the flames turn to flowers at the touch of her bare feet, she is proved to be innocent and the lovers are reunited. As iconic of a relationship as this one may be, it is clearly not one based on trust, otherwise Ramayana might have been more worried for Sita’s wellbeing than the status of her virginity.
A common thread emerges when we examine all of these narratives through a modern lens; they possess numerous blaring red flags of patriarchal biases, indicators of a much larger problem that surely must have died along with the heroes and demons and beasts of ancient times. But therein lies the power of classic stories, they are called classics for good reason. Years have gone by and still, many modern storytellers continue to draw from their roots, without fully acknowledging, or understanding, the power of words to rationalize and normalize the culture of sexual exploitation and deceit, woven deep within these traditional folktales.
Think of the animated classics today, most of them are defined by a Disney revamp — a fluffed out, pastel feature of a much darker fairytale. Three in particular come to mind; Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Beauty & the Beast. In the original telling of Snow White, before animated, sparkly birds got involved, the prince decided to carry off the comatose Snow White, taking her to his palace before waking her up with a kiss. As Bustle journalist Suzannah Weiss so succinctly puts it — “Snow White may have fallen in love with the prince when she woke up, but she most definitely did not consent to being there with him in the first place.” But how much damage can a fairytale really do, right? It was just a kiss, after all.
How about the original Sleeping Beauty where the king doesn’t actually wake her up with “true love’s kiss,” and instead impregnates her in her sleep? In one of the very first versions by an Italian man by the name of Giambattista Basile, after the king takes the Princess in her sleep, he just leaves her to gestate for another 9 months, until her newborn baby twins manage to suck the enchanted needle point from the tip of her finger and she awakens — a brand new mother without any idea when or how. The story continues to reveal that the king is already married to a woman eventually driven mad by her marriage to a cheating rapist. Fear not though, the tale ends with some version of happily ever after, and this line, taken directly from the Italian translated tale, “Those whom fortune favors, find good luck even in their sleep.” Excuse me?
Beauty and the Beast can best be described as, romance meets serious anger issues, and Stockholm syndrome to the “nth,” degree. What a cute story though; we should all fall in love with the cursed prince who traps a woman in his castle, where she is essentially an indentured servant and waits until she falls in love with him to become human again. Throw in a few songs, some talking candlesticks and all of the serious issues go away — except that they don’t.
It is almost as if, because we consider fairytales to be synonymous with the innocence of the children we tell them to, they are overlooked as conveyors of powerful and moving impressions about life and love and humanity. But the mere fact that these stories have been carried with different cultures, and belief systems, and people, for generations, shows that they have much more power than we may give them credit. What does it say about our culture of storytelling, that children are encouraged to revere and idolize animated princesses who are carried off, trapped away and all eventually fall in love with the man who is written the most “heroically?”
Fairy Tales, and stories in general, have always had the incredible ability to move us outside of ourselves, to shake us in our beliefs. They can deliver powerful messages about bravery and sacrifice and times long past — but they also need to be checked for the ways in which they normalize a very patriarchal narrative that was much more widely accepted at the time of their creation than it is, or should be, in the present. This dangerous kind of normalization is present throughout the traditional stories of Greece, India, England, America and numerous others, with the capitalization and popularity of entertainment outlets, like Disney, only further pushing these problematic tales more prominently into popular culture. And sometimes, when things are animated and shiny, right up in our faces — we don’t remember to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
However, there is hope for the changing impression of fairy tales. Just the fact that there is space for articles like this, for stories of survival and movements founded on hashtags and community, is a prominent sign that narratives can shift. What we need is for the voices of the present to find a way to remain present in commenting on the stories of the past and the importance of changing our ways, speaking louder and more passionately than the very human tendency to cling unquestioningly to our literary histories.
The fact is, powerful men taking advantage of “less powerful” women is not an aspect to traditional storytelling that we need to keep in our literary museums, our reverence for the hero complex/cycle, or whatever antiquated tropes about love dynamics that we learn from the time that we are children. These stories will not go away, because like it or not, they do have bearing on hundreds of years of human morality and the great quest for understanding. So what can be done? First of all, it is significant to understand that with the permanence of these stories we can continue to tell them as long as there is room for serious discussion. In this way we are able to remain connected to traditional fairy and folktales, without allowing their antiquated narratives to continue to shape our modern understanding of equality or humanity or consent. Because there are still so many stories to tell, and so many ways to learn how to become better listeners.