Stories and storytelling have been a defining aspect of what constitutes power in a society at large since the dawn of time. Those who are designated to record the stories of an era are those who write history, and those who write history are those who are remembered as heroes and their enemies are irresolutely condemned as villains. In other words, the stories of the marginalized and the oppressed, women, people of color, the disabled, the weak, the mute, fall through the cracks and are only passed on through oral legend and what becomes myth. Whatever we may say about the status of women in fairytales, ultimately they’re primarily about women, about good plucky girls who rise up from poverty through the conviction of their beliefs, of vindictive jealous stepmothers done in by their own vanity, of crafty old women rendered capable by a long life of avoiding censure and everything in between. And, for as long as they’ve been in existence, fairy tales have been the domain of children, intended to simplify the most complex and humanistic of ideals for young, untoward ears.
I seek out retellings of fairytales as much as possible and I obviously prefer them to various degrees. In recent months, I read both Catherynne M. Valente’s Six Gun Snow White and Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. I loved both the books for different reasons and they are both retellings of Snow White, which construct racial arguments for the hatred of the Snow White figure in question. But, the ending of Oyeyemi’s work felt sour in comparison to the intricate compassion evoked in the rest of the novel and the characterization of the stepmother in Six Gun Snow White made her a more compelling villain while her counterpart in Boy Snow Bird was merely misunderstood and long suffering, made dispassionate by her society, compared to the inexcusably evil but still sympathetic mother in Valente’s novel. There’s something that I found chilling about Six Gun Snow White; I could feel deep rooted kinship with the arguments made regarding the state of womanhood in society, and Sylvia Plath’s “being born a woman is an awful tragedy” came to mind.
“This is what it means to be a woman in this world. Every step is a bargain with pain. Make your black deals in the black wood and decide what you’ll trade for power. For the opposite of weakness, which is not strength but hardness. I am a trap, but so is everything. Pick your price. I am a huckster with a hand in your pocket. I am freedom and I will eat your heart.”
When you’re born a woman, sometimes, you don’t get to shuck it off; you can’t retreat into your books and extreme intelligence and absolve your femininity and you can’t throw on cargo pants and hiking boots and stop being seen as a sexual object. It’s why I reiterate: fairy tales are about women, fairy tales are about hope, fairy tales are about unequivocal yearning without respite, and never, ever giving up on what you know is the right, and the truth and the real.
I learned a lot from fairytales growing up, and I consumed far more than what was given to me by Disney or portrayed as the ideal by the tellingly misogynistic Grimm Brothers. I was a very loved child, and I was a very lonely child. I was the only child of two parents that loved me so much I didn’t think I ever could deserve it and to this day, I have a hard time believing that I do. I grew up wanting for nothing, which conversely made me ask for far too much. I wanted unconditional love and total freedom since those were the rewards granted to the self-insert lonely princesses who made friends with fluffy animals and plucky stable boys in the stories that I told myself to abate my loneliness and those tales were what kept me from losing myself. And unfortunately, so much of adulthood is accepting that we often don’t get what we want when we want it, and doing what we don’t want to do for people we have to keep on our side.
As I grew into adulthood, it became less about making up stories to keep myself from getting bored and more about writing my own story to keep myself alive. I have this perverse belief that if I keep telling my own story, I can’t die, no matter how much I may momentarily not particularly want to live. I have a lot of issues with Elizabeth Wurtzel, namely her brand of intellectual elitism that permeates all her work but an idea of hers that resonated with me is that during the peak of her depressive episodes, she swore to herself that she had to live, solely so she could document her experience and help others who suffer in similar, unseen and pervasive manners. I also have a lot of appreciation for Taylor Swift because she, through the continued existence of the metanarrative “I remember” in her music, repeatedly validates her right to tell her story and claiming that her version of the truth is the only one that matters. She might be the girl in the dress still but that abject femininity doesn’t invalidate her strength. The insults parried at women that tell their own stories are just clichéd and pathetic at this point and sadly still extremely common: “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art.”
And at the end of the day, I just can’t let go of the conviction that I have the right to tell my own story, to portray myself as I perceive my character and to cast the heroes and villains as I see fit. It’s decidedly because I was raised as an only child and it never struck me that there was anything I couldn’t do or that I actually couldn’t get what I want, and that’s been a major blow that I had to come to terms with growing up. In some twisted way, no matter how I choose to write my story, if I’m irrevocably honest and true, I know that I’m going to face slander. I’m too harsh on women, I’m unfair to the men, I demand too much from the world around me without giving back in equal amounts. Because here’s how it goes: by continually demanding that I apologize for telling the truth, all you’re doing is suppressing it and eventually, it’s going to come out and it’s not going to be pretty. By claiming that I, or Taylor Swift, or any other female artist from Artemisia Guarnaschelli to Sylvia Plath tell our stories wrong, you’re calling us liars, and it’s no wonder we have so many built in self-defenses. “I remember”, “You and me and I and us”, “Once upon a time”, “do you remember?” “Do you think about me now and then? Because you know I deserve to be remembered.” It’s the explicit intimate personalization of universal sentiments and that’s how you tell a tale that will endure far beyond your own lifetime.
It’s also that by and large, stories and narratives and learning to write my own were how I made sense of the world because honestly speaking, to this day, very little of the universe makes any logical sense to me when I sit down and think about it. I had to simplify it and make it palatable to my delicate sentiments because the world was always too great and too powerful and I was just a little girl who was really good at math. I still fundamentally don’t understand why anybody wouldn’t want me because I never thought to think that anything was inherently wrong with me until other people started pointing out my flaws. I don’t mean to hurt people but I end up leaving a wake of singed fingers and bruised egos in my wake and forgiveness is a privilege, not a right. I forgive far too easily because I feel as if I’m obligated to for the people I’ve hurt and neglected to acknowledged but to quote Valente again, it’s not that simple:
“For there are two kinds of forgiveness in the world: the one you practice because everything really is all right, and what went before is mended. The other kind of forgiveness you practice because someone needs desperately to be forgiven, or because you need just as badly to forgive them, for a heart can grab hold of old wounds and go sour as milk over them.”
I refuse to forgive and forget what I should really get over because petty grudges are so embarrassingly childish and I ought to grow up, and sometimes, I brush away what caused me extreme pain and turmoil because I need to be allowed to love the person again. When you’re raised on fairy tales, love is the only currency for existence. You learn that love is the crossroads at twilight and the shapeshifter that refuses to transform and remains the monster with gleaming yellow eyes boring into your deepest, darkest, most shameful secrets, the sharp grating into your skin that doesn’t dissipate no matter how many baths in the blood of virgins that you take, the piercing look in the eye that says “I will love you in just the right way, no more and no less and I’ll instantly take it away when you step out of line.” And that love, that ugly, pointed, very real and very painful love, is what I had to forgive, most of all in myself, because when you bind together a conglomeration of clichés, all you get is a girl, a real girl, and that’s all I am when the lights are out, or even when the spotlight is on and there’s no escape, just human, nothing more and nothing less.