Greetings from Boston! It's very cold, but the bracing temps are surprisingly refreshing to this San Diego denizen. I'm here for the Northeast Modern Language Association conference, and yesterday I presented on a panel titled "Grimm Revisions: Disenchanting Fairy Tales." Six panelists talked about, respectively, the moral lessons of cop shows in "GRIMM," the evolution of Snow White, fairy tale elements in Black Swan, the real and symbolic in Pan's Labyrinth, fairy tale retellings in dystopian settings (that was me), and the grotesque in Zenoscope comics. The discussion that followed our presentations was fascinating and invigorating, and one of the keywords that kept coming up and that nearly all of us used in our papers was "subversion." This text subverts this fairy tale in this way, this representation of the mother subverts the fairy tale standard, this plot point subverts the expectations of this fairy tale, and so on.
But one of the panelists asked a question that got me thinking: what is subversion, really? Doesn't it mean that there should be a counter argument to what is expected? And if an author or filmmaker uses a well-known text, shouldn't they say something different than what the standard text does? As my fellow panelist asked, does a subversion need to be more than just a different ending?
In my paper, I talked about how, in her YA novel Cinder, Marissa Meyer "subverts" the classic Cinderella tale by circumventing the standard girl-marries-prince ending. But (spoiler alert) Meyer still gives her readers a semblance of a happy ending in that the main character finds out that she is a princess who has a rightful claim to a very significant throne. Is it accurate to call this book subversive when it still hits the notes we expect out of a Cinderella narrative? I miiiiight argue that that yes, it is still subversive, because the royalty is neither something Cinder wants nor something that is handed to her. She has to fight for it, and at the end of book one (of a planned quadrilogy), she is not ready to do so.
I think this is idea of "what qualifies as subversion" is very interesting to consider, because it is a word that is bandied about with inherent assumptions attached to it. But if a fairy tale re-imagining simply reinscribes traditional expectations (like the film Snow White and The Huntsman, for example), can we call it subversive?
I'm still stewing on this. What do you think?