Friday, March 22, 2013

Fairy Tales and Subversion

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?


  1. You had me stewing on this for a while too. On the one hand I think we have to be careful about how we use the label "subversive"--just because a story is reimagined in some way, or changes particular elements, that doesn't necessarily mean it has subverted key aspects of the original tale. In the case of Cinder, you make the valid point that the way in which Meyers steps around the girl-marries-prince quick happy ending makes this subversive: her bloodline, her inheritance, her royal status are nothing that she wants nor is after.

    I might be mistaken, but I tend to view the term as describing texts that successfully up-end the social/political/theoretical structures in some way; with fairy tales that commonly seems to be through feminist theories. So with Cinder, the subversion is not that she doesn't want the throne that is thrust on her via heritage, but that she reaches that point amidst a background that itself has twisted and challenged the quintessential elements of Cinderella.

    Now, if by the end of the series, she ends up married to the King after all... then what? Is it subversive because she will have most likely become her own agent or not because the story ought to have resisted the "fairy tale ending" no matter what? As you can see, I'm rambling and have slightly lost my train of thought. But this is a great topic and I look forward to hearing if you gained any more insight from the conference!

  2. I feel that a subversive text has to do more than simply up-end conventions or flip expectations.

    I agree with Alya that the most common reason for restructuring a fairytale at the moment is because the creators (authors, illustrators, directors etc.) want to address issues of gender. However, I feel that many attempts end up simply reinforcing gender stereotypes because they are still essentially working within the same paradigm even if they up-end traditional structures; opposites presuppose the same binary division.

    I haven't read Cinder so I can't comment on whether the adaptation is subversive but in order to be persuaded that it was I would have to be shown how it deconstructs the binary opposites embedded in the traditional tale: royalty - subject, special - ordinary, powerful - impotent, desirable - undesirable etc.

    Definitely something to mull over though...subversive is a work that is bandied about so readily; what does it actually mean and are we ready for stories that are really subversive?

  3. I'm still not clear what a subversive fairy tale is/means. Is that what the publishing industry used to call "fractured fairy tales"?