Recently (say within the last 30 or so years), fairytales have been getting criticized left and right and from all sides. Feminists scholars, bloggers, and even vloggers, have left no shell unturned, no coral unexplored, when it comes to critiquing the popular folktales from the perspective of modern feminism. These stories have shaped many a young girl’s romantic expectations, with their portrayals of adolescent waiting and dreaming, romanticizations of marriage, bondage to the father before their prince comes along, and, probably the most referenced and criticized aspect of fairytales, the princess’ reliance on external rescue.
There’s no surprise, then, that fairy tale retellings are popular among children and young adult authors and this popularity exposes a complicated ideology many feminist would say needs to be reevaluated among modern fairy tales. I’d attribute this popularity, in part, to one of the most successful novels to come from this genre: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. Up until now, I haven’t found a fairy tale retelling that could possibly compete with it because, let’s face it, that’s a pretty high bar to set — unless you count the Shrek movies. However, buying a copy of Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil from Powell’s Books in Portland was the best decision I ever made in 2015.
The book begins with best friends, Sophie and Agatha, who have very different reactions to being kidnapped and whisked away to the fabled School for Good and Evil. Self-proclaimed “most beautiful girl” in their town of Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of this day for a long time—she’s going to earn her high marks at the School for Good and become a full-fledged princess, just as she believes she deserves. But fortune’s not quite so clear-cut and command-able as that. Sophie, with her giant pink dress and long, golden hair, is dropped onto Evil Shore, while Agatha ends up on the other side in Good, and the two must live through the fairy tale in order to get out of it.
The School for Good and Evil is filled with everything that you’d want out of a fairy tale retelling and so much more. It’ll even please fans of the Harry Potter series, with its talk of houses and common rooms and class schedules like Beautification and History of Villainy. There are princes and princesses, good is pitted against evil in classic fairy tale fashion, and it first seems like lines are very cut and clean with princesses still waiting for their prince to rescue them. And suddenly you think, “Wait. This is actually a major problem, right?” And you’d be correct.
There is a great deal at stake in what is geared toward young audiences, and subconsciously, children, especially young girls, can transfer into their lives cultural norms that do nothing but exalt passivity, dependency, and self-sacrifice as a female’s cardinal virtues.
So underneath the complex plot, the snark and the witty hilarious moments in this novel express the heteronormativity common in fairy tales, dragging it into the light and exposing its ugliness, especially when it comes to the “Good Side” of the school, which turns out to be only a hollow, superficial beauty. Read through the lens of Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle,” the students of this school are all focused on regurgitating the school’s idea of who they should be, which Chainani positions as the spectacle.
The author draws a parallel between the authority figures of the school and the numerous adults who inhabit a young person’s life. Parents teach their children the values they hold important, as their own parents did for them, but what else is subtly coded in those values that more-often-than-not are asking children to conform themselves to a certain standard? When Chainani acknowledges this disjunction in Sophie’s definition of beauty and virtue, he is setting up that where we are going as a society is- The School for Good and Evil. The school resembles a society that is dominated by the spectacle, which simultaneously boxes up young people in a false binary based on superficial characteristics, like beauty and gender stereotypes, because it will maintain the heteronormative status quo—boys will be princes and girls will be princesses, but there are repercussions for students failing. And that is where this novel turns dark and eerie. Agatha realizes this before Sophie does, as she stumbles upon the Gallery of Good and “taxidermied creatures loom[ing] over her, stuffed and mounted on rosy pink walls. She dusted off their plaques to find the booted Master Cat, Cinderella’s favorite rat, Jack’s sold-off cow, stamped with the names of children who weren’t good enough to be heroes or sidekicks or servants” and when she catches sight of the beanstalk: “HOLDEN OF RAINBOW GALE. That wretched plant had once been a boy.” The mentality of sexism and homogenization is dramatized into this literal process of objectification. Like Debord says of the nature of the spectacle, it has to erase identity in order to continue on with its exploitation of the spectator (the individual).
While readers typically wave away the supernatural elements in fantasy novels, what is left is ultimately the reality within the spectacle: that what is at stake is individual identity and agency within identity in order for Sophie, Agatha, and others to be themselves. One example of this is Sophie’s mindless readiness to embody the ideology—being the princess—at any cost, even at the dissolution of her individual identity and her friendship with Agatha, though she is the one trying to get them home, which seems ridiculous, but when mirrored with our social reality, the idea is not so farfetched from the lengths young people go to fit media standards. By exaggerating the spectacle, which is an authorial force, to make it out to be ridiculous to the reader, it destabilizes its power, and makes it perhaps a little easier to think critically about and resist the spectacle.
Moreover, Agatha is one of the most fleshed-out characters I have encountered in a young adult novel in a while, and is what makes her the ideal candidate for critical resistance to the status quo at the school is her ability to have sensitivity and empathy for other people, not just for herself. She embodies the critical discourse, asking the question about whether there is the possibility of resistance. Agatha is emotionally and intellectually equipped to see the propaganda put forth by The School for Good and Evil for what is—an exposition of all that is wrong with what society teaches us to take at face value. Her greatest power, what makes her a true princess among the other girls is her power to grant wishes, and this is no more personified than in the class for Communication with Animals. In trying to communicate her wish to a magical fish (as all animals serve princesses), the process goes awry:
“The fish swelled into a ballooning black mass, creeping up her hand [. . . ] and sucked her deeper like a gelatinous grave, stifling her last breaths, leeching her every last drop of life until there was nothing left to—
Agatha fell back in shock.
In her arms was a girl. No more than twelve or thirteen, with toffee skin and a tangle of dark curls. She stirred, opened her eyes, and smiled at Agatha as if she were an old friend.
‘A hundred years, and you were the first who wished to free me.’”
Soman Chainani empowers young readers to reach out as Agatha has with a power that is inherently within them but is stifled away by the dominant culture. And maybe readers will go into other books with the same eye for how those novels contribute or try to resist dominant ideologies.