29 March 2011

The Separation of Looks and Character: Lessons Learned in Modern Fairy Tale Retellings

So yeah, let's just call last week a posting failure and move on.

So I've done several RNTNs about fairy tale retellings and YA feminist fantasy. I've been trying for days to figure out how to stick my latest thoughts into that format, but it won't work; these books are all about on par in quality (I'd give any of them four to four and a half stars out of five, say). Still, they beg me to compare them, as all three deal with the same themes through different approaches. Live well in the body you have, say these books, and know that it has nothing at all to do with your character. Such is the lesson learned by the heroines in Princess Ben, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Fairest, by Gail Carson Levine, and Fire, by Kristin Cashore. (Fairest and Fire are prequels/companions to previous RNTN faves Ella Enchanted and Graceling, respectively.) Spoilers are present; I've tried to keep them fairly mild, but I do quote from the endings of the books, since that's when the heroines express their new thinking to the reader. 

My first reaction was to compare Princess Ben to Fairest and stop there. Both are fairytale retellings; Fairest is Snow White and Princess Ben borrows from multitudes but owes the most to Sleeping Beauty. Both feature plus-size heroines (yay); neither of whom slims down to Disney proportions (at least not permanently). Both heroines rescue themselves from their enchanted sleeps (at least partially); both run away and go on perilous adventures; both marry princes; both rebel against some elements of traditional femininity; both prove wrong certain condescending patriarchal figures.

Aza, the heroine of Fairest, is obsessed with her looks. Specifically, she considers herself ugly. Skin too pale, mouth too red, hair dull black, "hulking" figure ... ugly is her first and oft-repeated epithet for herself. As Ella's titular heroine went on adventures and dealt with problems but was always preoccupied with her obedience curse; Aza has the same sort of hang-up about her looks. It's perhaps easier to relate to Aza, but because it's so familiar to most girls and women, her looks obsession gets tiresome after awhile. (It is refreshing that Aza never obsesses about food particularly; although she describes herself as too large and doesn't like her figure, it is never connected to how much, how often, or how healthily she eats, simply as a facet of her body.)

The message of the book is strong, however; Aza has a love interest (who considers her beautiful; none of this she-has-a-great-personality nonsense, though of course she is the heroine and therefore does have a good personality). She learns over the course of the book that there may be different ways to see herself, and that her looks are not the end-all of her potential. She even begins to correct the perceptions of others:
" 'If she looks as she behaves she'll have the face of a viper.'
" 'People don't --' I stopped. I was almost shouting.
"I whispered, 'People don't look as they behave.' " (304)

She even stops people when they try to judge her physical qualities favorably:
"Sir Uellu apologized to me again and added, 'I should have known by your marvelous voice that you couldn't be evil.'
"I shook my head. 'Voices and faces aren't manifestations of good or bad.' " (314)

So the learning-and-growing theme is pushed a little bit far, but it's such a strong message that my inclination is to let it slide.

Princess Ben (short for Benevolence), in her eponymous novel, doesn't suffer from Aza's crippling self-consciousness; she doesn't describe herself as particularly pretty or ugly. Unlike Aza, who wants to be traditionally feminine and beautiful but doesn't fit that appearance type, Ben rejects the feminine values personified by her aunt and guardian, and rebels by behaving badly, eating to excess, and secretly studying magic. Her rebellion eventually backfires (her bad behavior is taken by others as a sign that she is unfit for her position; unable rather than unwilling to act maturely), and her lesson is that good behavior has its place (a lesson many would do well to learn, especially on the freeway, but never mind).

As she learns to balance femininity and good behavior with her strong personality, fierce loyalty to her country, and desire for action, she stops trying to deal with her problems through eating. At one point when she is deprived of regular meals and forced into more exercise than normal, she sheds some of her weight.  As she grows and changes her perspective, she notes that she stops eating to excess in the same way, but she does not become thin, and she too separates her looks from her worth:

"I must clarify yet again that I was not willowy, slender, delicate, gauzy, diaphanous, fine-boned, or any of the other descriptives forever linked to the daughters of kings, and that my figure, however feminine, yet conveyed that I suffered little in cold draughts. The endless twaddle about my silhouette revolted me, and I grew ever more incensed over the general reliance on appearance alone for repute, rank, and virtue. I kept my ears pricked for any superficial judgment and would gently remind the speaker that the person of whom they spoke had many other qualities, good and poor, beyond complexion and waistline. This singular attempt to change the world's vanity took no small effort but I derived satisfaction from the measured conclusions the castle occupants eventually shared of each other -- at least in my hearing." (268-9)

Ben specifically says that she stops eating so much as she made peace with herself; the collective response of the world is, Christ, if only it were that simple. It would have been nice if the author had noted that Ben's relationship with food might lead to an ongoing struggle and be connected to some long-term self-esteem issues that aren't so easily dealt with, but Murdock gets points in my book for not slimming Ben down very much and letting her grow into herself (metaphorically; pun not intended); perhaps some concession to the form was necessary.

The book isn't without its problems -- Ben lacks Aza's obsession, which is refreshing, but the book also lacks a certain amount of focus, and some of its plot points are left rather conveniently vague. The romantic subplot is predictable, which isn't a problem (hero, heroine, you know the drill) but it lacks chemistry and never really ignites, which is.  A message about the balance between individuality and following the rules isn't necessarily satisfying for a reader looking for individual empowerment at any cost, but it's a valuable life lesson nonetheless.

At first, Fire looks like the odd one out. (Sesame Street song anyone?) The heroine of Fire (named, appropriately enough, Fire) is actually too beautiful. She is a "monster," a human with bright, iridescent hair and eyes and beautiful in face and figure; she can also read, speak to, and influence minds around her. (In Fire's world, animals too have monster counterparts. "A dappled gray horse in the Dells was a horse. A sunset orange horse was a monster." (11)).

Since the death of her father before the book's start, Fire is the only human monster left in her kingdom. Her hair is so beautiful she must cover it with a scarf when she goes out in public to protect herself both from animal monsters (who love to eat one another and therefore her) and humans who will, in her words, "like her too much." Some people see her and wish to touch her, hold her, love her; some see her and wish to rape and harm her immediately. She must remain guarded at all times; although she can shoot accurately, she is physically unable to defend herself against the sheer number of people who wish her harm.

Fire is the extreme of what every victim-blaming element of the patriarchal society tells women that they must be and can never escape being: she is so beautiful that she causes those around her to lose control of their actions. She wears a headscarf because her hair really is so sexy it forces impure thoughts on others (when she sees herself in the mirror with it down it takes her own breath away); she really can manipulate people with her mind; people really do lose control and act irrationally around her. In the hands of a less skilled author, this would be frustrating in the extreme, and probably insulting. Cashore, luckily, is both aware of what she is doing and deft in the doing of it. Fire is constantly struggling against those who would define her by her appearance and parentage (her father, also a monster, used his powers for evil). She even struggles against her own tendencies to self-judgment; over the course of the book she has to navigate the murky morality that comes with her abilities.

Of course the adventure story again takes center stage -- of them all, Fire is the least obvious about its themes and messages -- but the themes are there. Aza and Ben reject the connection between looks and character because they do not fit the standard guidelines for femininity and yet are feminine, competent, and full of positive qualities. Fire must reject the same idea for opposite reasons. (In the quote below, small omissions have been made -- such as a proper name -- to avoid excessive spoilers.)

" '...I'll always be beautiful. Look at me. I have one hundred and sixty-two bug bites, and has it made me any less beautiful? ... I have scars all over, but does anyone care? No! It just makes me more interesting! I'll always be like this, stuck in this beautiful form, and you'll have to deal with it.'
"He [Fire's love interest] seemed to sense that she expected a grave response, but for the moment, he was incapable. 'I suppose it's a burden I must bear,' he said, grinning.
" '[ ... ].'
" 'Fire, what is it? What's wrong?'
" 'I'm not how I look,' she said, bursting suddenly into tears. 'I look beautiful and placid and delightful, but it's not how I feel.'
" 'I know that,' he said quietly.
" 'I will be sad,' she said defiantly. 'I will be sad, and confused, and irritable, very often.' " (454-5)

Fire is the book that expresses how little all of us can fit the stereotypes imposed on us, even if we seem to look the part. In that way it's almost more subversive than the others. Ben and Aza can't fit into traditional stereotypes and so fight them. Fire could if she wanted to, but finds the stereotypes and expectations so repugnant that she fights them as well. She's not more morally upstanding or a "better" feminist than the other two authors. But it's a different, less straightforward fight, and one that's very important. It's not that some women are wrong for not fulfilling stereotypes. It's that the stereotypes are wrong to begin with.

I wish we lived in a world where these fights, lessons, overt after-school-special type messages weren't necessary. As I look back on literature of other eras and see cultures grappling with ideas that are new, frightening, and powerful, so I can see some the elements in these books that will stand out to those in the future. (Or in the past, if they get them through impressive time travel.) I think a lot of people in our era are trying to find an alternative to judging people on their looks and looking at ways to fight the power of those stereotypes. (From one perspective it's simple. If you don't think people should be judged by their looks, don't judge them that way. From the other perspective -- I say again, Christ, if only it were that simple. Yes, let's all shed our cultural baggage in an instant.) This is one of our cultural preoccupations -- this, and gay rights, and fighting rape culture, and the place of religion in society, and that isn't a quarter of the things this one country is grappling with at this one time; but I only have so much perspective, being a member of the culture and all.

So there. When you want to grapple with cultural issues through YA feminist fantasy literature -- well, now I've given you a starting place. Yeah, you're very welcome.

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