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The princesses

YOU REMEMBER THE illustrations. Willowy young girls with long elegant hands, their brows knotted with genteel suffering. Girls who are broad of forehead and long of tress, dressed in complicated, Raphaelite dresses. Slim and dark-eyed heroines, with their clavicles lovingly, consumptively shaded and their fingers as expressive as Balinese dancers. And those expressions! Spaniel-eyed with their alas-and-alacks, their pale and beautiful woe-is-me anxiety. Self-martyring. Put upon. Wearing the weight of the world on their trembling anorexic shoulders.

The content of fairytales themselves might be remembered in the abstract ether of folklore, but when people tell you about their recollections of childhood stories, the physical book itself still seems to figure very prominently. It's the actual pages they remember, the heaviness of the collection as they brought it down from the shelf at bedtime, the first glimpse of the big volume under the Christmas tree. I worked for a while in a second-hand bookshop and people would often come in chasing some book with an inquiry like 'I'm looking for a book I used to have as a child. It was about this big and sort of aqua-blue, with a fairy on the cover…or maybe it was a princess – anyway, it was a hardback…do you have it?' I actually heard my boss once say, straight-faced, 'Well, all our aqua-blue hardbacks are over there, arranged by size and colour, so feel free to have a browse…'

Years have passed since I have reread collections of classic fairytales but I am still haunted by these illustrations. I recall them as being by artists like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac – great figures from the Golden Age of Illustration. Type an illustrator's name into Google images and you'll be confronted with your own jolting plethora of recalled images, like something in a dream. My Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale collection was in a dust jacket with a watercolour-tinted pen and ink cover illustration of a typically quaint period Danish town with, over in the right hand corner, a figure depicting Andersen himself, gazing out at children playing and presumably scratching away at stories in his garret.

I thought I'd kept that book, along with several others from my childhood, but like my Grimm's Fairy Tales ('look, it's aqua-blue and…rectangular, about so big…') for a long time, I couldn't find it anywhere.

Then one day, standing in front of a homemade set of bookshelves, I noticed that the overloaded pieces of timber they are constructed from were sagging in the middle and had been reinforced there by thick hardcover volumes, jammed at the halfway point in place of bricks. Stoically supporting the weight of all the other books was the Reader's Digest Dictionary of Words and Phrases, Neville Cayley's What Bird is That? a huge hardback copy of The Short Stories of Ray Bradbury, and – aha – on the top shelf, the pale aqua spine, faithful and steadfast, of Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales. I unwedged it to find, to my surprise, that the illustrator is not Rackham or Dulac. It is the great children's author, Shirley Hughes.

Here are all the heroines from my solitary hours as a child, reading. On page 32, just as I remember her, is Elise, the morose sister whose brothers had a spell cast on them and were turned into swans. Here she is again, flinching with exquisite pain as she spins them shirts out of – what? – nettles. Stinging nettles? Into fabric? Nettles out of the graveyard, in fact, collected at night when Elise had to walk past a coven of witches digging in the earth and consuming cadavers, because Hans Christian Andersen really knew how to pile on the horror. Elise is forbidden to say a word for a year even when she's sentenced to be burned as a witch because 'the first syllable that escapes your lips will fall like a dagger into the hearts of your brothers.'

Here is The Shadow on page 118, reminding me in a sudden Jungian rush why I felt so disturbed by The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for whom he is a creepy, stilt-legged dead ringer. And here's the miller's daughter, whose imbecilic father has been boasting around town that his daughter is the cleverest and most beautiful girl in the world, and now thanks to his stupidity here she is, slap bang in the middle of a terrible predicament – the king wants her to prove that she can spin straw into gold, or he'll murder her. And what does her father do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Now she's locked in a room full of skilfully rendered straw, her face etched with nun-like helplessness.

And here's the Little Mermaid, hands clasped in entreaty to be allowed to cut out her tongue (daggers again) for the man she thinks she loves, the man she's met once only, a vapid-seeming and effeminate man, in this illustration, with his long hair cut like Status Quo and buckled shoes not even my grandmother would wear. Now she's mute and deformed, her tongue a stump in her mouth and the glory of her voice, the thing he fell in love with, stolen forever. Hunched over in the lithograph, she's walking on these legs she's traded for her voice, for love alone, and every step, Hans Christian Andersen is quick to tell us, is like a knife thrust into her. ('still I will do it!' said the little mermaid, pale and trembling as a dying person.)

In the end, all her sorrow and suffering is for naught anyway because the prince marries another girl. In the illustration the Little Mermaid is giving a tragic, sweetly suffering sideways glance to the knickerbockered Prince and his betrothed (who'd been learning the 'royal virtues', whatever they are, in a distant convent until her wedding day.) There's the possibility of a reprieve if she takes a dagger (another dagger, Hans?) and kills him, but instead she sacrifices herself and is turned to foam, to nothing. Thank you, Mr Andersen. There's a beautiful image for a girl to carry with her into adolescence.

There's a lot about being rendered mute in these stories, and having absolutely no volition. 'Come with me,' says the king to Elise when he sees her in the forest making the nettle shirts. 'you must not stay here! If you are as good as you are beautiful, I will dress you in velvet and silk, I will put a gold crown on your head, and you shall dwell in my palace.' So he lifted her upon his horse, while she wept and wrung her hands. But the King said 'I only want your happiness. You will thank me for this some day.'

 

I READ MY way through whatever fairy tales my school library had with zero parental intervention. My parents were happy I was immersed in a book somewhere, and out of their hair. They didn't care whether I was reading the Brothers Grimm or the Secret Seven or their latest Wilbur Smith. My conclusions about what life would expect of me formed like those festering nettle blisters on Elise's delicate hands, without a mother or father reading to me to provide any kind of contemporary mediating filter. I would raise my head from the dazzling, terrible medieval world of the Snow Queen and see I was still living in a military prefab at Laverton Airforce Base outside Werribee, and turn back to the page.

Naturally, I'd like to say that, as a young girl of my generation, these stories were the kindling that stirred my own latent feminism, but that would be an oversimplification. What they stirred, if I'm recalling my true reaction at the time, was a kind of itchy, inchoate frustration. On one level the passivity of these girls drove me up the wall, but that wasn't because I held their example up to the real contemporary world and found them wanting. The world did seem designed for kings and princes to prosper and servant girls to scrub the floors and dream. Transformation, if it came at all, came at the hands of an outside agency – a teacher, a mentor, a prince.

The stories were thrilling, terrifying, disturbing, but as I grew a little older they began to feel, also, as enervating as an anaesthetic. When, at age ten, I left the public school system and started being taught in Catholic schools, the sugary self-sacrifice espoused by the nuns who taught me came with a depressingly familiar moralising ring. There was a smugness in goodness, I could see, a simpering Pollyanna-like deflector shield which, when threatened, could play a mean hand of victimisation and passive-aggression. They even clasped their hands together in the same way those fairy tale heroines did, and adopted the same expressions of sanctimonious, brow-furrowed concern. It was all about sacrifice to those nuns, and we were their cross to bear. No doubt there have been plenty of feminist nuns, but they sure didn't teach at any of the schools I went to. How like Cinderella they were, toiling away humbly, seeing virtue in not complaining, telling us to give up lollies for Lent or put stones in our shoes for the souls in Purgatory. 'Offer it up' the nuns would say when we'd get frustrated at some small obstacle. Put up with not getting what you want, and pray for forebearance. Accept that if you dare to want more, every step you take will be like walking on knives.

I hope I'm not drawing too much of a long bow when I say my fascination with reading and literature came from this early irritation, which was not about character so much as plot. I wanted a different storyline for these fairytale girls with their hair of sunshine gold and lips that shame the rose, and frankly not much else going on between the ears. I wanted to intervene and make them proper protagonists, not these passive, saintly wimps. I had too many whys. I thought then – (and still do, actually) that the moment an exasperated reader starts saying 'Why on earth don't they…', the spell is broken, the story has lost its power. Why doesn't she just LEAVE? Why doesn't she TELL them she's not a witch? Why doesn't she have a little self-respect, for crying out loud?

It was because these girls didn't DO anything that I itched to tamper with their storylines, and I wonder, by default, whether they taught me dissatisfaction with my own. Was it really true that this was all I could look forward to, as a female – being judged on my selflessness, my burning voiceless devotion? Why were parents never punished in these stories – the ones who dumped their children in the forest hoping wild beasts would eat them? The ones who watched the burgeoning beauty of pubescent girls with smouldering envy and plotted to cut their hearts out? Why oh why didn't that snivelling Cinderella point a finger at her stepmother and stepsisters once she'd slipped her foot into that shoe and just say simply: 'Kill them'? Why, in fact, did Cinderella even stay in that house, slaving away – why didn't she just LEAVE? Why did you have to be 'as good as you were beautiful'? Because it was painfully self-evident that beauty was part and parcel of this same hand-wringing, shoulder-drooping, drippy self-martyrdom, this GOODNESS. Whether you were the girl whose father happily traded places with you so he could escape the Beast's castle – sold her, really, as an indentured slave (and yet seemed, then, to go home and get on with his life with not a qualm) or the little match girl who froze to death in the snow because her father would beat her if she returned home with no coins, it made no difference: if you were born a girl, you were basically rooted from the start.

It was no wonder that when I came to adulthood in the '80s, flinching along on my new legs, crippled by self-consciousness, books were appearing with titles like The Peter Pan Syndrome and The Cinderella Complex, using the canon as a rubric for all our indoctrination, exhorting us to subvert the dominant patriarchal paradigm of passivity and femininity for a brave new world of feminist self-creation. Me and my female friends weren't going to waste time weeping and wringing our hands – forget that. My bookshelves filled and emptied and filled again, an endless tide of inspiration.

 

THEN MY DAUGHTER was born, well into the new millennium. Turns out I needn't have worried about what classic fairy tales would be appropriate to read to her. What was I thinking? Nobody READS fairy tales any more, they WATCH them. Ever since Snow White became the first full-length animated feature film in 1937, Disney – or to be more precise now, the ominously-named Disney Consumer Products, which seems to suggest a black skyscraper under a dystopic polluted sky – has been messing round with our collective unconscious in ways that would have given Bruno Bettelheim a brain aneurism. He died in 1990, exactly the same month that Andy Mooney, a former Nike executive, attended a Disney on Ice spectacular in Phoenix. 'Standing in line in the arena,' Mooney said later in an interview, 'I was surrounded by little girls dressed head to toe as princesses. They weren't even Disney products. They were generic princess products they'd appended to a Halloween costume. And the light bulb went off. Clearly there was latent demand here. So the next morning I said to my team, "Okay, let's establish standards and a colour palette and talk to licensees and get as much product out there as we possibly can that allows these girls to do what they're doing anyway: projecting themselves into the characters from the classic movies."'

Not characters from the classic stories, you'll notice, but from the classic movies. Not the spectrum of children and adults who populate folklore and mythology demonstrating humanity at its best and worst, but the single marketable element of the transmogrified princess. Because those little girls were not even wearing Disney PRODUCTS! Andy, let's talk licenses, and fast! There are now more than 25,000 'products' marketed by Disney Consumer Products based on the Disney Princess franchise, one of the most successful in history. There are eleven princesses in the current pantheon – names you'll recognise like Snow White, Rapunzel and Cinderella, and some new names like Mulan, Pocahontas and Tiana.

Every child in my daughter's first grade class except for her has come to know these characters not through reading but through the TV screen. If you have an infant daughter, I have some depressing news for you – it's all about the merch. Sales at Disney Consumer Products rose from $300 million in 2001 to $3 billion in 2006 – God alone knows what their profits are now – maybe they should be demonstrating their belief in dreams coming true by bailing out the world's bankrupt corporations. Now that the company has eaten through its seed stock of traditional fairytales, they're turning their speculative reptilian eye to Tinkerbell and the other fairies at Pixie Hollow, who are going to be – guess what? – brattishly bad pubescent girls, ready to reap the rewards of a growing generation. Luckily, there's no upper age limit to nurture your inner princess. February this year saw the Disney World resort hold the Disney Princess half Marathon Weekend. 'Fairytales do come true,' read their blurb on Facebook, 'one mile at a time.Join us for the fifth Annual Disney's Princess Half Marathon Weekend which brings women of all ages together to participate in a magical event designed just for them. The Disney Princesses are the inspiration for the weekend's events and will focus on the attributes every princess possesses: commitment, courage, determination, fantasy, perseverance, and strength.'

There was even a 'diaper dash' for 'crawlers'. Followed by 'the Glass Slipper Challenge.'

It's easy, seductively easy, to laugh with disbelief at this self-congratulatory crap, but it's starting to seem like the term 'Toys-R-Us' is taking on rather insidious undertones. Maybe the long-term business plan for this franchise is to make this the literal truth.

Since the day I brought my newborn daughter home a fairly censorious streak of vigilant lioness protectiveness seems to have come out in me. To my surprise, for example, I just could not bring myself to expose her innocent soul to brutality, hardship and injustice when I read her fairy tales as a preschooler. 'She gave them some broth then she gave them some bread,' I'd recite, smiling confidently, 'then she kissed them all soundly and tucked them in bed.' What three-year-old needed to know children got whipped and starved by some old hag who housed them in a giant shoe?

Like any zealot, I became adept at airbrushing on the wing. 'And then Goldilocks came back the next day and said sorry, and she and Baby Bear fixed that chair together', I'd extemporise. 'And they became the best of friends from then on. The End.'

Why were those animals wearing clothes? Why did the three little pigs leave their mum's house? Look, she's crying. Was the Big Bad Wolf the same one that dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood's grandma? Yes, it clearly was, he's wearing the same hat and waistcoat.

'And when the woodcutter found him, he…knocked him on the head and gave him a bad headache! And suddenly, Grandma sprang out of the…er…the wardrobe, where she'd been hiding all along! Then they all had the goodies out of Red Riding Hood's basket and…'

One night, inevitably, my daughter stopped me with a shrewd, sceptical look. 'Where does it say that?' she said, and I knew I was sprung – she was following the words now, not the pictures.

When it came to the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, my doctored versions began to kick into a higher gear and I was in danger of exposing myself again in the sticky, complicating wheels of my own propaganda.

'And the miller's daughter said "No way!"' I improvised shamelessly, ' "I CAN'T spin straw into gold! My Dad was LYING."'

'She should call the police,' my daughter mused, lying in bed with teddy by lamplight.

'Well, in the Middle Ages, that was harder. But anyway, she went to the castle and the king put her in a room full of straw and a spinning wheel and said 'You have to spin this straw into gold by morning or else I will…I'll have to punish you.'

'Why? That's not fair.'

'No. It's not. Anyway…' the maiden began to cry softly to herself.'

Three times in that story, asked to do the impossible and satisfy a man's greed, the miller's daughter sits and cries softly to herself, waiting for someone to come along and save her. One night I sneak a look at my daughter the third time it happens, and am sure I detect a small, suppressed sigh of restless frustration. Good.

 

IN A WORLD hellbent on prettifying and commodifying and creating dolls that squeak 'Awesome!', in a culture where you can't even buy a packet of toilet-training pull-ups which aren't emblazoned with princesses for girls and talking cars for boys, where the windows at Target are a synthetic diorama of trademarked Princess dresses, right next to the princess baby bras and pyjamas, trying to moderate this onslaught, and apply the sensible to the marketable is like trying to plug the Snowy River with a pink, glittery plastic wand. You are hopelessly outgunned. I stocked my daughter's bookshelves with Roald Dahl's fractured versions of fairytales, The Stinky Cheese Man, Dog Tales featuring the likes of Cindersmelly and Jack Russell and the Beanstalk, Penguin Cinderella and her glass flippers, and so on. She loves the Jolly Postman's letters, where the solicitor acting on behalf of the three little pigs writes to the Big Bad Wolf to sue for damages, and the witch receives a catalogue from Hobgoblin Supplies advertising 'big brooms: for the larger witch' and 10 per cent bigger newts.

Still though, as if from nowhere, hand-lettered signs saying 'Girlpower!' and 'No boys igsept Dad!' appear Blu-tacked to her bedroom door. Best not to ask what Girlpower is. Turns out it's from this totes AWESOME magazine her school library seems to stock in a 'help yourself' giveaway basket where besties talk about totally random ways to do your hair so that hottie in your Biology class notices you! LOL! 'What is this thing?' I said when I found it on her bedside table. 'There's Lady Gaga in it,' she answered cryptically. 'And Emily B.'
'Who's Emily B?'

'Um…she's in there.'

It's all going in, in a scrambled, blaring, faddish cacophony, a mad cross-fertilisation of girly innocence and sexualisation and pink flowery bicycles with glitter streamers, and fairy tale princesses who are just as safe and formulaic as the ones I remember from forty years ago. Enough! Enough! She's seven. Can I lock her in a tower until she's twenty-one, and make thornbushes grow up around it? Can I toss the Hans Christian Andersen in the op shop box, and encourage her love of Billy B. Brown? Will she recognise my uneasiness with the Disney Princesses, and desire them even more as a result, or look at me askance when I consciously, scrupulously, venture into the no-fly zone of the 'boys' aisles of the toyshop, where they actually sell the kites and soccer balls and ant farms I'm secretly praying she'll be drawn to?

It's a surreal experience, reading your own childhood copy of a book of fairy tales to your own daughter who's pondering the pages with the same rapt attention you gave them yourself. My daughter thinks my crayoned name in the front of Time for a Story is much neater than her own handwriting. I turn the pages and remember, in a rush, lying on the chenille quilt of my single bed as a seven-year-old myself, studying this very illustration of Snow White, a basket of washing under her arm, waving the seven dwarfs goodbye. We turn to Cinderella and my daughter runs her fingers over the illustration of the beautiful fairy godmother. 'Look, Mum,' she says. 'Did you do this?'

I see the page is deeply scored with a maze of indented lines traced, over and over, onto the fairy godmother's form. Her crown and gorgeous dress, her lovely blond hair; at some point in my childhood, I copied this image of glamour and beauty repeatedly to colour in. I can almost feel my own intense child's concentration, pressing that pencil down hard, puzzling over the sweeping line of her slender nipped-in waist and sweeping fabrics in her shimmering skirt.

'Yep, I did that,' I say. 'I can't remember it, but I must have.'

 

HERE'S A TECHNIQUE I've been considering – offer it all, make it an all-you-can-eat buffet, and try not to mediate too much. Hold off on the surveillance when it comes to fairy tales. Keep reading, keep reading, and hope that at the other end the power of the story will prevail, and the day will come when that Disneyfied DVD version is going to seem as tacky and counterfeit as a plastic princess tiara from the Reject Shop. Go ahead and have a princess party, complete with princess serviettes, balloons, lolly bags and plastic tablecloth, but hope that the treasure house of cultural wisdom found in folklore and mythology keeps broadening, not narrowing the vision.

Maybe my parents were onto something when they let me read unimpeded and unfacilitated – the overwhelming flood of material I absorbed and internalised – that mad, saturating current I fear is scrambling my daughter's imagination now – must, at some point, have begun to separate itself out into a bigger contextual picture as I strove to make sense of my particular world. I can't remember it, but I must have. I still get that curious inner jolt when I see editions of the actual books I read and loved from childhood, but there comes a tipping point where the physical book, the artefact itself, is no longer the thing of value – what matters is where you travelled in the company of that book. It's the virtual world that book contained that exists nowhere now but in human consciousness, collective or otherwise. We take 'story' from the physical pages of a book like we take the nourishment of food and convert it into our own energy, use it as our own fuel. We see through it, in the most literal sense of that phrase. It took me until my early twenties to wake up to the perspective and benefit attained through this, but I suspect it's going to come to my daughter a whole lot earlier.

The other morning she wandered haphazardly out of her room to the breakfast table, her nose in a book. 'Mum,' she said, 'listen to this – this is about a boy named Oni who was born wearing a magical pair of boots, which meant nothing could kill him. He kills a giant bird called Anodo. Oni lay under Anodo's giant wing and when he got up one of his boots came off – it was stuck under the bird.' She raises her face from the page, her eyes bright, avid, radiant. 'Mum, what does that remind you of?'

'Cinderella! What's that you're reading?'

'It's a story from Nigeria.' She hands me the book. No sparkles, no princesses, no glitter, no pink, no kittens – I don't even know where on the shelves she's found it – it's called Tales from Many Lands: an anthology of Multicultural Folk Literature. I flick through and see stories from Vietnam, Nicaragua, Brazil and Korea. I've done nothing to encourage her to read it; she's just found it and started. I feel a rush of pleasure and relief so strong I almost burst into tears. It's a rich banquet at the all-you-can-eat fairy tale buffet, and I'm glad the dessert table sponsored by Disney hasn't, yet, overwhelmed the appeal of a plain, non-enhanced book that says in its introduction, like a cool quenching glass of water: 'You'll laugh when you read some stories. You'll be surprised by the endings of other stories. You will be sad when you finish a few of them. You will want to finish each story to find out what happens. All the stories are tied together by one idea: the choices people make in life. This book looks at three kinds of choices: looking for happiness, trying to win, and getting along with others. These are choices that all of us make.'

Oh, you go, girl. After she's left for school I head into my study where the homemade pine bookcases are sagging, and I wedge the Hans Christian Andersen back into place. For years that's what it's done, acted as a useful wedge, a prop to a whole shelf of ideas. It's been waiting for someone to come across it again and rediscover it on their own terms, so the best thing I can do now is probably leave it there, full of the powerful lesson that stories wait for us, they have all the time in the world, and are endlessly patient as we work through our choices.

 

THAT NIGHT, MY daughter and I lie on the floor playing Snakes and Ladders. It's an old-fashioned version with a little pictorial morality tale at the top and the base of every snake and ladder. For example, if the bottom of a ladder shows a child studying, the top shows that child in a graduate's mortarboard, holding a diploma, or the top of a snake shows a boy eating too many lollies, heading for the slippery slide of tooth decay at the bottom. In one, there's a boy hitting a pig with a stick at the top of a snake, then a uniformed policeman admonishing him at the bottom.

'What's that about?' I say to my daughter. She studies it for a while.

'If you hit a pig, the postman gets you in trouble,' she answers.

I can't help spluttering with laughter. 'Not a POSTMAN,' I snort. 'It's a POLICEMAN. Sorry, a POLICE OFFICER.'

'If you hit a pig you get in trouble by the police?'

'Well, I guess…'

We embark on a long and rambling conversation about animal cruelty and the RSPCA, what dogcatchers are for, why our dogs are microchipped, why cats should get desexed, whether it's true what her cousin says, and 'KFC' actually stands for 'Kids Fattening Centre'. She rolls the dice and moves her piece. We've lost the original counters for the game, so we're playing with tiny figurines of two of the Disney Princesses, who now appear as prizes inside your KinderSurprise egg. Those princesses, talk about vertical marketing. They are both dressed in gold ballgowns. She has Ariel from The Little Mermaid and I have Belle, from Beauty and the Beast; those two recommodified misunderstood girls for whom Disney has created brand new happy endings. Mine won't stand up.

'Oh,' I say in a tiny, prissy voice. 'I can't stand! My slippers are just…too…slippy!'

My daughter chuckles and rolls the dice again. 'Oh no,' she returns in a little princess whine. 'Look, I've got a LADDER. I can't climb up that big ladder in my GOOD DRESS! Oh, boo-hoo hoo!' My God, her helium-Disney Californian accent is uncannily, impeccably accurate.

We're sniggering with laughter now as we play, vying with each other to come up with more and more ridiculous princess excuses. For the second time that day, I feel a surge of relief. Here I was worried about paint-by-numbers girlpower crap mouthed by Mulan and Jasmine, and the inexorable cannibalising of fairy tales into franchises, and yet here is the best material Disney's screenwriters can come up with, being effortlessly lampooned by a seven-year-old.

'Oooh!' my daughter intones, giggling, but with just a touch more savagery in her mimicry, a tiny flicker of genuine disgusted frustration. 'Oooh, I don't want to go sliding down that big ugly snake! Help me, somebody, help me!'

My figurine Belle topples over again on her tippytoe feet. 'The maiden began to cry softly to herself,' I say in a deep storyteller's voice, and suddenly my daughter snatches Belle up and holds her a couple of inches from her eyes, glaring sternly at her.

'Come on!' she admonishes, all girly accents and lisps dropped. 'Just…come on! Roll the dice and let's get going.' She hands Belle back to me and picks up her own plastic figurine.

'Mum, I mean it,' she says, shaking her head fiercely and grabbing for the dice. 'I want to WIN this.'

 

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