The ultimate instability

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  • Published 20131203
  • ISBN: 9781922079992
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

WHEN WE WERE kids, I slept in the same room with my sister and two brothers. Our bunks were pushed against adjacent walls and the empty centre space below worked as a landing pad, a playing pit, a stage where our mother sat and read to us every night. When I turned to face the wall before rolling into sleep, I could see her shadow voicing the fairy tales of my favourite book The Once Long Ago. We called this sacred text ‘a mother holding’ – not for littler hands. It was a living thing, something like a psychopomp, that my mother had channelled to feed our imagination and guide us to dream places.

My favourite, most demanded, most remembered story was The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

Also known as The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces, this traditional Flemish fairy tale (The Twelve for short) centred on twelve sisters imprisoned in their bedrooms each night after they’d been caught sneaking out to party. Despite this measure, every morning the servants found all twelve pairs of dancing shoes worn-through. So it was decided that any ‘man’ who uncovered the secret would be rewarded with marriage to the princess of his choice. Guided by a cloak of invisibility, a young flower-delivery boy slipped into the girls’ bedroom, discovered their hidden trap-door, followed them on their short gondola trip to a nearby palace, and watched them dance into the night with twelve princes of their choosing. In exposing their secret to the king, the boy was given the youngest daughter.

As a child I couldn’t understand why men would be rewarded for this spoiling of pleasure, and although the ending was a bit of a downer, the girls’ insatiable taste for freedom, for princes they desired, for dancing, and for the night, struck me even then, as the stuff of my future. They became role models, but the youngest daughter’s capture-by-marriage was a fate too awful to take seriously. The gender politics of this story has never left me, nor has the craving to nurture a place of one’s own.

What I am most concerned with here is this sense of entitlement to intrude on female space – emotional, intellectual and physical – as well as the way those guarding these spaces are popularly represented. I want to look at private rooms, owned and often aggressively defended by women/girls, that when penetrated by the uninvited, often lead to a grisly end. As if, in the crudest psychoanalytic sense, a rape had taken place – a forced entry into the other. These barred, genre-spanning places in fairy tales and cinema (the contemporary medium of the fairy tale), can function in a number of ways: as retreats from social and emotional expectations, metaphors for psychic states, imaginary sanctuaries, and prisons for gender transgression. Incarcerated characters born of a more gothic sensibility that welcomes rescuing intruders, are of less interest here than those who protectively defend their own literal or symbolic spaces from outsiders bent on thwarting their freedom and pleasure.


IT CAN BE argued that the old stories with their capacity to stir emotional intensity, preach moral and ethical lessons of socialisation, amplify psychological patterns of behaviour, and work toward transformations of one sort or another, are the backbone of many screen productions. Although the primary messages of the original often remain intact with film and television adaptations, we might argue that the arts contribute to the longevity of these tales, by retelling, reframing, twisting, ideologically updating, and collapsing one narrative into another so that a process of feeding and borrowing takes place.

There are two key names in the world of fairy tales and classical depth psychology (that focuses on the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious): Bruno Bettelheim (psychoanalysis) and Marie Louise Von Franz (associated with analytical psychology – Carl Jung’s legacy). Both draw distinctions between myths and fairy tales. For Bettelheim, myths are tragic, pessimistic and miraculous, whereas fairy tales focus on the ordinary and are full of promise. While wishes, or unconscious desires, are fulfilled in fairy tales, he argues that myths tend to concentrate on ideals that often challenge or overwhelm. In psychoanalytic terms, those impossible-to-please gods might be thought to personify the superego.

For Von Franz, myth and fairy tales are outward expressions of psychological processes that help in the understanding and balance our inner lives. These processes can be seen as unconscious patterns, common to us all and capable of exposing, shaping and guiding behaviour. They are often imagined in myth and fairy tales as characters or overarching narrative motifs. While myth is dependant on an awareness of culture, history and the environment, Von Franz argues that fairy tales are less origin-specific and therefore free of cultural boundaries, allowing them to reflect ‘the basic patterns of the psyche more clearly’ (Von Franz, 1970:1) The characters in these types of stories are more or less black and white with emotional reactions of less importance than mechanical responses. Myths on the other hand, are more often culturally or nationally specific, woven into religious frameworks, and able to cross the personal and collectively shared areas of the psyche, which makes them more complex and less immediate or accessible.

If the patterns embodied in myths need some degree of audience maturity and experience of the world, while the simple, direct line to the unconscious contained in fairy tales is more user friendly, then cinema, by its often concentrated, perhaps covert use of both forms of story-telling, almost guarantees that global audiences will tap unconscious rumblings, whether they’re aware of this or not. What is important here is to work out just what dominant psychological pattern might underlie The Twelve. While there are many motifs that could be tapped into, from a contemporary perspective it seems to me that the need, almost the drive, to create a space that exists beyond conventional/traditional assumptions of femininity, is at the heart of this story. Of interest, is why many screen narratives about women’s private spaces, or the need for spaces that sit outside the particular male-dominated culture they find themselves in, have, in various overt and covert ways, been imagined as unstable. Might this be an anxiety of female autonomy and its consequences or, to be more specific, an anxiety of ‘inappropriate’ female excess that cannot be checked?


THE THREAT OF sensual ‘becoming’, a strong theme in The Twelve, echoes through the literature of female incarceration. As Mary Ann Doane writes of Jane Eyre’s imprisoned Mrs Rochester, reinvented as the erotic Antoinette of Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, ‘the secret locked in the tower room, actively concealed from Jane, is excessive femininity (‘Her excesses drove her to madness,’ Rochester tells Jane)’ (1987: 134). The Twelve, though, offers a more liberating option than Bronte’s saga of sexual caution, by exciting us to the view that girls and women just might instinctively seek an unfettered space to explore their excessive femininity beyond the confines of cultural or masculine restraint. Contemporary film acknowledges the necessity of such spaces but tends to twist the narrative and so alleviate the anxiety of unrestricted female agency and abandon, by imagining these women as either troubled or aberrant. The dominant cliché in this kind of regressive spin, is the fashioning of these rooms or spaces as insecure, short-lived and doomed to infiltration – RIP Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott 1991)

An uncomfortable number of films based on lone women and the spaces/rooms they protectively guard as sanctuaries, carry with them a tone of inevitable tragedy. These characters often become vulnerable through a back-story of psychological disturbance, a hint of villainy, or a desire to share their space with lover that will somehow make them whole. It’s an odd championing of liberation and its impossibility. The more psychologically troubled of these guardians, fall into the horror/thriller category where aggression, fear of (or hostility toward) the outside world and paranoia feed off each other – Repulsion (Roman Polanski 1965), Antichrist (Lars von Trier 2009), Misery (Rob Reiner 1990), The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke 2001), Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder 1950), Batman Returns (Tim Burton 1992), Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre 2006), The Exorcist (William Friedkin 1973), and at a pinch Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky 2010).

Operating outside these genres, Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995) uses the cliché of fear, obsession and psychological fragmentation to a more poignant effect. Here, Julianne Moore’s character, Carol White, self-diagnoses her anxiety attacks and hypersensitivity as extreme reactions to airborne toxins, and so gradually isolates herself, cutting ties with home and family. This introversion culminates in Carol’s retreat to the ‘Wrenwood Centre’ health community where she is housed in an environmentally ‘safe’ cabin. In the final scene, as she sits on her modest single bed sucking air from an oxygen tank through a plastic mask, Carol has, in effect, eliminated all intrusive bodily invaders, including her husband and children. Painfully thin, she walks to a small mirror, and after a few stumbling attempts manages to whisper ‘I love you’ to her image. While I find Safe deeply moving on many levels, it can nevertheless be read as yet another film that reduces a woman’s need for independence and privacy to a symptom of neurosis.

Even female characters of independent means, living alone or sharing their lives with employed staff or perhaps a child, are very often placed in vulnerable situations: a boding sense of discomfort is frequently signalled by the lack of a principal, co-habiting male presence. These resilient protagonists are often subject to home invasion, and while they may overcome intruders when pushed into aggressively defensive behaviour, the thematic undercurrent of lone women as perennially at risk, is a lingering trope. Simon West’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) for example, with its heroine clearly established as a free agent with palatial digs refashioned to accommodate for her tomb-raiding training needs, is also a narrative that ensures its female subject is never entirely secure in her own home. As ‘Lara’ (Angelina Jolie) harnesses herself to elasticised cords that allow her to perform aerial swings from an upper level stair landing (an eccentric act of pre-bedtime meditation), she is rudely interrupted by a gang of secret society henchmen, the Illuminati, who storm her inner sanctum in search of a special clock/key pivotal to the pilfering of long-lost treasures. Lara’s ownership of the sacred key and her need to ruthlessly protect it and the spaces/riches it unlocks, almost winks toward the Bluebeard fairy tale.

The Canadian-French film The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (Nicholas Gessner 1976) is perhaps one of my favourite examples of self-fortitude, survival and spatial protectiveness. I loved this as a teenager. Re-viewing it for this discussion took me back to that time and the time beyond to when my mother read us The Twelve. It tells of fourteen-year-old Rynn (Jodie Foster), an independent child/woman (not unlike the young Mattie Ross of the Coens’ True Grit 2010) who’s forced to kill her mother, landlady and a would-be paedophile (played by a young Martin Sheen) after they threaten to remove her from the home she self-manages through a bank account prearranged by her late father. In Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002), this focus on survival in one’s home takes a different twist, as a now adult Foster playing single mother ‘Meg Altman’, and her diabetic daughter ‘Sarah’ (Kristen Stewart) fend off burglars in their New York townhouse from a hermetically sealed panic room. Despite its impressive steel walls and surveillance camera system, the room is still not safe as Sarah struggles without her medication. And let’s not forget the 1970s revenge classics including the pivotal I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi 1978), where a young female writer renting an isolated holiday home, is repeatedly gang raped before systematically killing each of the offenders.

Fairy tales that clearly reflect the ‘vulnerability’ of solitary women, not only include romantic or sympathetically imagined characters (often ‘saved’ by princes or their ‘heroic’ equivalent), but more predominantly shadow-like witches, evil queens, stepmothers and jealous relatives (Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Rapunzel). How often are these figures imagined as living alone in out-of-the-way spaces where they can practice dangerous feminine excesses/pathologies to satisfy their own vanity or greed? The twelve princesses are also tainted with a sense of naughtiness and disobedience in their demand for private spaces of play beyond the prying eyes of those who would curb their pleasure. The overwhelming message behind these characters living alone, either willingly or unwillingly, is that such a situation is unnatural, aberrant and indicative of nefarious/suspicious activity.


FORBIDDEN SPACES THAT take on the nature of those mentioned above, can also be internal – literal or metaphoric wombs. In their book on nineteenth century female writers, The Madwoman in the Attic (Yale University Press, 1979), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that these authors, like many of their gothic, attic-trapped characters, were writing in a suffocating atmosphere of male privilege and literary fashions. Confined in this way they were forced to challenge gender-appropriate behaviours of the time. Gilbert and Gubar also point out that tomb-like enclosures or caves that women of myth and fiction inhabit, similarly reflect the idea of womb-like sanctuaries. These spaces can be understood as intrauterine and therefore regenerative: ‘the womb-shaped cave’ they write ‘is also the place of female power, the umbilicus mundi [centre of the world, world’s navel], one of the great antechambers of the mysteries of transformation’ (1979: 95). Not only do these privileged spaces provide sanctuary and serve as sites where one can exercise what in public spaces might be considered excessive indulgences, but they are also potential containers of transformation and perhaps transcendence. Using womb-like imagery, these refuges can give birth to a sturdier or more realised sense of self: we see this shift in Tomb Raider, Panic Room, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, and I Spit on Your Grave.

As literal sites of female physiology and metaphoric places of change, death and renewal, both notions of the womb collapse in film texts. In The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002) Julianne Moore’s Laura attempts to cut herself off from the 1950s domestic and heterosexual milieu that she finds untenable, by seeking privacy in a hotel room. For Laura it is an ideal retreat to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, overdose with tablets, and so relieve herself of an unwanted pregnancy – a womb intrusion. In a more literal turn, unpleasant intrauterine gate-crashers have a sub-genre all their own in the field of cinema horror. The unwanted conception, pregnancy and birthing of the antichrist in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) along with Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned (1960) are perhaps the classic references points for later films like It’s Alive (Larry Cohen 1974), The Stranger Within (Lee Philips 1971), Inseminoid (Norman J. Warren 1981), The Unborn (Rodman Flender 1991) and Alien 3 (David Fincher 1992). Forbidden rooms/wombs are aptly combined in a less horrific twist in Grimms’ original Rapunzel (1812) where the incarcerated heroine invites a prince into her castle chamber on a regular basis for rendezvous that lead to pregnancy. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the wicked enchantress/mother figure supervising her imprisonment, for Rapunzel’s corsets fail to lace with the usual ease. She banishes Rapunzel to the desert and tosses the prince into a thicket of thorns, blinding him. The couple eventually reunite, Rapunzel’s tears restore her lover’s sight, the enchantress is killed and twins are born.


IF PHYSICAL AND bodily spaces of sanctuary for women can be characterised as unstable by a culture that undervalues gendered desires for retreat, then there is only one room in the house, so to speak, beyond culture – the imagination, fantasy, the unconscious, memory, and the dream. This special, individual, carefully nurtured and protected refuge is the most sacred and forbidden of spaces. A parallel can be drawn between the story of The Twelve and dreaming – the unravelling function we share, that in the world of depth psychology, is thought to provide an opportunity to explore our desires and fears, whether we like these messages from the unconscious or not.

My childhood was marked by a nightly parade of fairy tales that acted as psychopomps, able to transport me from one state to another – waking to sleep. There was always a dreamlike quality to the imagery and narrative that allowed for this transition. The story of The Twelve itself might also be interpreted as an inaccessible dream. Night is the space where the sisters are able to escape into their fantasies without interruption. Even the flower boy, cloaked in invisibility, has no actual presence or ability to influence this play with princes in ballrooms across the lake – he can only watch. It is as if he and the girls’ father had forever woken them up, cut off their dreaming, and metaphorically taken their dancing shoes. The sacred space though, and the memory of its pleasures, remained unaffected.

Many films, and the stories that inspire them, centre on the replenishing nature of dreams and fantasy, but for me nothing touches the poignancy and inviolability of the imagination like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Set against Franco’s Spain of 1944, the film takes us into the imaginings of ten-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who creates an alternate fantasy world to escape life with her new stepfather, the sadistic fascist Captain Vidal. (Sergi López). Having lost her birth father and, as the film progresses, her mother in childbirth, Ofelia is left to fend for herself and her newborn brother. After wounding Vidal and escaping with the baby, she runs to the secluded labyrinth nearby. It is here that she has created a place of sanctuary, imagining a cast of fantastic fairy tale-like characters led by the trickster/psychopomp creature Pan who challenges her with a series of tasks and adventures. When Vidal follows Ofelia to the entrance of this derelict maze, Pan’s labyrinth gives way to the brutal reality and consequences of her situation. Even though she dies protecting her brother, the film ends with a triumphant return to the Pan fantasy. Having succeeded in her challenges, she claims a seat on a throne beside her parents, now king and queen of the world she has imagined. This space of sanctuary that transcends the physical cannot be ruptured. It remains accessible only to Ofelia as a place of protection for, and nurture of, the little girl’s soul.


JUNG SPECULATED THAT we are everyone and everything in the dream, and that the dream is a ‘liminal’, or betwixt and between, compass to the self. The same might be true of fairy tales, myths and cinema into which these elements of self-knowing merge. Time must be taken to feel each character, image or narrative strand. In doing this we examine and question ourselves and our relationship to problematic cultural expectations. So we might stretch this to argue that we are the private room talked about in this essay – as with Ofelia, it is a metaphor of our ideal self when set free. The pattern of would-be intruders that litter our stories in attempts to make these rooms/spaces unstable, are by extension then, also seeking to make ideal female selves unstable. And let’s not forget that those who comfortably inhabit and have command over their own private spaces/selves come to us in fairy tales as icons of wickedness. These motifs stretch from the old stories to contemporary cinema. Today it seems almost absurd that such clichés of trespass still exist. But it’s worth remembering at this melding point of the fairy tale and culture’s suspicion of women who demand the right to live and act independently, that not so long ago, our Australian television screens carried the image of a three-word placard aimed at former prime minister Julia Gillard – ‘Ditch the Witch’.



Bettelheim, B. (1976) The Uses of Enchantment, New York: Penguin

Doane, M. A. (1987) The Desire to Desire: The woman’s film of the 1940s, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Gilbert, S. and Gubar, S. (1979) Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Von Franz, Marie-Louise (1982/1970) Interpretation of Fairytales, Dallas: Spring


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About the author

Terrie Waddell

Associate Professor Terrie Waddell (La Trobe University), lectures and researches on the relationship between screen media, myth, gender, popular culture and depth psychology.She has...

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