When asked how to make one’s children more intelligent, Einstein is credited as saying, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” An inspiring quote, since I find myself very late in life to be completely addicted to fairy tales. I read and reread the Little Red Riding Hood Story, consuming the conservative Perrault’s, which warns the young and impressionable young woman against dangerous men; the sublime Roald Dahl’s, in which Little Red “smiles… one eyelid flickers… / she whips a pistol from her knickers / she aims it at the creature’s head / And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead”, the 1997 short in which the wolf is played by a male ballerina, a Mexican version in which Little Red cuts her way out of the wolf, Angela Carter’s Company of Wolves. I search with the fervor and obsession of the truly religion, but cannot find what I am looking for — the feeling of recognition and revelation of truth we sometimes feel in art. In Perrault, I see the sexism of the story at its strongest, and realize, in the words of writer Theodora Goss, that “the hunter is also a wolf.” I find in the story a dependence on men that irks me and reminds me of my male friends’ words that a man’s duty was to protect a woman. “From who?” I resisted asking. “From other men?” The woodsman and the wolf seem in many ways the same, and the woodsman is not restricted from the woods the way Little Red is, is he? If anything, he is the one who builds the path that leads to the death and destruction Little Red finds at the end of the path. The terrorist creates the necessity of the law; the “representative” legislates; and they work together to punish those who break the laws they made together and keep the rest in fear. I remember one of my Iranian friends telling me in high school that the cops in her area used to rape women who didn’t wear their headscarves to teach them a lesson — wear these to protect yourselves against men? Wasn’t that the cops’ jobs? (Nothing against those who wear headscarves or hijabs, by the way — women should be able to wear what they damn well please.)
Too much is missing in these fairy tales. The originals, at least, contained the lurking violence of reality — the blood as wine, naked Red against the sheets. A warning against marrying outside the tribe, or a feminist cry: “look who you’re in bed with, women! You thought it was your grandmother, but it was the wolf, the enforcer of your grandmother’s law.” The originals were explicitly implicit, too disturbing to be simple and more easily understood because of it. Still, they need sequels. Little Red builds her own path, or is chopped up by the woodcutter; Snow White becomes the wicked queen’s successor, as she was always intended to do, challenged as she was with society’s imposing beauty — the poisoned comb, bodice, and apple all symbols of the corruption of womanhood; Cinderella oppresses as she was oppressed, or does not. I want to know more about the witch, especially. Was she, once, one of them? Why is she always wicked, the only powerful woman in these stories? (Besides the wicked stepmother, of course.) She tries to destroy Snow White as a queen, to eat Hansel and Gretel, steals Rapunzel, takes Ariel’s voice, and curses cruel men in Beauty and the Beast and The Frog Prince. Vain, hungry, lonely, vengeful, business-like, she not only foils our heroines but acts as a foil as to what they could be, if they fail their quests. All the same, they often show much greater agency, and are almost universally punished for it. The only powerful woman in any of these stories that comes to mind is the fairy godmother, but even she must be inhuman and bumbling, a powerplayer turned into a ditz. I find myself rooting for the witch as I reread the stories, reimagining Maleficent in the wake of the new movie and Wicked. I remember the lines the witch sings in Into the Woods, my favorite part of the musical: “You’re so nice. You’re not good, You’re not bad, You’re just nice. I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right. I’m the Witch. You’re the world!” The witch, in turn, reminds me of Shylock — owed a pound of flesh and never given one. As inhuman as the request was, mustn’t we pay our debts in the real world? And does not a witch bleed? I think of how the greats of our world started by feeling inferior, how Tina Fey says she learned comedy as a defense mechanism. How low must the witch have started, to have risen so high, become so powerful? Must she sacrifice her children, as so many of the stories seem to suggest? Is that what the writers sought to demonize, these “selfish” (to borrow from our feminist buddy Pope Francis) women who refuse to have children?
Perhaps that’s it, the fairy tale I’ve been looking for, and never found: “The Making of the Witch.” A fairy tale rendition of Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect, but without Wicked’s moral padding. Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, but without the convenient, pseudo-sexual recovery to purity. What happens when the witch finally gets what she wanted? I don’t want victims, villains, or heroines, and the witch won’t bother me with them, because only she, of all these women, can protect herself.
She’s the only one who, at the end of the fairy tale, can be both whole and alone.
Some pieces by Dora Goss very well worth reading: