I have to fess up before I start, that much as I liked reading fairy tales as a kid, I never related to them. I was not the girl who wanted to be a princess when she grew up (a diva maybe, but never a princess). I always found the witches and wicked stepmothers far more interesting than the "heroines" -- at least they actually did something. I never found the idea of being rescued and then looked after/owned to be in the least bit interesting. Maybe even at six or seven I knew that sweet as they were on the surface, all fairy tales needed a feminist shake up. Also, at six or seven I looked more like a boy than a girl so maybe I figured that by fairy tale rules I was destined for a life of bitter envy because, after all, being the prettiest is clearly all that matters. Or not.
To be fair, the men of fairy tales don't exactly get a great rep either. Anyone who has to have the word charming in their name probably isn't -- just take a look at any dating site where men use "prince charming" in their description. Nine times out of ten their opening email to you will include the words hun and hot and then a variety of misspellings because they simply can't bring themselves to write in full, grammatically correct sentences, or maybe don't know how to. Anyone calling themselves a "prince charming" sends my face into its pelvic floor exercise expression. (NB: it's not a good face).
I'm not dissing romance. We all love a bit of true love conquers all, and when I started on Poison, Charm and Beauty, that was one rule of the fairy tale formula that I didn't want to break. But it was impossible not to re tell them without breaking lots of the other conventions and here's why. They need a shake up for sure, and not just a feminist one. What are those stories really telling us, other than women cause each other problems that men need to sort out?
A tale of true love, in which an older woman is so jealous of her step-daughter's looks that she tries to kill her. In fact, she tries twice. It's bad enough that we now live in a world where women fill their faces with poison rather than celebrate age, why reinforce that in fairy tales? Oh well, at least Snow White is saved by true love. Hang on. Wait. What kind of man falls in love with a virtually dead woman in a glass coffin and then proposes as soon as she wakes up? Not even a first date coffee first? See if they get on? That dude has issues. So does she for saying yes. Everyone in this story needs therapy. Except maybe the dwarfs.
A tale in which a very pretty but poor girl basically roofies a prince with magic to make him fall in love with her, because getting a rich husband and a big house is all that counts in life, no matter how you go about it. Said girl has two less pretty sisters. So much less pretty that they're called 'the Ugly sisters'. This means that they're very unpleasant. Of course they're not very nice. If people went around calling me an Ugly sister, I'd probably be bitter too. There is a nice older woman in this one for once -- the fairy godmother -- but to be honest, she's basically a dealer. Also, girls, if the man who claims to have fallen in love with you only recognizes you because your foot fits a shoe, you really need to question his depth of feeling.
Bad stuff happens to babies a lot in fairy tales. In this, parents send out party invites and forget to send one. The uninvited guest shows up and rather than blaming the parents, casts a spell on the poor baby. As soon as the curse comes to pass, the mother promptly dies rather than trying to find a way out of the situation -- or at least fire the servant who brought the spindle into the castle. Death is clearly an easier option for a frail, beautiful queen who's never had to do anything in her life than staying alive and sorting out the repercussions of the invite mess. Luckily, everyone (except the dead queen) is saved by a roving melancholy prince who, on finding the sleeping princess, kisses her and promptly marries her. I don't know about you, but if a moody stranger woke me by kissing me, I'd punch him in the face and then call promptly for the guards. I wouldn't expect my dad to start merrily organising the wedding. Especially when he should be grieving for my mum.
A tale in which a nagging pregnant wife fancies some of her neighbour's lettuce so much she forces her husband to steal it for her. Fair enough -- cravings happen. This, however, results in them having to give up their baby daughter (she should have just sent him to the supermarket), to the crazy lady next door, who must have been stung hard by the world because she decides to protect the girl from it by locking her up in a tower as soon as she hits puberty. As you do. Of course a wandering prince comes by and climbs up her hair (what conditioner does she use??) and after a brief chat, knocks her up. When the crazy lady finds out -- Rapunzel, clearly not the brightest button in the box having asked her why she's not as heavy on the hair as the prince - she kicks her out. At least this prince tries to find Rapunzel and their twins and they eventually marry. Basically, this is a story about really really bad parenting all round leading to a teenage pregnancy.
Beauty and the Beast
The archetypal Stockholm Syndrome story. Once again, a parent messes up and the disposable girl child takes the repercussions -- in this case a father giving up one of his daughters to a hideous creature of a man who was prepared to kill him over a plucked rose. Thanks dad. The girl, cut off from all outside communication, of course falls in love with her captor. As you do. But because he's so ugly she can't possibly marry him -- revealing something of a lack of depth of character on our Beauty's part. Of course once she realises she loves him, he transforms into a handsome prince. Heaven forfend that an ugly person should have true love. What a relief that they can both now be beautiful together. Never mind that he's so vain he wouldn't even go outside his own house while he was ugly and had threatened to kill her father over a flower. Minor details. I think maybe they deserve each other though. Who would let themselves be called Beauty anyway? You've got to be very overly proud of your looks to rock that one. A normal girl would have changed her name to Susan.
Another tale in which babies are traded and all anyone cares about is cash. You'd think that the miller's daughter, having been given away by her own lying father, would be less hasty to promise her first born to a dodgy hobgoblin. I'd have also thought she'd have been less hasty in marrying a king who had her locked up in order to weave him gold from straw on pain of death. To be fair, she did her best in a bad situation, and at least she doesn't just sit and cry and wait for a prince to save the day, but finds out Rumplestiltskin's name for herself. I've always kind of hoped that the greedy old king had a son from a former marriage and the miller's daughter and he ran away together. Maybe set up a business somewhere. A con racket with Rumplestiltskin.
Sarah Pinborough is the author of Poison.