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The New Fairy Tale: Feminists Reimagine a Traditional Literary Form


At Public Books, Sophia Booth Magnone reviews Her Body and Other Parties, a short-story collection by Carmen Maria Machado that turns the traditional form of the fairy tale towards feminist ends. As Magnone writes in her review, “As long as patriarchal myths continue to circulate, it remains an urgent feminist project to mutate them toward creative, queer, and revolutionary ends.” Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Classic fairy-tale plots often hinge on the problems of inhabiting a female body. In realms full of perils that range from witches and wolves to domestic violence and rape, heroines must not only survive as physically and socially vulnerable beings, but also be good daughters, wives, and mothers besides. Fairy-tale femininity has always been weird and horrifying, even if the old tales do not say so directly: in a few familiar examples, girls must undertake impossible labors (Rumpelstiltskin), spend adolescence locked in a tower (Rapunzel), and find true love in their sleep (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty).

Modern retellings bring the horror into sharp focus. Drawing upon the fantastic, otherworldly logic and familiar narratives of the fairy-tale genre, Machado’s stories dwell upon the inescapable queerness of embodied life for women in a patriarchal world—where queerness describes not only unruly sexual desire, but also a whole spectrum of peculiar, delightful, and devastating things that can happen to a body. If living in a feminine body is a party, as the book’s ambivalent title may suggest, the precise nature of the occasion might be more Donner Party than Cinderella Ball. Some conditions are often mundane in their horror: the pressure to conform to beauty norms, the difficulties of pregnancy and childbirth, the lasting trauma of sexual assault.

Image: L. Whittaker, Bookmarks I (2008). Photograph by L. Whittaker / Flickr. Via Public Books.