August 26, 2007

I thought I'd write to Juliet, for she would understand...

Above is the last picture from our Gen Con photo collection, three gals dressed up in really beautiful, ornate costumes right in front of our booth. I wish I spent more time out of the booth, with my camera in hand, and attended the fashion show (although last year it was unbearably hot and long) because I love to see the handmade costumes. The picture has a wee little bit to do with an idea I am working on: girls and women in fairy tales.

Which leads me to the album I wanted to talk about, The Juliet Letters by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. The title and concept of the album is based on the phenomenon of lovelorn people writing letters to Juliet of Verona Italy. Juliet being the female lead in the Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet, of course. Apparently, in Europe, or Italy specifically, people write to the fictional character to express their love, broken heart, or ask for advise. Sort of like kids writing to Santa Claus at the North Pole. So the Verona Post Office probably has bags of letters intended for a person who does not exist, which I find quite charming and amazing.

This concept led to the Juliet Letters, which is one of my very favorite albums. Sorry, I don't have any clips for you, but you can hear it at the Amazon link if you like. The concept of the album is all about correspondence, every kind you can think of...a letter sent to a pop singer from a female soldier in war, graffiti, a suicide note, a chain letter from the Devil asking you to sign your soul away. Really, quite brilliant! I love albums that are so thoroughly considered conceptually. The sound is very unusual too...I have always been a huge Elvis Costello fan, so to hear him strike an almost operatic style is amazing, and to the sounds of a string quartet...It was really pretty groundbreaking for both a pop singer and classical musicians. Anyway, I highly recommend it.

So back to Juliet...As I mentioned, I am thinking about female characters in stories and fairy tales. And I am finding a hard time coming up with strong heroines. Juliet was not exactly what I would consider a very strong young woman, and much of that is based on the time period she lived in and the patriarchy of the times. I mean, she kills herself in the end... although I know that is supposed to represent the ultimate sacrifice for love, but really...she just met the guy and it was probably more of a lusty whirlwind romance. What were you thinking, girl? Is that cold hearted of me? Ah well...

So about strong heroines...I am fascinated by these right now, the few and far between that I am finding. So many girls and women in fairy tales either have to be rescued by a prince, or are the evil witch or other antagonist, or are matronly caregivers. On the other hand, there are the kick butt ladies and warriors of mythology who destroy men for being men. Or women like Sirens and Mermaids using thier sexuality to destroy men. That's not really inspiring to me either. I want to know about the young ladies who find themselves on an amazing journey, who work through the adventures using their strength, wits, and will! Who do not need to be rescued, but who can fall in love and develop friendships and maintain their spirits and souls in the meantime.

If you can think of any characters from stories who are like this, please leave me a comment. I am mainly looking for examples in classic fairy tales and children's stories, not contemporary ones (I think the heroine issue has been correcting itself in more recent years with more and more feminist writers seeing the need for it for young women) There are two that I am particularly obsessed with right now: Dorothy and Alice. Do you have any that you adore?


  1. The character of Lucy in _The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe_. In fact, I believe C.S. Lewis wrote that whole series for his goddaughter, whose name was Lucy. Also, I know you said no contemporary stories, but Gail Carson Levine has written a wonderful re-telling of Cinderella called _Ella Enchanted_. (They made a movie of it recently, but I have no idea if it was any good.) In this version the heroine is given the "gift" of obedience by her fairy godmother - she has to obey any direct order that anyone gives her. How she gets around this little handicap is very charming - it's a well-told story. I'm sure there's more - I'll think about it.

    I love the concept of the Juliet letters! I'd never heard of them before. Must get a copy of the album, too...

  2. hmm, I wonder if it was that Cinderella-ey movie with Drew Barrymore. I forget the name, but i liked it and it definately put a spin on things...

    Thanks for the CS Lewis reference...I am not very familiar with his works...

  3. Hmm, I think that film was "Ever After". "Ella Enchanted" was marketed as more of a kid's film and starred that actress from "The Princess Diaries." Okay - how about Beauty and the Beast? There's also the Ballad of Hua Mulan (basis for the Disney film "Mulan"). Finally, this is also a contemporary reference, but, because it's Japanese, I don't know if there are really any of the gender-correction issues that you are trying to avoid. Chihiro in the anime movie "Spririted Away" by Hayao Miyazaki. He based the character on the 10 year old daughter of one of his friends. This is a fairy tale in a classic sense - it's really, really good, if you haven't already seen it. I think it meets your requirements - she starts out as a timid girl and transforms over the course of the movie into a wonderful heroine who must save her parents from an evil witch. Okay, that's it from me!

  4. ooh, thanks Melissa...more great suggestions!

    I have not heard of Ella Enchanted...sounds good! And I forgot the story of Beauty and the Beast and Mulan...I will have to refresh.

    YES! Spirited away is one of my most favorite movies of all time! Actually, Miyazaki features a lot of really strong females in many of his movies I have seen: Totoro and Kiki both have strong girls. But yes, Spirited Away is the best, don't you think? She is so strong and smart and vulnerable at the same time.

    I guess sticking with the classics for me is a way to point out what many of the old tales are lacking, and celebrating the ones that I think are positive. I want them to be tales that everyone knows (can you believe that not everyone has seen Spirited Away!?! a shame!)

    When I talk about the old stories with people, I enjoy reflecting on the tales we all grew up with (all generations that are around today) and thinking about how women are portrayed in the tales. I like the dialog it opens up...

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    I have to research the Secret Garden and Thumbelina...two stories I don't know a lot about, but which were recommended also...

  5. Can o' worms! Tee hee he! I have to say at our house we consistantly converse about the yin/yang of our society and the sexes specificaly and how the "male" is biologicaly told to dominate the "female". Conception is a great example. Sperm conquers egg, but also creates life. This could also go with your other post about feeling uncomfortable in exclusively male company. Isn't it interesting that males tend to me more agressive/violent in real life (not that women never are) and in fairy tales it seems to be reversed. Would it be safe to say that these tales may have a sexual fantasy element. Am I stating the obvious? Either way, Maybe it is time to write some new tales? Maybe they are out there I've just not found the time to look. Reading food lables (and a few good blogs!) is about as much good reading as I can fit in!. I LOVE "Ella" and all the movies mentioned. My fave guilty pleasure movie... Charlies Angles...

  6. Ok... One word... PMS... (ok 3 words) ok... 2 more
    Lunar cycle... Done...

  7. Ooh, I like Charlies Angels, too...

    Melanie, I haven't seen Totoro yet - sounds like it's a good one, though, eh?

    Well, I have a lot to say about representations of women in early modern literature and feminist scholarship regarding same, most of it pretty boring. Ultimately, to my mind, you have to view these stories in the context of history - they are very revealing of what a woman's place was supposed to be and not be at the time they were written, but I think you won't find much that truly suits the modern perspective without really distorting the original intent of the piece. Not that I think there's necessarily anything wrong with that, mind, as long as one is up front about it. (For example, one production of "Taming of the Shrew" had Kate wink to the audience at the end of the play. I rather liked that - it's almost the only thing that makes the ending watchable in modern times - but it's clearly not in keeping with the original intent of the play.)

  8. Gaea,
    Yeah I think there is a lot to the sexual content in faery tales. I think Joseph Campbell wrote aobut the Virgin/Whore/Crone archetypes in mythology. How women usually fit into one of these roles. Its really interesting...

    Charlie's Angels? Really! How surprising...that one passed me by...

    BTW, who has the PMS? Juliet? Me? You? lol, I am confused!

  9. Melissa,
    Totoro is quite beautiful, but very sad to me. It has to do with a sick dying mother, and a lonely girl who has to look after her younger sister. But it is really a great story.

    Yes, I agree, you do have to take the stories in context of history. Sometimes you have to put that on hold in your mind. Like when we saw Othello at Stratford this year...we had to put all the rascist and sexist stuff away and understand it as a story of its time.

    I do love the stories that break the molds a little, though!

    And I think the studies you ahve done are fascinating! I hoep we can have a long interesting talk at dinner in a few weeks!

  10. sorry, my spelling is terrible. No spell check on the comments, ack! I am sure you will forgive...

  11. Sorry, I think I got carried away yesterday! I'll have to dig out my M.Phil. dissertation on women writers in 17th c. England and pull a few passages for you. It's interesting stuff, although in retrospect I think some of my conclusions were wrong...

    No worries on the spelling. (I _was_ wondering if there's a spell check function blogger, though - I've had a few issues myself!)

  12. Melissa,
    Hey carry on away! This is a fascinating conversation, whereever it goes! I went to the library today and found a book on heroines in folklore and fairy tales that I am excited to dive into. It is multi cultural too, so that interests me even more...

    Yeah, spell check...I feel like I am a pretty good speller, but a terrible typist. so yeah.