Sunday, August 27, 2006

Not Happily A Victim Ever After

I've been thinking a lot about fairy tales this past week (Western fairy tales, that is). A lot of little things all converging brought it on. Happening upon the excellent film Finding Neverland on television this past week and watching it again. Reading this post by Susie Bright about this incredibly cool sounding and beautiful looking graphic novel by Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore called The Lost Girls about the adult erotic lives of Alice (post Wonderland), Wendy (post Neverland), and Dorothy (post Oz). (Aside: Here's what my future husband Neil Gaiman had to say about the book.) And, deciding to re-read one of the favorite novels of my childhood, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, where the theme of telling fairy stories to oneself to bear the harsh realities of life figures largely into the story.

Anyway, as some of you may remember from older posts, I've have had a very difficult few years of late. For those of you who aren't long-time readers, or for those who are and who don't tend to read between the lines too much, this year I finally acknowledged a sexual assault that happened to me in my childhood and began working through that, and recognizing all the ways it (as well as other things) has affected my life. To get to that point, though, my life pretty much had to go on a downward trajectory until I was at rock bottom and had nothing left, at which point, if I didn't want to destroy myself, I had no other recourse left but to face up and ask for help. So there was a lot of crash and burn, burn, burn in this very cold hellfire made of dry ice over the course of a number of years. And even this year, as I got help and slowly began pulling myself out of the black pit I'd thrown myself down into, it was a hard, hard struggle. Some days it still is, though, as the man once said, I have to admit, it's getting better.

It's been very difficult for me to even explain to myself what this "lost period" of my life has actually felt like. I really have no words. But as I was watching the end of Finding Neverland (and crying...I dare you to tell me you didn't cry at the end of that film) and thinking about fairy tales it struck me. Hard. I realized that what it felt like was under some sort of dark spell.

I hadn't realized until that moment how for all this time I had been walking around feeling exactly the way I imagined as a child that all those women in the fairy tales who were put under spells would have felt like. Alive, but not really. Breathing, but emotionless. Unable to respond. Where the person I really am--the joyous, animated, creative person full of childlike wonder, curiosity, and good, pure, unadulterated, unashamed love, was put to sleep, and some shadow person was walking around, operating my sleeping body like a puppeteer, sending my cloudy brain and heart just enough of a signal to allow me to vaguely exist, but feel not much of anything. Like Sleeping Beauty, if she were in a zombie coma.

And my next thought was, "I want to break the spell." (You see, though I've been making strides, I don't think it is broken, fully, yet. I've not completely woken up into myself.)

And then the next thought was, "In every fairy tale, there's always only one thing that can break the spell. So what would break your spell, then?"

And all that got me to thinking about the messaging we get as little girls through the fairy tales we're told and watch on film. And why perhaps so many of we little girls (while still girls, or grown) become victims. And why, even after that may happen to us, and we survive, when we want to move forward from that, we keep playing this victim role over and over again, almost despite ourselves.

Little girls are raised on fairy tales. And though there are a few exceptions to this rule, the most famous, most popular Western fairy tales involve a few key ingredients:
  1. The girl is good. She is beautiful. She does everything right, behaves beautifully, is passive and kind and giving, and is in every way the perfect reflection of the "ideal female."
  2. She is acted upon by evil or angry forces. The dark spell is cast (this can include non-magical, cruel imprisonment/enslavement). The reason for the victimization of the girl is never in revenge for something the girl did. It's always for reasons the girl has no control over: anger at the girl's natural beauty and goodness (e.g., Snow White), anger at her family's behavior (e.g. Sleeping Beauty), anger at the fact she just exists (e.g., Cinderella).
  3. She is rescued. Someone breaks the spell and frees her to live happily (ever after). Usually the enchantment is broken by some representative act of love, like a kiss. She is rescued by someone else's acknowledgement of and desire for her perfection.
So, in steps 1 and 2, we have a good vs. evil power play. A pretty classic theme. But note how different it is from male-based good vs. evil fairy tales. In fairy tales where the main protagonist is male, when the evildoer makes his/her presence known, the hero is expected to fight the evil, and overcome it. It's understood that this is what he will ultimately have to do.

Where is this expectation in female-protagonist fairy tales? It just isn't there. From the start it is assumed in a female-centered fairy tale that the good girl is weak. Far too weak to withstand the evil person. She is acted upon, and she falls prey. There is no fight, or even an attempt at one. And it's also interesting to note that in most cases while the spell-casting/enslaving characters are certainly portrayed as "bad," their behavior or motivation is generally not presented as strange or exceptional. The stories seem to imply it stands to reason that the victimizer would hate the beautiful, innocent young girl and want to harm her. And, that it stands to reason that she would simply not have the wherewithal or strength to even think of fighting back.

So she is acted upon to be victimized. But in number 3 above, she is also acted upon to be saved. After the girl has been put under the evil spell, she does not overcome what has been done to her. She remains passive. Sometimes for years. Someone other than herself intervenes and saves her. In most instances, her salvation comes via some demonstration of love by another--a kiss, etc.

So, she is lovely and innocent and good, as all girls are encouraged to be, and she is victimized. For no reason. With no assumption she is allowed to fight back. It stands to reason.

And after this happens, she cannot save herself. She must wait for someone else to save her. She must hope that someone else will find her desirable enough to be worth saving. It stands to reason.

So, taking it into the real world, a girl is good and innocent and she is victimized. As she learns, it stands to reason. And after her victimization, to ensure she'll be saved, she keeps behaving good and lovely and innocent and passive and pleasing, as a girl should, and she waits under her bad spell, for someone to kiss her and save her and take her away, make IT all go away, and make her finally happy ever after.

But we all know what the stories tell us happens to girls who are good and lovely and innocent. Again. And again. And again.

These are the stories we (girls AND boys) are taught as children. They are the first things we learn. And then we wonder why so many innocent people are sexually assaulted. We ask why the victims didn't fight. We ask how the victimizers can think the way they do.

And we, those girls, who were good and innocent and perfect, and who were made to suffer for it...

We, the living dead girls, just barely managing to survive one more day in the dark, blurry world of the spellbound, our shoulders heavy, our breath labored under the shameful weight of the enchantment cast on us by others, for just being ourselves...

We wonder why we keep finding patterns of victimizaiton to fall into, whether big or small.

And we wonder, and we keep walking onward, lids heavy with exhaustion, hoping, hoping, someone will come and break the spell for us. Praying that someone will know the right thing to do. Will want us enough to save us.

And we keep running into someones who look like they've got the answer. And in the end, all they've got is another poisoned apple.

No one ever taught us we were allowed to fight our own fight. No one taught us we were allowed to rescue ourselves.

It's only now that I'm learning this, finally. But I have no model. There isn't one story I know of that can show me how to lift my own spell.

And to all my sisters out there, I'm sorry that there isn't one. I'm sorry no one ever taught us. I'm sorry we have no model to follow.

But I want to say, we can write our own story. A new one. A better one. Where we fight. And we find allies, not saviors. And we work together, and separately, to lift our own spells for ourselves. We become our own saviors. WE stand up and proclaim ourselves lovely and whole and worthy of love, and that is enough to save us. And we seal it with our own fiercely beautiful kiss--to ourselves.

To that good and innocent and beautiful girl who, of her own power, has saved herself and embraced her strength, and walks with no shame, because she deserves none. And who will never be unhappily ever after, ever again.

"Your Silver Shoes will carry you over the desert," replied Glinda. "If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country."

--The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


Anonymous Hiromi said...

*Great* entry, I'm so glad you have time to post again.

I've *always* hated fairy tales, and I've said before on my blog that I've always identified with the witch, who was clever, strong, and for chrissake had agency. She acted, by god. She *did*. And then was punished.

What struck me most about those tales, besides the passivity you wrote about so well, was that youth, beauty, and innocence set apart the good girls from the bad. To be deserving of rescue and then eventual happiness, you had to be beautiful and pure... and young.


8/28/2006 4:27 PM  
Anonymous Hiromi said...

And let's not forget the trope of woman vs woman; more specifically, old, ugly, jealous woman against young and beautiful woman. Were there no male villains? And where was Cinderella's father's castrated ass?

8/28/2006 6:55 PM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Hiromi: To be deserving of rescue and then eventual happiness, you had to be beautiful and pure... and young.

Yeah, I started to write about that and then took it out because I realized a weird contradiction there. I was pointing out that in every case, her goodness damns her to be victimized, but her salvation also only comes from her goodness. And I was going to say this means she's in some sort of trap: to be saved she must be good, but if she's good, she's a victim. You can only be saved if you're a victim. You can only get your happiness if you're victimized first.

But then I realized that there's a logic loophole and I wonde why none of us realized. If she's NOT good, she never gets victimized. And so it's not necessary to stay good to be saved.

But then again, of course, though, if she is *not* good, she is the "evil" one. And the evil one is never victimized, it's true, but she's always alone, never loved...

It's all very complex. All kinds of twisted messaging.

And then yes, the female vs. female thing: *naturally,* a woman would hate anyone younger or prettier than herself. In fact, just a standard that there *is* a prettier, and it only means younger...

All of it. So fucked up.

I did love fairy tales growing up. I'm sorry now I bought into it. Although, I preferred the fantastical to fairy tales really, once I was older: the Oz books, Narnia, Road Dahl books--all of which had powerful female characters, both good and bad.

Cinderella's dad had died before the story starts, fyi. So had Snow White's. Left them to the mercy of the stepmothers, aka "aging hag bitches." The worst evil possible is a woman in charge of things, apparently. There is this sense that when the DAD was alive, the woman was under control. And also, a man has to be present in order to protect a "good girl."

Course, Hansel and Gretel's stepmom tried to get rid of them, and her husband was still alive...

8/28/2006 11:32 PM  
Blogger AlwaysArousedGirl said...

This is why I've not read fairy tales to my daughters.

Still, I sometimes catch the eldest playing games where she needs to be rescued by someone, and I chide her for not rescuing *herself*.

Wonder if it sinks in at all?

8/28/2006 11:32 PM  
Blogger TravelingMermaid said...

I hate fairy tales or any story that pits the older woman against the younger. The truth is we all need to support and uplift each other. Younger women can learn form the elder's experiences and elder can learn again thru rememberance of how joyful youth can be.
That's what I like about the Goddess embraces the young woman and the crone. We can learn from each other.

Great post, Ms Syl!

8/28/2006 11:49 PM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

AAG: Yeah, now it makes me wonder what I'd do if I had kids. I mean, I *love* the old Disney films. Would I keep them from watching them? Or just provide alternative feedback? I just don't know...

Traveling Mermaid: Thank you for your kind compliment. Yeah, the whole woman-against-woman thing, I've never understood it. I mean, I understand not liking a particular *person* but not because of their gender. Honestly, though, I believe far fewer women buy into that crap than they'd have us believe when they create these stories, and more modern crap like "Desperate Housewives." I think the whole "catty"/"girlfight' think is a fiction invented by the same idiot men who think when they leave the room all the women take off their clothes and have lingerie tickle fights.

8/29/2006 12:12 AM  
Anonymous Tory said...

Actually Syl I imagine a pillow fight not a tickle fight. In all fairness these stories were made in a much different era than we are now. Women werent as liberated in the 50's or 60's and so they created stories that were right with the times.

You ever think that these stories might have help the feminist movement by showing how they are percieved?

8/29/2006 3:37 AM  
Blogger Nikki said...

Don't know if you've stumbled on Clarissa Pinkola Estes' 'Women who run with the wolves', but she has a lot of fabulous stuff to say about fairy stories and myths. All empowering, all beautifully told.

And, though it's not fairy stories as such, de Sade turned the virtuous female character on her head. Probably literally! - yet her rampant nympho sister, wicked as they come, continued to rise successfully. Angela Carter wrote a very interesting book on de Sade's female characters, I forget the name, sorry.

Anyway, good luck on your journey.

8/29/2006 5:42 AM  
Anonymous Circe said...

8/29/2006 10:38 AM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Tory: Yeah, I went back and forth between "pilow" and "tickle." They're pretty much interchangeable fantasies I hear guys mention a lot jokingly.

I'm not sure I get what you were trying to ask with your question at the end.

Nikki: Hey, thanks for visiting. I like your blog. So much that I accidentally blogrolled it twice. (Go look!) I saw I did that the other day (before you wrote) and I had to resist the urge to erase the whole rest of my blogroll and just keep blogrolling your blog repeatedly so that the entire right side of my blog would say "kiss me quick" over and over. I thought maybe it would give someone or other the hint...

Anyway, you know, I've had that Estes book on my shelf for years now, and keep meaning to read it and never seem to get to it. I really should do that already. And I love Angela Carter. I haven't read that but will definitely look for it. Ta very much! (I used to live in Scotland...I ken the lingo, heh heh.)

Circe: Wow. I am just...blown away. I'd never seen this before. Thanks so much.

Sigh. One wonders why one even bothers to attempt to express anything at all in words when one realizes something like that already exists.

8/29/2006 2:42 PM  
Anonymous savia said...

Thank you so much for this. I'm also coming to terms with the sexual abuse I survived as a child. A lot of what you wrote resonates with me.

If I hadn't been told to be the good girl, to behave, to listen to what the babysitter told me to do, none of it would have happened. If I had been taught to stand up for myself, to say 'no' when something felt wrong, to resist, my life would have turned out much differently.

But it's never too late to learn, right?

8/29/2006 6:39 PM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...


But it's never too late to learn, right?

You're absolutely right.

And thanks for sharing that. I know first hand how hard it is to do that.

I'm so sorry that happened to you. You are not the first person I have met who was assaulted by their babysitter. It happens much more often than people know. And it's just unconscionable for someone in a postition of authority and trust to take advantage of a child like that. I hope that wherever that person is now who did that to you is, that he/she lives with the pain of knowing what a scum he/she is every last day of his/her life. Because that he/she deserves that.

My assualter was a doctor, so though our situations are different, I do know how it feels to have someone who is supposed to be caring for you and your well being abuse that situation so callously. And I also know how confusing and frightening and ultimately paralyzing it is for the child to find themselves in that situation.

Just you always remember, you didn't do anything wrong. You were good and trusting, yes. And that wasn't wrong. That was logical.

That that loathsome person took advantage of your good and trusting nature--THAT is what was wrong. That person. Not you. And don't let anyone else--including yourself--tell you any differently.

Hugs to you, and good luck with your own trip into the light. And always remember when you feel alone that there are many, many others out there who know how you feel.

8/29/2006 9:53 PM  
Blogger la petite dévergondée said...

oh my god love, ive just happened upon your little piece opf heaven and after reading this post (in tears) it just follows the line in my head of the many times ive been put into horrible situations.

i see your view and i can agree to a certain point. im good and beautiful and makes people want you and even bad people. maybe if we werent so soft and lovely....werent so loving and trusting, the big bad wofl would shy away.

they like the lovely softness, they like to hurt it and see the colors the skin turns.

your words were powerful thank you so much.

big hug -la petite

8/30/2006 11:49 PM  

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