Changing Narratives

May 13, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Do we need to know the origin of a story once it has been changed? Is part of the power of a subverted narrative in the actual subversiveness? Maybe it does not matter at all that we know the origin of the story, but only the results of the newest conversation. I wonder what it takes to erase, or at least drastically alter, our understanding of a stereotype of the character of someone like Cinderella, for example.

Fairy tales involving a helpless princess have received a lot of criticism of late. Rising concern about this fairy tale (among others) establishes an argument for understanding the point behind the stories that we teach to our children. Instead of allowing the princess to grow and develop, Cinderella depends entirely upon Prince Charming for salvation. We fear that young girls will receive the impression that instead of working to pursue their dreams, they simply have to wait.

As a result, in recent years, a number of versions of a non-helpless Cinderella have been published. Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood is an example of this new type of Cinderella fairy tale. It begins: “Once upon a planetoid,/ amid her tools and sprockets,/ a girl named Cinderella dreamed/ of fixing fancy rockets.” This Cinderella loves her tools more than fancy dresses or waiting. She is curious, crafty and knowledgeable. Therefore, when Prince Charming's ship needs repair, she is the only one able to help. When he asks for her hand in marriage, she laughs and offers to be his chief mechanic instead.

This sort of transformation brings to mind Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) of the Star Wars series. In the most recent movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, she assumes the role of General. Her new role reflects changing rhetoric of the decades between the first movie and today's character. She reflects the growing awareness of stereotypes. It is also necessary for General Leia to transcend her previous role before the audience can receive a character like Rey (Daisy Ridley) also in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Rey is a strong, independent female character who demonstrates excellence with both tools and weapons. If we disregard all previous female characters, does this strong protagonist subvert or eliminate previous characters? If young children are watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens without knowing the history, will they wonder how Rey became so independent and strong?

Michel Foucault offers some insight into the author's function when envisioning a character, which may also enlighten the idea of the cultural reading of a character. In the essay, “What is an Author?” he writes, “One can say that the author is an ideological product, since we represent him as the opposite of his historically real function. (When a historically given function is represented in a figure that inverts it, one has an ideological production.) The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.

“In saying this, I seem to call for a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author. It would be pure romanticisim, however, to imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state, in which fiction would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure.” In other words, the fiction that we receive does pass through a solitary point, that of the author. The author collects ideas, facts, data, emotions in order to inform a work of art. However, fairy tales might be the closest we can get to what Foucault calls 'pure romanticisim'. Fairy tales were originally written but have spun into oral stories, into culturally appropriated pieces, into narratives far beyond their original form.

This is how we arrive at the idea that a fairy tale may contain a dialogue outside of the single author's perspective. But not completely. Something like Cinderella was originally written from a single perspective, a single 'constraining figure' who chose details that were important to a particular time and place. The story then generated itself and the characters became universal. In other words, it has grown universality from a solitary authorial point.

Now, however, erase all that you know about Cinderella, and begin again with Interstellar Cinderella. Is the character strong and independent? Would she be stronger and more independent (in your mind) if you were aware of her true past? And finally, what if you then stumble upon the original Cinderella. Would the helpless princess subvert the über-independent mechanic?

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