Once upon a time, a publisher reached out to a blogger and asked her to review a short collection of fairytales. She agreed but unlike the fairytales, the review did not end in Happily Ever After.
Originally, I had planned to divide the stories up and given them their own separate review. However, due to time constraints, I’ll just get right to it. The “Adventurous Princess and other Feminist Fairytales” is an example of what not to do with a fairytale retelling.
The stories we all know by heart. Cinderella is abused and wants to go to the ball, the Beast is cursed, Snow White’s jealous Stepmother tries to kill her, and the Little Mermaid falls in love with a person whom she can’t be with. These stories have survived throughout the years and through the years have been retold, redone, and re-imagined by creators both great and small. Barrow is no exception when it comes to fairytale remakes but what she does is remarkable. She misses the point completely about the soul of the story and instead of going with the actual moral, puts her own “feminist” spin on it. Her reasoning behind doing this? She “believed that the traditional fairytales I grew up with…don’t truly represent the society we live in” and “The heroes of these stories are usually either expressly or implicitly straight, white, young, able-bodied and conventionally beautiful.”
I do agree with her that the traditional fairytales don’t fully represent the society that we live in but when one remembers that they were created over a hundred years ago, it makes sense that somethings no longer hold up. Time change, social views get updated, and life goes on. You can’t be upset that a piece didn’t age well. What’s more is that her other complaints about the heroes are straight, white, young, able-bodied, and conventionally beautiful do have some weight but I should mention that most of the heroes don’t have a lot of detail to go with them. In “Cinderella”, we are told that the stepsisters are ‘beautiful and fair of face but vile and black of heart’. As for Cindy herself, we are told that she is ‘dusty and dirty’. We are not told what she looks like except that she is beautiful and as everyone knows beauty is in the eye of the beholder. She could have lovely blonde hair or kinky curls. Her eyes may be blue or a stunning green. There is no description to Cinderella. She is meant to fulfill what the reader thinks beauty is. The same thing can be said for her age. We don’t know how old she is. We don’t get much in the way of physical description in the traditional fairytales unless it’s important like the story of “The Girl Without Hands” or “One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes” or the “Constant Tin Soldier”.
And as for not having able-bodied characters in fairytales, I’ve got some news for you. The “Girl Without Hands” doesn’t have any hands and the “Constant Tin Solider” is missing a leg! And they are the main characters of their stories and they are badass. The Girl Without Hands is too good for the devil to take and the Constant Tin Soldier goes through a harrowing journey to return to his love. True, there isn’t enough representation for disabled characters but to say that isn’t any is wiping away the characters that do bring representation.
The idea behind it, giving fairytales a modern update and fleshing out the characters, is noble but poorly executed. Barrows has attempted to merge the old school style of story telling with contemporary ideals and morals only to fail in both regards. The writing is dull and patronizing and neither Barrow nor her publisher know the intended audience.
As for the remake of the stories themselves, they are but a shadow of what they once were and this is largely due to Barrow’s attempt to bring in a
“feminist” and “modern” morals. The Princess and the Pea
was meant to poke fun at the ridiculous standards that the upper class held
upon themselves to prove their worth. Instead, we get an idiot prince who lacks a spine, a brain, or any sense of what he wants to do. Barrow’s Cinderella is weak and rather stupid in her tale rather than the woman who took risks and left her abusive family once she had her freedom. The Little Mermaid who’s entire story and moral is about unrequited love never tries to go after her love and learns that important lesson. The Sea Witch scares her off with some rather ham-fisted dialogue about loving who you are that mocks the reader’s intelligence.
Beauty and the Beast is par for the course but in this case, Beauty has a
cane. I’m torn on this because I don’t know whether not mentioning Beauty’s
cane is meant to show that being disabled is no big deal but she did dedicate a
line to show that Cinderella is old and suffers from ageism so why not explain
how Beauty got her cane? If you didn’t have Barrow’s illustrations, you would
have never known that Beauty was disabled or that Cinderella was black, or
about half the reasons she wanted to make fairytales more inclusive.
At the end of the day, Barrow’s characters are as lifeless as the paper they
lie on. Her writing does not know whether it wants to pander to young children or appeal to teen or young adults so, it alienates all three. The dialogue is too modern to fit in with her attempt to mimic Anderson or the Brothers Grimm’s iconic style. I wouldn’t call this work empowering to women or feminist. Rather, I would say an attempt was made in good faith but if you need to stick on the cover of your book that it is “feminist” then you have failed. It is pandering to a new generation of women, LGBT+, and minorities who are once again fighting to save and expand their rights. They along with everyone else deserves a fairytale that they can see themselves in but they will not find it in Barrow’s novel.