99 Problems

Published on September 22nd, 2016 | by Anita Manderfield

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A Brothers Grimm Consent Training: ANITA MANDERFIELD on Raising a Feminist on Fairy Tales

I’ve been feeding our preschooler’s morbid tendencies by reading her more-or-less original versions of Brothers Grimm tales. Despite the gory details, I prefer them to sanitized contemporary rewrites. Little kids (at least mine) get violence. And providing only candy-coated images of life, love, and justice may confuse or alienate. (I worry more about how often heroes revive from death. That and all the child brides.)

Either way, our daughter avidly “loves the scary,” and she seems to lose no sleep over the grotesqueries that survive my light edits.

Because, yes, sometimes I do filter (and not just by adding a decade to the heroines’ ages and giving them a say about their bridegrooms). I mean, ok: Cinderella’s step-sisters sliced off heel and toe to fit into the glass slipper. I’ll let that through. But does the girl also have to hear about Cinderella’s birdie-friends plucking her sisters’ eyes out at her actual wedding? What kind of a party is this?

But there’s one change I’ve changed my mind about. It has to do with “The Frog King” (a.k.a. “The Princess and the Frog.”)

A young princess drops her golden ball down a well, then she makes a deal with a frog/enchanted prince in return for his recovery of the ball. Know the one? Pop quiz:

How does the princess turn the frog back into a prince?

  1. She kisses him.
  2. She shares her bed with him.
  3. She hurls him against a wall in fury to avoid sharing her bed with him.

You’d be forgiven for choosing option a., after all, “you have to kiss a lot of frogs,” right? Wrong. You have to attempt literal murder through arm-propelled mural collision.

Here’s the thing: the frog explicitly outlines in his terms for retrieving the princess’s golden ball that he be allowed to sleep in her bed, along with being “loved,” taken as “companion and playmate,” and allowed to dine beside her, eat from her plate, and drink from her cup.

And here’s the other thing: the princess is a deceitful, spoiled punk. She agrees to the frog’s terms disingenuously, ditches him once she gets hers, and spends the rest of the story whining about how icky he is.

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“Frog King” by Anita Manderfield

When the frog shows up at the palace, her father the King commands his daughter to keep her word and share her grub, because, in addition to the value of a promise, “you shouldn’t despise someone who has helped you when you were in trouble.”

Agreed.

But, once the frog tries to redeem his access to the mattress, the princess gets fed up and goes the way of Big Dan Teague in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.” To her great surprise, when he falls, her disgusting amphibian is transformed into a prince with “beautiful, smiling eyes,” long under a wicked enchantment, which only she could break. They fall in love and hop in bed (really), then get married, too (even though she’s like nine years old, whatever).

We want kids to follow through on their promises, right? If they say they are going to clean their room if they get that ice cream cone, they better put out. The first time I read this version to my daughter, so ill-disposed was I toward the petulant princess that I changed the ending to: “so the princess threw the frog in disgust, with all her might — but at that very moment, a goodly maidservant entered her bed chamber, caught the frog, and kissed him in sympathy. This caused the frog to transform into a prince with beautiful, smiling eyes. He then proposed marriage to the maidservant, who accepted and thus became queen in place of the princess.” The end.

My daughter was irate. Having identified thoroughly with the princess’ childlike duplicity, possessiveness over her bed, and brutal little fit, she couldn’t abide the goody-two-shoes usurpation by some anonymous serf.

And, you know? The more I think about it, the more I completely agree. Because the importance of consent—its temporality, flexibility, and sacred nature—must always trump the ethics of simply “abiding” by commitments.

I mean, I still think the girl behaved badly: accepting terms she had no intention of fulfilling and then treating her helper like dirt once she got what she wanted. But does that mean he has sovereign right to her affections and her bed?

Nope.

I will never teach my daughter that, having promised to “love” or “sleep with” someone, she’s not allowed to change her mind.

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“a smiling frog” by Oceana / Flickr Creative Commons License

Such intimate agreements can be given and later withdrawn. Suffice to say that nothing — neither her golden vow, nor some “king’s” paternal command, nor even a genuine lack of virtue or integrity on her part — merits any slimy suiter’s violation of her, or anyone’s, bed.

I’ve come to see that this princess, despite her faults, behaves in exemplary fashion when she forcibly expels the intruder from her bed, and so deserves her reward. I’ve even come to appreciate the princess’ moral failings. Because my daughter knows it’s wrong to lie, break promises, and scorn helpfulness, but she should also know that such shortcomings never forfeit her consent. She always has the right to say “no.”

In fact, in a situation like this, she even has the right to throw the rascal out, screaming (as does the Grimm princess): “Now you will have your peace, you disgusting frog!”

In so doing, I hope either she’ll free herself from a distasteful creature with entitlement issues, or, just maybe, she’ll find that rare prince willing to transform. After all, it took rejection for Grimm’s disgraced frog to find his princely nature. Maybe he’ll come to respect her limits and evolve more honorable intentions. You know, like not trying to buy her love and access to her bed by simply returning her own property to her.

Of course, even then, she owes him exactly zero ni-night-time love, “beautiful, smiling eyes” or not.  Because, when it comes to her heart and her bed, every girl deserves her peace.

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By Patricia Feaster / Flickr Creative Commons

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About the Author

Anita Manderfield

Anita Manderfield is a writer, stay-at-home-momma (SAHM), and American interloper in Belgium trying to learn the way of the SAHMurai. She’s written for ScaryMommy and Mamalode. Read more at her blog, SAHMurai.



4 Responses to A Brothers Grimm Consent Training: ANITA MANDERFIELD on Raising a Feminist on Fairy Tales

  1. TREZNAL says:

    Revisiting the Grimms, I think you take the allegorical bed too literally.  Look to the social context:  Ideas such as explicit and revocable consent had not been invented in the Grimms’ time.  They could not have been taking sides in a debate which simply did not exist.  Moreover, they were retelling their own version of a folk tale older than memory.  And there is a different issue which has been problematic for humans for as long as they have been, well, human:  Maintaining stable and lasting relationships.

    Add further the context that in the society to which the Brothers Grimm were writing, “bed” and “marriage” were synonymous in people’s thinking (if not always in their reality).  The metaphor would have been natural for readers living in early nineteenth-century Europe.

    Now, consider the case of a young woman who gets married, has a kid or two, and then (once the puppy passion represented by the golden ball wears off) resentfully builds in her mind the image that her husband is an ugly, slimy frog.  As seen today in your local marriage counsellor’s office—and I tell you, it happened in the Grimms’ time, too.  So this old folk tale gives the message that since you committed to your husband, you should look beneath the surface, ignore what you perceive to be his froglike appearances, and treat him in every way with the love which you promised to him.  (Or in the Grimms’ grimmer version:  Do not be a “deceitful, spoiled punk”, as you put it; but if you be so, you may find that the truth will be revealed to your surprise—just in the moment when you exercise improper anger management.)  Whereupon you just might find that you bring out the best in him, and turn that frog you now curse yourself for having married into the prince you always knew him to be in your heart.  Break the curse in your marriage!

    The Brothers Grimm told timeless tales, really.  Ribbit.  Ribbit.

    I agree with you that “providing only candy-coated images of life, love, and justice may confuse or alienate.”  I actually have a pet theory (to my knowledge original to me) that the disturbing increase in wantonly violent behavior results from failure to internalize violence at an early age.  Children who grew up watching farm animals get slaughtered and local men being sliced up in wars and duels were much less likely to take violence lightly as adults.  Nowadays, violence is just not real to most people—and thus is treated as a videogame or a movie.

    • It’s true that shiny objects (and oxytocin) can distort reflections. One never truly knows who their partner is until the glare calms down a bit. Sometimes our perceived frogs really are princes. But unfortunately sometimes it’s quite the other way.

      I think that, like dreams, fairy tales — those deeply internalized collective narratives — can and should be subjectively interpreted. But, even according to your own marriage analysis, I’m glad the princess-matron could reconcile with her frogprince-husband by asserting herself and her boundaries rather than by subjugating herself ever to his will. RIBBIT

      I’m all for children witnessing sustainable animal husbandry, although I truly would not mind if they never have to see humans kill each other.

      peace,

  2. Darach Seaton says:

    Regarding children’s stories-that-are-not-quite-fairy-tales – but which are now canonical children’s stories: Roald Dahl’s Mathilda is one I would recommend severely editing as one reads. I was a butch dyke at the time of reading it to my daughter (now a transman) – and the character of Trunchbull (“bull” – “bull dyke”, get it?) is one of the most singularly hateful, misogynist, homophobic depictions of a lesbian that I can think of. Of course the lesbianism isn’t explicitly noted, but the representation of non-standard gender is wrapped in the slimiest, most self-satisfied hatred one can imagine – while of course, the rescuing mother figure is suitably feminine and pretty. I love the character of Mathilda, a strong girl who stands up for justice – and I was looking forward to reading about her to my daughter. Instead, as I read, i felt a profound shame at how mainstream culture views people like me, and at the fact that I was participating in my own abuse – and teaching my daughter to be trans- and homophobic. I would appeal to parents to pay equal attention to the homophobia and transphobia of children’s stories, as much as to the anti-feminist content.

    • Thanks for sharing that! I forgot about that part of Mathilda. Certainly little kids do not need more cultural prompts to reinforce the demonization of non-standard experiences of gender (and other forms of popularly perceived “Otherness”). They start so young. My daughter’s preschool teacher told me that one of the girls in her class recently announced that she and her friend were the only beautiful ones because they were the only ones with long blond “princess” hair. These two then began identifying targets of “ugliness” based on how much their classmates deviated from those standards. Short hair was ugly. So was dark skin. We’re talking four-year-olds.

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