January 23, 2021
By Patricia Sohn
I write fairy tales on the side. It keeps me entertained when Hollywood or Bollywood fails me. I say that with all respect to the entertainment industries of the world for keeping us quiescent, diverted, engrossed, and perhaps charmed through our glory days, and though our epidemics of postmodern depressions and other sundry symptoms of Anomie. No one should understate the importance and contributions of those industries to staving away the more extreme effects of social disintegration and the relative vacuum of social solidarity predicted by one of my favorite social theorists, Emile Durkheim. That, as he warned of the results of the downfall of the Patriarchal family being replaced, as it was, by the centralized, secular state; the conjugal (read that, nuclear) family; and possibly professional identities, all – even taken together – as inadequate sources for social solidarity at the end of the 19th century. And, social progress: now women can join the throngs of workers and social ills as well!
I notice that many of our fairy tales have changed over time, and now we are inundated with a new fairy tale: the postmodern fairy tale. What does it look like? What does it mean?
I have been interested in fairy tales as an aficionado and hobbyist for many decades, by which I mean, since childhood as an avid digester of the same. Fairy tales, as Steven Jones suggests, tell us as what we see as the major social issues, values, strata, and roles in our society at the micro-level; and if we look across societies, they tell us how our societies, comparatively, map ways in and out of those social issues. That is, they tell us about the parameters of our social imagination, by which I mean something along the lines of a semi-emancipated (in the Gramscian sense) – and also cultivated – cultural field. And, so, the postmodern fairy tale tells us something about our collective state of imagination at the current moment.
I am not an expert in fairy tales. But I have paid attention to them since I began studying the Middle East as an undergraduate, and as a minor aficionado of graphic novels and some science fiction/fantasy (emphasis on fantasy). I have remained aware of The Thousand and One Nights; and, as I like to call them, the tales of Shaharezadeh, who I like to treat as author and subject rather than object. (I spell her name differently in my fairy tales to indicate her royal lineage and marriage rather than the more perfunctory, although certainly notable and elevated, Shahrezad or Scheherazade.)
What I write herein, then, is based only upon experience and personal engagement in my own hobby, rather than upon debates in any literature. For, I am not engaged in the literatures on fairy tales. Nonetheless, I keep my eyes open for new fairy tales – be it on the silver screen or in text. And I am always grateful to find them! So, when I came upon a new set of ”English Fairy Tales” regarding a series of princely and princessly figures, I took note. And, perhaps not surprisingly, given that many of our “nativist” fairy tales, by my cursory read, originate significantly further East, these new fairy tale tellings come from the United Arab Emirates with some production as well, apparently, in Bangalore, India.
Fairy tales are of interest to me as a political-ethnographer and political scientist because of the micro-level social issues about which they weave problems and solutions (both socially constructed, and so they tell us what we think about ourselves or the self-reflexions of the society doing the telling).
But they are also interesting in what they tell us about the extent of our imaginations regarding governance. Prince Charming tales and others – in film, The Princess Bride and others comes to mind – tell us what we think about major political institutions, regime types, and ideas, including monarchy, democracy, and popular sovereignty; as well as where we see problems and solutions regarding economic hardship, wealth, access to education, social mobility, urban-rural relations, and the like; and they also tell us something about the state of our thinking and feelings regarding our political leaders, and political leadership in general. Are our leaders noble princes full of moral and ethical Kindness and Goodness? Or are they corrupted persons who betray their people and hold women (at once symbols of power and powerlessness) in chains?
The story that immediately caught my eye was that of “Prince Darling,” clearly a take-off, in a literary sense, on Prince Charming of old, and so a re-telling in the way that some of the work linked above on fairy tales suggests that we are doing and should do (likewise, some work on feminist Midrash suggests the same).
This postmodern re-telling turns many aspects of the traditional Prince Charming figure upside-down. In this story, Prince Darling, a lad, becomes a harasser in the postmodern imagination, at least initially; and love becomes inherently an act of aggression, offense, and encroachment. When Prince Darling meets a beautiful and Good girl, apparently modest, and tending her sheep (a reversal, in some ways, of the Dummuzid shepherd stories of which Middle Eastern audiences are aware), he offers to marry her almost immediately. Instead of her demure and humble acceptance, she accuses him of arrogance and refuses him outright. And, rather than the genteel, philosopher-king responses of Prince Charming, Prince Darling becomes angry and takes her prisoner – to what ends, we cannot imagine. Then, because of his ethical overages, he is punished by a fairy and turned into an animal with a lion head, a wolf’s feet, a bull’s horns, and a snake’s (read that, a dragon’s) body; these aspects reminding of ancient Egyptian mythology. He travels the world in search of Redemption, only to find his shepherdess in peril at the hands of a “Palace of Pleasure.” Then she is freed by the fairy, and the Prince and shepherdess go to his former tutor, who now rules the Kingdom, and…I won’t give away the rest of the story.
In the story, Prince Darling and the shepherdess are treated as equals in some ways that are interesting. But – in keeping with our postmodern imagination, love is associated with peril, and in the end the keys to the kingdom are given not to man and wife, but to man alone. I would venture to suggest that this aspect of our imagination is western as well, as we have few fairy tales in the West in which the princess becomes a ruling sovereign in her own right rather than arm candy for her sovereign king.
So, the postmodern feminist imagination (which this production from the UAE and Bangalore very much is in my view) can envision Prince Charming as a villain – and as redeemable, which is fascinating – but it cannot go so far as to imagine woman as politically in charge in a way that is substantial and valid rather than superficial. This, despite the examples of Elizabeth I, Victoria, Elizabeth II, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto – going back further, Hatshepsut – a long line of Empresses in South and East Asia, and others, any of whom could easily be drawn upon to foster at least some inkling that we might accept a woman sovereign once again…at some point…ever…. All of this is to say nothing about power-sharing among men and women, which could also be imagined in fairy tale form in prince and princess become king and queen, both as sovereigns, rather than one as only ceremonial. Our imaginations of love, too, are problematic and fraught, and suggest it to be inherently an adversarial state of being rather than one reflected by any sort of glory or Transcendence. (I would want to suggest that secularism has successfully – and disappointingly – overrun religion and “faith” in this regard, at least in our dominant tellings.)
It is noteworthy and worth considering that our collective social imaginations, as found in our fairy tales, have such trouble pondering women’s power and leadership, as well as male-female power sharing, in ways that are convincing. (Some of the few fairy tales that we have here in the West, for example, in film, which try to do so are a bit cartoonish and do not imagine brilliant and powerful, substantial, and even noble women with sufficient depth or conviction. One of the few exceptions might be an older film, The Neverending Story; but there we see little detail or depth regarding her rule, and the worlds run by a princess/queen are on the verge of collapse. The demise of female ruled or influenced empires and places is also a common theme for us; see, for example, Star Wars. Perhaps we might call it the feminization of the decline of empire.)
We are, then, postmoderns and feminists, All. But even as postmodern feminists, our imaginations appear to continue to be limited when it comes to gender and governance. Of this, I simply take note and hope that, one day, The Princess Bride will be allowed to stand convincingly next to her sovereign and be called sovereign also – at least in our fairy tale imaginations.
We are coming close to it with our first ever woman Vice President. Let us hope that we can continue to imagine more.
Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is an associate professor. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of religion and politics, courts and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society. A prime example of the American melting pot, she has heritage from Prussia, the Philippines, Spain, Ireland, and Holland.
Note: The views herein represent only myself, not my employer. -PJS