Swot up on your fem-lit with our brand new fortnightly Feminist Crib Sheets! This week we explore Angela Carter’s twisted tales and ask: what’s the role of fiction in the feminist movement?
Book: The Bloody Chamber
Author: Angela Carter
Pros: Carter took some of the best-loved tropes of European folklore and spun them in her magical spindle of stories to play with ideas of female power and sexuality: something never really done before in the mainstream.*
Cons: Although some stories hint at other possibilities for love, the erotic, sex, and gender, most of them centre around cis-sexual people in heterosexual relationships. Also the old women in the stories are in the main your stereotypical crone.
So what’s this all about then? What’s fantasy fiction got to do with feminism?
It turns out, quite a lot! As social media campaigners such as @LetToysBeToys, @feministdisney and @femfreq recognise and discuss: stories, playthings, and pop culture can shape our identities on a subconscious level and affect our lives in the every day – how we are treated by others, and the choices we make.
Indeed, to get all academic on you, feminist critic Robin Ann Sheets writes that ‘fiction constitutes an important part of the contemporary discourse on sexuality’. What we read or do for fun can influence how we feel about the possibilities of our own gender and sexuality, as well as the culturally constructed limits of social roles in the West.
Woah, erm, 'thanks' for throwing some footnotes at us. But what does Carter actually write about?
So yes, The Bloody Chamber is a collection of tales - which you could call ‘re writes of fairy tales’, although Carter always insisted they were ‘new stories inspired by old ones’. Each story begins with characters and plots that you recognise: 'Red Riding Hood', 'Beauty and the Beast', 'Bluebeard', 'Cinderella' (the young poor girl swept off her feet by a rich suitor)...
This sounds pretty un-feminist!
But, the women in Carter’s stories are not whimpering princesses waiting to be rescued, nor are they the virginal, innocent little girls who helplessly meet a sticky end. The men too have more choices than the villain or the knight.
Take the protagonist of the titular story. Although she gives a first impression of a foolish child (she falls for a man old enough to be her father, wooed by his money and status), her inner monologue soon allows us to hear her complex thoughts, her rich personal history, and to learn about her entirely un-virginal desire for both her husband and eventually, her lover, a young piano-tuner.
Though young, she is brave, going against her husband’s bidding, which results in a chilling climax. When she faces her husband’s wrath, though she is paralysed with fear the first-person narrative keeps us inside her defiant mind – no swooning here. And the hero of the story? Well, she’s the mother of all knights in shining armour.
So, it’s the whole thing of making alternative stories, making once one-dimensional characters more real… like telling girls that their only choice isn’t to be a Snow White, or a princess, or a page three girl: they can be heroes, or CEOs.
Exactly. Well, actually it’s more complicated than a simple rejection of stereotypical femininity. After all, isn’t feminism less about telling women what they shouldn’t be (models, hairdressers, nurses) but more about opening up everyone’s options of what we could be? We’re not into ‘slut shaming’ or judging occupations as hierarchical here (there’s nothing wrong with anyone wanting to be a model or a nurse, but there’s everything wrong with girls thinking that these are their only options).
By taking the latent themes from fairytales and perverting them, revealing and exaggerating the underlying hints of feminine sexuality, Carter reveals that the old stories, written by old men, are ridiculous, and simply less exciting than her new ones.
Thought the original ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was a magical tale of perfect love? Think again. Carter’s ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, queers the story of the woman loving the animal in many ways, rendering it all the more strange yet beautiful. At its climax, a metamorphic mess of fur and jewels, skin and tongues on a four poster bed are guaranteed to captivate. Or, when red riding hood takes control of her wolf, laughing at his now double entendre threats ('she knew she was no one’s meat') as she slides beneath the covers with him, my mind spun with the possibilities of what could happen next.
These are happily ever afters, but not as we know them. And I really have to stop writing as I’m giving too much away…
Any last words?
Carter herself wrote that ‘I really do believe that a fiction… can help to transform reality itself’. And indeed, Carter was not the first woman to show how fiction can do this. But, her stories bought to the mainstream in the UK and America new potentials for what love, femininity, and sex can mean. We're talking way beyond Fifty Shades with its clumsy treatment of BDSM as an excitingly edgy path to sexual freedom. In between cramming your bell hooks and your Greer, The Bloody Chamber makes for some perfect bedtime reading.
*Carter was by no means the first woman to do this, but The Bloody Chamber was met with MASSIVE critical acclaim. See Anais Nin, perhaps one of the most famous Western authors of deviant, erotic fiction *ever* (writing from the 1930s), and Audre Lourde (writer and activist writing from the mid sixties) who used her moving poetry to talk about feminism, racism and her own sexuality, and had a PBS documentary made about her and her impact.