arts & culture
photo by Mara Catalan
7.02.04 | Catherine Orenstein, the author of Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (Basic Books, 2002), recently talked with Ms. about the remake of The Stepford Wives, reality TV and the culture of reinvention.
More of her analysis on the history and influence of fairy tales can be found in the Summer 2004 issue of Ms., where she writes about the telling and re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood's long walk in the woods.
Ms.: A recent full-page advertisement for The Stepford Wives movie featured the quote: “Stepford Is Us!” – New York Times. I recognized it as the headline of an op-ed you wrote in June about beauty myths and the culture of reinvention. Were you surprised to see it used as an endorsement for the film?
The op-ed wasn't critical of the movie per se; it was using the movie to launch into a discussion of ideas about beauty and femininity. It was irrelevant to a critique of the movie, pro or con. But from the point of view of a movie producer, I can see how they would pull that in. The movie does tap something extremely current and relevant. If you're promoting a movie, why not?
Ms.: What did you think of the revised ending to Stepford Wives?
I was disappointed. I think the movie missed a plum opportunity to show -- in hilarious and horrifying ways -- how Stepford is still with us. In my op-ed, I put the remake of The Stepford Wives in the context of our modern Stepfordian obsession with plastic surgery and makeovers. I hadn’t seen the movie yet, but I had seen the previews -- which I think were creepy and wonderful -- and I’d seen the movie’s website, which invited readers to upload their photos for a personal “Stepford Makeover.”
I thought perhaps the movie would be a very sharp, funny and disturbing look at this phenomena, the boom of cosmetic surgery, where women today increasingly embrace the knife and the plastic, and actually want to look somewhat robotic -- like perfect blonde, straight-nosed, big-busted Stepford mannequins. The plastic is not just a metaphor anymore.
Alas, the movie wasn’t that clever. Instead of being a sharp parody, it's a mere comedy, based on cultural clichés. It’s supposedly influenced by feminism but it's also a backlash -- the twist in the end is that it's a woman who's behind it all.
The theme of the empowered woman becoming a menace to society is hardly new. It was also big in the 1990s in movies like Disclosure, which also, like the new Stepford movie, suggested the danger of letting women anywhere near technology.
But at least the remake of Stepford Wives moves beyond the premise of the original 1975 movie -- made in an era when women were feeling oppressed by marriage and by their husbands -- that men are villains.
In many ways the idea that men oppress women is so passé. We are all in this together. It's not just men who do it. We are in an interlocking relationship and we've really got to examine all our roles, men and women, from a more humanist perspective. At least it's more useful at this place and time.
Ms.: One of the letters the Times received in response to your op-ed was from a woman who said she rebelled against girdles in the 1950s and now she’s considering a tummy tuck, face-lift and liposuction. She asked, “Where are all those gains I thought I'd made toward women's lib in the intervening years? ‘'Stepford Is Us’ […] makes me realize -- what gains?”
Another woman wrote, “By castigating women's longing for physical perfection and treating it as one
more defect that individual women need to correct about themselves, Ms.
Orenstein unwittingly becomes as pejorative and judgmental as the culture she
calls to task.”
What did you think of the responses?
It wasn't my intent at all to blame women in my piece, but some people took it that way.
When I write about women, I always feel that in some way I am writing about myself and I don't feel I am above the dynamics that I write about. In fact, I usually write about the things that I am most vulnerable to.
The whole temptation to be as beautiful as possible or to be beautiful in a social conformist way -- I am susceptible to that. I wake up and put on makeup. I like high heels. I do a lot of things that have a whole history of controversy behind them.
Now I find myself writing about them, and I tend to write in the “we” voice because I don't feel like I am so far removed from the women who are having those crazy plastic surgeries on those reality TV shows. We are separated by circumstance and I guess by how far we'd go. But I don't see myself as categorically different. I really feel as vulnerable to social ideals of beauty as anybody else.
Ms.: How do we criticize this system of cultural transformation knowing that very few of us are outside of this system?
There are two ways to come at that. The first thing is that it is important to have a little bit of introspection, and also cultural introspection. That's what I do in my book and what I try to do in this piece -- to stand back and look at the myths and the social narratives that drive us. And also to understand that the myths that we tell and the social and cultural narratives that we replicate every generation, every year, are powerful driving forces but they are not static. They are constantly evolving. They are timeless because they are so historical and adaptable.
In the op-ed piece I look at “Cinderella” and in the book I look at “Little Red Riding Hood.” These are two stories -- myths, really -- that are about lots of things, but among other things, they are about sexuality and femininity and morality for women. The lessons in those stories have certain constants that you keep seeing brought up every generation or two. But they also have things that change in 180-degree ways. Or rather, the way we see the myths can change in radical ways.
On the radio yesterday somebody mentioned how terrible it is that we are obsessed with surface and superficial beauty and that the Cinderella myth is really all about appearances -- the movies that we watch, like Maid in Manhattan, or Pretty Woman, and television shows like The Swan, Extreme Makeover, I Want a Famous Face, and Nip/Tuck are obsessed with Cinderella makeovers and skin-deep beauty. On a certain level that's true. But you could also say these shows and stories are about just the opposite.
The Cinderella Cycle also incorporates the desire to transcend superficial beauty. Cinderella's transformation from rags into fairy princess beauty -- and related stories like the ugly duckling to the swan or the chrysalis to the butterfly -- can be seen as being about transcending superficial physical barriers and being recognized for one's true, inner self; and finding love that transcends poverty and class and age and physical imperfection.
I think one thing that is important to do is to examine the myths that drive us so that in some way we can be freed by them -- or at least be free to interpret them in the ways we find most useful.
Ms.: Women on The Bachelor often talk about wanting to feel like a princess, while The Swan explicitly evokes the myth of self-transformation. Has reality TV become our stand-in for the modern fairy tale?
I think it has in some ways. I find the reality television phenomenon really interesting from the point of view of someone who studies fairy tales, specifically, because they really do revolve so much around fairy tale scenarios. We tend to think of fairy tales as children stories, but really they are about the most important personal concerns that we have: marriage, family, death of the elderly -- the grandmother -- morality, good and bad, coming of age, adolescence and sexuality.
So fairy tales are, in a way, personal myths. And they are also heavily feminized. If you're looking for romantic, feminine interpretations, they really lend themselves readily to the reality shows that we have seen.
I also think the reality shows are peddling fantasies, and fantasy and fairy tales are, in some ways, interchangeable in the modern mind. That's not true of literary fairy tale tradition necessarily, but it's definitely true in reality television shows, with their promises of a fairy tale wedding. In fact, the original fairy tale weddings, if you look at 17th Century fairy tales of Charles Perrault, are not at all romantic and they often involve deception, cruelty and murder, or even the killing of a wife.
Ms.: But that's not part of our collective consciousness about fairy tales. Why do we only think of idyllic romance?
The 20th Century romanticization of the fairy tale happened partly as a response to cultural shifts and partly in response to Walt Disney. In the mid-20th Century, we had a huge shift in the way we approach marriage in America. Something like 80 percent of new homes were built in the suburbs. The role of the mother and the housewife was glamorized. You see pictures -- advertisements -- Joan Crawford smiling with a mop. Glamorous actresses and movie stars are shown as housewives. In part, it's a response to economic and cultural shifts after World War II, but there was this huge glamorization of domestic life and the suburban domestic housewife, in particular.
That's also the time when Walt Disney came out with his first animated versions of the fairy tales. The first one was Snow White in 1937 -- that was his first full-length feature animation -- and then in 1950 it was Cinderella. Disney did tons of fairy tales, but these two are unforgettable and almost interchangeable. There are scenes of the heroines -- both in their teens, in various poses of domestic bliss -- singing with birds, deer, rabbits and mice, while they sew and sweep and scrub the dwarf's bachelor pad and clean the hearth -- all these tasks that will prepare them for the role as the happy housewife.
But a look back at fairy tale history shows it wasn't like that at all in the original versions. The original 17th Century fairy tales of Charles Perrault -- which are not the original fairy tales per se but just the first literary ones -- were penned in reaction to the social and sexual values of the Court of Versailles, in an age when arranged marriage was the primary institution through which people advanced, both financially and socially.
Chastity was highly valued for unmarried women because it part of the premium of an arranged marriage. That was the origin of “Little Red Riding Hood,” by the way. It's a chastity parable that warns young, unmarried women against charming wolves, and it's why we call men who chase women "wolves" today.
If you go back and read Perrault's fairy tales, you realize they are unglamorous. Bluebeard kills his wife. Sleeping Beauty -- the prince hides her in a forest away from his parents for several years. He doesn't marry her openly. If you look at slightly earlier versions, he actually rapes her in her sleep.
And for Cinderella and her sisters, it's a marriage market. They are all going to a ball to snag a man they have never met, simply for money. It's a gold-digging in exchange for beauty and sex appeal kind of thing -- which reflected exactly what was going on at the time: arranged marriages were a crass exchange of assets.
One thing that hasn't changed is the focus of these stories -- a focus on sexuality, beauty, marriage, sexual relations between men and women and the domestic sphere. These are all still the concerns of the fairy tales -- and hence the way we tell the tales -- changes over time.
Ms.: A woman upset by her portrayal on the reality TV series Bridezilla is getting revenge by staging her own one-woman show, Bridezilla Strikes Back. Are there other ways for women to reclaim today’s transformation narratives – much like oral history enabled women to cast themselves as the smart protagonists in fairy tales?
Besides understanding the importance of myths, it's also really important to keep an eye on the economic and social power dynamics that shape them. It's very hard to reclaim and recreate a false myth. That is, one that doesn't reflect, at least on some level, a social or cultural truth. You can retell a story, but if it doesn't ring true, it won't stick, it won't resonate, it won't spread. That said, fairy tales are constantly being reclaimed. There are examples of positive, progressive forward-thinking reinventions of fairy tales and myths all the time -- subject to interpretation, of course.
Kim Cattrall in Pepsi ad
In my book I cite a lot of examples, including the movie Freeway, a modern adaptation of “Little Red Riding Hood.” I really loved it. I think it's Reese Witherspoon's best movie. There's also a commercial that ran that I found very interesting -- a 30-second spot for Pepsi -- that is based on the “Little Red Riding Hood” plot and starred Kim Catrall from Sex and the City.
I've been really critical of Sex and the City for a lot of reasons, but I also think that there are some interesting things about the show, and one of them was incorporated into this ad. Cattrall's in a sexy red dress walking down the street; at the end of the commercial, she spots a man that she likes, and she howls and her eyes flash, like a wolf. Not that sexual empowerment is the only focus of empowerment, but I liked that there was a role reversal where they recognized female sexuality.
It was a 30-second spot that aired during the so-called College Pigskin Classic, so it was aimed at men. And I thought, how great. These college guys are being urged not just to ogle at Cattrall, but to identify with Cattrall.
In 30 seconds it captured and inverted this whole myth of women as this sexual object. The commercial is obviously capitalizing on Cattrall's role as Samantha in Sex and the City, in which she exhibits sort of stereotypical masculine behavior, being a sexual predator. It's sort of a messy thing, but I thought it was a great reinvention, symbolically dense.
The women's movement so changed the fabric of society that you see all our myths being reinvented all the time as a result. History is reflected in the stories that we tell. That's why it's important to understand the myths, but it's also important to see what's really going on on a basic economic and social level -- to understand what are the roles we play and why.
When women have greater economic parity and greater power in the household, those things change the way we talk about the household or the workforce. They change the stories that we tell. It's very difficult to create false stories. It's much more important to understand what the stories are telling us about who we are and then look at who we are and see what changes we can effect. That in turn affects our stories -- history, myth and fairy tale alike.
- Christine Cupaiuolo