The Unwell Woman
The Unwell Woman

15th November 2017

Abuse of power comes as no surprise:  

Fairy-tales in the post-truth universe


When I was a little girl, I loved listening to fairy tales on cassette tapes, the kind that came with illustrated books, so you could read along with the narrator. A chime trilled when it was time to turn the page. My favourite was The Princess and the Pea, a tale first published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1835 about a strange young woman who is so physically sensitive that a single pea, shielded from her skin by twenty feather mattresses and twenty eiderdowns, causes her so much pain that she can’t sleep. Her tenderness proves that she is not a wretched orphan but, in fact, a princess.

Fairy tales, as the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin points out, are playthings. We manipulate their shapes over and over again, every time we tell them. Like the offcuts of plastic drainpipe and old broom handles that fueled my childhood horsewoman fantasies, fairy-tales are essentially raw materials, always available to serve the impulses of the imagination. Whether listened to, read, told, or acted out, fairy-tales pulse with a living rhythm. Marina Warner, in her book Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, beautifully describes the form as alive with symbolism, which ‘communicates meaning through imagery of strong contrasts and sensations, evoking simple, sensuous pleasures that glint and sparkle, pierce and flow, and by these means striking recognition in the reader or listener’s body at a visceral depth.’

At the age of 7, that impossible combination of pellet-hard pea, tender skin and cloud-soft bed in my favourite fairy-tale conjured an image so conceivable to me that it went physiological. I always thought that what I loved the most about the tale was the idea of a bed so high you would need a ladder to climb into it. But I wonder now if The Princess and the Pea was, for me, less about feeling my interior décor fantasy and more about the way the tale pivots around a young woman speaking for and with her own body, voicing the seat of her own pain, and, what’s more, being believed.

I know that The Princess and the Pea is really about Andersen’s anxieties surrounding the social mores of the Danish bourgeoisie. He was apparently the sensitive princess; or maybe he was actually the sensitive-making pea. I’m not sure exactly. And I do understand that it is a stretch to read a tale that exemplifies the social currency of female weakness as an empowering illness narrative. But yet, as I play with my best childhood story in my daft adult hands, this is what it means to me. The Princess and the Pea is, in my mind, about the value, and power, of a woman’s bodily testimony. It’s a feminist parable about the triumph of subjective, embodied expression over the imperious scrutiny of diagnostic doubt. Except it’s not, is it? This is just another fairy-tale I’ve concocted out of the scraps of something else entirely.

In this mad dystopia of 45 and the utterly shocking, but so horribly unsurprising Weinstein hell, fairy-tales hold a necessary kind of gravity. Writing about the way that contemporary fiction shares thematic and structural similarities with ancient myths and legends, Warner describes fairy-tales as ‘connective tissue between a mythological past and present realities.’ I would say that the same holds true for contemporary politics. No matter what I project onto the Rorschach test that is The Princess and the Pea, I have to remind myself that this was a tale concocted by a man for whom women’s bodies, and voices, were currency in the ceaseless fairy-tale cycle of retribution and punishment. (cf: all the news since AT LEAST November 2016). The Little Mermaid has to sacrifice her voice in the service of some hetero-patriarchal romance gamble. In The Red Shoes, a misjudged fashion decision results in a curse of dancing mania and, inevitably, mutilation. And in The Story of a Mother, a tale so sad and weird that it scarcely bears repeating, a sorrow-wracked woman gives up her eyes and hair and dignity in a mad night-time forest scavenger hunt to rescue her ailing little one from the hands of Death, and guess what? Death goes and takes the child ‘into the unknown land’ anyway. If you’re wondering where all this came from, have a look at Lynn Gardner’s article in The Guardian, ‘Bedtime Stories’, from 2006, about Andersen’s particular proclivities. Sure, the dude had a difficult and lonely time as a child. But as an adult he diarized his wanks. Can anyone spell ‘Bullet Journal’?

The torturous ways in which women’s bodies and voices are used as expendable devices in the popular iterations of the fairy form is so frighteningly resonant of our current situation that engaging with these tales today feels like a bit like watching the news through a fun-house mirror. And it’s not just the content of these fairy tales that is so disturbingly apropos either. Italo Calvino, the Italian journalist and writer, observed in his 1985 lecture-text Quickness that fairy and folk tales share a structural rubric predicated upon ‘economy, rhythm, and hard logic with which they are told.’ What counts in the telling of a fairytale, Calvino argues, is movement, attained through a ‘functional criteria’ of repetition and reprise. ‘Unnecessary details’ are glossed over while the perpetration of ‘acts’ is writ large: who needs to know how a woman felt when the image of the violence done to her moves the story on a-pace? I’ve seen the darker contours of the ‘hard logic’ of the fairy-form every time I’ve peeked through my fingers at the rolling news over the last few weeks. The almost forensic emphasis on ‘acts done’ eclipsing the trauma of those ‘done to.’ The stress upon mechanisms of assault burying the bodies of the assaulted. The pot-plant. The limp dick. The crates of Diet Coke. The way the ogres lick their wounds in public, retreat to their caves, and then try to tell us our stories are done. Calvino writes that the pleasure we feel listening to fairytales as children ‘lies partly in waiting for things (she) expects to be repeated.’ The monsters under the bed have wrested this pleasure from us. Now, the expectation of repetition sticks nauseatingly in our throats.

Fairytales are, by their very nature, alternative facts. I know that this term originates from the mouth of the oppressor. But resistance is, at least in part, an act of reclamation, of representation, of reimagining. The malleability of the fairytale form is the antidote to its ‘hard logic’: fairytales originate in the act of telling, and endure through the persistent generosity of retelling. Look at fairytales through a different mirror, and you’ll see that they accrue meaning not through formulaic devices, but through their conditions of expression. I’m right to keep my fuzzy feminist goggles on while I re-tell The Princess and the Pea. For the ‘connective tissue’ of this tale, like so many tales of its ilk, is the synovia that lubricates the articulations of our past, not our mythological past, but our logical past, the past of proto-feminist modes of expression that flew freely around the form’s fantastical architectures.  Even the dominant Euro-Western versions of fairytales authored by Andersen or transcribed and sanitized by the Grimm Brothers can’t erase the fact that the essential rhythm of the form is scored by women’s bodies, not only to their patterns of domestic labour and manual crafts, but to the pulsations of their desires and fantasies. The telling and transmission of fairytales is a tradition historically formed by the warp-and-weave of women’s work and wants. 

In her wonderful book Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, Sophie Mayer discusses filmmaker Catherine Breillat’s fairy tale telefilms, including Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard, 2009), a re-telling of the fairytale written by Charles Perault and first published in 1697. As Mayer writes, Breillat is ‘fascinated by the strict logic of the fairytale and the messy implications of the desiring unconscious it tries to contain.’  The patriarchs of the fairytale cannon have long diminished and dismembered female characters’ power, agency, emotion and expression in the service of their storytelling precisely because it threatens to blow apart the formal boundaries that sanction their authority as tellers. But as Warner points out, fairytales are out-of-bounds: ‘…borders are invisible to them, no matter how ferociously they are policed by cultural purists.’

I’m not saying for a second that rejoicing in the feminist legacy of the fairytale rights the inherent wrongs written into the versions that dominate our culture. Nor am I suggesting, even for a second, that fairytales offer any kind of reprieve or relief from recent horrors. Instead, what I’m trying to propose is that fairytales, and their tangled histories of authorship, appropriation, telling and transmission, have much to offer us at a moment in our history when the foundational mechanisms of hetero-patriarchal power are not only more systemic than ever, but more visible than ever. We need our arts of telling, and our crafts of re-telling, so urgently and ardently now, not as a mode of escape, but as means to act.

I’m coming to these conclusions off the back of an intense Netflix binge of Alias Grace, which took place over one afternoon and evening last week when my rheumatic pain was so bad that it confined me to bed. I kept the curtains closed. Alias Grace is a six-part television series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historical novel, created by Canadian writer, director and activist Sarah Polley. Alongside Angela Carter and Anne Sexton, Atwood is our most innovative and important interlocutor of the re-visioned fairy-tale. Her deft optic is tuned to the radical transformative potential embedded within the intrinsically morphological conceit of the form. Even when she is not directly engaging with such themes, such as in Alias Grace, her work nonetheless orbits fantastically, offering agency to female characters where none is apparently available, revealing those structures of containment that allow power to operate, and turning women’s inner lives, their hidden voices, into narrative impulse. If, as Warner writes, ‘fairy-tales consist above all in acts of imagination’, then Atwood is the form’s most devastating contemporary spinner. Alias Grace, like The Handmaid’s Tale, is not exactly a novel, but rather a work of speculative fiction, a weaving of facts into fantasy. It re-tells the factual story of Grace Marks, an Irish-Canadian maid convicted in 1843 of the murders of her employer Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Atwood’s narrative introduces a fictional ‘alienist’, Dr. Simon Jordan, who has been engaged to interview Grace by a committee of Methodist ministers who hope to have her conviction pardoned and her prison sentence revoked. Jordan meets with Grace over a series of afternoons in the sewing room of the house of the penitentiary governor, and there he attempts to excavate the ‘truth’ of the events of the murders by asking her to recall her experiences, memories, and dreams. Jordan’s intent is not only to try and determine whether or not Grace was culpable, but also to diagnose her: the committee wants to attain proof that Grace is not a criminal, but a hysteric.

Now, I’ve been told to always shout SPOILER ALERT before I speak, so if you haven’t read the book or inhaled the episodes so fast you could scarcely breath, perhaps skip ahead. I loved the series fiercely; it far surpasses Hulu’s much-lauded adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale in my opinion, even though Alias Grace is, at least on the surface, a more stylistically conservative work. Firstly (and this pleases me) you can’t make a hipster Halloween costume out of Alias Grace (unless SPOILER ALERT you’re coming as a traumatized woman from the 19th century who is forced to participate in a hypnotism spectacle conducted in a parlor, in which case you can come to my party.) Secondly, and most importantly, Alias Grace is such a lovingly and intelligently handled adaptation. Each of the six episodes radiates Polley’s passionate absorption in the material, and her deep understanding that female identity and subjectivity is multifarious, fluid and resistant to determination, no matter how forcefully those in power attempt to syphon its expressions into something called ‘truth’ or ‘evidence’ or ‘knowledge.’

Born in 1979, Polley read Atwood’s book when it was first published, and at the age of 17 she wrote to the writer requesting the movie rights. In 2012, when Atwood made the rights available, Polley won out after a six-hour meeting with the writer: as Atwood commented, and Katrina Onstad quotes in The New York Times, Polley understood ‘that ambiguity mattered most, but ambiguity is tricky on film.’ Alias Grace leaves the ‘hard logic’ of Grace’s involvement in the murders suspended, and it deliberately complicates our thrall, as viewers, to playing detective. Rather, it tunes our focus toward what channels between the speaking voice and the listening ear, what happens in the space between what is told, and what is interpreted. Furthermore, Alias Grace sets up this crackling tension between what is re-told and remembered by Grace at Jordan’s behest, and the spaces and conditions in and under which she is afforded the capacity to speak. Alias Grace unfolds through Grace’s memories and recollections, and in this sense, as Sophie Gilbert recently wrote in an article in The Atlantic, ‘the thrill of this series is that she gets to control the narrative.’ But as Atwood in the book, and Polley in the series so intricately explore, the question of how and where women throughout history have been permitted to voice their narratives and tell their stories is the real thrill here. Like The Princess and the Pea, Alias Grace is a story about the way female subjectivity is far too slippery and excessive to be grasped by the ‘hard logic’ of diagnostic knowledge. In the end (minor spoiler alert) Grace’s narrative simply can’t be contained. And this is what counts.

(HUGE SPOILERS) The final episode of Alias Grace depicts Grace submitting to questioning about the murders while under hypnosis, conducted in the governor’s parlor to an audience that includes Jordan and the committee. Seated on a chair, her face covered with a black lace veil, Grace is made to ‘perform’ the spectacle of her presumed hysteric state despite Jordan’s reservations. Impatient for a conclusive diagnosis, which Jordan cannot concoct from his interviews (for desire reasons) the committee needs to see for themselves; the hypnosis, in this sense, is a kind of autopsy, a forced release of Grace’s body and voice from the strictures of consciousness in the name of so-called ‘scientific’ observation. Grace becomes a conduit for the voice of Mary Whitney, her dearest friend and confidante from her time as a servant, who she watched die in their shared bed after a botched abortion. Mary was pregnant by the son of the warden of the house; exemplifying the way that women must die if they in any way threaten the ‘strict logic’ that functions to contain them. Mary is that ‘desiring unconscious’ that Mayer writes about. In the sanctioned place of confession that is the parlor hypnosis, Grace’s body and voice becomes Mary’s organ of transmission; Grace is the medium through which Mary will no longer be silenced. While Mary’s possession of Grace provides the committee with all the visible and auditory evidence they need to “prove” the hysteric hunch (multi-personality disorder), in actuality it beautifully illuminates the uncontainable force behind Grace’s agency: transformation. Alias Grace is, in this sense, a fairy-tale for our post-truth universe. Performing the resistant multiplicity of her identity, Grace/Mary wields a disruptive, changeable power despite the fact that the room in which her power is channeled is an extension of her prison. We can now see the man behind the curtain. The force of women’s stories ripped the curtain open.

Alias Grace premiered on Netflix on November 3rd ‘…in the midst of one of the biggest confrontations of systematic sexual abuse and harassment in recent history’, as Gilbert writes. Where the televised The Handmaid’s Tale collided with 45’s abuse of women’s reproductive rights, envisioning a ‘hard logic’ futuristic conclusion of such abuse, Alias Grace embroiders the historical implications of women being coerced into ‘performing’ the evidence of their experiences. Gilbert rightly identifies how Alias Grace exemplifies the current tension between the ‘manifold stories’ that women are being permitted to tell, and the fact that such stories are ‘undermined by the fact that (they) have to tailor them to best fit the preconceptions and predilections of (their) listeners.’ Yet despite the gas lighting and manipulations those women are subjected to, across all factions of the ‘entertainment’ industries in the eye of our current confronting storm, the force of telling is holding sway.

On October 14th, Polley wrote an account published in The New York Times titled ‘The men you meet making movies’, in which she writes about her experience of being called into Weinstein’s office, aged 19, while on a photo shoot for a film she was acting in for Miramax. Polley’s publicist refused to leave her side. W implied that if they were to share a ‘very close relationship’, Polley’s career would skyrocket into leading roles and multiple awards. Polley replied that she ‘wasn’t very interested in or ambitious about acting.’ She knew that acting wasn’t worth it for her, and, as she writes, her ‘reasons were not unconnected to that meeting nearly twenty years ago.’ When Polley started writing and directing films, she was able to reflect on the ‘humiliating, violating, and dismissive’ encounters that women in the industry, especially as actors, are always vulnerable to.  A few years ago, Polley embarked on a short film project with some successful female Hollywood actors, a comedy ‘about the craziest, worst experience we’d ever had on a set.’ ‘We were full of zeal for this project’, Polley writes, ‘but the stories, when we told them, left us in tears and bewildered at how casually we had taken these horror stories and tried to make them into comedy. They were stories of assault. When they were spoken out loud, it was impossible to reframe them any other way.’ Polley and her collaborators abandoned the film ‘but not the project of unearthing the weight of these stories, which we’d previously hidden from ourselves.’

Throughout her interviews with Dr. Jordan in Alias Grace, Grace sews, transferring the rhythm of her telling into the material on her lap. Like the quilts she embroiders throughout the book and in the series, Grace is a woven text, a confluence of threads unraveled from, in Gilbert’s words, ‘the fault lines of her life.’ At the end of Atwood’s book, and in Grace’s narration that concludes the series, Grace is making a quilt, the first one she has ever made for herself. ‘It is a Tree of Paradise’, she explains, ‘but I am changing the pattern a little to suit my ideas.’ The Tree is composed of triangles of fabric, dark for the leaves and light for the fruits, but -


"…three of my triangles in my Tree will be different. One will be white, from the petticoat I still have that was Mary Whitney’s; one faded yellowish, from the prison night-dress I begged as a keepsake when I left there. And the third will be a pale cotton, a pink and white floral, cut from the dress of Nancy’s that she had on the first day I was at Mr. Kinnear’s, and that I wore…when I was running away.

                  I will embroider around each of them with red feather-stitching, to blend them in as part of the pattern.

                  And so we will all be together."      

 (Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace, 1996)


Margaret Atwood. Alias Grace (London: Bloomsbury, 1996)

Italo Calvino (1985) ‘Quickness’ in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (London: Vintage, 1996)

Lyn Gardner. ‘Bedtime Stories.’ The Guardian (18 January 2006) 

Sophie Gilbert. ‘Alias Grace is true crime through the female gaze.’ The Atlantic (11 November 2017)

Sophie Mayer. Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016)

Katrina Onstad. ‘Alias Grace: 20 years in the making, but on TV at the right time.’ The New York Times (October 25 2017)

Sarah Polley. ‘The men you meet making movies.’ The New York Times (October 14 2017)

Marina Warner. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (Oxford University Press, 2014)



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Abuse of power comes as no surprise:  Fairy-tales for the post-truth universe

Abuse of power comes as no surprise: Fairy-tales for the post-truth universe