“When we say ‘heroine,’ we really mean ‘strong, brave, person of either gender,’ don’t we?”

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Seven years without hygiene … among many other important lessons, Bearskin learned the value of a hot bath.

Seven years without hygiene … among many other important lessons, Bearskin learned the value of a hot bath.

Simplia had the letter from Beleaguered in Bellingham out of its envelope, rereading it for the umpty-leventh time.

“Whatever are you talking about?” asked Sagacia.

“This person who wonders where the hopeful, uplifting stories for boys are…” said Simplia, “…who questions the preponderance of estrogen-enriched fairy tales in the media and popular culture. Doesn’t she know we’re not trying to be exclusive to women when our protagonists just happen to be female?

“I wonder if perhaps you’ve missed the writer’s point,” suggested Sagacia. “It’s not about exclusivity, it’s about inclusiveness.”

“Oh. You mean like the pronouns in the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer? And the histories we were taught? Do you know, I grew up thinking only people with XY chromosomes were capable of painting masterpieces and composing great music? Seriously. I don’t know what this Beleaguered in Bellingham is on about. Men have had their chance at heroism and nobility. It’s our turn now.”

“Whoa, tiger!” said Sagacia. “All right, admittedly, our lessons and stories have been lopsided favoring people of the masculine persuasion. But you’re sounding lopsided in the opposite direction. Wouldn’t we all be better served if balance prevailed?”

“Yeah. I guess. But … I don’t know. I just found this napkin that Drea left under her saucer a couple of days ago, and what she wrote on it, in response to Beleaguered in Bellingham, makes a lot of sense to me.”

In library school I was in a storytelling class where one man’s final project was telling the Vietnamese version of Cinderella, which is about two sisters, Tam and Cam. After his family came to America, his mother would still tell it, and he finally complained (as only an eight year old can) that it was a story for babies, and it was a girl’s story. His mother said, no, it’s about courage.


All of us listening were rocked back in our seats by this. Cinderella is about – well, you know what, yeah! It is! Our heroine (or heroines) must go against everything to triumph, relying only on a memory of a mother.


So now, hearing someone ask about stories to tell boys, I have to think that that it’s desperately hard to be abandoned like Cinderella, or plotted against as Snow White was, and how, even without dragons to slay, we all have moments where we can be helped by hearing how to survive sitting in the ashes without friends.


Sagacia read the napkin, nodding the whole time.

“True,” she conceded. “But…well…don’t you feel kind of freed in the general acknowledgement that being a Girly Girl is only one interpretation of femininity? And a pretty limited interpretation at that?”

“Duh. Yeah,” said Simplia.

“Well then, apply the same logic to boys and men. Don’t you think they feel trapped in a culture where ‘manhood’ is manifested in physical strength and power over the will of other people? …a culture where ‘looking good’ is more important than ‘being good’?”

Simplia thought about it for moment and then said, “Oh. I guess that’s why Lance Foster said what he had to say about the matter? This postcard came in today’s mail.”

My two favorite stories to tell a boy are “Bearskin” and “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.”


“Exactly!” Sagacia agreed. “And further, Tim Sheppard brings up a perspective about story specifically for men…and specifically for women…to nourish a unique culture and code of ethics.”

This division between men’s and women’s tales is long established. And in traditional societies they are still kept separate. For instance a friend of mind researched Romany gypsy storytelling and they said that girls wouldn’t hear the male stories at all, and boys wouldn’t hear the female ones. The magical tales have always been designed to teach initiatic mysteries, and hence differing ones are appropriate. This was possible more in the past because men and women had different work, and would while away their time telling tales during their tasks. Women might be all together while weaving, for example. So tales with weavers and spinning often come from the feminine tradition.
A. I. Nikiforov, a Russian folklorist who, back in 1928, developed a theory of the structure of magical folktales – fairytales in other words – before Vladimir Propp’s, decided that he should distinguish between masculine and feminine tales because they had different structures.
I presume that when all those male folklorists went around collecting oral tales in the 19th century, there were probably many tales that they weren’t told because of their gender. I think the taboo had probably broken down a lot by then, so they certainly got quite a mixture, but perhaps that’s why there’s been a perception of bias in recent times.


“See,” said Sagacia. “As Beleaguered in Bellingham said, ‘I don’t want women to have fewer stories; I just want men to have more.’”

Simplia squinched her nose, the way she did when she was trying to think deep thoughts, and said, “Yeah. Vitamins to keep a culture healthy. Older sisters need their stories. Younger sons need theirs. Kings need theirs. Wealthy millers need theirs.”

“And Simpletons,” Sagacia said, “…we need ours as well.”

 

*****
(Illustration: Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Charles Folkard, illustrator. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1911.)