Fairytales, Power and Status
Once upon a time, my love affair with the canons of world fairy and folk tales was uncomplicated. I loved the stories of faraway princesses, kings and magical creatures, of transformations, possibilities, journeys, struggles, hope, courage, finding magic and justice within.
But with the mortgage crisis, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the Occupy movement, and worldwide struggles for democracy, I became uncomfortable with stories that promoted old anti-democratic hierarchical social structures. I could not help but wonder:
1. Am I ignoring the problems of class and subtly reinforcing the romantic baggage of old forms of governance and status?
2. Am I narrating from the point of view and interests of the upper/ruling classes? How do the class view and aspirations of the author and/or anthologist factor in?
3. How do power and status relationships drive narrative?
4. How can this inform my storytelling practice?
My questions, my observations while teaching workshops on character and point of view, my ongoing adventures as a stepmother and my love for these tales led me to create an exercise – the Ladder of Power –for analyzing the power/no power relationships of characters in stories.
This is how it works: Draw a ladder. On the top rung write the name of the most powerful person (not in terms of morality or goodness, but of raw power, i.e. the ability to have people killed, call troops to war, disown a child, have money and be male.) Going down the ladder, characters are placed in terms of their power relative to others. At the bottom are those with the least power or status.
Here are two examples – a fairy tale and a folktale.
Ex. 1 “Cinderella” (An Americanized Perault/Grimm/Disney version)
Interpretation of Ladder of Power
As the only child of a widowed father, Cinderella is heir. But with the arrival of a Stepmother (the new wife who has equal status to Cinderella) and Stepsisters (lower status as females without money or standing), things begin to shift. The absent Father (king of the home) does not make his will known and so the women can fight for top power and status. In the short run, Cinderella loses her high place in the social system.
The King, who is on the top of the ladder, holds the ball on behalf of his son the prince, who is one step below the King his father. Everyone is invited, as long as he or she is of appropriate status.
This party opens up the possibility for Cinderella to get help from an outside force (her Mother or her Godmother, depending on the version.) These Mother figures, as women, are one step below Father but above Cinderella and the Stepmother. Also, as magical/spirit figures, they are outside the society, arriving as stealth guerillas, helping the birth daughter regain her position.
With their help, Cinderella is able to clean up and regain her position, equal to any lady of her social strata. When the Prince picks her as his new bride-to-be, she leapfrogs over her Stepsisters, Stepmother and Father, arriving at a ladder rung just below her husband as his wife.
How does this affect my telling the story?
As a stepmother myself, I needed to find a way into this story. With the LoP, I can see that the Stepmother’s manipulations and the Stepsisters’ meanness are not evil, they are desperate. Cinderella’s gumption has a class basis as well as a virtuous one. There is a lot at stake for everyone; I have sympathy for all.
Ex. 2 “Bremen Town Musicians”
Interpretatation of Ladder of Power
The Farmers and their Wives own the means of production; as such, they need to rid themselves of any who drain profits. The Animals, lowest on the ladder, are fired.
Finding solidarity with each other, the Animals go outside established society. When they encounter the Robbers – who, as humans have higher status – in the classless arena of the forest, they deal directly with them and win
How does this affect my telling the story?
These animals and their accomplishments, in refusing their fate, reinventing themselves with dignity and overcoming the robbers/humans, seem even more admirable. Also, I find myself with more understanding, if not sympathy, for the economic choices of the humans.
Power and status. As we are affected by our position in society, why wouldn’t the characters in a story be too? Isn’t the struggle in story the struggle against circumstances, unfair situations, loss, powerlessness? Understanding the power dynamics in any narrative will help us gain greater knowledge into characters’ motivation, find the urgency in a story and situate the tale in its time and place.
When I started, I was more than a bit concerned about where it would lead. Would it interfere with telling the fairy tales? Would I, and this process, be perceived as “PC”? Or interfering with symbolic interpretations? Or boring?
Well, I am still telling the old stories, just looking at them a bit differently. I wonder about the class of the narrator in stories. Though still unsteady, I am developing an even stronger belief in the power of narrative and in the relevance of the old stories for today.
So, try it with all kinds of stories. Take note of how it affects your process and telling. Maybe your ideas about who the narrator is and whose side she/he is on will change. Perhaps your stories will find new urgency, even within an archetypal framework. Perhaps you might experience more of what the original tellers/authors experienced.
Okay. So what about those kings and queens? Or about those who gathered the tales; what was their point of view? How does that affect my work? This article does not offer complete answers to all the questions raised. There are happily more questions than there are answers; it is a good beginning.
I do know this: our stories are models for our lives. Let’s open up the conversation. Tell me what you find.
Award-winning storyteller Robin Bady lives in Brooklyn and travels across the US and Europe performing, listening and teaching. She teaches Ladder of Power workshops and will continue to write/research/talk more on this subject.