Saturday, November 22, 2014

The princess is a boy: Gender, sex and folktales

I have repeatedly told people that I have this list on my English blog and have repeatedly been reminded that I don't (I wrote it in Hungarian). So, this is a post that should have been created a long time ago. Sorry for the wait.
This is a far-from-complete list of traditional stories that I have encountered that have something to do with sex (as in, someone's biological), gender, sexuality, and shifts in all of those. While many people think these are "modern" topics, they are not. It is a selection of stories I have encountered, and because I think it is important to note that they exist, and even more important to examine them, talk about them, and tell them in context, I wanted to make this list available to the general public.

(*Note: All of these stories have their own take on things. They are good starting point for discussion, but I suggest giving them a lot of thought and craft before performance. Talk about them, and talk to many people. Ask for opinions, listen, make changes as you see fit.)

Same-sex love

Aristophanes' story of love
Okay, so maybe this one is pushing the definition of "traditional story" because we only know it from a literary source - Plato's Symposium. But it is nevertheless a famous example from the ancient world, re-told, among others, in Hedwig and the Angry Inch as The Origin of Love, and in Xena the Warrior Princess in the infamous Hercules crossover (which is the first time I heard it). The story essentially presents the origin of "soul mates" of three types: Men who seek men, women who seek women, and men/women who seek the other sex.

Hyacinth
A famous beauty for whom two gods, Apollo and Zephyrus competed. When the boy chose Apollo, Zephyrus killed him out of jealousy, and Apollo created a fragrant and colorful flower for his memory.

The angel page
This is a story I found in Legends of the Rhine; it belongs to the city of Elberfeld. While it is not explicitly a love story between the young knight and his page / squire, it lends itself easily to that reading. In the end, the page turns out to be an angel, and after any adventures he sacrifices his life on earth to save the knight's dying wife. It is a touching story in any way.

Sex/gender change
(**Note: English does not really lend itself to gender-neutral writing. Excuse my mixed pronouns.)

Iphis
A story from Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book 9.666-797) in which a girl is raised as a boy to deceive her strict father. She falls in love with and gets engaged by her father to a girl who loves her back, thinking that she is a boy. The day before the wedding Iphis prays to the goddess Isis to grant her a wish for change, and the goddess turns her into a man, after which he happily marries the girl he loves.

The princess that turned into a man
This one is a Hungarian folktale; I have the short translation if anyone needs it. It is about a king that only has daughters, and when he has to send his army to war his youngest volunteers saying "men's clothes have always fit me better anyway." On the way she helps out an old woman who sees her for who she is, and helps her with her mission. She falls in love with the daughter of their ally, and gets married, but is afraid to reveal herself to her wife, and therefore the king thinks she is cheating and plans to have her killed. She is sent on a dangerous mission during with, among many adventures, she and her entire crew come under a spell that makes them switch sexes. Our hero is more than happy with the "curse" and returns home immediately to finally admit his full affection for his wife. Explicit folktale bonking ensues.

Tiresias
Another Greek classic. Remember the old blind prophet from the Odyssey? Well, according to legend, he spent seven years as a woman, in some versions of the story as a sacred prostitute in Corinth, while according to others as a wife and a mother. After seven years the spell got reversed, and Tiresias was a man again. This ties into him being blind: Apparently Hera blinded him after he was called on to decide a debate between Zeus and her about who enjoys sex more, men or women (wouldn't we all want to know). Tiresias said women enjoy sex TEN times more (suspiciously accurate number), and was blinded by the goddess and given the gift of prophecy by Zeus as a consolation prize.

The princess and the demon
This one is another favorite of mine, from India. Starts out similarly then Iphis, except in this version the prince(ss) meets a tree spirit/demon on the way to the wedding, and agrees to exchange sexes with him for a year. At the end of the year he returns to the site of the deal, and finds the tree spirit happily married and pregnant. They both agree they like their new sex better, and stay that way.

The warrior girl
I have blogged about this one earlier. It is a Spanish take on the Mulan story, and a prince that can't take "none of your business" for an answer.

The princess who became a man
I heard this story at the Mysteries of Europe storytelling conference in Spain, from Heidi Dahlsveen, a Norwegian storyteller. It is a Norwegian folktale about a princess whom her father wants to marry, so she runs away from home. Later she cuts off her breasts and dresses as a man, and works in a king's court until the princess falls in love with the mysterious soldier and they get married. The princess find out on the wedding night the story of her husband, and she is okay with it. But someone else, listening in (not cool) tells the king, and the king decides to order all the soldiers to undress and find out the truth. With the help of a magical old man, the young soldier avoids humiliation. He goes on to have a baby with the princess, whom the magical old man uses to illustrate a point about letting go of the pains of the past.

Caeneus
Another story from Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is a Greek myth about a girl that is "ravaged" by Poseidon, who then offers to reward her with a wish (how generous) (Poseidon's a dick). Caenis asks to be turned into a man so she can never feel helpless again. This story speaks more to gender difference and sexism, but it is interesting to note that Caeneus then goes on to be a hero among the Greeks and the father of an Argonaut.

That's it for now.
For a very useful interactive map of cultures that have more than two genders, click here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Yes, Grimm fairy tales are dark, and we like them that way

News about a new edition of the Grimm fairy tales have been circling the Internet and popping up consistently on my Facebook wall. Headlines include:

Grimm Brothers' fairy tales have blood and horror restored to them in new translation (The Guardian)

New Translation of Grimm's Fairy Tales Restores the Gore and Horror (io9)

First Edition of all the Original Grimm's Fairy Tales will leave in all the gnarly parts (The Mary Sue)

Too Grimm for Disney: Original editions of classic fairy tales offer darker side of Brothers Grimm stories - including self-mutilation in Cinderella and Rapunzel getting pregnant in her tower (The Daily Mail Online)

These Grimm fairy tales are not for the kiddies (USA Today)

Brothers Grimm: Fairy tales restored & there are no "happy endings" (Hollywood Life)

So, what's up with all of this? Are we excited? Yes.
Is this good news? Yes.
DID YOU KNOW THAT IN CINDERELLA...
YES, I KNEW.

Professional storytellers generally know. We might not always be allowed to tell the stories that way (especially in the USA), but trust me, we know. It's really the only party trick a storyteller has: "Did you know that Rapunzel originally gets pregnant in the tower?" "Did you know that Cinderella's sisters cut their toes and heels off to fit the shoe?" "Did you know that Snow White is strangled, stabbed in the head, and then poisoned?"
Yes, yes, and yes.

When I was little, back in Hungary, I had picture books that told the stories that way, and no one thought about it twice. I went to puppet shows where they poured red glitter out of the stepsisters' shoes to indicate the dripping blood. The firs time I saw the Disney version of some of these tales I was not entirely sure what the heck was up with them.

So, what is the fuss exactly about? Why is all the media talking about the new edition? And, most of all, what I am trying to prove here?

It's not about the stories. The Grimm tales are dark, and they have been known to be dark for a long time. I mean, who ever thought that The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a cheerful, goofy children's story? (Apparently every children's book illustrator ever). The news is not the fact that Grimm is dark. The news is that people are excited about this.

Stories can use some darkness. They don't hurt children. I (like most kids in Europe) knew the original versions when I was little, and I turned out fine (and a storyteller). And yet, these versions are regarded as something strange and new and sensational. If you work in education or entertainment, you know why. Every storyteller could talk to you for hours about parents and teachers (but never kids!) complaining about a story being "too dark" or "too gory" just because the villain dies in the end. Stories get censored left and right. What, it is okay to murder Snow White once, but not three times? (The dwarves manage to save her the first two times, in case you were wondering). Is it okay for Rapunzel to be sold by her mother and thrown from a tower, but pregnancy is a taboo?

Yes, the Grimm tales are dark, and you know what else? It's not just Grimm, either. A 17th century Italian version of Sleeping Beauty gets raped in her sleep and wakes up when she gives birth to twins. The original Red Riding Hood is torn apart and devoured by a wolf. A Swiss version of Snow White is a girl forced into slave labor by seven bandits. The ancient Greek Cinderella is a prostitute. The Hungarian Dancing Princesses don't wait for their suitors to fall asleep - they poison them dead and then go to a witches' Sabbath. I could go on.

Shiny, happy, kid-friendly tales are a product of 19th century romantic ideals of childhood. They are not the norm. Grim(m) was the norm. And some of them were never intended for children. And now while we are talking about it, hopefully we will take another look at what these stories tell us about human nature, and to what extent they need or don't need to be censored.
We might want to talk about what the villain's death means to children listening to a tale. We may want to talk about what Rapunzel can tell us about the need for sex education. We might have a discussion about Cinderella's sisters and the body image of young girls. We might talk about Sleeping Beauty and issues of consent. We might even venture to discuss Snow White and the question of taking authority figures' words at face value. And why stop there? Maybe we will even talk about censorship in other media.

Did you know that...? Yes. I did. And I am glad I do.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Kentucky Storytelling Conference 2014 - Fun with friends

It was so nice to be back in a place that has sweet tea, Southern accents, and three-dimensional geography.
And even better to be among people of story.

I drove down to Kentucky with Kevin Cordi, and as it happens when storytellers travel together, the time zone wormhole was not the only thing that made the road seem shorter. We arrived just in time for the Friday night concert. Both featured tellers, Judy Sima and Pam Holcomb, were spectacular, and a fitting welcome to the participants of the conference. I know Judy well, and her touching, eloquently told story of family and immigration was mesmerizing. It was my first time hearing Pam, but she in an instant favorite; she is hilarious and at the same time heart-warming, both on and off the stage.
I like how the KSA did open mic: They had three separate hats labeled "I have never told before" "I tell some" and "I tell a lot" so that everyone could put their name in the hat they were comfortable with, and everyone would get an equal chance to tell (instead of being flooded out by the confident, experienced tellers). It was a lovely system, and it worked out really well. Two of my new favorites from the weekend were Larry Staats (who left me in tears of laughter) and Octavia Sexton (who is a wild, wonderful lady, and a great teller of Jack tales). I was also very happy to see youth tellers on the stage (they call them Torchbearers here); they did an excellent job, fit to be in a lineup of grown-up and even professional tellers. The Friday evening story slam was similarly fun, and I especially liked the tie-breaking tell-off when two storytellers of equal scores faced each other once again in four-minute stories (and would have gone on to three, two, and one, which I would have loved to witness).
Saturday was a day of workshops interspersed with open mic. I spent the morning with a small group visiting the folklife archives of the Kentucky Museum at WKS. We got to dig into the files and play around with collections of jump-rope rhymes, wart cures, comic love songs, quilt patterns, and, of course, folktales. We also took a quick tour of the exhibitions and the log house, and returned to the hotel full of new ideas and research inspiration. I thought visiting the local museum was a great idea for a workshop. Definitely a keeper.
In the afternoon I participated in Kevin's workshop on play and word-dancing. The room was absolutely packed, and the next 75 minutes felt like being caught in a whirlwind in the best possible way. Kevin encouraged us to play, to experiment, to create, and to support each other's ideas. It was a fun workshop to do, and a great group of people to play with.
In the last slot of the afternoon, it was my turn to present. My workshop was titled "StorySpotting - Creating a bridge between storytelling and popular culture" and I talked about what we can learn as storytellers from popular media and internet fandoms. I had a captive and cheerful group, and I personally really enjoyed sharing my nerdy side with storytellers (almost as much as I enjoy sharing my storyteller side with people in the pop culture department). I think it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between traditional storytelling and pop culture. I will work more with it in the future.
I would like to make a special mention of how supportive KSA was of people with disabilities attending the conference. They were attentive, organized, and courteous. Not only were all the performances and workshops interpreted in sign language, but we also learned as tellers and presenters a lot about how to shape our work to help the interpreters do their job, and provide a good experience to every participant in our workshops. Every conference should follow their example.

All in all, it was a lovely weekend adventure in the world of story. The conference was friendly and well organized, and we were all welcomed with an open heart. As someone who travels a lot to a lot of events, I'll say that the KSA conference is definitely one of the great ones. I can't wait to visit again next year.