A fairy tale study that asks about feminism

Hoochie, being affiliated with a university, from time to time likes to dip into the waters of scholarship to see what the wonks and academic types are getting up to. Today, we take a look at the latest issue of the journal Children’s Literature in Education, wherein we find this interesting title in the table of contents: “Letting Down Rapunzel: Feminism’s Effects on Fairy Tales.”

In her article, scholar Angela Smith considers the influence that the stereotypes and gender notions prevailing in a particular cultural moment have upon the versions of fairy tales published at that point in time. Her target for study: the tale of Rapunzel. Her conclusion: versions of the story published in 1968 and 1993 do indeed reflect the influence of their context culture. The perhaps surprising take-away: “… the Ladybird version from 1993 acts as a cautionary tale against second-wave feminism in its strengthening of traditional gender stereotypes rather than engaging with the more positive approaches found in other retellings from this time.” (Emphasis added.)

One would have thought, if one subscribes to the notion that feminism and gender equality has been unfailingly progressive and cumulative, that a more recent edition would have more thoroughly cast-off the vestiges of historical traditional gender stereotypes. Smith suggests this isn’t so. Is her observation, in its small way, part of the case that feminist progress has reached its end-stage? Food for thought.

To give you a fuller sense of the piece, here’s the abstract in full:

The importance of stories written for young readers is undisputed, and in particular the central place of the fairy story in popular culture is clearly recognized. Whilst most of these stories are centuries old, they have been adapted by the cultures of the tellers to be more compatible with the ideological views of the audience. This article will explore how feminism has influenced two versions of the same story, published by the same publisher for comparable age groups through an exploration of the Ladybird versions of Rapunzel as published in 1968 and 1993. It will show how there are subtle changes in the text which do not affect the overall narrative structure but can offer an insight into the ways in which society has ideologically positioned men and women. Fairclough’s critical discourse analysis (CDA) will be used to show how a close linguistic analysis of the text can reveal the impact of feminism on the adaptation of children’s books.

The full paper can be access through the journal’s homepage on the Springer website, or through your academic or municipal library portal. About the author: “Angela Smith is Reader in Language and Culture at the University of Sunderland. She has published widely in the area of media discourse and gender studies. She is co-editor of the I.B. Tauris International Library of Gender in Popular Culture.

Illustration of punk Rapunzel by CurlyJul on DeviantArt.

Recommended reading: “Bad Feminist”

From our neighbors at Harvard Book Store (a store wholly unaffiliated with ‘that school across the river’) come this book recommendation from the store staff, ideal for feminist readers and for feminist books-as-gifts-buyers:


Bad Feminist
essays by Roxane Gay
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: 2014-08-05
ISBN 9780062282712
List Price $15.99
Harvard Book Store price: $12.79

Description: A collection of essays spanning politics, criticism, and feminism from one of the most-watched young cultural observers of her generation, Roxane Gay. “Pink is my favorite color. I used to say my favorite color was black to be cool, but it is pink—all shades of pink. If I have an accessory, it is probably pink. I read Vogue, and I’m not doing it ironically, though it might seem that way. I once live-tweeted the September issue.” In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman (Sweet Valley High) of color (The Help) while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years (Girls, Django in Chains) and commenting on the state of feminism today (abortion, Chris Brown). The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture. Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better.

For more about the author, check out her website and find her on Twitter.

Let’s talk about dry sex in Africa (and about exotification

Wendy Syfret has a piece over at Vice titled “‘Dry Sex’ Is the African Sexual Health Issue No One’s Talking About.

Dry sex“, Syfret writes, is a disturbing genital trend gaining ground in some African countries. It has apparently been a thing for some time (see, inter alia, “The practice and prevalence of dry sex among men and women in South Africa: a risk factor for sexually transmitted infections?” in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, 1999).

In order to achieve properly dry sex, women insert dessicating substances — absorbent sponges, bleach, dust, ground-up vegetable matter, sand — into their vagina. This is done with the hope that the resulting dryness will provide their male partners with a ‘tighter’ sexual experience.

Sand. In. The. Vagina. This ghastly practice exposes women to increased risk of infection, and is acutely uncomfortable to boot. It’s also grounded in false ideas of sexual biology, not to mention unjust conceptions of sexual equality. Are men in Lilongwe or Joburg sacrificing their penile comfort in order to deliver a happier sexual experience to their female partners? (A quick Google search turned up no evidence that this is so.)

Syfret got in touch with Dr. Marlene Wasserman, widely known a sex health advocate and radio host in South Africa. She explains the spread of self-sacrificing sexual practices like dry sex as a differential in cultural attitudes regarding the sexuality of the two genders: “We can talk about penises and circumcision, which we do all the time, and the government puts policies into place. But dare we talk about vaginas? I’ve been doing radio for 20 years and the only time I’ve been reported to the broadcasting commission was when I referred to vaginas.”

Ugh; the social consequences of body-shaming male squeamishness. What a tragic mash-up of miseducation and misogyny, and stating clearly that I hope educators, advocates, and public figures like Dr. Wasserman can help make it a short-lived fad. I was glad to read that Wasserman recently helped the World Association of Sexual Health launch a declaration of sexual rights articulating the “right to pleasure.” As she tells Syfret: “Women are surprised that’s one of their rights. We know 33 percent of women have and tolerate painful penetration. That becomes part of what they expect from sex.” Let’s change those expectations.


There’s a consideration that comes to mind when I hear reports of bizarre practices like dry sex: the need to balance respectful and open empathy with an awareness of how journalism purporting to be foreign affairs cultural coverage might be a front for the age-old traffic in stereotypes. Given the distances — geographic, historical, economic, cultural, and linguistic — that separate readers in the US from the lives lived in the nations of Africa, it’s very easy for misconception and prejudice to mix in among the facts. In that context, it can be hard to distinguish rumor from reporting.

See if you can separate fact from fiction in a few representative samples:

  1. “Throughout Africa, we’re seeing teenage thugs getting high a concoction of sewage and kerosene called jenkem.”
  2. “We’re receiving reports of HIV-positive men in South Africa attempting to ward off the symptoms of AIDS by forcing themselves on pre-teen virgins?”
  3. “In certain regions of East Africa, albinos leave in fear of being kidnapped and dismantled for sale as traditional folk medicine?”
  4. “Women in Ghana, eager to keep their men interested and happy at home, are paying up to US$1,500 for laser treatments designed to reverse age-related vagina atrophy.”

Which of these chunks of reportage reflect true facts, and which are just the same old gods — fetishism, blood libel, various flavors of misogyny — poured into in new, Upworthy-ready bottles? (Disclosure: the last report, about vaginal atrophy laser treatment, is true, but it isn’t happening in Africa, and it is actually good news for cancer patients.)

Further reading: