Our Time is the Time of the Anti-Tale

Envisioning Feminist Futures

Kendra Reynolds

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The fairy tale has remained a staple of our social and cultural lives across centuries, carrying the morals and ideologies of societies as they have changed and evolved over time. As Jack Zipes has stated in his book The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, ‘fairy tales continue to be irresistible and breathe through us, offering hope that we can change ourselves while changing the world’ and ‘the historical evolution of storytelling reflects the struggles of human beings worldwide to adapt to their changing natural and social environments’. [i] Certainly, fairy tales provide us with a utopian vision, a lens onto a brighter world in which individuals triumph in spite of overwhelming odds, or in which the persecuted protagonist secures a happy ending. However, this ignores the fact that the happy endings are often given to those who conform or who are deemed to be ‘special’ in some way: lost princesses rediscovered get the life their blood suggests they deserve; or the beautiful, whose exterior superiority equals internal goodness and happiness; and heroes are generally men rewarded for their noble quests. Meanwhile, marriage is marked out as the ultimate prize for women who have succeeded in being passive (Sleeping Beauty and Snow White literally comatose and thus well behaved throughout their narratives). It is only certain, socially acceptable people who behave ‘right’ that are rewarded for their compliance to social standards. So, in spite of the fact that there are radical fairy and folk tales that have been written and told across centuries, the most prolific fairy tales that dominate our cultural understandings of the genre were stolen from peasant women and written down by white middle-class men like Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. These middle-class males simplified and cleansed the stories for genteel readers and they became and remain custodians of the conservative doctrines and standards perpetuated by patriarchal societies from the seventeenth-century, through the Victorian era and into our society today. Ultimately, these prominent fairy tales remain a major tool for those in power to condition the behaviour of women, children and those considered to be inferior in terms of social hierarchies. Yet, these problematic fairy tales are now being disenchanted and challenged by a new genre that is emerging and making its presence known. The fairy tale has mutated into a subversive form in our troubled society: the anti-tale has been born. After all, our world today is no pastoral, bright and utopian fairy tale ideal. We live on a planet rife with power struggles, sexism, corrupt leadership, climate change, economic hardships and persecution of the innocent. The small individual often does not win in this scenario; there is no magic wand to wave and set the world to rights. Instead the anti-tale zooms in on all that is wrong with society; it lifts the veil, and disenchants us out of our complacency, refusing to allow fairy tale enchantment to blind us to the atrocities and wrongs committed on a daily basis. 

          Catriona McAra and David Calvin can be credited with reviving the term anti-tale in their 2011 work Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment. They define the genre as follows: ‘rarely an outward opposition to the traditional form itself, the anti-tale takes aspects of the fairy tale genre and reimagines, subverts, inverts, deconstructs or satirises elements of them to produce an alternate narrative interpretation, outcome or morality’. [ii] They also use a table of binary traits to point out the differences between the fairy tale and the anti-tale, suggesting that, whilst the fairy tale is patriarchal, often set once upon a time, uses enchantment and contains a black and white morality, the anti-tale is feminist, often set in a real-world context, uses a politics of disenchantment, and contains a murky or grey amorality. Indeed, they label the anti-tale the subversive twin or shadow of the fairy tale genre. Yet, whilst I agree with them that the anti-tale often acts like a shadow, not entirely separated from the original genre but subverting the fairy tale from within, my research to date argues that the anti-tale should be defined as a distinct genre in its own right: it has its own unique structure or architecture. After all, when approaching fairy tales as a feminist researcher, I was struck by the fact that the conservative and oppressive politics of the fairy tale is bound up in its binary-orientated and simplistic structure. For as feminist Villanueva Gardner surmises, a key feature of the conceptual framework that subordinates women is:

the dualistic classification of reality, with the disjuncts not only being seen as oppositional and exclusive (mind/body, man/woman, human/nature), but as organized on what Elizabeth Dodson Gray calls a spatial metaphor (up/down) with a lesser value attributed to the lower. Thus, body, woman, and nature are put “down” or given a lesser value. Furthermore, the assumption is that the perceived moral superiority of one group over the other justifies the oppression of the “inferior” group[iii]

In essence, by seeing reality as easily categorised in this way, society eliminates anything, or indeed anyone, that does not fit into these restrictive definitions. You must fit one side or another – for example, you are either a man or a woman – and on top of that, one side of these components is considered superior to the other – men over women – and thus social hierarchies are established and maintained. As Eisfeld points out, ‘The fairy tale world is a metaphor for a world that can be painted in black and white. Everything is good or evil, poor or wealthy and so forth and there seems to be nothing in between. In the end the good will be sufficiently rewarded and the evil punished’.[iv] Anti-tales therefore embrace that indistinct space in between dualisms and posit a feminist challenge to this binary and closed framework in order to perpetuate the principles of equality and interconnectedness among all things. They do this by favouring complexity and uncertainty and therefore opening our minds up to greater possibilities and ways of being beyond such restrictions. Therefore, whilst Perrault’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ was warned as a young female to ‘never stray from the path’ of social conformity or be eaten by wolves, anti-tales encourage us to wander, to evade straight lines and safety, in favour of freedom and self-determination.

          Anti-tales perform this feminist subversion of restrictive binary-thought processes in many ways. For example, a major component outlined above as part of the organising structure of fairy tales is their black and white morality and absolute attitude towards notions of good and evil. Anti-tales on the other hand blur this distinction, muddy-the-waters, in favour of a more realistic and human complexity, recognising that our ideas about good and evil are grounded in our conditioning by powerful institutions and often used to keep subordinated groups under control. In this way they reject the fairy tale’s didactic moralising tendencies. Women in fairy tales fit two categories: they are either older, sexual, powerful and evil villains or passive, angelic and youthful heroines. Yet, one need only look at Disney’s Maleficent (2014) to see anti-tale politics at work and entering popular culture. Maleficent, the traditional villain of Sleeping Beauty, is given a back-story, a motivating reason for her later cruelty and wrongdoings, having her wings severed off after being betrayed and drugged by her power-hungry friend, Stefan (note that the film clearly vocalises date-rape here), who then succeeds in taking the King’s throne in return for his actions and becomes the father of Aurora (Sleeping Beauty). In addition, the film exposes that Maleficent is only deemed evil because she is powerful and ‘other’ (as a fairy and a woman) and thus she is intimidating to the rational, all-male world outside of the magical moors. As the narrator alerts viewers at the beginning, ‘Let us tell an old tale anew and see how well you know it’. [v] In this way, viewers of this revision will never be able to read traditional versions of the story without having a more complex attitude towards Maleficent’s character and critically questioning her simplistic portrayal. Overall, as an anti-hero, the Disney film’s fleshing out of Maleficent’s humanity subverts the binary restriction of good and evil that the fairy tale is paranoid about upholding. In addition, the 2014 Disney film Into the Woods, also beautifully illustrates the anti-tale’s advocation of this moral complexity, refusing to allow the conditioning impulse of fairy tales to remain unchallenged. For example, the Baker’s Wife in this film is a bored and stifled house wife who almost gives into temptation by contemplating having an affair with Prince Charming in the woods, only to arrive at a moment of enlightenment: ‘is it always “or”, is it never “and?”’. [vi] She realises that life doesn’t fit into neat boxes; there isn’t just one thing (her husband) or another (the prince). In this way she feels liberated, no longer boxed in by society’s closed definitions of who she should be as a woman, but realises she and her husband are together because they want to be, not because it’s the only option:

                                                                      That’s what the woods are for.

                                                                               Let the moment go

                                                                   Don’t forget it for a moment though.

                                                            Just remembering that you’ve had an “and”,

                                                                          When you’re back to “or”,

                                                            Makes an “or” mean more than it did before.

                                                                               Now I understand

                                                                   And it’s time to leave the woods’. [vii]

The woods is a step outside of society with its organised and limited way of viewing things into a complex space of possibility. This is a very deliberate contrast from fairy tale good and evil in which viewers realise there is an in between, marking out the complexity of human nature that cannot be contained within the dualistic framework upheld by patriarchy. The director himself stated that ‘the baker and his wife are really us’, in that they are human, complex and fallible.[viii] Accepting her encounter with the prince as ‘a moment’ of enlightenment, the baker’s wife recognises that it is important to have these episodes where we recognise that nothing is fixed, that what we have is only one version of an infinite array of possibilities, though more precious because of this. Although she dies before reaching her husband and the rest of the fairy tale characters at the film’s conclusion, she becomes an inspiration for their victory over a giant and her voice echoes in the woods as a guiding force. She shares her anti-lesson with the baker and Cinderella who then pass it on to the children (Little Red Riding Hood and Jack), refusing to give an absolutist moral, and instead tells us to make our own decisions – life doesn’t fit into one neat mould as fairy tales would have us believe:

                                                                          People make mistakes,

                                                                            Fathers and mothers.

                                                                          People make mistakes,

                                                                               Holding their own,

                                                                           Thinking they’re alone.

                                                                            Honor their mistakes,

                                                                           Fight for their mistakes


                                                                             Witches can be right,

                                                                             Giants can be good,

                                                                           You decide what’s right,

                                                                           You decide what’s good.

                                                                                 Just remember,

                                                                          Someone is on your side,

                                                                             Someone else is not.

                                                                        While we’re seeing our side,

                                                                                Maybe we forgot,

                                                                             Someone else is not. [ix]

Patriarchy’s shattered hierarchies and binary-structures is replaced with the anti-tale’s more feminine architecture of acceptance and, ultimately, equality. The success of anti-tales in this endeavour is epitomised in the lyrics sung by the Baker’s Wife and her husband, who, due to the influence of the woods and its levelling of social and moral distinctions, recognise and accept their equal status as complex human beings by the film’s close:

          Baker’s Wife:We’? So you’re going to let me stay with you?


          Baker: It’s because I’m becoming aware of us each accepting a share of what’s there.


          Baker’s Wife: Let’s hope the changes last beyond the woods. [x]

          Finally, another common anti-tale challenge to the patriarchal fairy-tale’s binary mode of viewing the world and its resultant heteronormativity, is through the inclusion of queer and transgender characters, and playing around with gender performances that break stereotypes. One stunning example of this is Tanith Lee’s relatively unknown novel Cruel Pink (2013). As the title suggests, this book highlights the damage and cruelty of gender expectations on individuals who don’t fit social norms. Giving us the stories of five marginalised characters, the novel brings together multiple eras: Klova exists in a sci-fi future of liquid silver refreshments, murderess Emenie lurks in an apocalyptic dystopia, cross-dressing Rod inhabits our present, and bisexual Irvin occupies the eighteenth-century; nevertheless they are all victims of gender conditioning and stereotypes. Klova plays the obsessively feminine role of sex object and ends up a slave to her lipstick with its symbolically engraved initials of ‘C.P’ (Cruel Pink); Irvin is a bisexual actor who quite literally performs his sexuality according to the individual he pursues; Rod was born biologically male but raised as a girl until his parents died and the horror of his new guardian forced him once again into what he calls ‘the straitjacket of maleness’; and, finally, Emenie is a lesbian serial killer who describes herself as a chameleon, able to mutate into different ages at will. [xi] We eventually discover that these characters all constitute five personalities in the mind of an elderly woman, Dawn, who suffers from a multiple-personality disorder. Dawn’s seamless shifts between genders, sexualities, ages, beings, times and spaces, utilises Judith Butler’s ‘gender as performance’ theory. Certainly, as the actor, Irvin, states, ‘It is all actors’ moves, I find. Life, that is. Or most of life’. [xii] Certainly, Rod harbours a wardrobe full of female clothes which he permits himself to indulge in twice a day as his ‘fix’ – however, this time relishing femininity does not constitute his true cross-dressing moments. Rather, his male business-suit façade, which he is forced to adopt every day in order to do his mundane job, is his real performance. Here Lee is certainly foregrounding the ‘cruelty’ of limited conceptions of gender, Rod reminiscing that, after his parents’ deaths, ‘On went the strait-jacket of maleness. On went the shackles of learning, all over again, what not, and what to do, to want, to hate’. [xiii] Lee’s emphasis here on ‘learning’ exposes masculinity and femininity to be constructs, guises or costumes that we put on to act the socially acceptable part. Gender is as fluid as a dress or suit that can be changed, swapped or exchanged at any given moment; as Rod notes, our bodies are ‘cast in a new mould’ for every occasion. [xiv] Ultimately, the novel’s resistance to rigid sexual classifications shatters neat definitions of gender, allowing us to embrace those who do not fit into the existing heteronormative, patriarchal, and exclusionary social framework. The novel celebrates the possibilities inherent in seeing a plethora of different ways of being and reinforces that all bodies, all genders and all sexualities are legitimate and valued. After all of the characters/personas die, a self-aware Dawn acknowledges their legitimacy and embraces their differences whilst acknowledging their equality:

One by one, as each, I and they, become ready, we will walk up the bridge of steel, or of copper, or of diamond, opal and ruby, or iron-black, or gold and silver, and cross through into the bright mist. And there we will all be one and quite different, so different from anything we have been here, ever, that I can’t imagine it. Nor any of us could.[xv]

Like most anti-tales, the novel refuses a closed, ‘happy ever after’ ending, favouring instead the promising nature of an open and unknown future free from restriction.

As the few brief examples above highlight, my feminist research into the anti-tale suggests that the genre’s radical revisions of standardized conceptions of ways of being and viewing the world shatter the hegemonic order and power structures, which rely on binary-orientated constructions of reality in order to maintain the status quo. Instead anti-tales favour a fluid, multifaceted and feminine way of seeing, in which boundaries are permeable and not fixed or set in stone. Anti-tales ultimately advocate critical thinking, favouring complexity, inclusivity and an open-mindedness. Through these conclusions, the radical potential of the anti-tale becomes clear and the genre’s relevance for a multitude of injustices beyond the oppression of women is apparent. After all, feminism doesn’t just advocate for women, it advocates for a multitude of oppressions. It is no coincidence that the anti-tale is becoming so prominent in our era, rising up as a reaction to the current, troubling political climate and promoting the equality of those who do not fit within the limited and stifling binaries and boundaries that legitimise the exploitative hierarchies of the hegemonic order. I believe the anti-tale is emerging as a reaction to contemporary concerns and that the genre is rising up to deconstruct the outdated and damaging mythologies currently upheld by the political establishment: whether that be in the advocation of nationalistic pride in relation to Brexit, the closed-mindedness of re-emerging white supremacist movements, the fantastical nature of fake news and mythology of celebrity in politics (ultimately resulting in the appointment of Donald Trump as US president) and the stifling fairy tale/utopian-like mindsets that deny climate change and maintain blindness to injustices of all kinds.

I suggest then, that anti-tale has emerged as a counter, leftist, effort to replace the indoctrination of limited mindsets our society inflicts on both children and adults, by the fairy tales set out in traditional story collections and being spouted on the political stage, with new counter-narratives and tales, that promote anti-establishment ideas, justice and empathy towards other entities, whether that be those in the human or non-human world. For, as Jack Zipes has pointed out, ‘The cultural evolution of the fairy tale is closely bound historically to all kinds of storytelling and different civilizing processes that have under-girded the formation of nation-states’. [xvi] In our troubling times, I argue that the anti-tale takes over this role as a cultural mirror, showing us painful truths and deconstructing the architectures that uphold such social and political fairy tales on our television screens, in our newspapers, and those patriarchal fossilized fairy tales in storybooks that maintain that order and closed-mindedness. 

Andrew Simms, writing in The Guardian in 2017, pointed out how ‘we need new stories to guide us out of today’s dark woods’ and that ‘in campaigning for change, the art of storytelling has too often been replaced with reliance on a deluge of facts and policies’. [xvii] Certainly, Simms addresses this concern having edited a new collection of anti-tales, Knock-Twice: 25 Modern Folk Tales For Troubling Times, written by earth scientists, experts on finance and climate change, economists, activists, and artists who recognise the value and impact of literature to inspire action and bring about change. [xviii] Indeed, the rise of the anti-tale as a political retaliation is being felt across popular consciousness, evident in Simms’ article and anti-tale project highlighted here, and also in other articles such as that by Michael Newton, also in The Guardian, entitled ‘Cults, human sacrifice and pagan sex: how folk horror is flowering again in Brexit Britain’, and in the wealth of literature I read during my PhD, with new tales emerging all the time.[xix] Indeed, the increasing turn towards the arts in our current troubling times is becoming increasingly apparent, with Peter Bazalgette’s 2017 book The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society supporting the arts as a means of creating more empathic humans who both take responsibility for themselves and in understanding and helping others. However, Bazalgette points out how it is the moral complexity of literature that does this and so, I argue, that the anti-tale would be better suited to this task than the fairy tale, due to the latter’s inherently rigid and didactic black and white morality: ‘almost all of us have the capacity for empathy but we need to learn to exercise it. The arts provide some of the equipment in this mental gymnasium’.[xx] In this way, the anti-tale’s complexity and flexibility counters the prejudiced and rigid mindsets instilled by far-right politics, putting readers into the shoes of ‘others’ of all kinds, and broadening our perception of which lives matter. Climate change and exploitation of the non-human world, queer/transgender prejudices, female subjugation, racism, ruthless economics and financial/class inequality are all subjects taken up by the genre in order to effect change.

Clearly then, the anti-tale is coming to the fore at an opportune political moment, helping the leftist and grass roots movements in their efforts to stem the increasing backlash of far-right regimes that refuse to acknowledge anything beyond their rigid, binary-reliant codification of reality; a reality supported by many of the traditional fairy tales read to us since birth. A new genre, like the anti-tale, is much needed to push us out of our comfort zones and to broaden our perceptions of the world and of those who inhabit it. Although fairy tale scholars have argued that every age is the age of the fairy tale, I believe that it has mutated into something new, a fresh genre in its own right, and perhaps our time is instead the time of the anti-tale. 


[i] Jack Zipes, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p.20 & xi.

[ii] Catriona McAra and David Calvin, eds., Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), p.4.

[iii] Villanueva Gardner, Catherine, ‘An Ecofeminist Perspective on the Urban Environment’ in The Nature of Cities: Ecocriticism and Urban Environments, eds. Michael Bennett and David W. Teague(The University of Arizona Press: 1999), pp.191-212.


[iv] Conny Eisfeld, How Fairy Tales Live Happily Ever After: The Art of Adapting Fairy Tales (Hamburg: Anchor Academic Publishing, 2014), p.22.

[v] Maleficent, dir. Robert Stromberg (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment: 2014) [on DVD].

[vi] Into the Woods, dir. Rob Marshall (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment: 2015) [on DVD].

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Rob Marshall quoted in Collin, ‘Into the Woods, Review: “Pure Pleasure”’ in The Telegraph

<http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/11298668/Into-the-Woods-review-Meryl-Streep-Emily-Blunt-Anna-Kendrick.html> [accessed 5th November 2015].

[ix] Into the Woods, dir. Rob Marshall (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment: 2015) [on DVD].

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Tanith Lee, Cruel Pink (Immanion Press: Stafford, 2013), p.125.

[xii] Ibid,p.105.

[xiii] Ibid,p.125.

[xiv] Ibid, p.121.

[xv] Ibid, p.228. 

[xvi] Jack Zipes, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p.xi.

[xvii] Andrew Simms, ‘We need new fairy stories and folk tales to guide us out of today’s dark woods’ in The Guardian (1st November 2017) <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/01/fairy-stories-folk-tales-climate-change-refugees> [accessed 27th May 2018].

[xviii] See Andrew Simms, ed., Knock-Twice: 25 Modern Folk Tales For Troubling Times (The Real Press, 2017).

[xix] Michael Newton, ‘Cults, human sacrifice and pagan sex: how folk horror is flowering again in Brexit Britain’ in The Guardian (30th April 2017) <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/apr/30/folk-horror-cults-sacrifice-pagan-sex-kill-list> [accessed 27th May 2018].

[xx] See Peter Bazalgette, The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society (London: John Murray Publishers, 2017).