Sunday, May 17, 2009

Feminist reading of Spider-Man Fairy Tales

I’ve been wanting to get this for about 3 years after reading a blogger’s positive feminist review of it (probably found via When Fangirls Attack). I’ve never been actively searching for it, just had it in the back of my mind as a want, so imagine my surprise when I wandered into a second hand Cds/DVDs/games/comics shop the other day and I found a copy sitting neat as you please on the shelf. Oooh, thought I, I’ll be having that.

It turns out to be a pretty good purchase. It contains 4 stories: Off the Beaten Path (Red Riding Hood), The Spirits of Friendship (an Anansi the spider god tale), Eclipse (a Japanese tale concerning Yokai spirits) and What you Wish For (Cinderella). All are told with Spiderman characters.

Off the Beaten Path uses peter, Mary Jane, J Jonah Jameson, Aunt May and Felicia (as MJ’s pet black cat!).
In it MJ ponders how to be herself and what it means to have your on identity. Gwen Stacey was MJ’s best friend but was killed by wolves when she wandered off the path. Her death is used as a cudgel to demonstrate to the young women in the village the certain fate that will await them if they dare to challenge authority or think for themselves. Sound familiar?

One day MJ decides to delivers some sweet goods to old sickly Aunt May, living in a cottage away from the rest of the village. On her way, she is accosted by the wolf. Is she scared? Not this MJ, she thinks for herself, leaves the path and legs it. She leaps off a cliff into the river and escapes the wolf. As May’s house is closer than hers she decides it’s safer to go directly there, again, leaving the path.

She arrives at May’s and is greeted by the wolf. May is captured but still alive. MJ still isn’t scared, ‘I refuse to give in to my fears!’, doesn’t scream and smacks the wolf in the face. The wolf is about to eat MJ when Peter as a woodcutter bursts in. A melee ensues. To defeat the wolf, they lift the axe together. This harks back to earlier panels where MJ is considering her identity and what she wants from hers and Peter’s relationship – she wants a partnership.

This is wonderful and is most definitely a feminist retelling. This MJ is no helpless maiden waiting to be saved by a big strong man. She’s tough, thinks for herself and can defend herself. Peter and MJ’s union is an equal one – this is symbolized by the way they use the axe, they are stronger together. Even Aunt May isn’t some sickly little helpless old woman. When it’s all over she tells Peter and MJ that she’s fine, she wasn’t scared and Ben married a woman who knows how to take care of herself.

In addition, the art doesn’t contradict any of the text’s messages. It’s not cheesecakey, each person is instantly recognisable and they have expressions.

The Spirits of Friendship has no women in it so no analysis for this one. Good art though and a good story. I don’t know the original tale so cannot compare it. In this one Anansi, with a red spiderman mask, is bored so goes on a quest to find ultimate power. He is confronted by and then collects the wind, water, earth and fire spirits. Upon reaching his destination he is faced by a being made of bees whom he defeats with the aid of his new friends. Good story and good art. And it takes place in Africa and the characters are black. They could have transposed it to America and made everyone white. Given recent Vixenifications of character’s I’m altogether far too grateful they didn’t. I mean, I shouldn’t be grateful they didn’t white up the characters, it should be a given that they remain black.

[Edit - Vixenification is not just a problem in comic books, L'Oreal are now white washing their models too. What, do L'oreal believe that these women are beautiful but not beautiful enough? Is Black or Indian skin really ugly? Will the white masses not buy a product if it's advertised by someone of colour? Do the Black and Indian consumers not count? Seriously, what the fuck are they playing at? I suspect the reason behind this was fear over losing the white consumers. Because apparently only the white folks count. Fucks.)

Eclipse is set in Japan and the characters do remain Japanese. This tale features Aunt May, Uncle Ben, Peter and the graves of his dead parents. Peter, May and Ben are living in enclosed land, never going through the gates for fear of the Yokai spirits that are waiting to murder them. One day Izumi (the Peter character) does leave the enclosure. He is in a frustrated rage and wants to avenge his parents deaths. He is attacked, poisoned by the Yokai, passes out and discovers Masaru (Ben) dying at the house. The Yokai have taken Satsuki (May) and are planning to kill and eat her in order to provoke Izumi’s final metamorphosis into a spider Yokai. Through Satsuki’s words of warning and Masaru’s final message to him Izumi manages to overcome the poison and though now red and with traits of the spider he manages to overcome the poison and does not fully succumb.

Both Masaru and Satsuki only exist to help further the development of IzumiMasaru through getting fridged and Satsuki through getting captured in order to provide words of encouragement. This doesn’t bother me at all, it’s a tale about Izumi and how to overcome rage and develop acceptance. It’s about finding the good within yourself and triumphing over evil. Of course the other characters are merely supportive and don’t have much agency or point beyond that.

What You Wish For is Cinderalla with Peter as Cinders. Norman Osbourn takes the place of the wicked stepmother, Harry takes the place of the ugly sisters, MJ is another servant in the Osborn’s castle, Gwen is Prince Charming.

It’s not a direct transposition of Spiderman characters into the fairy tale as there is no obvious fairy godmother and various plot points are changed. The ball is attended by knights in armour from which Gwen is expected to pick a husband. Instead of a dress being conjured up Peter makes his own armour to disguise himself at the ball. He gets there by himself, but still has to return home by midnight. Instead of leaving a glass slipper Gwen is left clutching a gauntlet (? – that piece of armour which covers the forearm). Instead of Gwen visiting the houses to discover the identity of her knight Peter goes straight to the castle to reveal himself. Norman. MJ is possibly the closest to a fairy godmother, helping Peter out with chores and encouraging him to go to the ball and later reveal his identity.

The Osborns are probably the least changed character types – Norman is a scheming, plotting parent, Harry is petulant, stupid and spineless and so he embodies the spirit of the ugly sisters rather well.

The characters in this have far more agency than the traditional tale. By depicting them in this manner the familiar tale’s faults are highlighted. The Cinders I read about as a kid is a far more passive character, things happen to her and around her. The Peter in this tale gets off his arse and does things in order to achieve his aims. I’m not sure if this makes it a feminist retelling or if it’s just highlights how un-feminist the traditional one is. The women are not sidelined in this version, they have voices and actions and real personalities. MJ is drawn as a little sexpot with perky boobs and an off the shoulder dress conveniently ripped to the thigh. How gratuitous and not very feminist. Overall though, I definitely prefer this version of the story.

To conclude, this collection of tales is good. The art is (mostly) great, the stories provide positive depictions of the characters and the Red Riding Hood story in particular I would recommend to any kid.

Now I want the X-men Fairy Tales book.


Feminist Avatar said...

In India, white or pale skin is considered by many people to be beautiful. Some Indian women bleach their skin to be paler and 'more beautiful' and many beauty advertisers play into this beauty myth as it allows them to sell bleaching agents as well as more standard beauty treatments. I think this happens in America among the black community as well- think of pictures of Halle Berry which tend to pale her skin. Of course, Indian and black feminists are working to challenge this.

Saranga said...

True, and I possibly should have noted something about that in the text.
However, I don't think that detracts from the racism shown by L'Oreal, but does add another layer to it.

Feminist Avatar said...

No, absolutely- it is racist.

Saranga said...

I had another thought whilst away from the computer - I wonder what products, if any specific ones, they are pushing with the use of Beyonce and Freida? If they are using them for products aimed at Black or Indian women my comments about the target market of white consumers may not be applicable. But if they are using them to push all products, then I bet that L'Oreal are concerned about losing white women's money.

Jayunderscorezero said...

Thanks for such an interesting review. The Red Riding Hood story was my favourite too, although initially I read the ending - Peter and MJ lifting the axe together - as a bit of a compromise between this new story's feminist sensibilities and its desire to stay close to the original story. The Cinderella one is good too (if you like that, I'd highly recommend Gregory Maguire's Cinderella novel too).

IMHO, X-Men Fairy Tales is perhaps a little weaker overall. As is Avengers Fairy Tales, although that does have some definite high points too.

Saranga said...

Thanks for the comment and views on the other books. I'll keep an eye out and see if I come across them.

Amelia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amelia said...

I would like to point out, as the author of a post linked to here, that L'Oreal representatives have contacted me about the white washing claims.

You can read the full e-mail that was sent to me here.

Saranga said...

Hi Ameila. Thanks for stopping by and letting us know about L'Oreal's email.