CUTF (09/23/22): Fracturing the Monstrous Feminine

Snow White bit the apple. The clock struck midnight. Rapunzel let down her hair. And the little mermaid swam up. Once, there was a king who had a daughter. And this princess, right away, was adored. She was born and she was loved. The king, her siblings, everyone. When people looked at her, they saw her hair. And her skin was. And her lips were. And no one else, in all the land, could ever. The step-mother saw. The step-mother knew. And the step-mother hated. Looking in the mirror on the wall, she asked if she is who she was. Yes, answered the mirror, but the princess was more. So, it is said, by the pricking of her finger, or the bite of an apple, the princess fell. As she slept, her hair, skin, and lips were all still. The prince found the princess and, still charmed by her, leaned in. The princess awoke. And as the two returned home together, all was restored in the land. The step-mother, stripped of her title and who is now referred to, by the kingdom, with more appropriate and fitting epithets, was charged and removed. And the princess and prince lived.

These old stories, like any other text, have traveled across time in a repeated process of telling and re-telling: wherein, they have entered, and left, several semantic networks, historical contexts, and cultural discourses, enduring and withstanding the constant co-production of new interpretations between different interpretative actors. As such, fairy stories, in particular, possess a unique capacity to, at once, depict and reproduce the never-ending compulsive repetition of the human condition. When these stories are simply read as just illustrative fairy tales, without the need for any further literary categorization or criticism, they can incite, in the reader, a sense of wonder–that is, regardless of the narrative or structural complexity of the text, the tale itself can still be easily enjoyed. Fairy tales, then, are playful reiterations of culture and society–they are narrative descriptions, or textual demonstrations, of the way certain people, of a certain context or particular time, are. And, as the reader, we experience a kind of pleasure, or humor, from our being able to see the repetitious behavior and individual frailty of characters unable to see it in themselves. And it is this very feeling, this particular experience in reading, that continues to produce and reproduce the circularity of fairy stories–the compulsive re-reading, re-telling, and revising of old stories to such an extent where we, as readers, are able to automatically, instinctively, fill in the gaps and assume semi-authorship over them.

Literary scholars and critics, in their attempt to correct, or rebel against, a version of the original story which they have created and marked as an ideological problem, have, in turn, solidified the categorical significance and reiteration of fairy stories. These old stories are compulsively held, in contemporary discourse, by literary critics and their preposterous positing of definitive questions targeted to the radically ambiguous, or outdated. Scholars simultaneously create and wish to reveal the performative fantasies which they believe to be inherent in the didactic function of fairy stories–morally interrogating and demonstrating the supposed, relative complexity of old stories by proposing increasingly complex criticisms and interpretations. Even further, any revision of a particular fairy story which sets out with the intent of undermining other works by claiming to be somehow ‘more correct’, ‘more novel’, or ‘more profound’ than the original and the next, will inevitably lose power and lose sight of the real issues at hand. Such literary criticisms and revisions place themselves within a specialized category which thereby creates an exclusive exchange of intellectual domination and particularity between empowered scholars–constantly reading, interpreting, and criticizing the frailty of the human condition without noticing it in themselves; and, consequently, leaving the original texts, meanings, and messages of the old stories, which scholars deem as ‘morally dangerous’ and in need of ‘fixing’, with children and the rest of society.

My project, then, rises from delight. It rises from what I know about the ways in which culture assumes constitutive authorship over science, history, and literature, and the ways scholars tell and re-tell stories, write and re-write the past, and center and de-center certain narratives. It rises from my own revelations shortly after realizing the extent to which the taken-for-granted implications, assumptions, and tendencies held by this traditional, canonical ‘knowledge’, informs, limits, and impedes our own subjective imagination, knowledge, and existence. And, lastly, it rises from my personal curiosity towards issues of race, gender, and representation. I am interested in what prompts and makes possible the continuation of those linguistic and visual codes, signs, and symbols which thereby produce the series of images, or texts, that simultaneously informs history, as we know it, as well as our cultural imagination: in other words, I wish to understand how these images of racial superiority and cultural hegemony continue to enter and reach the corners of our consciousness held off and away from the views, power, and genius of white men. What I do know, however, is that: to be made consciously aware of the pervasive presence, sight, or blindness of external authorship, one must, first,  regard the subjective imagination produced in one’s mind as, partly, not of their own making, or agency, but instead born out of a historical, literary process of imperial fiction; then, it is only after this recognition has been made, that the reader is able to bring to surface and interrogate those overlooked, and repressed, internal notions of oppression–not to conquer, eliminate, or wholly relinquish, but to, instead, how such a knowledge and fiction came to be.

Upon their arrival and introduction to the course, students will be asked to, very casually, draw their depictions of several monsters–characterized only by gender-charged attributes. Students will privately imagine: a witch, a bad parent, a vampire, and a ‘monster’. These illustrations will then be shared to excite discussions regarding the subtle creation of monsters, the cultural conception of womanhood, and the transgressive nature of the monstrous feminine. At the end of the first lecture, each drawing will be collected, without the designation of any grade or particular value, and then routinely re-introduced back to the class as a referential text to raise questions, incite analytical criticisms, and mark the progression of the students’ understanding of the course materials throughout the semester. We will, as a class, enter into the controversial sites of femininity, monstrosity, and otherness–transforming the monstrous-feminine bodies, figures, and symbols which were once the source of repulsion, into subjects worthy of appreciation and investigation. From the classical Grimm’s fairy stories to the feminist works of modern revisionists and photographic artists, we will fracture the traditional meanings, signs, and codes held by contemporary monstrous figures.

Without altering the original drawing, each student will be asked conduct an in-depth literary and/or psycho-social analysis of their monster’s figure and constitution. Then, drawing from previous class lectures, discussions, and readings, students will connect their private conception of monster-hood and femininity to the public culture at large–finding contemporary (media, literary, e.g.,) representations which relate to, and inform, their monstrous figures. Secondly, students will also be asked to compose, and analyze, their very own ‘fractured fairy story’: in the creative portion of this assignment, students will choose a fairy story they wish to ‘fracture’ and will thereby have the authority to alter, omit, and/or emphasize any of the narrative and structural elements of that story–no matter how extreme, stylistic, or novel it may seem at first. This unique story, along with an analytic component, will not only demonstrate the students’ understanding of, and interest towards, the course material and themes so far, but will also allow each student to re-envision the textual, or narrative, iconography of the role of women in literature.

To ensure the proper execution of my proposed project, I will readily guide and facilitate every discussion throughout the course–positing critical questions, welcoming alternative standpoints, and interrogating the students’ interpretation(s) of each text. As a supplement to the course materials, I will also implement my own work and research as a familiar source of connection and instruction: by, first, sharing the insights and revelations I previously made during my own enrollments under Professor Brenda Whitney’s teachings; and by, second, independently leading lectures which incorporate my individual knowledge of, and experiences with, Children’s Literature, Psychology, and Sociology; and, lastly, integrating aspects of my own cultural identity, relating to neuro-divergency, queerness, and racial otherness, in order to continually foster and facilitate a safe, inclusive, and welcoming academic environment.

Austin Zeng

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