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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Storyteller's Perspective: On tradition, selective memory, and #NotAllFolktales

Most of you are probably familiar with the #YesAllWomen hashtag that took Twitter by storm and created a flood of articles, analyses and arguments all over the Internet. It was a spontaneous, online social movement raising awareness of everyday sexism, misogyny, violence against women, gender bias, and some cultural roots associated with all of the above.
In the middle of all of that, following the real-time roll of tweets, blog posts and articles, there I was, as a professional storyteller, wondering what I had to contribute. Of course I have my own personal stories as a woman (#yesallwomen have those), but there was something else, something that has to do with the stories we tell...
... or, rather, WHICH stories we tell.

I once had a serious fight with a faceless man who claimed that I was "against tradition" when I expressed my opinion that folktales that end with "and the man beat his wife, and she learned her lesson, and they lived happily ever after" should not be told anymore. He said I was trying to destroy the culture of our ancestors. I told him that if domestic abuse was the "culture of our ancestors," I am willing to let go of it.
But it's not.

I started tweeting under #NotAllFolktales, posting excerpts and tidbits from traditional stories (myth, legend and folktale) that prove that not every traditional tale is biased against women, or holds the dangerous cultural values that lead to misogyny. I did it for two reasons:

1. A lot of the backlash against #YesAllWomen brought up excuses like "but it's natural" "but it's traditional" and "but it's always been like that." They threw out shards of fairy tales about princesses on both sides. Most people completely disregarded one simple fact: Fairy tales and folktales are not biased because "it's natural." They are biased because they are a product of culture. Four hundred years ago Sleeping Beauty was raped in her sleep, instead of kissed awake. Try telling it that way nowadays, see what happens.

2. People who cry #NotAllFolktales (just like people who cry #NotAllMen, or #NotAllWhitePeople, or any of those backlash hashtags) have the responsibility to change the group they want to set themselves apart from. Storytellers who know that there are stories out there that are not sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. have the responsibility to tell them, understand them, and make them available.

See, my point is: Stories that promote diversity, equality, freedom of expression and choice are all ALREADY OUT THERE. We don't even have to make them up. We don't even have to write "feminist fairy tales" (although if we want to, we can, and they are amazing). Stories have been out there for millennia. We just need to find them (often cleverly hidden or left out of collections and publications), revive them, and tell them, tell them, tell them.

Case in point: I did my second A to Z challenge run about Weird Princesses - folktales and legends that involve female heroes who are not only brave and clever, but also quirky and unique and lovable (or, in Internet speak: anything but Mary Sue). There are hundreds of them, and guess what, boys love them as much as girls. I also frequently tell the story of Dame Ragnell that teaches kids about respect for women, and works splendidly with all ages from kindergarten to high school.
I recently (after the backlash against the Bearded Diva winning the Eurovision) posted a collection of folktales and myths about trans heroes and heroines, as an answer to people railing "young people nowadays don't know what gender they want to be..." It was surprisingly easy to find a whole bunch of folktales from every corner or the world. Heck, I even found a Hungarian folktale about a princess going "men's clothes have always fit me better" (in the end she transforms into a man and marries another princess).

The world of folktales is endless, and stretches way beyond "young male hero saves beautiful princess." There is a story about everything. There are folktales about pregnant women saving the world. There are folktales about old people falling in love. There are folktales about kind stepmothers, loving fathers, homely princesses, divorce, same-sex love and marriage, culture clash and acceptance, and a million other things that are still important in our world.

Find them. Read them. Think about them. Tell them.

As usual, you can find Csenge at:
The Multicolored Diary - Adventures in Storytelling
MopDog - The crazy thing about Hungarians...


  1. Thank you for that breath of fresh air!

    This quote is worthy of being inscribed on every storyteller's brain: Most people completely disregarded one simple fact: Fairy tales and folktales are not biased because "it's natural." They are biased because they are a product of culture. Four hundred years ago Sleeping Beauty was raped in her sleep, instead of kissed awake. Try telling it that way nowadays, see what happens."

    1. That is why I have always been cautious about the kind of "story therapy" that claims that folktales include symbols of "universal human nature," "cosmic female essence" and stuff. Sweeping generalizations don't sit well with me.

  2. What a great post. I tried to stay out of that Twitter storm though I read hundreds of tweets. I do get tired of people doing things or thinking something is correct because 'that's how it's always been' argument. We're supposed to be growing as humans and learning. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you! I am glad you liked the post. The Twitter feed was a hard read and made me feel both angry and hopeful, since so many people joined in on the side of "this has to stop." And since I reflect on everything through storytelling, I just couldn't stop thinking about all of these things.

  3. I do tell the Basile Sleeping Beauty, when I teach relationships and sex ed with my 7th graders. It's pretty serious, pretty direct, and though I use the words, "happily ever after" at the end, there's a bit of a question in how I say it and it's clear that there is something disturbing about it. There's always this uncomfortable silence at the end and then the discussion. That uncomfortable silence is what I am going for. It bothers the boys as much as the girls.

    1. Very nice! I only ever used it when I was telling teens about tradition and how folktales change over time. Sometimes I even have to explain to college students that not being conscious does not count as consent... I think Disney felt something like this when they made their princesses falling in love before they fell asleep.

  4. Thanks Csenge for this .. I will check your A-Z blogs on weird princesses. Fairy tales and myths serve an important function if looked at psychologically and in a contemporary way.. The Han Christian Andersen ones are too sweet; Grimms are better. Falling asleep could be looked at psychologically as well ... e.g. maybe many of us stay asleep before becoming more conscious.

    1. I have a bone to pick with Andersen (especially because you'd be surprised how many people think his stories are folktales). Most of his stuff is horribly depressing.

  5. Wow. You are one amazing lady. This is a powerful and timely post and ought to be widely read. Let's tweet the heck out of this one. I'm really impressed with what you put together here and how important your message is.
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

    1. Thank you! That is good to hear. I do think it is important, and not just for people who work with storytelling.


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