Book review - Gender Swapped Fairy Tales

An Islington wife and husband team - comic writer and artist Karrie Fransman and creative technologist Jonathan Plackett - have come up with an ingenious way to give fairy tales a feminist slant. Admittedly, this may not have been the original intention – their idea was to see where swapping gender roles took them. They’re quick to explain that they “are not suggesting that there are only two genders to swap.” But for the purpose of their experiment they viewed “the term ‘sex’ as focussing on the body and ‘gender’ as socially constructed.” They wanted to disrupt the binary of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ in order “to question what assumptions we make about gender in society.”

Plackett is a creative technologist, advertiser copywriter and art director. He created Face Juggler, the world’s first automatic face swap iPhone app, downloaded 5 million times. He recalls when his father would read bedtime stories to him and his sister and would secretly swap the genders of the characters in the books. Plackett enjoyed being introduced to “exciting fresh characters who didn’t conform to old gender stereotypes.” Now Placket has a daughter with Fransman, he says, they want her to grow up in a world “where little girls can be powerful and where little boys can express their vulnerability without anger.”

Plackett devised a computer algorithm that “swapped all gendered language in any text” and Fransman suggested applying it to fairy tales. They used the public domain Fairy Books, edited by Andrew Lang and published between 1889 and 1913; they later discovered that Lang’s wife, Nora, had done most of the work.

Fransman has published two graphic novels The House That Groaned and Death of the Artist. She developed an award-winning comic Over Under Sideways Down about a teenage refugee for The British Red Cross, created a two-storey installation for the Southbank Centre and a ‘Selves Portrait’ in response to Van Dyck’s final self-portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. Fransman says that when she researched classical paintings and illustrations of fairy tales, the female characters all generally had “passive stances and exposed throats” and wore “clothes that seemed to cling to their bodies in some places while simultaneously falling off them.”

Exquisitely illustrated, Gender Swapped Fairy Tales is a direct assault on gender prejudice and it works brilliantly. Here stepfathers are more often the grumbling, evil misanthropes, rather than stepmothers, and fairy godfathers who wreak havoc rather than their female counterparts. Girls take the lead in various adventures, so Jacqueline climbs the bean stalk, confronts the giantess and makes the family fortune, while Little Red Riding Hood is a small boy with a basket of custards made by his father who gets eaten by a female wolf. In Sleeping Beauty, a woman rescues a prince from his 100-year sleep and, after they are married, embarks on a military campaign. The awoken prince stays at home to look after their young children while trying to avoid the evil machinations of her father.

Millers, woodcutters and dwarves who work the mines are female. Several male characters are depicted yearning for or raising young children. For example in Thumbelin a man craves a “tiny, little child” and in Frau Rumpelstiltzkin it is the king who cares for his beautiful daughter. The “male gaze” is subverted – suddenly a boy’s beauty and appearance, rather than a girl’s, are emphasised. In Beauty and the Beast, the prince is deemed “handsome” and “pretty”, while the princess is initially a powerful beast with a good heart.

The end result is remarkable. Fransman and Plackett’s experiment is a resounding success, beautifully summarised by their own daughter who, when asked what animal she would most like to be, did not hesitate to reply: “A Big Bad Wolf.”

Orignally published by the Islington Tribune.