Reviving ‘Rapunzel’ for women of our time

To me, the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’ has always seemed like a really sexy story. Think about it: there’s a young girl, growing up alone, an adolescent coming into maturity. She’s trapped in a tower without window or door, and the only way to reach her is to climb up on a luscious rope of her beautiful, long hair. Her only companion is the evil fairy or sorceress who keeps her imprisoned; until the day a Prince learns the way in, and spends many nights alone with Rapunzel in her tower room. Whenever I pictured Rapunzel, I saw her as a creature full of many desires: desire for freedom, desire for love, desire for sex, desire for experience of the world she never knew.

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Otto Ubbelohde, “Rapunzel”

So when I was given the opportunity to perform in The Vagina Conversations in Byron Bay, I knew this was the story I wanted to tell. I knew it had something to do with Rapunzel’s journey toward freedom, even though it is extreme and non-realistic as fairytales always are. I knew that sex and desire were at the core of it, although vaginas are – not surprisingly – never mentioned in ‘Rapunzel’. And I knew that I somehow needed to convince hundreds of strong, alternative, liberated, Byron women, that fairytales still have an important role to play in our collective narrative of the feminine.

I spent the next week or so journaling my thought process, which was basically variations on a theme of “Oh my god, what have I done!? Talk about vaginas? Me? No way! I’m not bold enough, radical enough, sexy enough, feminist enough, empowered enough, to do that… I will end up making a fool of myself, or filling my poetry with cheap tricks which aren’t authentic to my inner world.” The truth is, I had already been writing the ‘Rapunzel’ story for a very long time – I had started about 7 years prior, and it had been resting (presumed dead) for at least 5 of those. But despite, or because of, its early failure, I must have carried that idea around with me until the time was right to revive it (as it turns out, this is good advice on what to do with an idea.)

It’s fascinating the way ideas emerge where they are needed. Through writing for what I knew would be an almost-exclusively female audience, I found that the ‘Rapunzel’ story started to reveal the little secrets that I felt it had always been hiding from me, indeed from the world, in its many incarnations as a children’s classic. And yes, one of those secrets genuinely was to do with vaginas!

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Arthur Rackham, 1909, ‘Illustration to a fairy tale of the brothers Grimm “Rapunzel”‘

‘Rapunzel’ goes back many centuries, and like all the fairytales we know today, was kept alive by people re-telling it orally to the next generation (mostly women, according to Marina Warner). Four versions are immortalised in my well-used copy of The Great Fairytale Tradition. In all of them, the story is initiated by a pregnant woman’s craving for a type of bitter herb or lettuce called ‘rapunzel’, which was so overwhelming that her husband was forced to steal some from an evil fairy’s garden. This reflected popular superstitions of the time, which held that one must grant a pregnant woman anything she desires, for fear of being punished with ‘a reddening and swelling of the eyelids’ (1); what a delightfully specific curse! Rapunzel was named after the herb, suggesting that the cycle of desire and punishment was in motion before she was even born. The fairy claimed the new-born child as retribution for the theft, took her, and vanished.

But you can’t fit much into a slam poem, and unfortunately I had to leave out this evocative prologue to get to the story’s core: the girl in the tower. What had originally resonated for me was the feeling of being trapped, and knowing how that would be really, really boring. Sure it’s also horrifying, but with no great urgency – you would have a sense of all the things you could be if you were out there – but meanwhile you are in here. I first became obsessed with this fairytale when I was, so to speak, trapped in a relationship, and couldn’t see any way out – it felt like being in a tower with no windows or doors. I went through all the creative ways I could keep myself entertained from within the confines of the relationship, but in the end, it had to give way. Later, I was able to see that this is part of the power of fairytales – they have the capacity to reflect universal experiences, partly because they are told with such broad strokes that we easily see ourselves within their structures. The tower reflects all kinds of traps that endanger the autonomy of young women in our society: poverty, discrimination, abusive relationships, glass ceilings, gender stereotypes. We are all familiar with it, as I point out in the poem:

Girls locked in towers.

Girls locked out of reach of their own powers.

While around the edges of their minds run stone-cold rings of doubt, like,

‘If only I were normal, they would surely let me out’.

The doubt I felt in the mind of Rapunzel was in part about sexuality. With her burgeoning womanhood, there must be a strong desire for intimacy and companionship; although this element is conspicuously absent from the picture of a patient, blonde innocent which so commonly appears in storybooks today.

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Walter Crane, 1882. “Rapunzel”

And indeed, earlier versions of the tale do acknowledge the girl’s very natural sexual curiosity when it comes to the surprise entry of a young man into her tower, albeit couched within the necessary behaviour expected of a lady: “And the negotiations went so well that the prince received many nods in exchange for his kisses, smiles for his bows, thankful glances for his kind offers… and after they became more familiar with one another, they decided to meet at night when the moon plays hide and seek with the stars”(2). The consequence is that Rapunzel (Petrosinella in this version) becomes pregnant, and soon her swelling belly reveals to the evil fairy that she has been deceived: her adopted daughter is not the obedient child she had wanted, and must be punished.

Clearly, the Italian storytellers of the 1600s had no problem with the idea of a heroine enjoying consensual sex with a male partner. (Incidentally, this version comes from a collection called Lo Cunto de li Cunti; which isn’t actually a pun on a certain word for female anatomy,  although it sounds like it). But by the time the Brothers Grimm got hold of the story in the 1800s, they believed that pre-marital sex was far too raunchy for their audience, and got rid of it. With no pregnancy, they instead had Rapunzel give away the secret of her relationship in a weirdly contrived dumb blonde moment: “…one day Rapunzel blurted out, ‘Mother Gothel, how is it that you are so much heavier than the prince?'”(3). In one swoop, the young woman’s desire and the natural functions of her body have been erased from the tale; replaced with this humiliating slur on her mental competence.

So with all her sexuality and sensual power removed from her story, Rapunzel becomes the patient victim, demurely awaiting her fate. She is thrown out of the tower after the fairy has cut off her long hair, the tool of her transgression, and left to fend for herself. The most severe punishment is reserved for her lover, who on his next visit, finds no sweetheart but a very angry Mother Gothel awaiting him, and jumps off the tower in his grief. He is blinded by the thorns at the base of the tower, and wanders the wilderness in misery searching for his lost love.

What does a tale like this mean for women, I asked myself, after writing and re-writing these scenes many times? What lesson can we take from it? There is no vagina in the story, but if there is, it leads to Rapunzel’s downfall and much suffering. This is a self-loathing story for a woman to tell. Or is it? Returning to the girl in the tower, I began to see an alternative narrative, one barely peeking through the patriarchal strands. Without wooing the Prince, Rapunzel may never have escaped from her endless imprisonment, or seen the outside world at all. If she weren’t such a ‘bad girl’, with such a curious vagina, she would still be trapped, without a story to tell.

Rapunzel’s hair stands in for her sexual power. It is a metaphor which seems to have lost most of its potent meaning in the tale. Historically, hair has always signified sensuality, intimacy, and the body, as indicated by monastic practices of shaving the hair, or not allowing women to enter a church bare-headed. For Rapunzel, I wanted the hair to have an added dimension of fate: it is because she was trapped that the hair grew so excessively long. The unused energy, untapped potential, and wasted days of her stopped-off life literally overflow into the strands of hair, that won’t stop growing. Eventually, after re-writing the story inside-out and upside-down, I realised the key element that made this a powerfully feminist tale: Rapunzel’s hair has been growing into the outside world since she was born, literally providing a way to escape.

the hair grew so long it reached from the tower and all the way down to the ground

because her body was intelligent enough to find a way out.

In fairytales, all tyrants come equipped with the seeds of their own undoing, and impossible escapes are manifested by something that was there all along. Rapunzel’s hair attracted the Prince, who then climbed up, declared his love, and bound himself to her. The supposed disgrace she then found herself in released her from the confinement of the expectations of her pseudo-mother, the evil fairy,  and through suffering she began to forge her autonomous identity. The tale ends, in most versions, with the lovers re-uniting by chance in the wilderness, where Rapunzel’s tears of joy magically heal the prince’s blindness. The twin children she has given birth to in the meantime, rejoice at meeting their father, and after a few more magical obstacles are overcome, the family finally reach safety. If the story implies that Rapunzel’s power was forged by her incarceration, it explicitly states that happiness is forged in suffering: “[The prince] was now extremely happy because he had been so unhappy, and he loved Rapunzel more than ever before and she him because they had lost one another.” (4)

In the process of uncovering or creating new layers of meaning in the Rapunzel story, I arrived at an understanding of why fairytales can be powerful tools of identity and political action. A story which has survived for centuries, through blatant patriarchal agendas and constant revisions, has a power which new stories don’t have: it bears the traces of thousands of women’s voices, if we know where to look. Even though the power of women’s bodies, their ingenuity and desire, may have been hidden beneath metaphors and good manners, it still exists in an enduring form:

that power echoes across centuries

that power has been shrouded in mystery

that power has been hidden beneath obscure symbols

that power has been smuggled into childhood through dainty illustrations and archaic phrasing…

So finally, ‘Rapunzel’ was for me a chance to revive a vital part of our cultural heritage, while reminding women everywhere that the most important action we can take with the fairytale is to re-tell them in our own way. It has never been a sacred artefact. Instead it always reflects the values of the storyteller her/himself, and it only endures through the centuries because of its capacity to evolve. I wanted to bring back the feminine power and sensuality which I saw was missing in the story; other tellers will revise it in more radical ways. There is so much to be done; after all, this remains a hetero-normative vision where older women are evil and a young woman’s greatest reward is to have a husband and children. I can easily see that this ending is just another type of imprisonment, one that will be revised by the many strong, ingenious women I am meeting every day.

It has been the greatest privilege for me to be able to share this poem with hundreds of women, live at the Byron Theatre and online. Slam poetry really does bring me closer to others. When women approached me to share their thoughts on it, their own experience of identifying with fairytales and their ideas for the stories we should be sharing with our children,  that was the most rewarding part of the whole experience. If you were one of those women, I thank you. You have inspired me to create a new women’s writing workshop about re-telling our children’s stories, which I hope to run this year. Please sign up for information on these and other workshops in the Northern Rivers. And if you haven’t yet, please get in touch and share your thoughts on the Rapunzel poem or the story you want to tell. The more we share our stories, the stronger we are.

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Walter Crane, vignette for “Rapunzel”

References:

  1. Zipes, Jack, ed. (2001). The Great Fairytale Tradition: from Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. Norton, New York and London. p475.
  2. Basile, Giambattista (1634). “Petrosinella”. Published ib id. p475.
  3. Grimm, Wilhelm and Jacob (1857). “Rapunzel”. Published ib id. p.491
  4. Schulz, Freidrich (1790). “Rapunzel”. Published ib id. p.489

 

On using the word “C***” in a poem

It’s a word that’s always controversial. It’s a word that appears briefly in my latest poem, except I’m really not sure it can stay there. It’s a word that I would only use around adults. It’s powerful. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a taboo, an expletive, a badge of feminist pride, a verbal assault, an honorific, an accurate anatomical term. It is some or all of these things to me at the same time.

This word is hotly contested territory.

At one time I would never have considered using this word as part of a poetic lexicon, not least because it has never really been part of my everyday vocab. Like most people, I’m comfortable with casual swearing in close circles of friends, but this particular word always seemed a step too far. So ugly. So insulting. So bad.

But it’s recently gained a place in my heart, and in my language, and its aura of nastiness (though never truly expelled) has been replaced by a dawning respect, even a sense of wanting to treasure and nurture this word.

You see, I love words. I love words that are powerful, words that are precise, words that allow us to comprehend and convey our human experience.

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woman‘ by asia doro licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For example, the experience of one’s biology, of gender identity, of being woman in a slowly evolving society, of containing sexual and sensual currents within one’s being. Experiences of menstruation, attraction, childbirth, sex, coming of age. Experiences of abuse, dehumanisation, pain, and laughter. This word just carries so much weight. It allows us to converse about so many things.

I’m currently involved in a performance called The Vagina Conversations, held on V-Day each year, a wonderful local re-invention of the work that started with Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. In it, women perform honest stories (or poems, songs, theatre pieces, comedy, whatever) about anything vagina-related. And it inevitably brings into question the very language we use when referring to that particular part of the female body.

I was inspired by Laura-Doe’s reclamation of the word ‘cunt’ at this event two years ago. I often found myself recalling her advice: Think, ‘Queen’ while you say, ‘Cunt’.  

Do poets have a certain responsibility to language? Is it our job to tend it, nurturing new words, eradicating unhelpful ones? I believe we should, as much as possible, be truthful, which is not exactly the same as being accurate. But if there is inaccuracy inherent in our common lexicon, and it serves to silence other kinds of truth, then we should seek to replace it with something better.

The words society has used to name – or to suggest, to avoid, to erase – certain parts of a woman, reveal a deeply damaging kind of inaccuracy.

Many argue that the word ‘vagina’ is itself a misnomer: it simply means ‘sheath’. It does not include the clitoris or labia, and thus ignores the visual and pleasure-giving parts of a woman’s anatomy, focusing instead on male pleasure and penetration. We find many vagina-owners are uncomfortable with the word ‘vagina’ for all sorts of reasons; it doesn’t seem to fit, it sounds icky, it’s too sterile. Ensler has it spot on in my reckoning:

“It’s a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word. If you use it during sex, trying to be politically correct– “Darling, could you stroke my vagina?”– you kill the act right there. I’m worried about vaginas, what we call them and don’t call them.”
Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues

So if you can’t call it a vagina, what can you call it? Anatomical terms break it down into component parts: ‘vulva’, ‘clitoris ‘ (internal and external), ‘pudenda’ – none of which encompass the totality.  Colloquialisms and slang terms are usually tainted by prior usage as insults, such as ‘pussy’, ‘twat’, or ‘hole’. Not to mention the downright horrifying: ‘axe-wound’, ‘meat-flaps’ etc. Words which make our anatomy into expletives transform the body parts themselves into areas which are unspeakable, shameful, abhorrent, and censored.

In the face of such alternatives, “cunt” begins to reveal some advantages. It encompasses holistically all the various parts we are talking about. It isn’t sterile or medical, and might be used in a sexy context without ruining the mood. Most of all, though, it comes complete with the unusual power of referring to female anatomy accurately, explicitly, and without shame.

In fact, I think the aura of taboo and offensiveness surrounding this word only serves to give it more power in the hands of women. When we use it to reclaim our bodies, we turn all of that power that has been used against us to our advantage. What we wield cannot be used to bring us down.

But this is all a bit simplistic, isn’t it? Even if I decide to use “cunt” in a poem, for all these reasons, I still run a huge risk that listeners will not understand or appreciate the intention behind it. Language is never a one-way transaction. And I will constantly need to adapt and censor the work for my audience: sensitivity to younger listeners and different values are entirely appropriate; and I’m a performance poet, so there is always a social context to consider.

This raises another question:

Is it the poet’s job to push the barriers of language, whether audiences are ready or not?

Allen Ginsberg was known to a generation of mainstream America as someone who ‘shocked’ society and overturned normal rules of propriety. I believe that his intent was never merely to shock, but to speak the truth in an honest, uncompromising way. He summed up the question in a coherent and compelling manner on national television after being asked by the producer not to say any ‘dirty words’:

Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in Washington Square in 1966. Credit Associated Press .jpg
Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in Washington Square in 1966. Credit Associated Press

“the language we use should reflect our inner worlds. When you censor me (on TV) there is a problem with our language… this is censorship of the spontaneity and delight of poetic language… If you are creating art from a genuine, not constructed consciousness, (the sensory field or “mind-images”), the language of consciousness enters into that. Those are the building blocks of art… Right now, you are being denied my actual words.”

Ginsberg has simplified the question of which words we should use to describe our bodies. To him, the language we use in public should be true to our inner worlds. So here’s a question that actually floored me for a bit:

When you think of your ‘ladyparts’, your actual spontaneous experience of your body, which word does your inner voice use?

Honestly, my first answer was, “nothing.” Now that is a little weird, when I consider that my inner voice has no trouble labelling my elbow, nose, or thumb. But that place which draws my inner attention frequently, which hums and sings and desires and brings pleasure, that place is a confused linguistic blank. Where is the ‘spontaneity and delight of poetic language’ in that?

This makes me feel that it is even more important, then, to consciously choose the words we wish to know ourselves by. If I choose a word of power, even with its negative associations, I feel like it serves us better than something which only hints at and diminishes the thing it points to. Although sometimes a blank can move the conversation forward just as powerfully, as Lisa Williams did in this poem.

What every poem is implicitly saying is this:

This is the best word to name that experience, the most important word; this is the word that deserves a place in our language.

For now, I’m standing by my word.