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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Princesses Who Love Other Princesses - A Spotlight on Queer Retellings ~ from Jessie Quinn

"On the whole I am inclined to think that a witch should not kiss. Perhaps it is the not being kissed that makes her a witch; perhaps the source of her power is the breath of loneliness around her."

-- "The Tale of the Kiss," 
Kissing The Witch (page 226)

Hello, fantastic folks! I'm Jessie Quinn from Quinn of the Universe and cupofbooks on YouTube. I want to talk about some fairy tale retellings that feature princesses who fall in love with other princesses -- or in some cases, princesses who fall in love with wicked witches.

In the past year, I discovered Kissing The Witch: Old Tales in New Skins by Emma Donoghue and Sappho's Fables, Volume 1: Three Lesbian Fairy Tale Novellas by Elora Bishop and Jennifer Diemer through some creative Googling and... Goodreads-ing. (Don't look at me like that. "Goodreads-ing" is totally a word.) These collections feature some very imaginative retellings of well-known European fairy tales: There's surreal dreamlands, apples that grant immortality and witches who cast spells without magic among other things. Kissing The Witch and Sappho's Fables also re-imagine many of the original female characters as queer.*

In many ways, most of these retellings are the stories you remember: Cinderella goes from rags to riches, Beauty looks beyond appearances to see the person within the Beast, Hansel and Gretel must rely on one another after their parents abandon them, etc. But they differ in a few major ways: 1) The women in these retellings fall in love other women, 2) the relationships between these women are much more positive than the ones in original tales, and 3) the witches may not be so wicked after all.

A lot of well-known European fairy tales feature ladies hating on other ladies. There's a lot of wicked witches ("Rapunzel," "Sleeping Beauty," "Hansel and Gretel,") and evil stepmothers ("Snow White," "Cinderella," "Hansel and Gretel" again) who lash out at innocent young girls. There's also some spoiled sisters who sometimes make life difficult for the leading ladies and their families ("Cinderella," "Beauty in the Beast"). Of course, there are exceptions -- but often when there are two or more women in these fairy tales, they're at odds with one another.

Kissing The Witch and Sappho's Fables re-imagine many of the negative relationships between women found in these fairy tales as romances. This means beautiful princesses fall in love with wicked witches: Snow White finds herself drawn to the queen, an older Gretel develops feelings for the witch in the gingerbread house, and a young woman willingly kisses the sea witch. Unlike the original fairy tales, these retellings encourage us to empathize with the wicked/evil/spoiled ladies. The authors deliberately write them as flawed, rather than unforgivably evil.

Both Kissing The Witch and Sappho's Fables offer insight into why these women may have turned to wickedness in the first place and the reasons these retellings propose are often much more compelling that the reasons given in the fairy tales themselves. In some of these retellings, these ladies are "wicked" because people expect them to be; in others, they are "wicked" because they don't the luxury of being "good." And in many of these retellings, they are "wicked" because they fight for control over their own lives. While other novels re-imagine these characters in similar ways, Kissing The Witch and Sappho's Fables are different because these female villains aren't just re-imagined as friends or mentors -- they're the love interests! These maybe-not-so-wicked witches not only help the princesses live happily ever after, they are essential to those happy endings.

Admittedly, not all of the retellings in Kissing the Witch or Sappho's Fables feature princesses falling in love with wicked witches; some of them just put on romantic twist on positive relationships that already exist in the fairy tales. (For example, Cinderella runs off with her fairy godmother in Kissing The Witch.) But even when these female villains not the love interests, these retellings still avoid calling them outright "evil." In Sappho's Fables, the witch isn't wicked in the "Rapunzel" retelling; she's simply a mother who did wicked things in order to protect her only daughter. Meanwhile in Kissing The Witch, we discover that the only one forcing Cinderella to scrub and sweep and clean is herself; there was never any evil stepmother, just her own insecurities yelling at her inside her own head.

While Kissing The Witch and Sappho's Fables have their flaws (there's a lack of characters of color, there's some missed opportunities to really twist the original tales), but I still recommend checking both of these collections out. Whereas a lot of well-known fairy tales pit women against other women, these queer retellings try to present more positive relationships between women. Many of the original fairy tales show good women being rewarded and bad women being punished, but Kissing The Witch and Sappho's Fables avoid presenting this characters as only "good" or "evil." They're much more complicated characters than the originals, and as a result, the relationships in these retellings are sometimes more true to life.


*I specifically use the word "queer" rather than "lesbian," because while some of these characters are only interested in women, others are attracted to women and men.

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  1. I bought Kissing the Witch when it was released in paperback almost ten years ago. It's one of my favorite books. I wish she'd write another collection of fairy tales retold. :D

  2. I would love to read these stories. I'll have to look for them. I'd love to see the characters from a different side, in a different light other than evil just misunderstood.
    Great reviews!


  3. I really enjoyed this post. LGBT fairy tale re-tellings have always intrigued me. It would be interesting to read a crossover where say Rapunzel and Snow White met or something.

  4. Thanks for putting these on my radar...I love a good re-telling, when the characters are made more human. And positive relationships between women (queer or not) in novels is something that is sadly lacking, even now. It's a rare thing to find a book (or movie) with two heroines that are equally featured, complex, and plot-driving. Yay!


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