“Gender Swapped Fairy Tales” by Karrie Fransman & Jonathan Flackett

Gender Swapped Fairy Tales by Karrie Fransman & Jonathan Plackett ( Faber & Faber) is a retelling of the fairy tales by swapping the genders of the main characters. The Andrew Lang versions, published between 1889-1913, were compiled with his wife Leonora Blanche Alleyne’s assistance and have been chosen for this twenty-first century retelling. The stories in this particular volume include the oft anthologised fairy tales — “Beauty and the Beast” (“Handsome and the Beast”), “Cinderella” ( “Cinder, or the Little Glass Slipper”), “Princess and the Pea” ( “How to tell a True Prince”), “Jack and the Beanstalk” ( “Jacqueline and the Beanstalk”), “Rapunzel” ( “Mr Rapunzel”), “Sleeping Beauty” ( “The Sleeping Handsome in the Wood”), “Thumbelina” ( “Thumbelin”) etc.

Creative technologiest Jonathan Plackett recounts bedtime storytelling by his father who in order not to be bored-out-of-his-mind reading out aloud fairytales to his children, chose to swap the genders of the characters in the books. It made the torturous exercise far more entertaining for him. This tiny aspect of storytelling stayed with Jonathan who as an adult, a husband and now a father himself, chose to explore a world “where little girls can be powerful and where little boys can express their vulnerability without anger”.

I wondered if it would be possible to create a computer algorithm that swapped all gendered language in any text, turning “he” to “she”, “Mrs” to “Mr” and “daughters” to “sons”. After some surprising and pronounced battles with the oddities of the English language, I managed to create an easy-to-use computer program that could swap the gender of any text you threw at it. … Right before our eyes, fascinating new characters were created and stereotypes were laid bare. We saw princesses in shining armour racing to rescue their sleeping princes. Kings sat by windows sewing and longing for a child. Kind-hearted young men were rewarded for looking past the flaws of beastly princesses. The stories took on a new dimension, effortlessly highlighting the gender biases within the original text.

Comic writer and artist Karrie Fransman is Jonathan’s wife and illustrator of Gender Swapped Fairy Tales. She writes:

Fairy tales are the ideal genre to gender swap. They are some of the earliest stories we are exposed to as children and form the very building blocks of storytelling. They allow us to live out fantasies, inhabit roles and defeat monsters. Most importantly they teach us the difference between good” and “evil” and about the moral codes that govern our society: that boys should bravely scale giant beanstalks to claim what is rightfully theirs, or that little girls should be wary of talking to strangers in dark woods. However, these tales also contain all the magic and possibility of fairy dust. If we can imagine a world where harps sing and rats transform into coachmen, can we not ( with a little help from a gender-swapping algorithm) also imagine a world where kings want kids and where old women aren’t witches?

The fairy tales that have been retold in this book are very familiar to everyone. They get transmitted orally but have also been popularised by hand-sketched frame-by-frame animation films especially by Disney from the 1950s onwards. It is one of the biggest money spinning ventures for Disney, so much so that the studio is in the twenty-first century releasing films made with real people or computer-drawn animation that is as close to the authentic real person/animal. Television series of the 1980s like “Fairy Tale Theatre” were also an extraordinary success. They featured well-known actors, musicians and celebrities of the day in the fairy tales. Delightfully remade but did not veer from the traditional plotline that had been passed through the generations, at least since the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen had collected the tales in the nineteenth century. Fairy tales/folk lore are an integral part of oral storytelling, so they have ample flexibility built within for retellings. Hence, it was no surprise when the Politically Correct Bedtime Stories were a runaway success in the early part of the 1990s as well. Keeping this in mind it is obvious that the gender-swapped tales would be equally amusing. They are a reflection of the age we live in — where people are more sensitive to gendered perspectives, especially with the #MeToo movement. There have been many, many womens movements in the past but the #MeToo movement was the first time that it united individuals across the globe in this manner. It began with the premise of women being sexually harassed but it is has now grown to include a range of women-related issues. It is the shorthand of being aware of the complexities of gender issues vis-a-vis women.

Be that as it may, the authors of Gender Swapped Fairy Tales are acutely aware that they are not suggesting that there are only two genders to swap.

For the purposes of this discussion, we view the term “sex” as focussing on the body and “gender” as socially constructed. Most cultures divide genders into “feminine” and “masculine” and all the social roles, norms and behaviours that separate them. However, these days people are increasingly becoming comfortable inhabiting the space in between these dichotomised ideas of “feminity” or “masculinity”. We have people who identify as gender non-binary, queer, transgender, gender fluid, agender or other-gender and more. But the division of “feminine” and “masculine” is still prominent in most people’s minds and also in language. By swapping these two dominant gender constructs, we want to disrupt this binary and ask people to question what assumptions we make about gender in society.

The retold stories in this volume are amusing to read. They are a joy to read especially when seen in juxtaposition to the brilliantly bright illustrations that are very reminiscent of Soviet books for children. This includes the little details that are laid out in the design of practically every page. It is an expensive book but it is worth buying. For those familiar with Andrew Lang’s stories, this book may become problematic to read but for those who are unfamiliar with scrumptious editions of the fairy books, these stories would be delightful as they reflect the popular sentiment of our age — letting people be exactly what they wish to be without being yoked into social expectations and behaviour.

Gender Swapped Fairy Tales is a beautifully produced book. It is stunning to hold. There is a creaminess in the quality of paper used, the hardback opens beautifully without getting scrunched in the middle or requiring force to push it open, the inking of the illustrations is rich, bright and clear. It is an excellent addition in a personal collection or a school library. It is definitely worthy of being gifted to children and adults alike. Do it!

31 July 2021

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