We grow up to believe that fairy tales do come true but as we get older we understand the harshness of reality. While bidding adieu to fairy tales may expose us to the pain that love and the loss of innocence can cause, there is also an empowering side to facing reality. Feminist scholars of the twenty-first century such as Donald Haase, Jeana Jorgensen or Robin Sheets explore fairy tales as a model of entering a conversation of female empowerment. Haase states how “modern women [have] become increasingly conscious of the gap between romantic ideals and the reality that ‘all men are not princes’” (Haase 19). In most classical fairy tales the prince is the one who steers the destiny of the female and exerts his power over her through his heroic actions. But we know that in the real world the fictional prince is not subject to reality but an individual that often oppresses the female voice.
However, even though the feminist scholars often reflect on the fairy tale model to analyze the female empowerment movement, none of them mention the British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy even though her collection of poems in The World’s Wife (1999) often alludes to and revises fairy tales in a feminist manner.
The poet challenges the power dynamic between men and women in her poem “Mrs Beast”. The poem references familiar fairy tales by redirecting romantic notions presented in original writings to the new and unfamiliar interpretation. Duffy proposes a reversal of gender norms, which she demonstrates through the way in which the female first person speaker engages in a sexual relationship with a ‘Beast’. In this ‘fairy tale’ the female speaker is the one in control of the Beast, the bedroom and her own life, which outlines an image of female empowerment. Duffy celebrates the independence of women expressed through the voice of the female speaker by putting familiar “myths going round, these legends fairytales,/ (…) straight” to shed light on the illusion of a ‘happily ever after’ and empowers women to take charge.
The allusions to fairy tales and other famous female figures provide a contrast to the independence and sexual crudeness of the female speaker. The knowledge of the allusions is a crucial element to understand the contextual medium Duffy incorporates. Jorgensen argues that “rewritings are built on prior texts, and they often rely on the reader’s knowledge of earlier versions in order for their full meaning to be carried across” (Jorgensen 33). If the poem ‘Mrs Beast’ is interpreted as a contemporary fairy tale addressing the social oppression of women, the inclusion of classical fairy tales such as the Little Mermaid, Rapunzel or Snow White is an effective way of entering the conversation of female power dynamics. Having read them during childhood, these classical allusions are familiar to a wide readership and communicate the charming and heroic prince. However, Duffy turns The Little Mermaid into a parody to provide an example of how fairy tales are really an illustration of the oppressed female voice:
(…) The Little Mermaid slit
Her shining, silver tail in two, rubbed salt
Into that stinking wound, got up and walked,
In agony, in fishnet tights, stood up and smiled, waltzed,
All for a Prince, a pretty boy, a charming one
Who’d dump her in the end, chuck her, throw her overboard.”
The sensual references such as the “stinking wound” or the stinging effect that the salt would have in the cut in conjunction with the sibilance create the harshness of the sacrifices the Little Mermaid has made to please the “pretty boy”. The reference to the “fishnet tights” suggests how the prince turns her, a beautiful mermaid and mythical fish, into a prostitute; he uses her for her body and then “chuck[ed] her […] overboard”. It is not unheard of that men, who use their handsomeness as a ‘chick magnet’, use women just for intercourse without any emotional attachment often leaving women vulnerable. Duffy goes on to emphasize how “They’re bastards when they’re Princes” and a ‘Beast’, who does not possess the ‘chick magnet’ quality, will be better suited because he will generally hold onto the first woman he has feelings for. Women are not as plentiful for Beasts unlike for Princes. However, the poet highlights the famous tragic female figures that have fallen into the trap of the ‘chick magnet’ to reinforce how vulnerable they have become after being used by the Prince.
But behind each player stood a line of ghosts
Unable to win. Eve, Ashputtel. Marilyn Monroe.
Rapunzel slashing wildly at her hair. Snow White
Cursing the day she left the seven dwarfs, Diana
Princess of Wales. (…)”
Duffy describes the female fairy tale figures and famous people with tragic ends such as Marilyn Monroe or Princes Diana of Wales as “a line of ghosts”. The imagery does not only refer to the deaths of the women but perhaps also acts as a metaphor of how men have turned the reputation of celebrated and empowering women into one of tragedy.
Although Duffy references disempowered women, Sheets describes how “Pornography […] serves women’s interests by offering them an escape from the repressions of the bourgeois ideology; it counteracts romantic love, undermines heterosexual monogamy, and subverts procreative sex” (Sheets 638). The unconventional approach of how a physical relationship empowers women can be set in dialog with ‘Mrs Beast’ as Sheets’ theory compliments the crudeness and vividness of Duffy’s descriptions. The female speaker in the poem describes how “The sex/ Is better” where the poet uses enjambment as a means of creating suspense to compliment the pleasure communicated. The enjambment does not just occur at the end of a line but actually proceeds into a new stanza leaving a white gap on the page. The suspenseful break between the stanzas can stand for the physical reaction of the female speaker such as a gasp for air to reinforce her positive reaction to the physical relationship with the Beast. While one might argue that this may again underline the male influence over women, Duffy quickly proceeds to emphasize the control that the female speaker has:
[…] I had the language, girls.
The lady says Do this. Harder. The lady says
Do that. Faster. The lady says That’s not where I meant.”
The short and monosyllabic sentences in combination with the direct speech indicated by the capital letters at the beginning of phrases imitate the manner in which sexual intercourse is conducted and strongly relates to Sheets argument that “it counteracts romantic love”. The bluntness of Duffy’s descriptions is pornographic in an unconventional way; the dominant female voice seems liberated and empowered through the honesty of telling her sexual anecdote.
Duffy also achieves the sense of empowerment through the power dynamic between the speaker and the description of the Beast. She describes him as a “pig”, “ugly as sin” and having a “breath of a goat”, which paints an immense contrast to the charming prince we would usually expect to find in fairy tales. At first this may give the reader the impression that the speaker is experiencing a sense of self-worthlessness but Duffy underlines how “The pig in my bed/ Was invited”. It is a clear reversal of the usual patriarchy found in fairy tales. It is not the girl who is invited by the prince to the castle but the independent woman asks the Beast to enter her bedroom. And what happens in the bedroom, which in this case means the speaker dominating the physical relationship, translates into the relationship outside of the bedroom. Her power in the bedroom illustrates how her independent nature and involvements with princes have given her enough life experiences to control men she knows will worship her regardless of whether she wants him “to pick my nose” or “scratch my back/ Till it bled”.
The speaker’s independence becomes even clearer by her control over her own life and references to fictionalized sovereign women. The speaker describes how she knows her “own mind”, has “gold stashed in the bank” and owns her “own black horse at the gates”. Especially the latter quotation returns to the fairy tale allusions. The “black horse at the gates” is a reoccurring motif in classical fairy tales that usually goes side by side with the prince to carry his future wife to the castle. But here the female has taken over the role of the male and is emotionally as well as financially independent. She is free from any ties to men or society in general. Haase argues that fairy tales have been “institutionalized and aligned very quickly with the values and perspectives of patriarchy”, which highlights how the direct reversal of gender roles is a contemporary interpretation of society (Haase 31). Women empowerment is a very young movement that is still in the process of much development, which is why Duffy’s approach of reinterpreting fairy tale norms creates an important conversation. In her poem Duffy continues to describe independent women such as Goldilocks, Frau Yellow Dwarf or the Bride of the Bearded Lesbian (all fictional independent women) as “tough as fuck” and illustrates this through a traditionally male activity: playing poker. Placing women in a male setting clearly urges women to take the role of men and shape their own lives without waiting on some kind of prince who will leave women vulnerable and powerless. Duffy reinforces that message with the last two lines:
[…] Bring me the Beast for the night.
Bring me the wine-cellar key. Let the less-loving one be me.”
The repeating sentence structure of the imperative “Bring me” in conjunction with the internal rhyme of “key” and “me” returns to the simple poetic elements to conclude the poem. Not only do these elements create a fadeout of the poem through repetitive sounds but they also emphasize the importance of poetry in communicating real-world issues.
Fairy tales do not come true. There is no such thing as a ‘happily ever after’. And while that may be hard to face at first, in reality it is a way of liberating women from oppression and male domination. Carol Ann Duffy has contributed to the feminist discourse through her poetry in ‘Mrs Beast’. She encourages women not to shy away from taking charge in the bedroom, making choices and controlling their own lives. Because the dream of a prince charming or any kind of man to come and save their princesses does not only leave women vulnerable to society but also diminishes their own self-image. And the women empowerment Duffy illustrates is a way of thinking that both women and men should adopt.
Duffy, Carol Ann. “Mrs Beast” from The World’s Wife. Pluralite es Mondes. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016. http://missedstations.tumblr.com/post/27044507171/mrs-beast-carol-ann-duffy
Haase, Donald. “Feminist Fairy-tale Scholarship: A Critical Survey and Bibliography”. Marvels & Tales 14.1 (2000): 15–63.
Jorgensen, Jeana. “Innocent Initiations: Female Agency in Eroticized Fairy Tales”. Marvels & Tales 22.1 (2008): 27–37.
Sheets, Robin Ann. “Pornography, Fairy Tales, and Feminism: Angela Carter’s “the Bloody Chamber””. Journal of the History of Sexuality 1.4 (1991): 633–657.
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