NEW SPINSTERS SMASH THE PA­TRI­ARCHY

Geist - - Endnotes - —Kelsea O’con­nor

In The Merry Spin­ster (Henry Holt), a col­lec­tion of fem­i­nist short sto­ries, Mal­lory Ort­berg ex­poses the dark un­der­belly of fa­mil­iar fairy tales. An ex­ten­sion of “Chil­dren’s Sto­ries Made Hor­rific,” Ort­berg’s col­umn on the-toast.net (a web­site of hu­mour and fem­i­nist writ­ing, now in­ac­tive), The Merry Spin­ster twists folk tales, Bi­b­li­cal sto­ries and favourite chil­dren’s books alike, into sto­ries that sub­vert plot lines, gen­der and cul­tural norms. No happy end­ings here, only an un­com­fort­able recog­ni­tion that vil­lain­ous men are also found out­side of fairy tales: a Beast (here, just a man) tries to guilt a servile Beauty into mar­ry­ing him, her cap­tor; a mer­maid kills her cheat­ing hus­band in or­der to re­store her voice; a frog worms his way into the Princess’s bed with­out clear con­sent. This is why I found “The Six Coffins,” a retelling of the Broth­ers Grimm sto­ries “The Six Swans” and “The Twelve Broth­ers,” to be the most sat­is­fy­ing of Ort­berg’s sto­ries. In it, the daughter tri­umphs over a tyran­ni­cal fa­ther in a sharp com­men­tary on pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety and women’s re­pro­duc­tive rights. “The Rab­bit” was per­haps the most sin­is­ter story: in this retelling of The Vel­veteen Rab­bit, the rab­bit strate­gizes how best to “take some­one else’s Real” and keep it for him­self, with un­for­tu­nate im­pli­ca­tions for his hu­man owner. Above all, Ort­berg’s hu­mour and keen ob­ser­va­tions chal­lenged my ex­pec­ta­tions in each story. I could not read more than one at a time, not sim­ply be­cause I didn’t want to rush through the book, but also be­cause the sto­ries were too un­set­tling to binge on. The Merry Spin­ster stands in good com­pany with Emily Car­roll’s Through the Woods and Is­abel Green­berg’s The One Hun­dred Nights of Hero, which to­gether form a new tra­di­tion of fem­i­nist fairy tales that aim to smash the pa­tri­archy.

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