Introduction, Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales

Yasmina Sarhrouny, Mohamed V University, Rabat, Morocco

Part 1 of the author's "Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales"

This study consists of a feminist reading of seven Moroccan tales collected by myself from my grandmother and aunt. The seven texts focus on the lives and tribulations of women characters, named and nameless, young and old, married and single, as they progress in a fantastic world of magical events and characters. Told by women and about women, they represent for the critic privileged insights of the female culture and unconscious, and constitute collective testimonies of the female condition within the patriarchal society. Indeed, caught by the laws that both govern the narrative from and the broader cultural structures that gave birth to them, these texts are necessary assertions of the patriarchal values; nevertheless, the expression of the female desire and subversion of traditional cultural frameworks finds its way into the texts, an underground, or undertext, insurrection that can only become evident with the help of specific theoretical readings. I aim, thus, to use a deconstructive feminist approach to demonstrate the ambivalence and complexity of the female discourse in these 'women's' wonder tales.

The said tales, translated from Arabic into English, were originally in Tamazight. It could be assumed that the violence translation perpetrated on the original texts degraded and modified them. Yet the possibility of the existence of 'original' texts per se in the realm of oral literature is a mere utopia, as it is for written literature as well. For a text, be it written or oral, is, as Barthes puts it, but a "tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture" , with no god-like author to hold a claim over it. However, it has been traditionally established that a written text is literature, while an oral one is folklore, a pot-pourri of genres that does not reach the blessed status of 'Culture'. Such distinctions are of no relevance in this approach; tales are texts that require the same analysis and attention the so-called canonical texts call for. More than that, tales from what is known as the oral tradition open up infinite horizons for multiple readings, precisely because they have multiple facets .

The 'oral' text is characterized by its flexibility. While the conventional written text indulges in fixity, the tale guarantees an adaptability seldom found in literature. It is processable and variable. It is contextual and contingent, can be changed, like the pieces of a puzzle, according to the linguistic and cultural environment. It is moveable; tales travel from one location to another and can be found worldwide. The oral text is an extensive intertextual structure which yields itself to no hierarchical pressures of capitalist claims of authenticity or possession. More than that, the tale is but a matter of encoding, and encoding that could be undone and reworked. Hence its importance as a gendering and a socializing engine which, although meant to condition women and men for their sex-roles, leaves enough space in its flexible narrative form for them to express their dissidence. Indeed, the language it is moulded in delineates the logic of the tale and its form. But, precisely because language itself is, according to Derrida, a discourse, a centreless structure where the interplay of significance is extended ad infinitum, a "system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences" , the tale spreads out in a play of discursive practices that collide and clash with each other in infinite versions.

Because of these specificities, the tale calls for a specific theoretical framework, drawing basically from the poststructuralist battery of theories, and especially its applications in the field of psychoanalytic and feminist criticism to effectively grasp the ambivalence and conflicts at work. Yet, there has been very little research done in this regard. Most works on the tale in the past relied on liberal humanist modes of analysis or, eventually, linguistic criticism. One of the pioneers in the latter is Vladimir Propp, whose Morphologie du Conte is a huge formalist study of hundreds of Russian folktales, which gave birth to a taxonomy of the traditional folktale's forms and functions. Some critics assert that Propp's classifications provide a universal model for the folktale; that would mean the erasure of race, class, gender and ethnic differences. There is no need to argue about the violence of such a homogenizing attitude. The same criticism could be levelled at the traditional psychoanalytic reading of tales, like Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment . His Freudian approach to European tales is most enlightening, yet he applies psychoanalytic concepts in too systematic a manner, overlooking the subversive potential of such ambivalent texts. On the contrary, he sees them as socializing apparatuses that enable the child to resolve the Oedipus complex and its ensuing anxieties to reach the 'normal' sexual maturity that secures psychic comfort for the individual, which it does not. Tales are much more complex than mere moralizing stories.

It is precisely because of their complexity that such texts call for feminist deconstructive readings, in order to fully determine the mechanisms that shape up women into others, in addition to "the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy" , that is, the space the female voice invests within the narrative to express its difference. Complying with the Law of the Father even as they undermine its doctrines, tales constitute sites of ambivalent discourses on women and for women, since they are, to quote Reumaux, a space for fiction where the conflicts, the non-said and the repressed of the social reality take shape, and where the tale plays the role of a tension regulator. Besides, the tale, being the expression of the ethnic unconscious, is contained by a stable narrative structure and restrained by its rules . To associate stability with a manifestation of the unconscious is obviously to disregard the fundamental instability of the latter. Indeed, the narrative form of the tale that Propp and many others see as inflexible is constantly weakened and recuperated by contradictory discourses. It is as formless, monstrously shapeless and subject to manipulation as the language it is trapped in.

The tale form is indeed a very complex genre of narrative and requires adequate criticism. This study is limited to the analysis of the tale as a gendering engine, an apparatus ensuring the construction of gender identities, using the seven tales collected. The first section is concerned with the treatment of female sexuality in the tales; even if culturally reduced to silence, the female voice finds its way through imagery and symbols to express the female desire for sexual freedom. The second section and third section concentrate on two major elements in the tale on women, the father and the mother figure. Indeed, their status is indicative of the tensions inherent in the female psyche as well as in the patriarchal system, as Oedipal feelings and matrophobic behaviour emerge in the texts in various and disguised forms. All through the three sections a depiction of the sexual politics regulating male-female relationships crystallizes, relationships based on binary structures of power and domination as illustrated by the tales, on the one hand, and characterized by the constant yet silent subversion of male authority by the female presence, on the other.

Indeed, in this collection, women are trying to tell their stories in their own terms, using, sometimes, alternative modes of textuality, such as weaving. It is significant that characters from stories are immortalized in carpets, as such tales are but reproductions and representations of the reality of women in a given community. This association of storytelling with weaving somehow echoes postsructuralist claims that culture and language are both 'network', 'tissues', 'woven' and constructed through a system of 'links'. So, in a sense, women construct their realities and their identities as they weave their carpets, even if the said carpets are seldom figurative, because orthodox Islam censors figurative art. Most of the times, carpets display geometric shapes and patterns; however, sometimes, a carpet might represent animals, like birds, cats and camels, and girls in dresses and skirts. Curiously enough, these characters are recurrent in tales, a fact that maybe illustrates the theory that tales are deeply rooted in women's imaginary and consciousness, to the extent that they draw from them images and sign to reproduce on concrete supports. There is definitely an affinity between women and storytelling since Sheherazade, and a bond between women and weaving since Penelope. Both women negotiated their survival through telling their stories in their master's voice, but managed to leave a space within which to express themselves anyway. With the same determination, women articulate authentic anxieties and portray everyday labour through the magical world of the wonder tale.

The task of critic is, therefore, to delve into such texts, which constitute marginalized histories of women, in a feminist attempt to unearth the buried voices of women. Furthermore, the regenerative energies of tales should be exploited to reformulate and rewrite them to disrupt their mechanisms as gendering texts, to let them become liberating texts.

Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales

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Last modified: 14 December 2001