Firstly let me say I have not read anything by the husband and wife authors before, did not look at any reviews and bought the book on the title alone – a bit of a leap into the dark.
As soon as I took it out of the packaging, looking at the illustration and size my immediate thoughts were that this is aimed at a younger audience. This became evident in the author’s notes and the fact this was the second book to Gendered Swapped Fairy Tales. The idea of gender swapping characters was bourne out of their own childhood where during their bedtime stories genders were secretly swapped and, years later when they became parents, thinking about the world of stereotyping their daughter would grow up in. A quick flip through shows it would be an ideal bedtime reading book, thirteen myths come thick and fast with no chapters over sixteen pages long and the fantasy illustrations are colourful with engaging detail.
The swapping on genders was carried out by an alogorithm that the author developed and has some interesting effects. Although male becomes female, god becomes goddess etc. the descriptive traits are left in situ. The myths have not been changed as such and the versions they have used are based on a number of children’s authors from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries maintaining a balance of 50% male to female authors. The effect is a feeling of authenticity of the past with many hithers and thithers but also usage of language that has evolved within modern society such as gay and queer: happy and strange respectively. Character names have been changed to either masculine or feminine endings although some creativity has had to be employed such as changing Minotaur to Minoheifer. Although the authors have included a glossary naming gender-swapped characters it was relatively easy and fun to work out who they were. I must confess the first couple of chapters my brain kept changing the names to my ‘standard’ names but this soon passed.
The effect was startling. The stories are both familiar and unfamiliar but we enter a world where women are the heroines: strong, noble, brave, muscled and always ready for a quest. Men are beautiful, vulnerable, fearful, often seized and always wanted to marry the heroine.
“She is coming!” cried Thesea, and she ran forward to meet the beast. The seven batchelors shrieked, but tried to stand up bravely and face their fate; and the six young women stood together with firm-set teeth and clenched fists, ready to fight to the last.Thesea and the Minoheifer
What became evident, and shocked me, was the the repetitive prevalance of the descriptive adjectives. Of course they have always been there and I am sure others have noticed but, I suspect because of orthodoxy and bias I had not noticed them to this extent. Considering the influence of myth over millenia including portrayals in modern day, mainstream cinema the reinforcement of gender bias remains prevalent. From my personal perspective it is a little uncomfortable that evidence of masculine privilege is staring me in the face. Although, positively, it is a focus that can broaden my understanding of influences and consequenses. Although the repetitive adjectives are attention grabbing other aspects begin to show themselves: how expectations are influenced by the descriptive words, why monsters are gendered in a particular way, how the ‘supporting characters’ in the world of quest tend to be male etc..
When I received this book I posted it on a Facebook Group. One of the more recent comment was the question: What is the point?
I think this is an excellent question as it focussed my thoughts on the benefits of reading the books and adding it to my collection.
It can be taken at face value as children’s bedtime reading and, as someone with grandchildren I welcome the opportunity for a different style of book. I feel that, even at a relatively young age, it will nevertheless give the opportunity subtley approach equality and combat stereotyping.
It is an excellent example of one of the fundementals of myth. Myth has been used through millenia to expain the world around us when other explanations were not available: the origin of nature and all in it, the foundations of cities, the rise and fall of individuals and houses etc.. As such there is not a true myth as it is adopted, adapted and refined to suit narratives and cultures. The imaginitive adaptation, as it is just that not an re-imagination as the stories remain ‘original’, is a reaction and a result of the fast moving changes within society. Unusual yes, but definitely of our time.
It gives a new and unusual lens in which to view ancient times. There is the opportunity to evaluate, as already mentioned, why some monsters were gendered the way they were, to consider societal tensions, fears and concerns just to name two. My interest is with drama, another medium where ethical, social, legal, military, philospical and political conundrums and concerns are often addressed. Swapping the genders of Medea (or should I say Medeus) or the relationship between Phaedra and Hippolytus goes some way to understanding how their actions would have been culturally outragious but at the same time highlights other more nuanced aspects.
Using authors from the beginning of the twentieth century, I was struck by how the meaning of words had changed over the last hundred years as a result of societal changes. Although society may not have changed at the same pace in Greek and Roman times it was not static. So, I wonder how the meaning behind the words may have been interpreted differently though time and especially when different cultures interacted with each other. Although words can be the same, similar or invented as the equivalent did not exist in different cultues, the same must go for the attributes that were being described. Possibly another avanue for thought.
So yes, it is a story book but for me, there was so much more and I would recomend this is a valuable addition to any collection and certainly for those with an interest in myth, reception and feminist studies. I would urge a visiting the Gender Swapped website for more information on the authors, books, resouces and information.