Gender Swapped Fairy Tales by Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett

Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett explore gender bias in these classic tales with a twist

It started with an algorithm. No, wait, the baby came first and then the algorithm. When creative technologist Jonathan Plackett and comic writer and artist Karrie Fransman had a daughter, they wondered if it would be possible to create a program that “swapped all gendered language in any text”, he to she, daughter to son and so on. Having built it, they applied it to the ur-narrative text, the fairytale, choosing the Fairy Books, edited by Andrew Lang, published at the back end of the 19th century and into the 20th. The result is blunt and impartial, deliberately so: there’s no finer human judgment applied story by story (is a pantaloon male or female? What about a ruffle?), it’s a straight computer-says-she switcheroo. The illustrations are quite special, particularly when they veer into fantasy. I loved the forest full of parrots in “Little Red Riding Hood”, the lizards and mice in “Cinder”.

Plainly, the core audience is the malleable young mind, a child at the age of such innocence that they haven’t yet internalised the gender prejudice all around them, and who will head into the world thinking of women as adventurers and men as very much in touch with their emotions. But more fascinating – particularly if your children are too old and cynical for such an enterprise – is to read it yourself for what jars, what surprises, what seems implausible, what repels.

While in life I have no problem with a female chief executive, for some reason I can’t get my head around a lady miller. Dads who cook? Sure, I had one of those myself. Yet when “One day [Little Red Riding Hood’s] father, having made some custards, said to him …” I couldn’t even concentrate on the instruction (which is “take these to your grandfather”, obviously) for the din of my interior monologue, saying: “DADS DON’T COOK CUSTARD”.

The obvious and persistent bias – and I wonder whether, also, the most life-defining – is the beauty standard, the fact that a woman is judged by her appearance in a way a man is not, that her ugliness or beauty both inform the world’s view of her and become the whole of her, excluding all other traits. It’s revealed in a fact as simple as “beauty” functioning as a noun where “handsome” does not. How could a handsome man contract into “a handsome”? How would we know how daring he also was? “The Sleeping Handsome in the Wood”, “Handsome and the Beast”, all ram home, with a light, rueful humour, the timeless message to a woman in fiction: be beautiful, or be evil, or go home.

‘Snowdrop’ illustration by Karrie Fransman
‘Snowdrop’ illustration by Karrie Fransman Illustration: Karrie Fransman

The requirement of thinness is separate to beauty – to be not thin enough, to break “above a dozen laces in trying to be laced up close, that they might have a fine slender shape”, is to make yourself ridiculous, a truism that I tended to swallow unexamined until the ugly sisters were ugly brothers. These tales are not voicing the modern obsession with an emaciated female body shape; rather, they iterate the Fay Weldon principle, that societies throughout history have wanted women to be smaller, not to be desirable but just so we take up less space.

Beauty being the paramount quality, it stands to reason that female envy would be a powerful force – indeed, in many myths, the only force: why else are stepmothers always so damn mean? Yet only when six sisters become six brothers do the more casual allusions to it leap out: there isn’t really a beautiful heroine in folklore whose sisters don’t hate her and wish she’d go and live with some ogre – or failing that, almost anybody.

Under every rock, I found dozens of my own unconscious biases, wriggling like earwigs under the exposure. When the merchant in “Handsome and the Beast” loses all her money, having been double-crossed by her trading agents, there was – so help me – a tiny interior voice going “why are women so gullible, they’re always getting ripped off by their agents”. When I chased this voice down to its source, it turned out I was thinking of Leonard Cohen, who is apparently an honorary woman in my subconscious purely by dint of having been ripped off by his manager.

Absolutely stark and unignorable is the prejudice against an older, or uglier woman, trying to sexually exploit a beautiful young man: the female Beast, even the Queen in “Cinder” (mother to the Princess who throws the ball, who “old as she was, could not help watching” Cinder) seem predatory and unnatural as cougars, while as men they were sinned against or harmless. Likewise, the expectation of maternal altruism vexes what were previously totally sound scenarios: sure, a father might give his daughter to a beast to save his own skin, but how could a mother do that? Of course there are stories that make more sense with a gender-swap. It’s totally legit for a princess to choose a mate by the size of his feet.

I found myself wanting an algorithm that swapped rich for poor, aristocrats for ordinary folk, to bring the same spirit of interrogation to class bias, the assumption that the nobler you are, the braver and more moral. One thing I’d forgotten about the genre is how loaded it is with stuff: chests full of gold, the finest silks – paragraph after paragraph just shopping lists of luxury items. I’d love to see that turned on its head, so that the stuff-afforders weren’t necessarily always the dragon-slayers. That’s the problem with liberals, give us an inch …

Gender Swapped Fairy Tales is published by Faber (£20). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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