O May, month of nerdy holidays. I write this on May the Fourth, a.k.a. Star Wars Day. Two days ago, this past Saturday, was two tasty holidays: Independent Bookstore Day and Free Comic Book Day.
In honor of Free Comic Book Day, I drew (yes, me, using a Wacom tablet for the first time) the first in a series of comics that follow the trials and tribulations of that wacky fairy-tale wife murderer, Bluebeard.
Poor Bluebeard; he just can’t catch a break. All he wants to do is find personal fulfillment by repeatedly murdering his wives. And yet. In this series, it just never goes right for him.
In part inspired by Blondie, in part inspired by David Ives’ play Variations on the Death of Trotsky, I have thirteen of these comics that I am, at this point, planning on drawing my damn self. Realizing how long it takes to draw stuff is a healthy exercise that every writer of comics should undergo at least once. 🙂
The heroine from “Donkeyskin,” since I couldn’t find a good pic of the father. art by stuntkid
Who he is:
There is a recurring character type in Grimm’s and a number of other fairy tale canons: the incestuous father. He’s usually a king who has one daughter and whose wife has died. He comes to the bizarro-world-logical conclusion that he must remarry someone as beautiful as his dead wife. Of course, no one in the kingdom is so beautiful, except his teenage daughter, because genetics. He tries to marry his daughter, who actually-logically freaks right out and runs away. She often goes and hides somewhere in the skin or fur of an animal. I’m sure the Jungians and/or Freudians will tell you why.
About the tale(s):
The incestuous father theme shows up in Charles Perrault’s “Donkeyskin” (which Robin McKinley retold in her fantastic YA novel Deerskin), the Grimm’s “All Fur” (winner in the 1889 Fairy Tale That Sounds Like A Porno Competition), and the Italian tale, “Wooden Maria.” More directly, in Scotland the tale is called “The King Who Wished to Marry His Daughter”; in India, it’s called “The Princess Whose Father Wanted to Marry Her.” Like I say, it’s a theme.
Why Disney wouldn’t want him:
Somehow, even though kids deal with abuse and incest, it’s such a taboo in our society that We Dare Not Speak Its Name. Also, cute songs about running away from your incestuous father would be a little weird. Disney dads are always the good guys; in the latter-day Disney films dads are usually the ones their daughters are trying to protect. There are never truly evil biological parents in Disney.
Widow. Remarried. Child murderess who cooked her dead stepson. Met with horrible end. Standard Grimm fare.
About the tale:
A widower, who has a son, remarries a widow with a daughter of her own. His new wife becomes insanely angry about/jealous of the son, and so beheads him with the heavy lid of an apple chest, like you do. Then she hides the body by cooking it. Her daughter finds the bones and buries them under the juniper tree in the yard. Meanwhile, a little adorable bird is flying around town singing “My mother she killed me, my father he ate me, my sister Marlene, she made sure to see my cones were all gathered together, bound nicely in silk, as neat as can be, and laid beneath the juniper tree. Tweet, tweet! What a lovely bird I am!” (Zipes translation) Apparently, no one in the village is weirded out, nor investigates the alleged crimes. Instead, they give the bird gifts: a pair of shoes for Marlene, a gold chain for Dad, and a millstone for Stepma. In the end, Stepma is crushed to death and the son mysteriously regenerates. The final line, which I find to be the most chilling part of the tale, is: “They went into the house, sat down at the table, and ate.” COME ON, Grimms. After a cannibalism tale, happy family dinner?
Why Disney wouldn’t want her:
Disney’s perfectly fine with murderous step-parents from Snow White onwards. This tale even has the requisite adorable singing bird. However, the cannibalism kicks this tale right out of the running. Apparently incestuous cannibalism is an issue Disney doesn’t want to touch. Who knew?
Bluebeard, bein’ a wall-eyed creeper. Art by Gustav Dore.
Who he is:
Just a guy with a blue beard who marries girls, plays mind games with them, and then kills them and stores their corpses in his murder closet. NBD.
About the tale:
A girl ends up marrying Bluebeard, usually with pressure from her family because he’s loaded. When she goes to his house, he is indeed loaded, and shows off all his wealth. Then he tells her he’s leaving on a trip and gives her the keys to the house. He tells her she can use any one except the little golden one on the end. She is, of course, tempted, and after checking out all his bling, uses the forbidden key. She finds, of course, a closet with the bodies of all his former wives. When Bluebeard comes home, he finds out that she used the key (usually through supernatural bloodstain or other marks) and tries to kill her. She begs to go “pray” upstairs (read: shout of the window for help from her family), and her brothers rush in and kill Bluebeard. And then she joins a nunnery and/or becomes a hermit. Okay, maybe not that last bit, but seriously. I wouldn’t take my family’s advice on marriage ever again after that. Other tales of this type include the English tale “Mr. Fox,” and the Grimm tale “Fitcher’s Bird,” and to an extent the Scottish ballad “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight.”
Why Disney wouldn’t want him:
Disney’s all right with lying and/or evil potential love interests. Gaston is a buffoon who turns evil/murderous, Frolo sort of has a Catholic guilt yen for Esmerelda, and Kocoum seems ordinarily jealous of John Smith. But all of these men are sort of normal people who have a bad time of it; none of them are outright evil and duplicitous from the start. (Well, maybe Frolo. But I like to imagine that he could have had a nice retirement illuminating manuscripts or something.) More than anything, though, the murder closet is the issue. It’s just a little too gorey for Disney.
Lilith has two sides to her story. On the one hand, she’s a Jewish demoness whose main gig is temptation and corruption. On the other hand, Lilith is a powerful feminine figure and Adam’s first wife, who was made from clay instead of rib, and was thus equal to Adam. Adam couldn’t handle her, so she was banished and God tried again, this time with patriarchy! Lilith went out beyond Eden and had lots and lots of demon babies. In popular culture, Lilith has been used as an icon of feminism, as in Lilith’s Fair. Talk to an Orthodox Jew, on the other hand, and likely they will not see her in the same light.
About the tale(s):
In Jewish folklore, Lilith either shows up as a surprise naked lady in the basement to seduce otherwise reasonable Jewish husbands, or else she lingers behind mirrors waiting to jump out into vain folks’ lives and mess with them. A great resource for Lilith tales is the book Lilith’s Cave collected by Howard Schwartz.
Why Disney wouldn’t want her:
I mean, realistically, it’s because a sexualized villainess with some fairly direct religious connotations. As a rule, Disney strays the hell away from anything religious. Noteable exceptions include The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where we get a religious zealot villain, and Hercules, which if the Greek Gods were still in power, would have resulted in some lightning bolts up in heeere. But a seductress/demon/mother is just too much for Disney.
Baba Yaga is a withered old witch who lives in the woods of many Russian tales. She lives in a house on chicken legs lit by flaming skull torches. Oh yes. She’s totally metal. She has a cat, a dog, and a stove, in which she cooks the flesh of curious children. She especially enjoys enslaving and then eating little girls. She spends her days flying around the country in a mortar, using a pestle as a rudder.
About the tale(s):
Baba Yaga appears in a lot of different tales, but perhaps her most famous tale (at least on this side of the Atlantic) is “Vasilisa the Wise.” In this story, a little girl, Vasilisa, is in a Cinderella-esque situation of no natural parents and some jerkish stepsisters. They’re a little more direct than Cinderella’s stepsisters, though, in that they send her into to forest on a mission to get light from Baba Yaga. Luckily for Vasilisa, she has a little doll that her late mother gave her. She takes care of it, and in return it tells her all the strategic tips she needs to know about surviving a stay with Baba Yaga. Vasilisa is just the right amount of polite and industrious (completing impossible tasks with the help of her doll), and returns with one of the flaming skulls. If I were one of her sisters, I’d pretty much leave her alone forever, ‘cause anyone who can talk Baba Yaga out of a flaming skull is not to be messed with.
Why Disney wouldn’t want her:
Other than the fact that she’s actually terrifying, I have no idea. I mean, perhaps the fact that she literally eats children might have to be toned down. But come on, eating children happens in a lot of fairy tales. Baba Yaga’s character design is so strong, I’m shocked that she hasn’t been animated more in the states. I think the closest we’ve seen comes from Japan, actually, in the form of Yubaba from Spirited Away. Come on, American animation. Let’s see a Baba Yaga cartoon with a metal soundtrack. Is that too much to ask?
So I went and quested for Baba Yaga animation. This cartoon comes the closest to my metal hopes and dreams, although it has none of the badass defeat-Baba-Yaga-by-her-own-rules business of the tale, and devolves into violence quickly…which *is* very American I suppose:
So I’ve been wrestling with the tale of Bluebeard recently.
Serial wife-murder. Clearly from Forn Parts. Just in time for Christmas.
In case you’re not up on your psychosexual fairy tales, Bluebeard goes something like this:
Once upon a time, the youngest daughter in a family gets married off to a vaguely creepy dude because he has a lot of money. He also has a blue beard, which rather than being punk aesthetic is supposed to be a red flag of “something’s off about this guy,” but both the girl and her family ignore it because of the fat stacks of cash Bluebeard brings to the marriage. Once married, Bluebeard takes the girl back to his castle and presents her with a charmingly sadistic conundrum: He’s leaving, he says, on a trip. She is welcome to go in any of the rooms in castle, except one, for which he has specifically given her a key which she is not to use. He leaves and she wanders around in the rich castle, and eventually her curiosity overwhelms her and she enters the forbidden room. Turns out the room is filled with all the corpses of Bluebeard’s murdered former wives. (The faux loyalty test begs the question of Bluebeard’s first wife, of course. How did that one come about? Random murder? Her discovering some other dark secret of his? A stash of tentacle porn?)
Bluebeard gives his wife the key: engraving by Walter Crane in 1874
Anyway, in different versions of the tale, various things happen that make it impossible for the girl to conceal the fact that she’s found the body-locker: either she drops the key and it gets stained with blood, or the key starts bleeding and won’t stop, or she’s been entrusted an egg* rather than a key, and that gets stained with blood… whichever happens, Bluebeard comes back, finds out, flies into a rage, and decides he must kill the girl. She asks to go pray before her inevitable death, and in reality runs upstairs and screams for her brothers to come rescue her. They find her before Bluebeard can kill her, and justice is served, i.e. Bluebeard winds up dead in his own body locker in some versions, and tossed out to the carrion birds in other versions.
Obviously, Disney gave this one a pass.
Bruno Bettleheim, a Freudian scholar, says that the girl entering the forbidden room is a bit like losing one’s virginity: an act that “sullies” the girl (or the symbol of her sexuality, the key/egg) and cannot be undone. The body locker is supposed to represent a terrible sexual secret of Bluebeard’s. In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, he says:
However one interprets “Bluebeard,” it is a cautionary tale which warns: Women, don’t give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don’t permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed. (p. 302)
I’d like to note that not only is this a destructive image for women (“Even if you are married, you may not have sexual curiosity; you will die.”) but a terrible image for men as well. Bluebeard is has not only closeted his sexuality, he has expressed sexual passion in the form of hacking up women. The message, easily passed over in favor of looking at the role of the girl, is that men’s sexuality can only be expressed in the form of violence.
Bettleheim also points out that neither Bluebeard nor the girl have undergone any kind of character development–“Earth-shaking events have taken place in the story and nobody is the better for them.” (p. 303) I think he’s got a mighty interesting point there. This isn’t really a story about people, at least, it doesn’t work like the rest of fiction in terms of having a character arc. It’s a fable. Fables supposedly serve a different psychological purpose, and there’s a lot of debate as to what that purpose is.
I’ve been reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves, and she has an entirely different take on the Bluebeard tale. Feminist scholar Marcia Lieberman notes that Bluebeard’s wife is the ultimate “damsel in distress” who is reactive and passive in the face of her own death and waits for her borhters to swoop in and rescue her. Estes says that this tale is less about her being helpless, and more about initiation through confrontation with the predator… “finally cutting down and rendering neutral the natural predator of the psyche.” (p. 61)
Estes sees the brothers rescuing the girl at the end not as literal, but as her animus aspect come to save the day. The animus**, Estes reminds us, is “a partly moral, partly instinctual, partly cultural element of a woman’s psyche that shows up in fairy tales and dream symbols as her husband, son, stranger, and/or lover […] invested with qualities that are traditionally bred out of women, aggression being one of the more common.” (p. 58) She says the tale is actually about the woman tapping into her animus in order to find the necessary agency to get out of a predator/prey situation. Never mind that the animus seems to be where she keeps all her agency…clearly this is not a self-actualized heroine if she doesn’t yet realize she can save herself. To be fair, many women don’t realize that. They may need to access heretofore untapped bits of their psyches to get out of being “prey”. As Estes states, “Many women’s alacrity and fighting natures are not as close to consciousness as is efficient.” (p. 57) Certainly Bluebeard is a horrible story…and it is terrible to think about all the time that it might be psychologically acted out in real life.
By "body locker" we mean "unfair divorce settlement."
So…in conclusion, I’m not sure what to think of Bluebeard. Is it a tale that stunts men’s and women’s psychic growth by having a backward, sex-negative view of sexuality? Is it a tale about naive women finding agency and escaping the victim role? My answer is a tentative yes to all. Also, I wish the girl had a name. It’s terribly hard to write an article about a nameless protagonist.
What do you think?
*The egg variant comes from the Grimm tale “Fitcher’s Bird”, which is very similar but with more wizards and dismemberment, and the girl has more agency in rescuing herself.
**I don’t think Jung’s animus/anima concept is jiggy with there being more than two genders, therefore I am less than jiggy with it. That being said, it’s still a useful idea. Example: The reason why the Manic Pixie Dream Girl bothers me so much is that she’s not a real woman, she’s the personified anima of the hero. If the Handsome Prince is the personified animus of the heroine in fairy tales, then perhaps that’s why he bothers me, too. He’s not a real person, either.