Arya Stark as Classic Horror’s Final Girl

Game of Thrones s8 e3

If you want to see how much Game of Thrones fans loved Arya Stark’s sleight-of-hand before slaying the Night King in the godswood with a Valyrian steel dagger, just go on Twitter and look at how often her face has been superimposed on basketball players making breathtaking stealth moves before a stunning slam dunk.  Entertainment Weekly reports that Maisie Williams was worried that fans would “hate” how the Battle of Winterfell was resolved and conclude that Arya “didn’t deserve it.”

The show prepared us for the finale all along in a variety of ways, one of which was the scene showing a terrified Arya making her way through the library, trying her best to elude the White Walkers lurking in the stacks. (Did anyone else have a flashback to Jurassic Park, with a terrified Tim and Lex hiding from the raptors in the kitchen?) Here we have the “distressed female” of classic horror, the survivor known as the Final Girl, who is “chased, cornered, wounded” and whom we see “scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again,” as Carol Clover puts it in Men, Women, and Chainsaws. She is the one who looks death in the face and finds the strength to slay the monster.  Even as she is terrorized and tortured, the Final Girl rises to the challenging terrors that no one else was able to face down.

And while we are at it, did anyone else notice the striking resemblance between Max Schreck in the German horror film Nosferatu (1922) and the Night King?


Stones of Patience: Silence and Storytelling

The Patience Stone movie

Golschifteh Farahani in Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone

Stones of Patience are a rarity in European and Anglo-American folklore, though the German phrase about something being capable of moving a stone to tears or making a stone empathetic (etwas könnte einen Stein erbarmen) tells us much about the power of stories.  These stones can be found in the folklore of many cultures, with a Persian tale, for example, called SANG-E ṢABUR (a story that inspired Rahimi’s 2012 film).  The patient stone in the title represents the most empathetic listener imaginable. Collecting all the compassion that has been squandered in the world, it absorbs suffering as it listens to the tribulations of those who must bear an intolerable burden of misery. The patient stone sacrifices itself, willingly bursting into pieces by taking on what would otherwise crush its human interlocutor.  Do I need to ask in how many ways this is relevant to last week’s hearings?

For centuries, women in fairy tales have made use of veiled speech and clever ruses as they prowled around the margins of storytelling worlds. They engaged in a practice one expert calls idio-narration, talking to themselves as much as to others, using their words to get their story “out there,” even when, or perhaps especially when, no one seemed to be paying attention. In fairy tales, they are often silenced as girls, by fathers, brothers, and other male relatives—in some cases even by creatures exceptionally low in the food chain or high in divine hierarchies. When the princess in the Grimms’ “Frog King” explains why she is weeping, the frog tells her, with an air of authority: “Be quiet and just stop bawling.” “Don’t cry, Gretel,” that’s also what Hansel tells his sister when they are lost in the woods, unable to find their way back home. And the Madonna herself silences the girl in “Our Lady’s Child” when she refuses to admit that she opened a door forbidden to her.

“The Goose Girl,” a story recorded by the Grimms and included in their collection of 1812, reveals the complex ways in which silence and speech operate in tandem to produce self-reflexive narratives that allude to the power of storytelling. A princess traveling to foreign lands for her wedding is betrayed by her chambermaid and forced to tend geese in the kingdom she was to rule. On pain of death, she cannot reveal her true identity. All the while, she retains magical powers, summoning the winds to divert the attentions of unwanted suitors or communicating with the head of her beloved horse, a creature decapitated by the chambermaid. If speech in its most urgent form is denied her, still she finds, as is the case with Cinderella, Snow White, Donkeyskin and a host of other fairy-tale heroines, some consolation in her power to commune with and be at home in the natural world.

It is the father of the prince who, after getting wind of intrigue and betrayal from the horse’s head endowed with speech, proposes that the goose girl tell her troubles to an old iron stove. Once he walks away, the princess crawls into the iron stove and starts “weeping and wailing”: “She poured her feelings out and said: ‘Here I sit, abandoned by the whole world, even though I’m the daughter of a king. A false maid forced me to remove my royal clothing and now she has taken my place with my bridegroom. And here I am, forced to do menial work as a goose girl. If my mother knew about this, her heart would break in two.’” The king has put his ear to the stovepipe and hears every word she speaks. Truth becomes public thanks to an eavesdropper or sympathetic listener, a male intermediary with the authority to validate and air the facts, even when, or perhaps especially when, they are hotly denied. Telling her story, finding the power of speech in what could have been mere breath in the wind, has transformative power.

Our word for silence comes from the Latin silentium, meaning “quiet, still, calm,” a condition of being free from noise. But there is a strong bifurcation of meaning embedded in the term. When we use “silence” as a verb, it signals something imposed or inflicted, yet “silence” is also golden, a condition of serenity associated with physical and spiritual wellbeing. With the writer Rebecca Solnit, we can think of “silence as what is imposed, and quiet as what is sought,” thereby reserving silencing for a coercive form of behavior, one that ranges from the violent cutting out of tongues (paging mythical creatures ranging from Philomela to the Little Mermaid) to the illocutionary force of a command to shut up. Women have always spoken up and acted up, but, as we have seen, they were often silenced in ways that forced expression through artifacts associated with women’s work (like Arachne or Philomela, weaving stories about criminal behavior into tapestries). Or, in acts of desperation, they confided in themselves or inanimate objects, discovering that justice came only when a male intermediary listened in (often in an enclosed space!) and made things better or right.  Today, with new technologies that provide public outlets for telling stories, airing grievances, and exposing injustices, we have established an alternative system that rivals our legal institutions in its power to shame, punish, and chasten. The premium on good storytelling has never been higher, and the challenges that lie ahead remind us of the vexing complexities implicated in the difference between telling a good story and telling one that is true. As always, aesthetics and ethics dance a tango in a drama that is compelling, complicated, and enigmatic to the core.

Munchausen syndrome by proxy and Fairy-tale Revenge

Image result for mommy dearest and dead Erin Lee Carr’s remarkable documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017) contains a remarkable sequence that begins with Gypsy Rose Blanchard, victim of her mother’s need to turn a healthy child into a dangerously ill patient, sitting in Cinderella’s castle at Disney World, eating “some real mashed potatoes.” As we discover, this is a girl who will not know how to distinguish fantasy from reality. “Life is not a fairy tale,” she reflects while awaiting trial for plotting with her boyfriend to kill her mother. “I learned that the hard way,” she admits after she has been charged with second-degree murder.

What fairy tale did she use to make sense of her life?  “I liked the Disney film Tangled,” she tells us.  “It’s about Rapunzel. She’s a princess in this kingdom, and she’s kidnapped by Mother Gothel from her real family.  And Mother Gothel keeps her in this tower for all of her life and tells her ‘Don’t leave this tower’ so that is all she knows. . . . At the end Mother Gothel dies. She got thrown out a window because Rapunzel tried to stand up for herself and leave her tower.”

After years of treatment for diseases like muscular dystrophy and leukemia–diseases she never had–Gypsy Rose finds love in a relationship, one that is once again mediated by fairy tales.  On Facebook, she chats with Nick Godejohn, who persuades her that “every Beauty needs her Beast.”  “We can relate to it from opposites of it, Sweetie,” he tells her.  “I was taught that a woman’s role is to be submissive,” Gypsy Rose declares, “and the man is dominant.”  On Facebook she tells Nick “Well, I’ll be your Belle if you be my Beast in bed.”

Gypsy Rose never had a chance to learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The desperate need to follow scripts that are pure fantasy turned her life into what one officer describes as a “fairy-tale nightmare,” a worst-case scenario that replicated the excesses of fairy tales and never gave her the chance to experience the redemptive therapeutic value of stories understood as story, told in a safe space that creates the opportunity to use the symbolic to navigate the real rather than to model it in ways that turned horrifyingly real.

Words and Weapons

After listening to Emma Gonzalez, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student who survived the Parkland shooting and spoke at March for Our Lives in Washington DC, I began to reflect on all our cultural stories in which women use words and silences as weapons in the service of social justice.  There’s Philomela and Scheherazade, and their life stories set me to thinking about all the ironies embedded in their tales about telling tales, with Philomela turning into a nightingale by Ovid (the female of that species famously does not have the gift of song) and Scheherazade telling stories about licentious women but living in a culture that restricted women’s sexuality.
It is the human condition to live with cultural contradictions, and maybe for that reason it is not so surprising that in the public arena women are raising their voices in protest (Emma Gonzalez’s words became powerful poetry, and I will not forget her “nevers”) while in our popular entertainments, women are resorting to weapons.

There is Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, glammed up with an outfit that has become the source of inspiration for fashion designers. (Don’t forget that one critic viewed The Hunger Games as a fable of what it’s like to be in high school.) Reflecting on the lack of logic in the games, Laura Miller writes:

If, on the other hand, you consider the games as a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience, they become perfectly intelligible. Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. 




Then there is Hanna in Joe Wright’s 2011 action adventure film–a genetically modified teenage assassin with bows and arrows and guns.












And Frances McDormand is weaponized again and again.







As is Rey from The Force Awakens, another trickster who is skilled in fighting back, and who has been turned into an action figure.











Female tricksters in stories and myths from times past used words and wit to right wrongs and change their cultures.  These days, when we go to the movies we see revenge plots, with women turning first to arsenals of guns and steel to get even, doubly ironic since that has been the strategy of those to whom women are offering resistance in real life.




At 1:15 in the clip below Robin Williams grumbles about buying gribenes from a mohel (look it up and you will get the bad joke). “It was such a Schande,” he declares, masquerading as a Bubbe.

The German word Schande is one of the most judgmental terms around. It means “shame,” “disgrace,” or “scandal,” and you do not want that word in the same sentence as your name.

The recent revival of  “disgrace” and “disgraceful” in our culture set me to thinking about the efflorescence of blaming and shaming in tweets, headlines, comments, and posts.  I looked up the Google Ngram for “disgraceful” and found that use of the term spiked in 1805 and then again about 1820, and that usage has declined steadily since then, with a small move upward by 2008 (financial crisis?).  [see link below]

Who is to blame for the return of “disgraceful”?  Did it begin with Trump’s tweets calling the acquittal of Garcia Zarate in San Francisco “disgraceful” and a “travesty of justice”? Or his rant about Sessions instructing the Inspector General to conduct a federal investigation:  “Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!”  “Many other instances!” if I can resort to Trump’s twitter-style.

The other side has fought back with its own share of “disgraceful” volleys.  Here’s Michelle Goldberg on March 16, 2018, in the NYT: “A collection of generals, New York finance types and institution-minded Republicans were said to be nobly sacrificing their reputations and serving a disgraceful president for the good of the country.” Or Maureen Dowd the next day, commenting, “Trump & Friends presented this dizzying White House purge as a twisted version of him growing into the job, even as everyone else felt he was going in the opposite direction, behaving disgracefully by 86-ing Rex Tillerson in a tweet and tormenting other staffers he finds annoying or uppity.” And remember John Brennan, erstwhile director of the CIA, tweeting that Trump will take his “rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history.”  Close enough.…


Perfect Nannies and Other Fairy Tales

I took a break from Barbara Comyns’ The Juniper Tree with The Perfect Nanny, which I finished last night after taking another break, this time from Berlin Babylon.  Am I the only one detecting disturbances in the cultural airwaves, with so many books and films in which children die, sometimes at the hands of their own mother but often at the hands of a caretaker, or, well, a “perfect nanny”?  Disney gave us that wonderful little ditty and now Leila Slimani explores the dark side of the song title–do I need to insert a spoiler alert for a book that begins with the words: “The baby was dead”?

In The Juniper Tree, Comyns makes the fairy-tale connection explicit. And here’s an extract from Slimani’s prize-winning novel: “Louise . . . looks like one of those duplicitous mothers in a fairy tale, abandoning her children in the darkness of the forest.”  Never mind that, in “Hansel and Gretel,” it’s the father who takes the children into the woods–it’s the stepmother who puts him up to it.  Fairy tales give us events that are larger than life and twice as unnatural, but these days, fairy tales come true in our realistic fictions, where we have the chance, not just to witness melodramatic action, but also explore the minds of villains and victims, something the fairy tale rarely does.

More on Berlin Babylon once I have a chance to process a series that is perhaps the most immersive film production I’ve ever seen, which means that it’s all the more wrenching and heartbreaking to witness the violation of what was once a taboo in cinematic culture: the death of a child.  The trope of death and resurrection is evoked repeatedly in this series, and maybe that provides a form of consolation. Characters you think are dead (some long dead) come back to life, and there is even a kind of twisted Sleeping Beauty moment that is easy enough to locate.


Getting Even with Stories


From the New York Times:

Yes, Uma Thurman is mad.

She has been raped. She has been sexually assaulted. She has been mangled in hot steel. She has been betrayed and gaslighted by those she trusted.

And we’re not talking about her role as the blood-spattered bride in “Kill Bill.” We’re talking about a world that is just as cutthroat, amoral, vindictive and misogynistic as any Quentin Tarantino hellscape.

Jessica Chastain responded to Maureen Dowd’s account by tweeting out: When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are.

These days, the phoenix moment for many Hollywood heroines comes when they pick up bow and arrows or stockpile an arsenal of guns and steel. Hunger Games and Hard Candy showed us women empowered by their ability to wield weapons and torture men.  (Hitchcock was famously inspired by the words of the French playwright Victorien Sardou, “Torture the women.”)  In Hanna, Joe Wright reinvents Little Red Riding Hood as a genetically modified teenage assassin who reads fairy tales at night and goes out for target practice in the daytime, dressed in pelts. When Buffy, from the popular 1990s TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” dresses up as Little Red Riding Hood for Halloween, she carries weapons in her basket, “just in case.” And packing heat now seems de rigueur in films ranging from the popular Hong Kong subgenre known as “girls with guns” to Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri.

Never mind that women rarely shoot ’em up in real life.  As in times past, women have relied on the brute force of stories to exercise their power. Once upon a time, women did not have many opportunities to broadcast misdeeds. The power of stories was limited to the domestic sphere, to sites of work and play that permitted talk, gossip, chatter, and other forms of verbal improvisation. And even then certain stories—particularly those that featured persecution, intimidation, and other forms of social injustice—were taboo. How could you possibly dare to tell your story? In many fairy tales, we find women who are sworn to secrecy and cannot tell their stories—women who, for one reason or another, fear the consequences of revealing the truth. In a German story called “The Goose Girl,” the protagonist confides in an iron stove (go figure). In the Italian tale, “The Young Slave,” Lisa grumbles and weeps before a doll. Each time, the truth becomes public thanks to an eavesdropper, a male intermediary with the authority to validate and air the facts.

The legendary Scheherazade of The Thousand and One Nights understood storytelling as a practice with the power to transform a culture. To double duty bound, she tells stories not just to save her own neck but also to end King Shahriyar’s reign of terror and change the values of her social world. “I will begin with a story,” Scheherazade tells her sister Dunyazad, “and it will cause the king to stop his practice, save myself, and deliver the people.” Scheherazade’s triple project is ambitious, and she uses the civilizing energy of symbolic narratives not just to arouse the curiosity of the king but also to open his eyes to suffering, social injustices, and the power of compassion. A woman who has read widely in poetry, history, and philosophy, she is “intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined,” modeling for Shahriyar a path that veers away from violence and vengeance.  As an added irony, she is an expert in the art of making things up, but the death sentence hanging over her if she does not “perform” to Shahriyar’s satisfaction is nonetheless very real.

The women capturing the headlines today are not making stories up. They are telling about what happened in their daily lives–a stark reminder that on-screen violence is not so far removed from the horrors of real life.

Our media-rich environment is imperfect, flawed, and full of opportunities for purveying hate speech and falsifying the news. But it has a powerful upside in offering outlets for storytelling and breaking the culture of silence imposed on victims. Scheherazade begins as a victim, but the arc of her story takes her to a position enabling her to speak and become a double agent, liberating herself from a death sentence and saving others from her fate. Transcending the limits of a narrow domestic space through her expansive narrative reach, she embraces bold defiance as she puts her high-wattage stories in the service of a social mission.




Thoughts for the Season on Storytelling and Santa Claus


Image result for santa claus thomas nastNewsflash from Nature Communications.…

“Storytelling is a human universal. From gathering around the camp-fire telling tales of ancestors to watching the latest television box-set, humans are inveterate producers and consumers of stories. Despite its ubiquity, little attention has been given to understanding the function and evolution of storytelling. Here we explore the impact of storytelling on hunter-gatherer cooperative behaviour and the individual-level fitness benefits to being a skilled storyteller. Stories told by the Agta, a Filipino hunter-gatherer population, convey messages relevant to coordinating behaviour in a foraging ecology, such as cooperation, sex equality and egalitarianism. These themes are present in narratives from other foraging societies. We also show that the presence of good storytellers is associated with increased cooperation. In return, skilled storytellers are preferred social partners and have greater reproductive success, providing a pathway by which group-beneficial behaviours, such as storytelling, can evolve via individual-level selection. We conclude that one of the adaptive functions of storytelling among hunter gatherers may be to organise cooperation.”

And from Stephen Greenblatt, who drew my attention to the Nature Communications article.

This time of year, the stories that most unite us are fantasies in which we are not (except as small children) asked to put our faith. Unlike, say, the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the birth of Jesus, these festive tales generally do not draw masses of faithful who insist as a point of dogma on their literal truth. On the contrary, either our playful seasonal stories are clearly understood from the start to be fictional or, in the case of Santa Claus, they become fictional in time.

Greenblatt writes about the American cult of Santa Claus, and its origins in the verse of Clement Clarke Moore, or possibly a Poughkeepsie poet named Henry Livingston, Jr. But in this season it’s also good to recall that Santa goes by many names: St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and Sinterklaas.  St. Nicholas, the man who inspired our Santa Claus stories, was a bishop who lived in what is now modern-day Turkey in the third century. Legend has it that he inherited some wealth, learned about the plight of a poor man with three daughters, and tossed bags of gold through the window, enough for handsome dowries.  The sacks were later said to have been tossed down the chimney (the windows were sealed tight).  Sounds like a fairy tale to me, but more importantly the origin story reminds us that our Santa Claus, rotund and jolly, with a manlo…) and granny glasses is an invented figure, one that we could reinvent if we wanted.

Here’s  a link to a program about White Santas!

And, finally, one last article on the “gullibility” of children about figures like Santa and the Tooth Fairy and about when they embrace an “empirical stance.”…

I mention this because my daughter has avoided telling her two-year-old about Santa–she fears Roxy may say “I don’t buy it.”  Richard Dawkins begs to differ–not so sure whose side I take on this one.

“Child brains are gullible,” writes Richard Dawkins, “open to almost any suggestion, vulnerable to subversion…wide open to mental infections that adults might brush off without effort.”

But research in developmental psychology tells a different tale. By age 5, children are harder to dupe about the existence of a fantastical creature without some good evidence that the creature really exists; by age 8 or 9, if not sooner, children reject the reality of Santa.

John Updike on Childhood Reading

         My reading as a child was lazy and cowardly, and it is yet. I was afraid of encountering, in a book, something I didn’t want to know. Perhaps my earliest literary memory is my fear of the spidery, shadowy, monstrous illustrations in a large de luxe edition of “Alice in Wonderland” that we owned. A little later, I recall being appalled, to the point of tears, by a children’s version of the Peer Gynt legend in an infernal set of volumes we owned called “The Book House.” I also remember, from the same set, a similar impression of pain, futility and crabbed antiquity conveyed by an account of Shelley’s boyhood. I read both these things when I was sick in bed, a customarily cheerful time for me.

Still later, in the fifth or sixth grade, I was enticed into reading, for my own good, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The adventure in the cave gave me lasting claustrophobia and a dread of Twain, besides whom Poe and Melville seem good-humored optimists. O. Henry was the only recommended author unreal enough for me to read with pleasure. Having deduced that “good” books depict a world in which horror may intrude, I read through all my adolescence for escape.

I always begin the fall term with meditations on the immersive pleasures of reading, and it is not until the second week that I begin talking about what Anita Brookner calls, in A Start in Life, a life ruined by literature (“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”) Well, not really ruined in Updike’s case, but we often forget the variation in appetites when it comes to childhood readers.  Some embrace fright, and others, like Updike, back off and escape into other opportunities to encounter possibilities, along with perils of a lesser magnitude than what is found in Alice (see Tenniel’s illustration for the pool of tears below).  The trick is to match up child readers with books they will love, and the librarian at my local public library was a genius at that.




It is not often that a new book comes along that is both a breakthrough in scholarly terms and also a magnificent work of art.  Jack Zipes’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, illustrated by Natalie Frank, is both.  Since Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, published in 1976, we have worried about the uses of enchantment, and also taken for granted that the high-profile figures in fairy tales are female.  Who are the superstars?  Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and so on.  Never mind Jack, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel, and Prince Charming–the most memorable figures are girls and witches, stepmothers and princesses.  And these figures all live in a world where magic happens–and no one is ever shocked, startled, or surprise.  A high quotient of weirdness is part of what ensures that the stories never get old.  Because the conflicts in them are primal and do not yield easily to a solution or resolution (contempt vs. compassion; predator vs. prey; innocence vs. seduction), we get caught up in an endless repetition compulsion with these stories, always making them new even as we never get the core problem at the heart of the tale right.

What Jack Zipes has done is to foreground a tale that has not received much scholarly attention and yet has been right in plain sight.  Many of us grew up with Mickey Mouse as beleaguered apprentice in Fantasia but never thought to drill down deeper into the story.  And even dedicated readers of the Harry Potter books are unlikely to have connected “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with Dumbledore and Harry, but presto! there it is. Zipes writes: “In short the structure of Rowling’s fairy tale resembles the folklore tale type ATU 325, which has the following plot functions: (1) a poor father apprentices his son to a magician/sorcerer to study magic for one or three years at a mysterious place/school.  (2) The son secretly flies home and indicates to his father/mother how he or she can recognize him, or the father and mother are helped by a mysterious stranger who advises them on how to recognize their son.  (3) Once liberated, the son, who has learned and gained just as much knowledge of magic as his master, can shape-shift . . . (4) The magician seeks revenge . . . (5) The magician imprisons the pupil . . . (6) The pupil uses his cunning and knowledge of magic to escape and the magician pursues him . . .  ”  I’ve left out a good deal, but there’s enough there to reveal the degree to which tropes from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” flash out for us repeatedly in the Harry Potter books.  Rowling’s series still seems more fantasy literature (with its multiple portals to Hogwarts and the magic world) than fairy tale, but it is astonishing how fantasy fiction creatively repurposes “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” along with a host of other intertexts, to be sure.

The great accomplishment of Zipes’s anthology is to draw attention to the importance of magic in fairy tales and to identify a subset of fairy tales that feature a father-son type relationship that goes wrong (a nice way to balance out all the stories about mothers and daughters).  And there is something wonderfully meta about a fairy tale in which the power struggle turns on magic and how to wield it and control it.

Zipes gathers together more than fifty variants of the tale type, from classical times up to the present, with what comes to feel like “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.”  He shows how the tale bifurcates, taking two different pathways, with “humiliated apprentices” who are defeated by magic and yield to authority and “rebellious apprentices” who learn how to control their powers and wield them skillfully and responsibly.  There is much to ponder in this book, and, the stories show a fascinating range and play of possibilities.