American novelist and academic Alison Lurie (1926- ) brought fairy tales and their gender implications into the social foreground in the early 1970s. Lurie believes the female characters in fairy tales are quintessentially strong and, moreover, they can be role models for women’s liberation. This view provoked Marcia R. Lieberman to retort in her article, Some Day My Prince Will Come: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale, that fairy tales perpetuate patriarchal stereotypes of women as dependent, powerless, passive and victimised subjects. Furthermore, she claims that such stereotypes have notable effects on young girls’ psyches which intellectually suffocates them by limiting their imagination to such a degree that they struggle to conjure up different life-possibilities outside the prevalent male dominated system. As Liberman rightly notes:
“among other things, these tales present a picture of sexual roles, behavior, and psychology, and a way of predicting outcome or fate according to sex…but also as material which has undoubtedly played a major contribution in forming the sexual role concept of children, and in suggesting to them the limitations that are imposed by sex upon a person’s chances of success in various endeavors”.
Contemporary assessments of fairy tales have revealed how dire the ramifications of such narratives have been for the lives of women, particularly when females internalise the fantasies within fairytales and translate them into practice – which often causes women to implicitly adopt the established gender roles and accept the patriarchal world order as it is.
For that reason, feminist writers have resorted to either rewriting or revising traditional fairy tales, and in that attempt, unlike traditional fairy tales that draw upon fantasies that mainly romanticise the relationship between prince and princess, feminist fairy tales display social realities as they really are instead. Moreover, in contrast with the depiction of the heroine in traditional fairy tales, who is typically seen as both submissive and passive, feminist heroines are strong and active, and they are in a fierce struggle with the status quo (both challenging and undermining it) within a male-dominated community that tends to subjugate women.
The revisionists question the socialisation process that female characters go through and thereby undermine the role models that heroines are expected to adopt. Besides, feminist heroines are rebellious in this respect and thus unwilling to accept the injustice of existing circumstances. Furthermore, they strive to enact change and social transformation. Jack Zipes, in defining feminist fairy tale writers, states: “not only do the authors challenge conventional views of gender, socialization, and sex roles, but they also map out an alternative aesthetic terrain for the fairy tale genre to open up new horizons for readers and writers alike”
Revisionist writers invert and subvert the roles that female characters have in traditional fairy tales by giving them a voice, authority and the power to change social systems and strive for a better life.
Mexican American writer Sandra Cisneros (1954- ) in her novella The House on MangoStreet (1984) reflects on some of these feminist objections about fairy tales, but with an additional emphasis on the character’s Chicana background. Cisneros is not just working against the traditional portrayal of heroines, she offers a new model of a heroine who is both strong and determined, but also strives for social transformation. Cisneros, in an interview with Feroza Jussawala, articulated this beautifully by saying that:
“I have to say that the traditional role is kind of a myth. I think the traditional Mexican woman is a fierce woman. There’s a lot of victimisation but we are also fierce. We are very fierce. Our mothers had been very fierce. Our women may be victimized but they are still very, very fierce and very strong. I really do believe that”
The protagonist of Cisneros’s text, Esperanza, embodies the fierce Mexican woman that Cisneros is talking about since she fiercely fights to leave Mango Street and struggles to have a space of her own and to achieve her freedom.
Esperanza is a little Chicana girl growing up in a poor, patriarchal, and misogynist neighborhood called Mango Street – a ghetto mostly inhabited by Mexican-Americans. Through Esperanza’s narrative, Cisneros depicts a neighbourhood in which women are oppressed and subjugated in every possible way. Esperanza describes the lives of the women who, for example, sit next to windows pining for a different life: “my great-grandmother…a wild horse of a woman, so wild wouldn’t marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier…And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow”
Esperanza bears witness to the stories of women who are imprisoned in their houses by their husbands because they are too beautiful to be let out or they are there because they had lost certain opportunities, for whatever reason, in days bygone. Such women are often depicted as being overtly lamentable over the fact that they did not invest in the kind of opportunities that could have bettered their lives. They believe that they “could’ve been somebody” if only they had made the right decision.
However, Esperanza wants to personify the kind of woman who has a destiny, and thus she breaks with the tradition of sitting next to the window pensively whilst longing for some substantial change to her life by way of some life-transforming external force. Esperanza is not ready to surrender herself to the rules of that reality that she finds suffocating for women. Instead, she attempts to create a different reality for herself and thinks of new possibilities. For instance, she says: “I have inherited her [great-grandmother’s] name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window”. In another vignette Esperanza says: “but I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the balls and chain”.
These excerpts show that unlike other female characters who Esperanza believes were tamed by men and culture, she is instead unwilling to share their destinies to such a degree that she chooses to keep her wild spirit no matter how strong social pressure is. Instead of waiting and being passive, Esperanza devises a secret plan to leave the barrio and seeks to have her own house. Esperanza’s exceptional way of dealing with her problems makes her unique among other female characters in Cisneros’s text.
Focusing again on fairy tales, Marcia R. Lieberman states: “a close examination of the treatment of girls and women in fairy tales reveals certain patterns which…undoubtedly played a major contribution in forming the sexual role concept of children, and in suggesting to them the limitations that are imposed by sex upon a person’s chances of success in various endeavors”.
What this means is that fairy tales are not just innocent stories to reduce children to a sleepy state, but, rather, they implicitly allude to social values and traditional gender codes. Moreover, fairy tales have a major role in instilling gender roles in the minds of children and to such a degree that it actually demarcates the extent of their ambitions and actions. The main goal of the revisionist writers is to subvert the elements that they claim reinforce patriarchal values and perpetuate male dominated systems. This tendency can be noted in Cisneros’ text. As Kelly Wissman states: “Cisneros employs allusions to classic European fairy tales. Cisneros utilises and recasts these tales in a way that reveals their troubled legacy in the lives of many women on Mango Street’.
The messages in The House on Mango Street can be considered a counter discourse to fairy tales’ traditional messages – it undermines the fantasies in fairytales by placing female characters within fairy tale dreams into a harsh reality. For example, when Esperanza, Rachel and Lucy each are given a pair of high heeled shoes which fit them exactly, they laugh and say: “today we are Cinderella because our feet fit exactly”. What is noteworthy here is that the shoes do not lead them to their princes and a happily ever after life (like Cinderella). On the contrary, they run into some scary desirous men who look at them as sexual objects rather than princesses with whom they want to spend their lives with. The ‘bum man’ for example, who tries to seduce Rachel by giving her money, says: “if I give you a dollar will you kiss me?”.
Cisneros uses elements within fairytales to show their impracticality in real life, and she undermines the fantasy within fairytales by presenting the insurmountable gap between reality and fairytale dreams. In other words, in this story Cisneros criticises fairy tales by presenting them as painfully unrealistic and dangerously misleading. She demonstrates the gap through the disillusionment of Esperanza and her friends with their fairy tale-like dreams to assume the form of Cinderella, and their decision to refuse the wearing of such shoes henceforth.
Lieberman continues her argument about fairy tale heroines by describing the connection that fairy tales make between beauty and passivity. As she states: “since the heroines are chosen for their beauty, not for anything they do, they seem to exist passively until they are seen by the hero, or described to him. They wait, are chosen, and are rewarded”. Being beautiful and being chosen by a young man are the preconditions for becoming a heroine in fairy tales. This leaves no role for the heroine but being patient and enduring sufferings until that moment she is chosen by a male. Lieberman notes: “So many of the heroines of fairy stories, including the well-known Rapunzel, are locked up in towers, locked into a magic sleep, imprisoned by giants, or otherwise enslaved, and waiting to be rescued by a passing prince, that the helpless, imprisoned maiden is the quintessential heroine of the fairy tale”.
Let us take Mango Street as a metaphor of the Castle/Tower that some fairy tales’ heroines are locked up in. They are usually described as weak and helpless within such an obstacle to such a point that they need a hero to rescue them. Therefore, they keep waiting until their luck changes or some form of magic is brought into the story.
However, Esperanza neither expects nor waits for anyone to choose or rescue her. Esperanza, through her observation of her friends, uncovers the fact that she should only depend on herself in her plan to leave the ghetto. For the same reason, she is able to find her potentiality and her will-power. Thus, Esperanza thinks she is too strong for Mango Street (Castle/Tower). She starts to believe she is capable of defeating it. This is surely evident when she says: “I am too strong for her [Mango Street] to keep me forever. One day I will go away”. This obviously explains the differences between Esperanza and typical fairytale heroines: Esperanza, unlike fairy tale heroines, believes she is strong enough to overcome her barrio’s (tower) dragon or villain, and instead of waiting for and romanticising the concept of a rescuer (prince), she struggles to rescue herself. Instead of yearning and longing for a different life, she instead creates that life by herself.
Dissimilar to fairytales that (unrealistically) beautify and romanticise marriage, and show it as the final and foremost goal of women, Cisneros’s novella questions it and tells different stories of marriage. It demonstrates it as patriarchy’s trapnet which keeps women in a private sphere and restrains their possibilities. Karen E. Rowe notes: “whatever the daily reality of women’s wedded or professional life, fairytales require her imaginative assent to the proposition that marriage is the best of all possible worlds”. In other words, in fairytales marriage is shown as the finest possible option for women.
Esperanza sheds light on the lives of married women in her neighborhood and describes their miseries – that they are either left alone with some children by their husbands or imprisoned in their houses because they are too ‘beautiful’ to be let out of the house. For instance, Esperanza, in telling Rafaela’s story, narrates: “Rafaela who is still young but getting old from leaning out the window so much, gets locked indoors because her husband is afraid Rafaela may run away since she is too beautiful to look at”. In this picture, Cisneros demonstrates the condition that women are often pushed into after their marriage rather than showing the wedding in all its pomp (pomp which fairytales celebrate and mostly end with).
Lieberman also states that: “marriage is the fulcrum and major event of nearly every fairytale”, and she concludes that: “the Blue Fairy Book is filled with weddings, but it shows little of married life”. The House on Mango Street is a challenge to the sentence in which most fairy tales end with: ‘they lived happily ever after’. In fairytales, this vague sentence obscures the position of women in the marital relation by not providing more detail about that “happy life”! In that way fairytales work on young girls’ mentalities by praising the process and showing it as a victory for the heroine (princess). Moreover, veiling the life of a heroine after marriage is also to avoid any doubt about marriage and to make females embrace it without any question.
Cisneros’s text suggests that women’s choices shouldn’t be restricted only to marriage, and that women are able to do more with their lives than just being married. It also shows that women are able to have different story-endings than just marriage. In a certain barrio within the text, there are women who could have strikingly different fates, but they chose to marry instead. For example, in Ruthie’s vignette Esperanza says: “she had lots of job offers when she was young, but she never took them. She got married instead”. Then Esperanza narrates Ruthie’s misery after her marriage with her estranged husband, “but she says she’s just visiting and next weekend her husband’s going to take her home. But the weekends come and go and Ruthie stays”. By narrating Ruthie’s story, Cisneros challenges the traditional way of representing marriage as the best possible option for women. Cisneros highlights Ruthie’s life after her marriage, and her problems with her husband, by telling us that Ruthie now lives with her mother and do nothing but waiting. This story undermines the fairytale promise concerning marriage insofar as marriage is seen as making Ruthie’s life happy – it instead makes her life more sad.
Marriage prevented Ruthie from having a different life owing to the fact that other offers were forestalled. Rowe highlights this within the structures of fantasy that comprise fairy tales, and she believes that such fairy tales are “deluding” women who end up internalising such fantasies which lead them to obfuscate fantasy and reality. Ruthie’s vignette epitomises women’s overestimation of marriage and the consequent disillusionment of it. What makes Esperanza different from Ruthie is that Ruthie depends on a man to escape from the neighborhood and she believes marriage can make her dreams come true, as Regina M. Betz notes: “Ruthie escapes the community, but because she depends on a man—who lets her down—she returns”.
While Esperanza, through her observation of the lives of the women of her neighbourhood, realises that marriage is not a proper solution to her problems, she subsequently thinks of a better mechanism to leave the neighbourhood – a mechanism that is not part of a system that she flees from since she knows that marriage only serves to perpetuate the dominant patriarchal system.
In contrast with the other female characters that resort to marriage as an escape-mechanism, marriage is not one of Esperanza’s options. For instance, Marine says: “you always get to look beautiful and get to wear nice clothes and meet someone in the subway who might marry you and take you to live in a big house far away…Marine under the street light, dancing by herself,…I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life”
In telling Sally’s marriage-story Esperanza continues: “Sally got married like we knew she would, young and not ready but married just the same…She says she is in love, but I think she did it to escape…Sally says she likes being married because now she gets to buy her own things when her husband gives her money”. In these two excerpts Cisneros depicts the hopes that women have in marriage, and how they consider marriage as a major event that might change their lives. However, Esperanza, through observing the lives of married women, comes to realise that she has to find her own way to escape – a method outside of the dominant social system. This can be understood when Esperanza’s aunt advises her that she “must remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free, and I said yes, but at that time I didn’t know what she meant”.
Cisneros’s heroine subverts the typical fairytale marriage-ending technique by refusing to accept it as the best possible option for women. She replaces marriage with freedom and independency and represents them as the optimum solution to the misery of women. Laura G. Spencer states: “Cisneros’s works demonstrates how literature can challenge deeply inculcated values and change the ways in which we perceive the world”. Esperanza’s main goal is to have a house of her own and accordingly achieve her freedom. More importantly, Esperanza does not want to accomplish her dreams through a man (prince) because she knows that in such a case she will still be dependent on a man and thus her freedom will still be conditioned. Putting it differently, Esperanza does not want to lose control over her own life.
The House on Mango Street acknowledges the importance of having a house or a physical space to provide the necessary conditions for women to flourish. Esperanza is aware of the fact that a house of her own is the only space that can become a safe haven for her dreams as a writer, otherwise her dream will mirror her neighbour’s fantasy: “Rafaela…dreams her hair is like Rapunzel’s…Rafaela wishes she could go there and dance before she gets old”.
Rafaela’s story represents women within their husbands’ houses as prisoners and living in graveyard in terms of actualising their dreams. Therefore, Esperanza is determined to have her own house: “Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s house”. Doyle puts this succinctly: “in story after story of the women in her community, Esperanza recognises that a room—if not of one’s own—can be stifling”. Esperanza refuses the houses of men because she defies the system that is dominant in men’s houses – a system that confines women’s potentialities and withers their capabilities. Hence, she wants to have, “a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem”. Here Esperanza implies that she wants to have a house clear of patriarchy and male-rules more generally. She wants a house to thrive in and she knows she cannot thrive as a writer in a patriarchal house.
Esperanza defies the traditional houses of men because she finds it too small for her dreams, too confining for her identity and too restrictive for her imagination. Thus, Esperanza believes she has to have a house that can accommodate the pre-mentioned characteristics. Esperanza rebels against the traditional patriarchal house and finds freedom as a woman in a world unpardonably coloured by male patriarchy.
This piece is a shortened piece of an essay that was submitted for an academic module of MA degree in contemporary literature at York St John University-UK in 2014.
Spencer, L. G. (1997) The fate of the Heroine in the Work of Sandra Cisneros. In: Speaking the Other Self., ed. Reesman, J. C. Georgia, University of Georgia press.
Doyle, J. (2010) More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. In: Critical Insights: The House on Mango Street., ed. Sobek, H, M. Salem Press. Available from: http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.yorksj.ac.uk/eds/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=59ccf2ce-03ba-4ee9-bbd7-.