XOXO is very excited to welcome Carolyn Turgeon, author of Rain Village, Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story, Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale, and the young adult novel The Next Full Moon. She is the editor of Mermaids, a special-edition annual magazine, and teaches writing in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.
I’d already written two fairy tale retellings, Godmother and Mermaid, when I sat down to figure out my next project. I knew I wanted to do something else with these stories I loved. So I looked at all the heroines I grew up with– the Snow Whites, the Cinderellas and the Rapunzels who get plucked up by princes and whisked off to castles for their fairy tale endings. And in those same tales, I looked at all the other women, the ones who threaten the young princesses: the witches, stepmothers, and evil queens, all once-beautiful older women now seething with anger, vengeance, and desperation.
And it hit me that the princesses and these evil queens are the same women.
What happens to the gorgeous young princess after the storybook tale ends and she… gets a little older? Starts to wrinkle and gray and—God forbid—sag? What happens when she’s no longer the “fairest of them all”? When the whole reason the prince fell in love with her instantly was her incredible beauty, her glowing youth?
What I wrote was the story of Rapunzel growing up to be Snow White’s stepmother. The two stories fit together surprisingly well. What bothered me was that as a woman about to turn 40, it was easier for me to relate to the evil queen than the young princess. And that I could understand, deep down, what made her ask for Snow White’s heart.
There have been a whole lot of evil queens and witches of late. Famke Janssen in Hansel & Gretel, Rachel Weisz in Oz. The evil queen played by Lana Parrilla in television’s Once Upon a Time. In coming months, Cate Blanchett will play the evil stepmother from Cinderella and Angelina Jolie the evil fairy who curses Sleeping Beauty. Both Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron played the evil queen herself last year, in Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Most of these actresses are about my age—late 30s, early 40s—playing women who hate their young, fresh-faced rivals. It’s been more than 20 years since Julia Roberts starred in that most famous modern-day fairy tale, Pretty Woman, after all. I was a teenager when I saw that movie, just out of college, and I was as happy as anyone when Richard Gere came to whisk Julia away.
The villainesses make for great, juicy roles. They’re glam, they wear fabulous gowns made of black feathers, they’re smart and sharp-tongued and conniving, and they don’t have to follow any of the boring rules the good princesses do.
But as a model for aging, for life after 30, for our fate, the evil queen does leave a bit to be desired.
The worst thing about the evil queen is how she despises other women. She hates the princess for being young and beautiful and having every opportunity in front of her, when her own possibilities might feel like they’re slipping away.
The older I get, the easier it seems to follow in the evil queen’s path. Getting older is terrifying in a culture that worships youth and beauty. It’s hard, letting go of all that power that youth affords us. But it happens to all of us, right? So quickly you can’t even believe it, there you are, more the queen than the princess.
I think the trick is to embrace the queen in all her worldly glamour and wisdom. But to let go of her desperation and rage, her hatred of all those young women who stand where we stood once, with everything before them. They’re us, after all.
I would love to see a world in which none of us harm one another in our pursuit of the prince.
Remember that in the Grimm Story, Snow White ends up marrying the prince, while the stepmother dances at their wedding in shoes made of hot iron. That’s why I always wince when I hear the term “fairy tale ending.” Who wants one of those?