Mediating Bodies: Representing Femininity in Contemporary Young People’s Fairy-Tale Adaptations

So what is my thesis all about? Good question.

When I started my PhD I knew I wanted to write about the ways that different media influence how female bodies are represented and embodied. For the first year of my PhD I read everything I could get my hands on – my ideas were broad. I was certain that my dissertation would be informed by feminist and children’s literature theory, but I wasn’t sure how to bring it all together.

At the one year mark, I received a brilliant suggestion – what about fairy-tales? I have always been an avid fairy-tale fan, and one of the texts I had presented on at a conference was from the comic book series Fariest (an epic fairy-tale comic book series that adapts a number of well-known fairy-tale ). This suggestion was exactly what I had been looking for. From here, I chose to focus on three fairy-tale narratives – ‘Sleeping Beauty (Little Briar Rose)’, ‘Cinderella’, and ‘Snow White’.

Dreams can come true_elPadawan CCBYSA2.0 .jpg
‘Dreams can come true’ by elPadawan (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

These three tales have long histories of representing women in interesting (read stereotypical) ways. Most often when I mention these tales to people, most automatically jump to Disney, however, they have a much longer history than that. What’s more, there are so many contemporary adaptations – particularly for young people. In my dissertation, I am interested in as many different media platforms as possible. Through using fairy-tales, I am able to analyse picture books, film, device applications, young adult novels, comic books and video games.

The main questions I am concerned with are things like, how are the female protagonists adapted? Do the conventions of particular mediums control the kinds of representations we see? What kinds of femininity are represented? Are patriarchal stereotypes and binaries upheld? Do any mediums really push the boundaries? How do these texts position young readers to think about fairy-tales and femininity? And of course, what implications do these texts have for young people today?

So far, my results have been varied, depending on the medium, and what has become clear is the need for specific feminist frameworks. For example, my chapter on tablet applications has needed theory that focuses on contemporary western beauty ideals. My chapter on YA novels has required the application of a post-humanist / cyborg feminist lens. Theoretically and conceptually this has been challenging, but so incredibly rewarding.

What has significantly also emerged is that the conventions of a medium definitely play a role in the way femininity and female agency is constructed. For example, fairy-tale comics such as Fairest offer a pseudo feminist agency. Through the form of the comics medium, readers are positioned to see the protagonists as heroines, while simultaneously accepting that the sexualisation of their bodies is necessary in order to succeed. Device applications, through medium specific capabilities, require young female users to actively practice (through swiping, tapping, tracing) acts such as removing body hair and applying make-up, positioning them to understand that in order to win the ‘game’ known as life, they must participate in a capitalist consumer beauty culture.

I think this is an apt introduction to what my thesis is all about, but if you’d like to know more, please ask. For now – back to writing the darn thing!


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