Fairy tales have been significant cultural staples since long before the Grimm brothers came along, and today they have found a profitable home in popular media. Since its inception in 1923, Disney has built a massive empire partially from its child-oriented reinventions of classic fairy tales, and adult-oriented retellings have become popular in mainstream television. ABC’s Once Upon a Time, now in its third season, throws a number of well-known fairy tale characters into a cursed suburban town, and NBC’s Grimm (also in its third season) is a dark and playful spin on the ubiquitous police procedural drama.
These adaptations undoubtedly have their own merits and attest to the enduring quality and the malleability of fairy tales. The problem is this: Whether they’re for adults, children, or both, the near constant churn of reinventions has featured an equally constant lack of diversity. Despite its efforts to the contrary, Disney has longstanding issues with racial representation and whitewashing, and at this point in time LGBTQ characters don’t even seem like a possibility. And as Bitch Magazine noted, people of color are noticeably absent from Once Upon a Time’s 20+ cast of characters; the show has become notorious for axing its few diverse characters – or making them villains.
Yet all is not lost. While there is plenty to be said about the problems of fairy tale diversity in mainstream media, certain independent publications are openly addressing these problems and working to fix them.
Eggplant Literary Productions is an independent press that publishes novella-length fantasy, sci-fi, and horror e-books as well as a fantasy-based children’s e-zine called Spellbound – but their current project is something a little different. Eggplant is currently holding an open call for inclusive fairy tale retellings, as well as related art and poetry, with the intention of creating a double anthology: Spellbound will contain the retellings for children, while Spindles will serve as the adult companion.
Publisher and editor Raechel Henderson invites anybody to “imagine a collection of Grimm’s tales if the Grimm brothers had collected them from a world where POC, LGBT, and disabled peoples had equal representation in media and culture as white cis heterosexual males. What would these fairy tales look like in this light?”
“We’re looking for diversity here,” Henderson commented in the project’s guidelines, “and so [while], for example, Cinderella set in an all white prep school in Maine might be a good story it wouldn’t quite fit what we are going for with this project.”
Henderson’s proposal has been met with an enthusiastic response. She has so far received 146 fiction submissions, which she says is “far more” than any other project she has edited (though art and poetry submissions are lacking).
Despite this high volume of material, a quick perusal through the guideline’s comments and Eggplant’s blog shows that the journey to publication has not been easy. The main problem: Many of these submissions fail to address to issue of diversity altogether.
“Generally, we've seen a lot of interest in the fairy tale aspect of the project but less in the diversity aspect,” Henderson said. “And since that is the crux of what we're trying to do with the Spellbound & Spindles anthologies, that's a bit disappointing.”
“We're keenly aware that we're tackling a topic (diversity & inclusion) that is nuanced and has many different aspects and approaches,” she added. “We're trying hard to maintain our vision for the project while staying open to others' views on what diversity and inclusion in fairy tales might mean. It's a difficult balancing act, but I think we'll end up creating something special in the end.”
Whatever the final product looks like, the Spellbound & Spindles project is incredibly important. The use of fairy tales demonstrates their inherent flexibility and our individual power to (literally) rewrite the problematic literature of our culture, as it twists stories so ingrained in Western culture, stories that we wrongly assume can only include certain types of people.
The project is a testament not only to the importance of diversity, but also to the necessity of making an active change toward that diversity. Rather than passively waiting for the mainstream media to finish its slow crawl toward accurate representation, Eggplant has provided a space in which the public can create it for themselves, and their attention to the issue illuminates part of our society’s destructive blind spot when it comes to diversity: Even when we’re not actively discriminating against a minority, it is so easy to create something that – no matter how good it may be or how much we as creators and consumers might love it – excludes various minorities. It is important not only for us to realize this, but for presses and publishers and all forms of media gatekeepers to refuse to accept anything but fair representation.
This is not a standard that should not be restricted to projects with diversity in their mission statement. Diversity should be in every mission statement, and the principles of inclusion that motivate Spellbound & Spindles are ones that should motivate all forms of media and art – fairy tale-related or otherwise.
Submissions for Spellbound & Spindles close on April 30.
Laura Costello is an editorial intern at Warscapes and an English and Journalism major at the University of Connecticut.
Image via Eggplant Literary Productions, Inc.