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My New Fairy-Tale Research: All Queer, All the Time

My New Fairy-Tale Research: All Queer, All the Time July 8, 2021

Ah, summertime, when academics everywhere finally get to work on our research. Mine, I realize, is focused on queer identities in fairy tales, since that’s the most exciting thing to me right now.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash. In public domain.

As I’ve written about, I am looking forward to teaching next year, even as I’m feeling a bit adrift in my academic career. I’m lucky to get to teach subjects that I’m passionate about, but the fact that I’m not in a tenure-track position makes it feel a bit like, hm, how do I say this…like my research doesn’t matter? Which is not great motivation.

So when the opportunity came to plan my travel to 2 conferences this fall – the American Folklore Society and a symposium put on by the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts – I thought about proposing research not on what I thought I should do, but on what I want to do.

(which, like, can I just say what a weird paradox “should” is in academia anyway? I am fortunate to have spent the past 20 years in a field I adore, encouraged to study whatever drew me, but I sometimes wonder if I “should” have gone with trendier research topics, if that would have made a difference in my viability in the job market, or if that whole endeavor was screwed from the start due to forced beyond my control; on the other hand, I have listened to scholars dourly state that they specifically do NOT study what they enjoy, and I’m like, umm, what’s the point of that? academia is rough enough a gig as it is, and granted I think we have an obligation to contribute to knowledge and the betterment of society so choosing nothing but obscure topics 24/7 might not be great…but I’m not going to devote my life to studying things I don’t care about at all, you know?)

Battling burnout, I decided to research topics that are interesting to me: primarily, the representation of queerness in fairy-tale retellings. One paper is about The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen, an amazing graphic novel that is also a frame tale for multiple fairy tales, some more traditional-feeling and some quite queer. The other paper is about bisexuality in 2 recent fairy-tale retellings: Ash by Malinda Lo and Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust. Both feature young women in fantasy settings who experience attraction to both men and women, of their own species and not (so I am hoping to tie in the concept of transbiology, which admittedly I need to brush up on a bit, but luckily there are some excellent essays in the 2012 volume Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms that I can rely on).

As I’ve written about in my Trans Tales & Queer Witches conference paper, fairy tales aren’t necessarily as heteronormative as people may assume. Still, the dominant image of the fairy tale in American culture comes from Disney with its focus on the heterosexual, monogamous, procreative HEA (or Happily Ever After), and I think that recent fairy-tale retellings are in part responding to the heteronormative Disney model.

What draws me to these current research topics is the fact that a lot of the earliest queer fairy-tale retellings went for primarily gay OR lesbian pairings (I’m thinking particularly of Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch and some of Lawrence Schimel’s work, as well as some erotic tale collections I analyzed for a 2008 paper on erotic fairy tales) rather than foregrounding bisexual characters. I think biphobia and bi erasure might have something to do with this, not that I begrudge folks who experience attraction to one gender their own representation. And as a bisexual person myself, I’m always seeking out the representation of people like me in fiction, so I’m curious about how and when this representation occurs (and in the case of the paper specifically on bisexual women in fairy-tale retellings, I’m SUPER curious about what it might mean to have attraction happening outside one’s own species; is this a rebuttal to the homophobic anti-marriage rhetoric saying “what’s next, if we legalize gay marriage people will want to marry their dogs?!” that plays with the idea of equating homosexuality with bestiality by going a step further and having humanoid fantasy creatures be the object of attraction? or is it that bisexuality is still so unimaginable for many people that it is relegated to the realm of fantasy, where women can safely explore their same-gender attractions unfettered by reality? or what???).

Got more examples of bi representation in fairy-tale retellings? Please send ’em my way!

So while I’m in the early stages of research there’s lots of good food for thought for my papers and hopefully for anyone who’s chosen to read along. Also, I am hoping to start publishing some of my folklore and fairy-tale research as e-books in the near future, which I’ll undoubtedly announce here, but you can also join my mailing list at this link in order to ensure that you receive updates.

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