Gretel, by Chris Wind (from Snow White Gets Her Say) www.chriswind.net
We read fables in school to teach us a lesson. And we read fairy tales at bedtime to put us asleep. And indeed they do: especially those of us, a full half of the human species, who are lulled lower and lower into a semi-conscious state by their lessons.
Remember “Hansel and Gretel”? The one about a little boy and a little girl. Who was me. Not particularly proud of it, but there you go. I didn’t write the story. I didn’t intend those lessons.
That, first, women are deceitful. There are two women in the story, the stepmother and the witch. And both of them lie to us. When Hansel and I are taken into the forest to be left there to die, my stepmother says “We’ll come back for you.” And later, when we meet the witch, she assures us she will “do us no harm”. But of course they didn’t and she did. Both women used deceit to achieve their goals.
That, second, women aren’t very intelligent. It was my stepmother’s idea that a good solution to the food shortage was to leave us in the forest. Why not kill and eat the pigeon or the cat first? Why not hunt for squirrels and rabbits? The witch, as well, wasn’t too brilliant when she climbed into the oven to give a little demonstration.
That, third, little boys are competent and resourceful (and therefore can, and do, take care of little girls, like me). The first time we were taken into the forest, it was Hansel who thought to unravel a spool of thread behind us so we could find our way back. The second time, again he planned for our survival, leaving a trail of crumbs to mark our path. Clever though this was, he didn’t think about the birds, who ate the crumbs. I was quite resigned to our fate; it was Hansel who refused to give up so easily. Well, as you know, we found our way to a house, but it belonged to the witch and she locked Hansel in a cage. Still using his head, he held out a bone instead of his finger each time she checked to see if he was fat enough to eat.
However, if you’ve read the story, you’ll know that, notwithstanding this glowing portrait of my brother, I’m the real hero: it was my cleverness that saved us. You’ll remember that the witch told me to creep into the oven to see if it was hot enough to bake the bread. I knew, of course, that she was going to slam the door shut and bake me instead. So, I said, ever so sweetly, “I do not know how I am to do it, how do I get in?” You know the rest, I’m sure: she showed me, I shut the door on her, and then I rescued Hansel and together we escaped.
What bothers me is that I had to be clever in that way. To this day, I resent having had to resort to that ‘dumb blond’ ploy. To begin with, because it’s just that—a ploy, a disguise, a deceit; and it teaches us that pretence is our best method of operation. So we pretend to be something we’re not to get what we want, be it life, love, whatever. But more than that, I resent the ploy because it teaches us that for a woman, ignorance is valuable: it is her defence, her weapon, her salvation.
Why is that so dangerous a lesson, since my ignorance really is just a ploy, and not genuine? Because habits of behaviour become habits of thought which become habits of belief. If I spend most of my life acting like I’m stupid, people will think that I am. And then it’s just a short step to actually becoming what people already believe I am.
But if we wake up, we all will live ever after.
In the story “Hansel and Gretel”, two children are taken into the forest by their father and stepmother, to be left to die because there is not enough food to feed them; this solution is the stepmother’s idea, and her “We’ll come back for you” was simply a lie. The story unfolds exactly as I’ve described it—the spool of thread, the breadcrumbs, the witch’s house, Hansel in the cage, Gretel and the oven, their escape—and they find their way back home to live happily ever after. (The mean stepmother had died.)