Beyond Happily Ever After

A show on WPRK examines fairy tales as social critiques.

“It [was] really almost by accident,” Charlotte Trinquet says. She speaks quickly, as if there’s a volcano of information on the tip of her tongue just waiting to erupt, her thick French accent shaping every nuance and syllable. Trinquet is an adjunct professor at the Hamilton Holt School, and right now she’s talking about how she discovered her favorite subject: fairy tales.

It was in a master’s course on 17th-century fiction, and her professor assigned the works of the famous French fairy-tale writer Charles Perrault. “My first impression was, like, ‘Oh my God, we can actually read fairy tales in [a master’s] class?’ ” she says. “For us, it’s like underdog literature; you don’t even read it in class. You read the fables, not the fairy tales. That’s something parents are supposed to read [to children] at night.”

That was the spark that lit a fuse. Her PhD, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focused on these 17th-century French fairy tales and their relationship to Italian fairy tales from the earlier 17th and 16th centuries. Last semester, she taught a course at Holt called Women’s Power in Fairy Tales, which plumbed these famous stories’ origins for insights into the evolution of proto-feminism. And now, every Wednesday morning at 9, she co-hosts a show on WPRK called Secrets of the Fairies.

(Photos by Scott Cook) (Photos by Scott Cook) Trinquet has been studying fairy tales—from Little Red Riding Hood to Sleeping Beauty to Cinderella to Puss in Boots, all of which, incidentally, were passed down from Perrault—for two decades now. What she learned was that French fairy tale writers—specifically, French women in the court of King Louis XVI who recited and popularized many of these tales—did not borrow their stories from the peasants of the late 17th century, as originally suspected, but rather from Italians—specifically, Italian elites, especially Giovanni Straparola and Giambattista Basile. Both were writing for their privileged peers.

As the target audiences changed, so too did the stories. In the court of Louis XVI, for instance, they were subtly, subversively proto-feminist. Later, they took on a more Christian bent, informing bourgeois children that God was looking out for them. Other versions picked up the patriarchal norms of the day.

“Then, you really have to come to the Brothers Grimm,” she says. “The Grimms didn’t originally write for children; they first intended to show that Germany could be reunited through lore and language.” So their first edition, in 1812, was gory and graphic, targeted toward adults. In time, the younger brother began revisiting these fairy tales, rewriting them for children in an 1856 collection, which is the one passed on over subsequent generations—and eventually to Disney, which has solidified them in Western consciousness.

But in their original telling and context, Trinquet says, “Fairy tales are social critiques. Until the 19th century, [they were] really subversive.”

Take, for instance, an early version of Cinderella, written by a woman. In its first incarnation, it was a story of restoration, and Cinderella was the daughter of a king who had lost his kingdom through misdeeds. This original Cinderella did go to a ball and lose her shoe, but she had not yet met the prince. Instead, the prince finds and falls in love with her shoe, so in love that it makes him physically ill; his mother begins bringing women to the castle to try on the shoe. Finally Cinderella shows up and tries it on. When it fits, the women of the castle beg her to marry the prince. She refuses—at least until after she can tell her own story and her parents’ estate is given back.

This story served as an assertion of a woman’s rights. In the modern version, Cinderella becomes passive and polite, dependent on a prince’s beneficence to improve her lowly station in life.

It was stories like this—conversations in which Trinquet unwound these ancient tales and discussed their significance in relation to cultural changes—that led her to take on the radio show. Trinquet and her husband, Beni Balak, an economics professor at Rollins, were chatting with Jesse Velez ’13, who co-hosts Balak’s WPRK show Punkonomics. It was Velez who first suggested her show, and later called to tell Trinquet he’d booked her a time slot. Trinquet accepted it as a challenge, and then took a liking to it. She’s brought her husband and two children on the show to chat about these stories, and engages with listeners both through phone calls and online comments.

The show provides a platform for Trinquet to discuss little-known aspects of fairy tales, which often have to do with sexuality—how the wolf’s threat to eat Little Red Riding Hood meant rape, or how the original Sleeping Beauty was essentially a victim of sexual abuse.

“The original fairy tales,” she says, “are so much more interesting. If it’s not in context, you don’t get it.”