Sometimes I have to say to myself “not everything is about smashing the Patriarchy”. To which of course I reply (and make of that what you will…) “true, but quite a lot of things still are.” .
So I was thinking about Rumplestiltskin. I really tried to think about this story in another way, but honestly, right now, it’s kind of shouting to me that this is absolutely about Patriarchy. Let me break it down for you. As far as I can recall (happy to be corrected – leave comments) this is the only story that is named solely for its villain. And if there’s one thing systemic oppression (such as Patriarchy) does is that it appropriates the stories of the victim and makes it about the oppressor.
Reading the ladybird book of Rumplestiltskin as a child I quickly cottoned on to the unfairness and injustice directed to the nameless girl who is at the centre of the story. I didn’t know about Patriarchy then but even as a 6 year old I could identify the control the father excercised over his daughter – ostensibly as his property he could risk her life with his untrue boasts of being able to spin straw into gold. She is tossed about on the waves of competing men – her father, the king who calls for the boast to be proven and of course Rumplestiltskin himself who doesn’t see her as a person with dignity but as merely a means to an end. (What Rumpletiltskin’s end game actually is has never really been clear. Why does he want the child? Is it to feed on, is it as an asset or is it simply to deprive someone else of something precious. Is it as a way to control the future of the kingdom? Or is it all simply for his own entertainment. I’ll let you figure it out.)
She is utterly at the whim of thes three men, her freedom constrained threefold – by father who owns her “gift”, by King who demands a price in gold and by a Goblin who controls and removes her future by demanding his payment in the form of her child. When she marris the King as a “reward” for spinning the Gold there is no indication that this is a happy ending for her or that there are any romantic feelings on either side at all. To the king she is simply another asset; one that has given him untold wealth (and could again?) and essentially a way to produce an heir. For her there is no choice or control, she is simply exchanged like the piece of property that she is. And when a child comes along, the only thing that might actually give her joy, this is put under threat of being taken away by Rumplestiltkin’s bargain – which the girl didn’t necessarily agree to in the first place.
The “happy ending” is simply one of Rumplestiltskin’s demise. The creature who would take away her future (and that of the kingdom itself perhaps), who would control the next generation, who would obscure her identity and worth (perhaps reflecting the fear of barreness for those first devising the tale) is stopped in his tracks by the revelation of his identity – and by knowing his name, the control and ownership transfers to her. And the irony that it is his (misogynistic?) self-congratulatory smugness combined with her curiosity that is his true undoing was certainly not lost on me. There’s also a lesson here about bragging before you’ve actually achieved your goal.
The Goblin in question is obviously the bad guy. He’s manipulative, proud and controlling. But is he any more the bad guy than the king who would lock up a girl for her father’s failure to keep his mouth shut? Or the father who sees his daughter as just another commodity? Or a society that sees girls as simple baby factories? You see, when I say “Let’s Smash the Patriarchy” (which I know makes some of my male friends uncomfortable) it’s things like this that I want to help dismantle. And why wouldn’t you want to dismantle them too? Unless of course you benefit from them yourself.