Conclusion of the author's "Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales"
Tales thus have a determining function in constructing gender identities ; they vehicle patriarchal values and reproduce models of sexual behaviour better than other ideological apparatuses, mostly because they heavily rely on unconscious mechanisms to condition both men and women for their position in human culture. Because they are the product of the community at large, they obey the rules governing the said community and broadcast the dominant discourse; yet they allow marginal discourses enough space to emerge, provided the larger framework of the narratives espouses patriarchal standards. The advantages of critical theory for a study of tales lie mostly in the possibility of reaching several sliding levels of significance as different discourses clash with each other, besides the opportunity deconstructive readings opens up for the critic to isolate the ideological motives and drives behind the construction of each narrative.
One of the major repressed discourses in tales about women is, paradoxically, female sexuality and desire, since the patriarchal culture defines the latter in terms of a binary opposition that situates female sexuality in the negative pole and deprives women for the right to feel or demand pleasure, even the female body and drives are identified in their relation to the phallus , as functions that secure male sexual gratification. Additionally,
Since creativity is defined as male, it follows that the dominant literary images of femininity are male fantasies too. Women are denied the right to create their own images of femaleness, and instead must seek to conform to the patriarchal standards imposed on them.
However, reading some tales against the grain reveals that women actually employ imagery and symbols to express their aspirations to sexual freedom and autonomy from male conceptualisations of the female libido , and female sexuality is such a taboo that it can only be described in metaphors. In this case, psychoanalytical theory is a convenient critical device, considering tales as manifestations of the unconscious, more like dreams that could be interpreted from different perspectives and signifying different desires.
Besides, women-centred tales as collected give representations of the father and the mother figures distinct from male-centred stories; they tend to undermine prevalent constructs of the father, an image of power and protection, and of the mother, standing for love and nurture, to unveil the inhibited conflicts that haunt the female child inside of the patriarchal family, like oedipal tensions and matrophobic concerns. Consequently, the daughter figure stands alone against both the community and herself, and her flight from the family is rarely a quest for wealth or wisdom, as it happens to male heroes, but rather an escape from an abusive environment constituted by the parents themselves, and this is indicative of both the position of woman in patriarchy and the need to denounce this position in these texts. it is noticed, nevertheless, that the text always concludes with society's recuperation of the runaway through marriage, most of the times, an ending which both silences the previous criticism of the said society's treatment of women, and guarantees the continuity of the system. Yet, as Alan Sinfield puts it,
Readers do not have to respect closures we do not, for instance, have to accept that the independent women characters in Shakespearean comedies find their proper destinies in the marriage deals at the ends of those plays. We can insist on our sense that the middle of such a text arouses expectations that exceed the closure.
Accordingly, women, integrated in the symbolic order as other, try to take over a central position to affirm their difference and tell their stories in their own terms, even if the language available a priori delineates the limits of their challenge and includes their narratives only as long as they openly abide by the Law of the Father. In this case, it is difficult for the critic to draw a diagnosis about the degree of subversion of women-centred texts, mainly because of the nature of discourse itself, which is
Not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it, . . .Discourse transmits and produces power, it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it .
It would thus make more sense to avoid categorizing such texts as feminist, anti-patriarchal or patriarchal, since, fundamentally, "all stories comprise within themselves the ghosts of the alternative stories they are trying to exclude." They are ambivalent texts, dealing with the ultra-sensitive issue of gender difference, that could be interpreted according to the political agenda of each reader. This study attempts to validate their worth for feminist criticism, but they could also be valuable for postcolonial analysis; it is high time for post-colonial critics to disregard hegemonic and scriptocentric approaches to literature and rescue oral texts from their status of 'exotic' minority expressions.
Last modified: 14 December 2001