The Pied Piper; Plus More on Folklore & Fairytales

Today I published my 75th Book Riot article! I wrote about the myths and historical theories about The Pied Piper of Hamelin. As usual, I followed it up on Medium.

On Medium, I also expanded on a recent post where I discussed ableism in Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix and feminist Cinderella retellings in general. Link below:

Cinderella and Topical Feminism

However, like many ’90s movies and books did, Ever After uses an inaccurate term for its Romani characters. I like other aspects of Ever After and think they hold up today, though.

Cruella is Ableist/Saneist

(adapted from my Twitter thread)

Wow, Cruella is an ableist, incoherent mess. It has a great soundtrack (more like a playlist because it’s incoherent), costumes, and sets, but still. In this movie, genetic mental illness = evil! Saneism is a more specific form of ableism against mental illness. It’s like the girlboss feminism I criticized in the Camila Cabello Cinderella and Just Ella in the Medium link above, but turned up to 11.

Estella “Cruella” was born with black-and-white hair, has an alter ego named Cruella, is evil because of hereditary mental illness, & her adoptive mom was killed by Cruella’s bio mom with her Dalmatians…

But also she…loves dogs…somehow?

It makes no sense. It could be a homage to, or a parody of, everything from The Devil Wears Prada to The Hunger Games series if it were original, which I don’t think it is.

More importantly, though, it equates evil with hereditary mental illness and uses this ableist, saneist view to explain Cruella’s villain origin story. It frequently uses ableist slurs like psycho–but not as reclamation. It’s an explanation by way of conflating villainy and evil with genetic mental illness.

There have been many threads and essays about this before mine.

Small Site Update!

I also added a search box to the bottom of this WordPress site! I sometimes use ctrl + f to find my own work on it because there’s so much now. Of course, I know exactly what I’m looking for. I hope this is easier for everyone. It also displays more full posts, fewer previews.

My essay on ableist language was included in this handout for a 2021 SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference. Thank you! Typos happen, but I find it amusing they misspelled my name as “Frace.” As a kid writing an unpublishable novel about cloning, I received a subscription to Scientific American addressed to “Frace.”

New Academic Citations and More on Fairy Tales

CN: ableism, sexual assault in fiction

I was quoted in my Book Riot coworker Carina Pereira’s group post here.

I know the last thing we need is more “Cat Person” “discourse,” and the story and its controversies bring up a lot of serious issues. But it’s true: I’d never heard of Red Vines before reading Kristen Roupenian’s short story.

My work is cited in the upcoming book Creative Writing Scholars on the Publishing Trade: Practice, Praxis, Print edited by Sam Meekings and Marshall Moore. It’s part of the series Routledge Studies in Creative Writing. I read and cited a lot of Routledge books in college–a great academic publisher! I also like how the authors explain how they use my and other writers’ work in class. Thank you!

My 2009 undergrad essay, “Light is the Left Hand of Darkness”: Deconstructing Gender Binarisms,” was cited in Nakida Cole’s 2021 dissertation. Hallie R. Lepphaille cited my essay “The Alienating Lack of Disability Representation in Literature” in a 2020 MA thesis. Wow! I rarely check Google, but quick searches of Google Scholar and Google Books were worth it!

In 2020, Amanda Leduc quoted me in her nonfiction book Disfigured. Now it’s been translated into German! Amanda’s novel The Centaur’s Wife, which also combines fairy tales and disability rep, is great too!

I’ve mentioned Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, a 1997 feminist retelling of Cinderella, as a book I loved as a child. I still think it holds up beautifully. Like many other readers, including China Dennington in this post, I later related this book to my own experiences of OCD.

Just Ella: Just Ableist

At the opposite extreme, some fairy tales can be very ableist, as Amanda, other writers, and I often point out. Of course, this is subjective: a matter of opinion and interpretation. Readers naturally disagree on what is ableist and to what degree. When I say something is ableist, I’m stating my own opinion on it, not trying to settle the score, impose my point of view on anyone else, or saying no one should ever read it. No interpretation is the final word on any text, even the author’s. Ableism and other biases permeate art, even unintentionally or unconsciously. I’m just trying to fill gaps in criticism.

Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix was published in 1999. It was also billed as a feminist retelling of Cinderella, but unlike Ella Enchanted, I do not consider Just Ella a successful or intersectional feminist retelling at all. I owned and read a hardcover copy of Just Ella as a ten-year-old fifth grader in 1999.

Like the body swapping books from the same era, Just Ella horrified me in ways that seemed visceral and obvious, but which I could not articulate until I was an adult well versed in disability and critical theory.

Ella, the teen protagonist (or Cinderella character) is imprisoned in a dungeon at one point. Her jailer is a man named Quog, described as a “brute” with a slow, hulking gait (Haddix 131). Quog is written in an extremely ableist way and is repeatedly coded as physically and/or intellectually disabled. When Ella first meets Quog, she compares him to a fairy-tale giant and describes him as dirty, threatening, and drooling (131). He speaks mostly in monosyllables: “Heh!” Or he speaks in sentence fragments: “Wanted women. Couldn’t get them. Now big. Get what want. Heh!” (133) Quog repeatedly sexually harasses Ella by grabbing her or saying simple phrases like “I want…that” (meaning her, of course).

The characterization of Quog implicitly conflates being a sexual predator with being physically or intellectually disabled, being a tall, strong, or fat man, or not speaking with conventional grammar. Just Ella fails as a feminist retelling because readers are meant to identify only with Ella. The book’s white, abled feminism makes ableist, classist points at the expense of men, disabled people, poor people–anyone but the white, young, conventionally attractive, cisgender, upper-class protagonist. As a disabled, white, cis girl who generally loved the feminist, “girl power” media of the day, I was confounded.

Ella describes Quog as “revolting” in appearance (133) and repeatedly compares him to a dog. Combined with the initial description of him as filthy and drooling, this uses abjection to dehumanize him. He also seems unable to understand consent. So, the novel conflates an apparent lack of typical intelligence, hygiene, speech, or understanding with an inability or unwillingness to control oneself sexually. Everything about Quog–his size, hygiene, speech–is meant to be lascivious and sexually threatening.

When I was 10, I was only vaguely aware of sex and potential sexual predators. However, I thought it was horrifying and unfair to imply that Quog’s disability or looks had anything to do with him being threatening or a rapist. As a feminist, I think rapists choose to hurt other people but often use lack of understanding or self-control as a cover or excuse. It was too much for me to articulate or unpack at that age, so I just hated and was angry at the book.

I couldn’t find anything online about the ableism in this book, so as usual, I looked it up on Amazon and Google Books to confirm my memories. My thoughts and impressions date from when I was the “right” age for this book, but are now expressed using theory as an adult.

Work cited:

Haddix, Margaret Peterson. Just Ella. New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Literary Devices in Poetry

Today on Book Riot, I published a big list of poetry terms. I tried to make this an accessible introduction for people who might not be familiar with all of these overlapping terms. I’ve published three short stories, one poem, and many articles!

I quoted Wordsworth as one of many examples in my article. This 2020 PBS article linked to a college essay I wrote on Wordsworth in spring 2010. I posted it to my Medium in 2020. I loved that class, and I’m appreciative and amazed that so many people still read my college work!

Coloring sheet from the Downton Abbey coloring book. Line art by Gwen Burns, coloring by me. Sybil Crawley, a white woman with green eyes & dark brown hair. with her hair pulled back, red lipstick, silver jewelry, light gray/off-white gloves, & wearing a light blue dress with a sheer shrug over her shoulders. The background is sea-green wallpaper.

I recently sang and recorded “Extraordinary Machine” by Fiona Apple, a cappella on YouTube!

Explorabook and Earthsearch: 1990s Kids’ Science Books as Vectors of Ideology

I also wanted to share my essay above one more time. These books indoctrinated us into the hateful overpopulation myth long before we had the critical thinking skills to refute it. One reason I decided to write about Explorabook and Earthsearch today is I’m afraid genocidal overpopulation rhetoric is coming back. Some people will use COVID, wars, and climate change as excuses.

Songs & Weird Science!!

Hi everyone!! I recently had some free time to record 2 of my favorite Stephen Sondheim songs on my iPhone: “On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods and part of “Green Finch & Linnet Bird” from Sweeney Todd. They’re here on my YouTube. I manually added captions for all the videos.

#marycrawley breaks up with her fiancé, #richardcarlisle. They’re standing in the woods. Richard is taller & older than Mary & wears a royal blue top hat, coat, & matching waistcoat. Mary wears a purple outfit with black, grid-like stripes & a purple hat with black feathers. She looks shocked & furious. Photo: similar shot from #downtonabbey

I’m doing the Downton Abbey coloring book now.

Also, I always say ideology is everywhere, so I wrote about the biases in these weird ’90s kids’ science books I loved.

Explorabook and Earthsearch: 1990s Kids’ Science Books as Vectors of Ideology

Kristin Lavransdatter review, part 2

CN: spoilers, pandemics, ableism, fatmisia, LGBT-misia, human sacrifice, abuse

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset is actually a trilogy around 1125 pages long (!), so it took me almost a month to read it. Part 1 of my review is here.

All quotes and page numbers are from Tiina Nunnally’s translations (published in the US in 2005 by Penguin Classics, Penguin Books, New York). 

I usually try to avoid writing about books before I finish reading them, even in an informal, personal blog post like this one. The book was so long and complex that I made an exception in this case. The fatmisia remains constant throughout the trilogy. The ableism moderates slightly but is still pervasive. 

First, I really liked this book overall and would not invest the time and energy to finish such a long book unless I enjoyed it. This is a fascinating story, encompassing the main character’s entire life. It’s filled with a lot of gorgeous imagery that immerses readers in its setting of 14th century Norway. The scene when young Kristin’s spiritual mentor, Brother Edvin, shows her a stained-glass window for the first time is magical. I also loved Kristin’s nuanced, dynamic relationships with her family. She views her love for her father, Lavrans, as prefiguring her love for her children, which I find beautiful. 

Disabled and fat people are often described as monstrous or repulsive throughout the trilogy. Kristin is horrified by a blind boy with “empty eye sockets” (432). The elder Munan, for whom one of Kristin’s seven sons is named, is described as a “crippled…goblin” (993). There are countless such offensive, stereotypical descriptions as disabled people as pitiful or fat people as greedy. This is not a problem unique to this book or author. It’s found throughout literature.

After their son Gaute is born, Erlend wishes he could “give him back” to God. Erlend thinks: “Perhaps it would be unwise to wish for this poor little boy to grow to adulthood – it was not certain that Gaute possessed all his wits” (481). Erlend immediately regrets and feels guilty about this passing thought. Still, this book, like many others, has a pervasive and unquestioned assumption that disability is pitiable and worse than death. 

As I said in my first blog post on this book, Kristin lives in a Christian, ableist, patriarchal society that interprets illness, disability, and death as divine punishments for sins. Kristin later believes her baby Erlend died because of her own inability to forgive her husband Erlend. 
She feels relieved that Halfried has “a fully formed son” (505).

I recently Tweeted that, as a person with cerebral palsy, I notice how often parents in fiction fear their kids have disabilities, especially CP, hydrocephalus, or facial or limb differences. 

I’m cisgender, so I’m not the right person to write about this, but I even noticed this form of ableism intersecting with LGBT-misia in more recent books, like Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex

Simon, Kristin’s former fiancé, eventually marries her little sister, Ramborg, and becomes Kristin’s brother-in-law. Simon—who’s generally a much kinder and more patient man than Erlend—nevertheless says of an old man with boils, “such a pitiful shortcoming” (711). Kristin replies that “it’s neither shameful nor sinful to suffer from throat boils.” She’s learned by now, perhaps by becoming a mother, that health is not a sign of morality. Gaute is angry at Simon as a result.

Kristin and Erlend have a tumultuous, passionate marriage. He hurts and disappoints her deeply. He’s unfaithful to her and physically abuses her and their kids. He even conspires in a plot to overthrow the king, which could have led to his execution. He tends to blame his family for bad choices that were totally his fault, evading his own responsibilities. 

While they’re informally separated, Kristin looks for Erlend and finds a woman living nearby. She’s relieved that the woman is disabled, as if this means that Erlend couldn’t possibly be attracted to her. “She was middle-aged and lame and wore ugly, tattered clothes. Kristin herself was hardly aware of how much easier she breathed (916).” I recently wrote that some critics implied Anne Mueller in The Thorn Birds can’t possibly be Meggie Cleary’s sexual rival because Anne is disabled.

Kristin Lavransdatter is also very timely to read now as the Plague comes to the monastery from England at the end of the trilogy:

“Death and horror and suffering seemed to push people into a world without time. No more than a few weeks had passed, if the days were to be counted, and yet it already seemed as if the world that had existed before the plague and death began wandering naked through the land had disappeared from everyone’s memory…  It was as if no living soul dared to hold on to the memory that life and the progression of workdays had once seemed close, while death was far away; nor was anyone capable of imagining that things might be that way again, if all human beings did not perish.”  (1104)

The lines about forgetting recent, mundane workdays and fearing the extinction of humanity seem especially chilling today. 

Pagan beliefs in changelings, elves, trolls, and witchcraft inform the characters’ Christianity and their views of disability. However, I’m not an expert on Norwegian history or Norse paganism and don’t  know if the trilogy is historically accurate. The trilogy posits Christianity as always morally superior to paganism. Norse paganism is portrayed as superstitious, retrogressive, and even evil in the trilogy. When the Plague reaches Norway, desperate villagers want to sacrifice an orphan boy to the goddess Hel. Kristin and the nuns with whom she is staying prevent them from murdering him. This novel was published decades before modern neopagan religions, which may partly explain why it views paganism as negative and a thing of the past. 

The beautiful descriptions, setting, and character development in this trilogy hold up well. In my opinion, the depictions of disabled and fat characters and of religions are not as timeless. 

Ableism as Disgust

TW: ableism, LGBTQIA-misia, racism, fatmisia, bodily functions

I usually try to avoid responding to articles I disagree with, but I’ve linked to a couple of egregious ones lately, without @-ing the authors or naming them in my articles. This level of ableism can really alienate me from a publication. My response, linking to some of my previous work on Freud, Kristeva, and body swapping, is here.

From JSTOR Daily: “Is Disgust Related to Morality?”

From Vox:

“This is how it feels to be on the internet lately. You’ve potentially seen some iteration of this, perhaps in a tweet about how all hot girls have IBS and depression or anemia and ADHD or some combination thereof. The joke, of course, is that these are deeply unhot ailments, couched in the acknowledgment that yes, I too am in on the joke, unlike you other weirdos who won’t stop earnestly debating the scraps of whatever the culture war most recently dredged up….You can use the specter of hotness as a preemptive defense against any anonymous avatars waiting for the chance to call you ugly or fat, while also adding the vulnerability of admitting you have poop problems.”

This is facile, petty, ableist, contemptuous, “high school movie mean girl”-level snark. I’m not sure how it got past a writer or editor. Individuals joke about their own bodies and disabilities when they feel safe to do so, but this type of generalizing to others is inappropriate and ableist.

As always, thanks for reading and sharing my work, especially my essays on The Thorn Birds and The Time Traveler’s Wife this week!

The Thorn Birds and The Time Traveler’s Wife

I have a new essay out today on grooming in The Thorn Birds and The Time Traveler’s Wife:

Then I followed it up with a closer analysis of The Thorn Birds:

A content warning for grooming in fiction for both.

In case you missed it, a week ago, I wrote about ableism in fiction here:

The Witcher and Kristin Lavransdatter

CN: spoilers, ableism, violence, fatmisia

I wanted to organize and expand on my recent Twitter threads on The Witcher and Kristin Lavransdatter in an informal blog post.

I’m a little disappointed The Witcher was renewed. I only watched the first few episodes because it was so ableist–as other disabled writers have pointed out. People who finished the season and can describe it better didn’t find it any less ableist. For example:

I’m always baffled at attempts to excuse ableism in The Witcher or rape scenes in Game of Thrones with “people were different back then.” This isn’t really true, even with historical fiction. But fantasy?! Back when? It’s loosely inspired by medieval Europe, but was written now…Especially The Witcher, which is so silly in places. It gets compared to Monty Python, Galavant, Renaissance faires, Medieval Times restaurant—a cheesy tone I usually love.

Laila Manack wrote in the Wear Your Voice article I linked earlier: “Upon discussion, someone told me they were surprised when Yennefer first introduced herself because ‘Yennefer in the games was hot.’” The show repeatedly equates beauty and worth with being non-disabled and disability as ugly and monstrous. In other words, disabled and hot are mutually exclusive in the world of The Witcher. Kayla Whaley also had a great Twitter thread on the ableism when Season 1 first came out.

Some of my own observations while I watched it:

Tissaia is AWFUL TO Yennefer. I mean, she literally buys her. Then she always calls her “piglet.” She only calls her Yennefer once she recognizes Yennefer’s powers as a sorceress. What a message about disabled people having to prove their worth and humanity by being exceptional and special.

Yennefer chooses to be “cured” of her disability in a violent surgery that also removes her uterus. She tells the surgeon to keep “these and these” (her eyes and her breasts), apparently her only physical attributes she likes. “I never want to be her again,” she says.

Quotes from the healer/surgeon “fixing” Yennefer’s disability: she is currently the “first draft of what nature intended,” but he is “the final artist.” But “how challenging the clay” (that is, her disabled body.)

She’s constantly called a monster, for example: “an overgrown abortion.” She’s only considered beautiful once she’s “cured.” She makes an entrance into the ballroom, cured; others are stunned. She immediately dances with the king. Yennefer is portrayed as so desperate for love, attention, attraction, and sex–all because of her disability. And after she’s “cured,” people gasp, barely recognizing her. Like she’s HOT now.

Yennefer’s violent surgery is intercut/juxtaposed with the Striga, a monster—implying that she’s also a monster until “cured.” And she loses her fertility to become non-disabled. There are implicit assumptions here that 1) of course disabled people are inferior but also 2) God forbid she reproduce and pass on her disability genetically. Other people have said a lot more about it than I. I just wanted to mention some things I noticed that maybe weren’t said already. And then of course Yennefer and Geralt have sex after she’s cured.

I’m disabled but have different disabilities than Yennefer. Even some disabled writers have used language they probably didn’t know was offensive, like deformed, to describe this character.

Some people ID as disfigured; some prefer facial or limb difference. Mikaela (guysmiley22 on Twitter) coined the term disfiguremisia, a form of ableism against people with disfigurements or facial or limb conditions. I also recommend Ariel Henley’s work on the topic of ableism and facial differences.

Kristin Lavransdatter

I’m reading Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset and could find nothing online on the ableism or fatmisia in it, so I wanted to mention it here and on Twitter. It’s an amazing book from the 1920s loved by my mom, Vavo (grandma), and many others. It was originally published in Norwegian almost 100 years ago.

This translation by Tiina Nunally is so readable. A previous English translation added archaic language. Translating and editing Norwegian to make it artificially sound like Old English is ahistorical and doesn’t make sense. It seems like the earlier translation tried to conform to English-speaking readers’ expectations of anything about the European Middle Ages.

I’m reading the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, with great end notes. BUT the introduction (from 2005) said the author, Sigrid Undset, had a tragic, very difficult life, and uses her “severely r-word” child and Unset’s early death to explain this. I really hope this introduction has been updated since! This still looks like most popular edition in online bookstores.

This book is almost 100 years old and set in medieval Norway. It’s fascinating and a classic for a reason. However, the ableism and fatmisia are constant. Unlike with gender roles, where the narrative is pointing out sexist double standards, the fatmisia is embedded in the narrative. In this book, fat people are constantly described as ugly and repulsive–or at best, good-looking in spite of being fat. Simon, Kristin’s first fiancé, fits this description. Every fat character is described with some form of judgment and disgust.

This is how Kristin thinks of her roommate when staying in a convent. (The narrative is close third-person but following her POV). “Ingebjrg took Kristin’s hand at once and began to talk. She was not very tall and much too fat, especially in her face; her eyes were tiny because her cheeks were so fat (105).” Kristin feels repulsed to share a bed with Ingebjrg because she sweats and is fat. The hatred and antagonism towards fat people is repetitive and constant. A lot of old books characterize people by their appearances, especially fat people.

Kristin lives in an ableist, medieval society, where it is common to send disabled, “infirm, ugly” children to the monastery because they’re considered impossible to marry. A monk explains: “To God they give the daughters who are lame or purblind or ugly or blemished (41).” Had she survived, Kristin’s little sister Ulvhild would have entered the convent.

There’s also constant fear of disability and the ableism and disfiguremisia therein. Kristin and her medieval, Catholic society believe disability is a punishment for sin. She fears that she might accidentally kill or disable her child because she and Erlend had sex before marriage or from looking at her church when it burns to the ground.

“And there floated through her mind
all she had heard of children that were born crippled, with sinews
stiff as stone, of births that had come to the light without limbs —
with scarce a semblance of human shape. Before her tight-shut eyes
would pass pictures of little infants, dreadfully misshapen; one shape
of horror melting into another still worse. Southward in the dale
at home, at Lidstad, the folks had a child — nay, it must be grown
up now. Her father had seen it, but would never speak of it; she
had marked that he grew ill at ease if anyone but named aught of
it. What did it look like? — Oh, no! Holy Saint Olav, pray for
me!” (305)

(I quoted an earlier translation here because I couldn’t find my book quoted online or retype the whole passage. Still, the passage on p. 305 of my copy remains just as ableist in the translation I’m reading, with a disabled child called an “it” and disability as an unspeakable horror. Earlier, when Ulvhild first becomes disabled, a monk alludes to this same child “in the south of the valley,” asking their father, Lavrans: “Would you rather she were like that?”

I still find it worth reading, but be warned!

Anna Karenina

I’ve had this idea in my head for a while! I previously wrote about Anna Karenina last year. That was also the post in which I criticized ableism in Philip Roth’s Nemesis, which I later called an example of abjection.

I’m also coloring The Princess Bride: As You Wish coloring book.

I appreciate people reading my older work, from my Le Guin essay and my fiction from undergrad, the Uncanny 2019-now, even my James Joyce and Breaking Bad fanfics (separate! Imagine that crossover!)

TW war crimes

Way more importantly, Netanyahu’s govt. IS committing apartheid and war crimes against Palestinian civilians, using Hamas as a pretext. Please, let’s all keep contacting our reps. The US govt. should be condemning this, not funding it. Save Palestine. Free Palestine.

Into the Grishaverse


Today on Book Riot!

I also thought my site was overdue for an update. For accessibility and my own basic CSS/HTML skills, I try to keep my layout simple. This new WP theme is called 2021. I love the pretty mint green background color. At the bottom right, you can toggle dark mode on or off. I know bright white backgrounds are inaccessible to some people. I hope this is more user-friendly and prettier. The menu is a little harder to update now, but I still add each new publication there. I miss the “move to top” button, WordPress.