New Spinsters Smash the Patriarchy


In The Merry Spinster (Henry Holt), a collection of feminist short stories, Mallory Ortberg exposes the dark underbelly of familiar fairy tales. An extension of “Children’s Stories Made Horrific,” Ortberg’s column on (a website of humour and feminist writing, now inactive), The Merry Spinster twists folk tales, Biblical stories and favourite children’s books alike, into stories that subvert plot lines, gender and cultural norms. No happy endings here, only an uncomfortable recognition that villainous men are also found outside of fairy tales: a Beast (here, just a man) tries to guilt a servile Beauty into marrying him, her captor; a mermaid kills her cheating husband in order to restore her voice; a frog worms his way into the Princess’s bed without clear consent. This is why I found “The Six Coffins,” a retelling of the Brothers Grimm stories “The Six Swans” and “The Twelve Brothers,” to be the most satisfying of Ortberg’s stories. In it, the daughter triumphs over a tyrannical father in a sharp commentary on patriarchal society and women’s reproductive rights. “The Rabbit” was perhaps the most sinister story: in this retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit, the rabbit strategizes how best to “take someone else’s Real” and keep it for himself, with unfortunate implications for his human owner. Above all, Ortberg’s humour and keen observations challenged my expectations in each story. I could not read more than one at a time, not simply because I didn’t want to rush through the book, but also because the stories were too unsettling to binge on. The Merry Spinster stands in good company with Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods and Isabel Greenberg’s The One Hundred Nights of Hero, which together form a new tradition of feminist fairy tales that aim to smash the patriarchy.

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Kelsea O’Connor is contributing editor to Geist. She lives in New Westminster.


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