The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 3 (2003)

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Maria Morrison, editor


And They Lived Happily Ever After ... : Helme Heine's The Most Beautiful Egg in the World and the Fairy Tale of Feminism

Maria Morrison


Webster's dictionary defines the fairy tale as a "simple narrative that deals with supernatural beings and is told for the amusement of children." Although fairy tales are frequently cruel and gruesome, the term "fairy tale" also carries connotations of utopia. In its adjective form fairy tale means: "marked by seemingly unreal beauty, perfection, luck, or happiness." In a fairy tale you can have it all. The fairy tale promises that not only will the boy get the girl (or vice versa), but the money, the kingdom and (at least in the English language) happiness ever after, as well. These tales, which we first encounter as children, powerfully affect the way we think about ourselves and our relationship with the world. Without our being aware of it, fairy tales shape our thoughts and goals. "Millions of women must surely have formed their psycho-sexual self-concepts and their ideas of what they could or could not accomplish, what sort of behavior would be rewarded, and the nature of the reward itself, in part from their favorite fairy tales. These stories have been made the repositories o f the dreams, hopes and fantasies of generations of girls" (Lieberman 187). Modern thought has infantilized the fairy tale, robbing it of much of its transformative power. For "fairy tale" has taken on another definition as well. The term is used dismissively to describe something which is untrue - an illusion, a pipe dream: "a made-up story usually designed to mislead," a "cleverly contrived lie." As Marina Warner contends: "fairy tale', as a derogatory term, implies fantasy, escapism, invention, the unreliable consolations of romance" (19).

Feminism, too, promises women they can have it all: a career, a home, a spouse, and kids. It holds out a fairy tale, the magical dream of success, equality, and "happy ever after" to women. To a certain extent, feminism has kept its promise. In the last 35-40 years, women have made considerable progress. They have moved out of their homes and into the work place, demanding equal rights, equal recognition, and equal pay. Women are increasingly visible in both the upper and lower echelons of business, politics, and academics. In fact, Feminists have been so successful; one could argue, that now at the dawn of the 21st century, comes the weary cry - "are you still going on about that?" In an article in the Guardian WeeklySheila Rowbotham complains: "The media had hardly begun to take feminism seriously when they began to announce it was finished. An American journalist coined the phrase "post-feminism" in the early 1980's and since then we have been assumed to be either in mourning or grateful for release."

Unfortunately, the situation of our world: the continued violence towards women, the continued disparity in pay for equal work all too often belies the "text" of equality which we hear all around us. The law pronounces women equal to men, but feminist lawyers like Catherine MacKinnon repeatedly demonstrate that this supposed equality exists in name only. In too many instances, the promises of the feminist movement reveal themselves to be a fairy tale: not the magical utopia, but rather the illusion, the pipe dream that will never be realized. For out there the unequalfemale still exists: the female who gets pregnant, who needs a special parking spot, bright lights and cans of mace so that she can convince herself that she is secure in a violent world. Out there is the female who grew up reading fairy tales and has believed the feminist fairy tale. What happens to her? Where is the power and equality which feminism claims to have given her?

Richard Rorty asserts that in order for feminism to work, we need more than a change in laws; we need a change in our myths, in the way we think about the world. Rorty suggests that feminists need to develop a new language for women; one that "with luck" will get "woven into the language taught to children" (Rorty, Feminism and Pragmatism 10). This article examines one such attempt to incorporate a feminist perspective into a children's book: Helme Heine's The Most Beautiful Egg in the World, a picture book published in Germany in 1988. Writing within the fairy tale genre, Heine recounts an ostensibly feminist, egalitarian story. His accompanying illustrations, however, suggest that attempting to tell feminist stories is fraught with difficulties. Toril Moi has warned: "All ideas, including feminist ones, are...'contaminated' by patriarchal ideology" (118). Close examination of the relation between picture and written text in Heine demonstrates the ways in which the pictures contaminate the message of the text. Heine's work suggests that try as we might, we are still caught up in the old ways of thinking.

It may seem odd to ground a discussion of feminism in children's literature, a literature which "is not one." Yet as Stanley Fish argues: "there is no point in talking about 'the interpretation which gets the text right,' and every point in putting the text in as many contexts as anyone finds it useful to put it in" (qtd. in Rorty, Deconstruction 52). Taking Fish's quote to heart, it does become useful to look at all kinds of literature in an attempt to talk about feminism. Toril Moi defines as feminine "writing which seems to be marginalized (repressed, silenced) by the ruling social / linguistic order" (132). This certainly seems an apt description of children's literature. To be sure, children's literature has its champions within the academic community, and the academic discourse surrounding children's literature is rapidly expanding. But children's literature is still all too often dismissed as trivial. Peter Hunt describes children's literature as "marginalized," a "historical footnote," something which has been "ghettoized." It makes sense to talk about women and children's literature together because they have suffered the same fate. They have both been marginalized, rendered obscure and/or relegated to the nursery. As Virginia Woolf asserts: "history scarcely mentions her;" literature scarcely acknowledges the picture book for many of the same reasons.

Like the history which Wolf laments, Helme Heine's The Most Beautiful Egg in the World never directly mentions women. Heine's book begins rather with three chickens - Latte, Pünktchen und Feder squabbling amongst themselves as to who is the most beautiful. Unable to decide, the three chickens agree to appeal to the king, the only non-chicken, as the final judge. The King - sensitive, new-age, and politically-correct - hastens to assure the chickens that he is not so unenlightened as to believe that physical appearance should determine one's place in society. Rejecting the old-fashioned beauty contest as a way of determining which of the three chickens is the most beautiful, the king announces in a very politically correct manner "es kommt auf die inneren Werte an:" It depends upon what's inside. Beauty is not just skin deep; the king will judge the chickens' inner worth. Their value will be determined by what comes out of them. Which chicken will lay the most beautiful egg? She will be crowned a princess.

The conflict which catalyzes the story's events revolves around an issue which is only too familiar. The question of personal beauty is one which affects almost all women. We are hapless targets of a battery of beauty products and commercials aimed at convincing us that we are too fat, too wrinkled, or too old to be appealing. And who are the princesses we're all striving to be? New York models and Hollywood film stars?

As mentioned above, on a textual level Heine seems to rewrite the traditional beauty contest. At first glance the text seems to suggest that physical beauty is no longer a valid category - as the king says: "it depends upon what's inside . " What the king says is what we want to hear; it's what our colleagues, our self-help groups and our friends tell us. It is the seductive, but misleading assurance that women are no longer judged by what they look like. After all, even the Miss America contest has redesigned itself to include a segment which requires each contestant to discuss her plans to make the world a better place. But although the text has been altered, the reality remains the same. Despite what the king says it's the same old beauty contest. The contestants in the Miss America pageant still have to appear in a swimsuit, the chickens still have to show off their beauty. For the King judges the chickens on the exterior appearance of the eggs they produce.

And yet there is hope. Structurally and thematically Heine's story is a fairy tale, and as such holds out the promise of a happy ever after. Thus we find an initial conflict, a trial which pits three competitors against each other and finally a happy end in which the winner becomes a princess. As this is a modern/enlightened story, Latte, Pünktchen, and Feder all win and all three are crowned princess, their portraits hung on the palace walls as visible proof of their success. What a wonderful world! There are no losers, only winners; we are all different but beautiful.

When we examine Heine's text more closely however, we find two different narratives running parallel to each other. The words of the text relate the successful story of the chickens. They will be crowned princesses and live on forever laying eggs for the King. The illustrations, however, provide a visual counterpoint to the words, telling a very different story. Throughout, the visual narrative undermines the story's text of emancipation. For while the literal narrative insists on the equality of the eggs, and hence the chickens which lay them, the illustrations reflect a dramatic crescendo, clearly privileging each successive egg over its predecessor. The first egg, a normal chicken egg, is the best that the hen can produce: "Everyone was speechless. They had never seen such a thing before. Before them lay an unblemished egg, white as snow. Void of any indentations, it had a shell like polished marble. "It couldn't be more perfect!" cried the King, and everyone, everyone nodded." [1] As every reader of fairy tales knows, the first fantastical event is always the least of the three, and Heine does not disappoint his reader.

The second egg makes the King clap for joy. "Before him lay an egg, of such size and weight that even an ostrich would have been jealous. It couldn't be any bigger! cried the king, and everyone, everyone nodded." [2] Feder produces the third (and best) egg. The quintessential female, Feder is humble and self -deprecating. "Feder barely made a sound. That was her way - humbly, with downcast eyes she sat there. Than she stood. Before them lay a four-cornered egg which people would still talk of in a 100 years. The edges were as true as if they had been drawn with a ruler and every surface shone in a different color. It couldn't be more fantastic! cried the King, and everyone, everyone nodded." [3]

The treatment of the three eggs in the written text is identical; each egg evokes a new and parallel response from the king and the concurrence of the community. At the end of the contest all three chickens win, all three receive a golden crown. The pictures, however, impart a very different story. The pictures make clear that each successive egg astounds and amazes the watching kingdom more than had the previous egg. Each event features the egg occupying the entirety of the left page, while the right hand side depicts the king and his subjects. When the first egg is laid, king and chickens face the reader, a contented smile on the king's face and scarcely any reaction at all on the faces of the chickens. The second egg draws attention to itself; king and chickens stare in amazement, mouths agape. It is the third and final egg, however, which demands the most extravagant reaction. At the sight of the multicolored, cornered egg, king and chickens explode with jubilation, leaving little doubt in the reader's mind as to which chicken has actually won the contest.

The pictures demand a parallel response from the reader. The text expects us to rejoice at the wondrous, multicolored egg. We, too, are expected to marvel at the colors, the uniqueness, and the ab normality of this egg. It is precisely at this point that Heine's text is at its most subtle, and most pernicious. Any farmer can tell you that no egg is perfect. Most eggs are almost oval, almost white (or brown), and approximately the same size. Not so the eggs in Heine's text. None of these eggs are normal - each egg is more perverted, more mutated than its precursor. And perversely, the most mutated, most perverted, most unnatural egg is the one which is valued above the rest.

What does this have to do with women? We live in a society which touts our equality and offers pithy adages like "beauty is only skin deep" as comfort to those who do not measure up. Yet this same society, despite its protestations to the contrary, continues to judge women according to their looks. Thus western women willingly go to extreme measures to alter themselves in the attempt to look "more like women." The pervasive number of anorexics in our culture, the myriad number of health clubs and fad diets remain proof of our obsession. We shave our legs and our armpits because that makes us more "feminine." From the relative harmlessness of makeup, to eating disorders and operations -- face lifts, silicon implants, liposuction, and botox injections, all designed to enhance our "natural" beauty, women are mutilating themselves in the quest for the perfect body. Like the chickens we are victims, but willing victims, for like them, we are infected with the desire to be a princess, "the fairest of them all."

A grim reality resides behind the happy story of the hens, an equally grim reality exists behind the deceptive words and promises which patriarchy employs to subject and placate women. Heine's story, like feminism, promises a happy end, but the fundamental impossibility of such an existence is constantly recalled in the illustrations. Already on the opening page of Heine's book death lurks in the form of a fox skulking behind a tree, foreshadowing the violent death which awaits the chickens. The fundamental hostility of the world towards chickens reveals itself again when the three hens go to the king to seek his decision. As the three hens bow in obeisance before the king he sits at a table ravaging a broiled chicken. His royal robe boasts a collar which looks suspiciously like chicken feathers. This kind of exploitative use of chickens is nothing new to the reader, who knows from experience that chickens get eaten and made into pillows. That chickens die is a fact of our existence and a state of affairs which we have accepted and embroidered into the fabric of our unconscious. Our awareness of this fact, however, should make our identification with the chickens, as the would-be princess protagonists of this story, somewhat problematic. After all, we know this story can't end happily. But this is not the case. Most of us can and do readily identify with the chickens; we share their desire for recognition, their desire to be a princess.

Our acceptance of the violence against chickens finds parallels in our acceptance of violence towards women (and how wonderfully ironic that one of the slang terms for woman is chick). We take this violence against women so much as a matter of course that women can buy mace and pepper spray to fend off would-be attackers, women on university campuses are routinely warned not to walk alone after dark, and instances of rape and domestic abuse are not considered newsworthy. Feminist lawyer Catherine MacKinnon claims that only 7.8 percent of women have never experienced any sort of sexual harassment. 7.8 percent! The statistics she quotes are staggering. We seem to have accepted without question that it is the normal state of affairs for men to try to dominate women. The text's sinister suggestion that being a chicken means being baked, roasted or fried, parallels a world in which being a woman means being repressed, exploited, or harassed.

At every point Heine's text promises liberation, seems to want to free women from old stereotypes, and old ways of being, and again and again he reveals the chains which still remain. His illustrations depict a world infected by patriarchy. The male king to whom the chickens turn is ruler and judge over a strictly female kingdom. He is literally and figuratively the law, the ultimate signifier. Any doubts the reader may have regarding the ultimate authority of the king evaporate as soon as we regard the signpost, for the signpost which directs the chickens to the king is in fact the king himself. This sign makes it clear that there is no where else for the chickens to go. The King is both signifier and signified; the slippage which Sausseure posits between the two has entirely disappeared.

During the egg-laying contest all of the chickens in the kingdom gather to witness the event, each envisioning the egg which is to be laid. The king envisions a golden egg; one of the chickens imagines a fried egg. Patriarchy recognizes woman as commodity, woman recognizes woman as a target of violence. The reader chuckles at the whimsy. We don't question the ultimate happiness of the three chickens because the story follows a paradigm with which we are already familiar. As a fairy tale, Heine's text inscribes its own interpretation, determines its own happy end. This is a children's book, we don't expect complications and doubled meanings. After all, the three chickens are crowned and the end promises us, "and if they haven't died, they're still laying." [4] But this is the big joke, the grand deception. The crowns which the chickens receive are merely painted on with gold paint. The penultimate page of the book depicts the king in a gondola, rowing the three chickens across a river. This illustration bears an eerie resemblance to Charon, rowing the souls of the dead across the river Styx. Pictures of the eggs hang framed upon the wall - pinups to remember them by when the chickens are gone. For the "nest" in which the chickens lay at the conclusion could just as easily be a cooking pot. The happy end is a joke - we all know that we eat chickens. Princesses or not, death awaits them.

Agatha Christie wrote "death comes as the end;" the fairy tale promises "happiness ever after." Somewhere between those two promises we need to find a new promise for women. We are still bound up in the language and ideas of patriarchy and we must not let ourselves be misled by texts which try to tell us otherwise. Rorty suggested that feminists develop a new language to weave into the language taught to children. Heine's text suggests that teaching our children a new language is a much more difficult process than one might think. While language remains a powerful tool for effecting change, language can be dangerously seductive. Are we really teaching our children a new language or is it just new words for the same old picture?

 

Notes

1. Alle waren sprachlos. So etwas hatten sie noch nie gesehen: Vor ihnen lag ein schneeweisses, makelloses Hühnerei, ohne jede Druckstelle, mit einer Schale wie polierter Marmor. "Vollkommener geht es nicht!" rief der König--und alle, alle nickten.

2. Vor ihm lag ein Hühnerei, so groß und schwer, daß selbst ein Vogel Strauß neidisch geworden wäre. "Größer geht es nicht!" rief der König--und alle, alle nickten.

3. Feder gackerte kaum. Es was ihre Art: Bescheiden, mit niedergeschlagenen Augen saß sie da. Dann stand sie auf. Vor ihnen lag ein viereckiges Hühnerei, von dem man in hundert Jahren noch erzählen wird. Die Kanten waren wie mit dem Lineal gezogen, jede Fläche leuchtete in einer anderen Farbe. "Phantastischer geht es nicht!" rief der König--und alle, alle nickten.

4. und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann legen sie immer noch. This is a play on the traditional German, "und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie immer noch."

 

Works Cited

Lieberman, Marcia K. "Some Day My Prince Will Come: Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale." Don't Bet on the Prince : Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. Ed. Jack Zipes. New York: Methuen, 1986. 185-208.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. Feminism Unmodified : Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Moi, Toril. "Feminist, Female, Feminine." The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989. 117-132.

Rorty, Richard. "Feminism and Pragmatism," Radical Philosophy 59 (1991).

---. "Deconstruction" (Class Packet 4016).

Rowbotham, Shelia. Guardian Weekly 18 May 1997.

Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929.

 

 

Maria Morrison


Volume 7, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, September, 2003

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"And They Lived Happily Ever After...: Helme Heine's The Most Beautiful Egg in the World and the Fairy Tale of Feminism" © Maria Morrison, 2003.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680