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Wonder Women

by Liz Koch

Review of Folktales of Strong Women, by Doug Lipman

On cold winter nights, faced with the prospect of watching the evening news or doing homework, my next-door neighbor and I would creep down into our basement dragging along mounds of old clothes and props, ready for an evening on stage. The argument would start at the bottom of the stairs. "I don't want to play Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," I would insist. "She's dumb. I want to play Jungle Book. I'll be Bagheera, the blank panther." Since I was older, I always got my way.

Cinderella and Snow White hardly pass as exciting models for little girls seeking adventure in the basement. In recent years, feminists and psychologists have been pointing out the negative influences in these seemingly innocent fairy tales. Young heroines consistently assume passive roles, unable to extricate themselves from a crisis or to act intelligently. Old women, evil as evil can be, invariably spend their time pawning off poisonous apples or preying on innocent children. Small wonder I wanted to play Bagheera.

Doug Lipman, a professional storyteller and devotee of traditional tales, regards the proliferation of a certain form of folktale in the US with a great deal of annoyance. "As a storyteller, I'm interested in helping people find their inner strength and gentleness," he explains. "I get angry that the only tales we have in our culture represent women, if they're young, as passive and, if they're old, as evil." He blames the problem on a filtering process. The tales once told [traditionally and partially collected] by folklorists from around the world have been winnowed down through the years by popularizers and publishers. From there, Walt Disney and other giants have narrowed the choices even further. "What we see has been filtered through a number of steps. The same 20 get retold," Lipman says.

With literally thousands of tales at his finger tips in his vast library, Lipman sorted and collated until he had a batch of tales different from the run-of-the-mill, rosy-cheeked-fair-creature-waiting-for-rescue story. Lipman then recorded his tales on tape and aptly named his cassette, Folktales of Strong Women.

The women in the tales span the years from birth to death. Each story entertainingly demonstrates how a woman relying on her own resourcefulness takes control of her life. One story, "The One with the Star on her Forehead," is actually a version of Show White that breaks the Disney mold. Lipman compared numerous versions, plucking a detail here and an idea there, and based his story on one from the Thonga tribe of South Africa. Although the plot shares some elements with the Disney version, the heroine is energetic, hardly waiting around for Prince Charming to come. In another story, a beggar woman, through common sense and insistence, manages to save her city, which is under siege. In a third, a Vietnamese woman figures out how to take charge of her life while maintaining the appearance of conformity.

Lipman's interest is in stories that show human potential. "I like stories that show people as I see them - smart, bold, cooperative, courageous, and confident, " he says. "As a human race we have a tradition of stories that make everyone feel more in touch. We have all those facets in ourselves, and by giving people images that clarify that human reality, they feel better."

It sounds as though, in some basement somewhere, on a cold winter night, when homework looms, two little girls will have a lot more to choose from.

Reprinted by permission from the Boston Phoenix. November 13, 1984.

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
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