Subverting Fairy Tale Tropes in Traditional Folktales, a guest post by Clar Angkasa
Ever since I was a child I’ve felt something was missing from the folktales I grew up with. Women are often limited to superficial tropes like the damsel in distress, or the wicked stepmother, or the spinster wishing for a child, or the rags-to-riches-marrying-a- prince-they-just-met girl. Little about them is known beyond their relation to the hero of the story (which is often a man) and their happy ending is often only achieved when they fit into the role set aside for them: a caring mother, an obedient daughter, or a loving wife.
As I grew older, I began noticing the same pattern in the real world. I was raised by a single mother who always had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously in her career, and even then people still defined her value and success by whether or not she had a man at her side. Questions about my accomplishments were overshadowed by questions about my love life. All the aunties were always gossiping about who just got engaged or who’s about to get a divorce. It seemed as though the only thing people cared about was who we were with, not who we were as a person. Who could blame them when they grew up with stories about princesses only getting their happily-ever-afters when they find their prince?
I’ve always thought there weren’t enough folktales about strong independent women. There weren’t enough stories about girls who didn’t need a man to define them, who took control of their own lives, who were more than just a mother, daughter or wife. So I decided to subvert the tropes we were used to with Stories of the Islands.
The damsel in distress is perhaps the fairy tale trope that bothers me the most. So naturally, the first thing I did with the first story, Keong Mas, was get rid of the prince. The only way to break the princess’ curse is to be reunited with her “true love”, the prince but I didn’t think he had a place in the narrative especially when he barely even knew her. I wanted the chance to explore the princess’ character, to find ways she can grow as a person and maybe save herself.
In the original folktale, the princess is kind-hearted but her sister’s jealousy led her to being transformed into a snail. As it usually goes in fairy tales, the good gets cursed by the evil but what if we reverse that? In my version, the princess is a selfish woman who treats her sister horribly and it was only through the curse that she learns to be a good person. I think protagonists are much more interesting and relatable when they have character flaws because it’s a chance to explore meaningful growth that readers can learn from.
Then there’s Bawang Merah Bawang Putih, our very own Cinderella tale where the beautiful protagonist is abused by the evil and ugly stepmother and stepsister. First of all, why is the beautiful character always the good guy and the ugly one the bad guy? A classic trope in fairy tales is the correlation between external appearance with internal beauty. I wanted none of that in Stories of the Islands so the characters’ physical beauty has no bearing on the plot whatsoever.
The sisters in my version are thick as thieves, regardless of their blood relation. Adoptive family has always had a bad rap and this was something else that bothered me in folktales. I grew up with half siblings and divorced parents who found new partners along the way so I know family is about more than blood. Not sharing the same genes doesn’t automatically mean you’ll hate each other. But same goes for the reverse, sharing genes isn’t a guarantee of unconditional love. In this story, I wanted to highlight one’s agency in relationships, the ability to choose to nourish a healthy relationship but also have courage to leave a toxic one.
The last story, Timun Mas, was actually the first one I wrote 5 years ago in college when Stories of the Islands was just an Unnamed Senior Year Project. In the original story, an old widow Mbok Srini longs for a child but in my version, Mbok Srini is an independent woman content on being alone. Of course, this is unacceptable by the people around her. It is unseemly for a woman her age to be alone. A woman needs a husband and children to have a fulfilling life. This was not unlike the challenges my mom faced after she and my dad got divorced. I saw firsthand how frustrating life was when society has a very limited definition on what one needs to be happy.
I wanted to broaden one’s perspective of what a good life is. What works for one may not work for another and yet many people are so focused on their own definition on what one’s life goals should be. Same goes for Mbok Srini. She is so sure she wants to be alone but when she finds Timun Mas, she embraces motherhood. She finds unexpected ways to be happy in her new life. And when they face the giant, instead of relying on luck and outside help, I wanted to give these characters a chance to be their own heroes. Through their own ingenuity and resourcefulness, Mbok Srini and Timun Mas find their way to their happy ending.
Through these three stories I also wanted to portray different kinds of love. Being able to stand on your own is a powerful thing but one’s relationships with others is of equal importance. Fairy tales are overly saturated with depictions of heteronormative romantic love being the key to a happy ending. I wanted to show that there are other types of love and there’s value in all sorts of relationships.
In Keong Mas, the cursed princess makes a genuine connection with the fisherwoman who took her in and it was their unconventional relationship that showed her how to be a better person. In Bawang Merah Bawang Putih, it was the sisters’ love for one another that brought them happiness and ultimately the courage to leave an abusive household. In Timun Mas, a mother and daughter carved their own path to face the odds against a giant and live a good life together despite what everybody else thinks.
All this has been my long winded way of saying that the narrative you’re exposed to doesn’t have to dictate how you live your life. If you don’t like it, you can change it. If there’s something missing, fill in the gaps.
Meet the author
Clar (pronounced like Clark but without the ‘k’) was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, and graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Illustration. An illustrator, animator, and comic artist with a passion for narrative art, she draws inspiration from stories, nature, and the people around her. She is currently based in Brooklyn, New York and when she’s not drawing, she could be found obsessing over her 20+ houseplants, lurking in random cafes, or listening to true crime comedy podcasts.
About Stories of the Islands
Journey into a land of magic and powerful girls in this feminist graphic novel retelling of three Indonesian folktales, lushly reimagined by a debut author-illustrator.
Once upon a time. . .
A princess was cursed to live as a snail,
Two sisters were trapped by their father’s wrath,
And a mother and daughter faced a hungry giant.
No one is coming to save them.
Will they get their happily ever after?
In this collection of reimagined Indonesian fairy tales, the girls are the ones with power. The power to fight evil, to protect others, and to grow as people. Because why should girls in folktales always need saving? What if they save themselves instead?
Based on graphic novelist Clar Angkasa’s favorite childhood stories and gorgeously illustrated with a dedicated color palette for each tale, this retelling of “Keong Mas,” “Bawang Merah Bawang Putih,” and “Timun Mas” is filled with spectacular landscapes, deep emotions, and a firm belief in the power of girls’ stories.
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 10/31/2023
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network