Heroine Chic: the problem with feminist fairy tales

Heroine Chic: the problem with feminist fairy tales

The Heart of Robin Hood, a new feminist fairy tale from Mirvish, morphs Maid Marion from a prissy damsel into a spunky swashbuckler

Heroine Chic
(Photograph courtesy of Mirvish)

For little girls, the most indelible image of 2014 was that of Frozen’s Queen Elsa, shimmying and shimmering as she discarded the manacles of her regal existence. At that moment, Elsa became an avatar of tweenage girl power, trumpeting the virtues of self-expression, pragmatism and independence. Frozen, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, is the latest fairy tale to be ­reimagined as a badass feminist manifesto. We’ve also seen Snow White and the Huntsman, which recast the porcelain princess as a ­hard-core warrior played by Kristen Stewart; ­Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie as an evil fairy turned motherly martyr; and Wicked, which transformed Elphaba, The Wizard of Oz’s reptilian witch, into a sensitive victim of bullying. After centuries of docile damsels and nefarious crones, the new fairy-tale heroines have pluck. They fight battles, stand up for themselves and belt out the swelling go-girl anthems that inspire millions of ­YouTube covers. As female role models, they form an unimpeachable sorority.

As characters, they’re about as deep as a puddle. Beneath the gloss of all kids’ entertainment lies a tension between the broad strokes of education and the nuance of art; where these characters thrive at the former, they botch the latter. The best young heroines—Anne Shirley, Jo March, Eloise, Hermione Granger—reveal flecks of egotism, recklessness, cruelty and pride from beneath their armour of moxie. Today’s revisionist heroines, by contrast, implant a much-needed feminist chip in kids’ nascent brains, but they’re one-note monoliths of unerring bravery and selflessness. We’ve replaced one set of stock characters with another.

The Heart of Robin Hood is guilty of the same thin characterization. The new Mirvish crowd-pleaser, which premieres in Toronto this month before hitting Broadway in March, has already been ecstatically received in London, Boston and Winnipeg. Playwright David Farr turns Maid Marion, Robin Hood’s courtly paramour, into a cross between Katharine Hepburn and Arya Stark—a pugnacious 16-year-old tomboy, keen to ditch her arranged marriage and escape to the woods, where she can slap on a pair of breeches, roughhouse with the Merry Men and flaunt her sword-fighting skills.

Farr, the associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, specializes in Strong Female Characters: he wrote the screenplay for the 2011 spy thriller Hanna, a fractured fairy tale that melded Brothers Grimm stories, gingerbread houses and lost innocence into something warped and wistful. He dreamed up The Heart of Robin Hood when his pre-tween daughters complained that the women in every action movie they watched were useless.

Like Elsa, Elphaba and Snow White, Farr’s Marion is kind, courageous and corseted both literally and figuratively by what society wants her to be. When ­Marion asks to join Robin Hood’s crew, he laughs her off with patronizing, sexist cruelty, so she cross-dresses as a swain named ­Martin and infiltrates the posse, winning over Robin, his Merry Men and the audience with her righteous valour and cutesy mettle. A sword-fighting, principled ­heroine hits every feminist checkpoint, but through an artistic lens, Marion comes off idealized and grating. What saves the character—or at least eclipses her ­shortcomings—are the striking stagecraft and nimble script.

Farr’s tale feels like a natural extension of early Robin Hood ballads and poems, rather than a rebuttal. He adopts motifs from the legend, threading them into the drama in surprising ways. The ballad tradition is picked up by the American bluegrass band Parsonsfield, who’ve composed jaunty new numbers for the show, strumming banjos and upright basses onstage. Robin regresses from a posh patrician into a chest-puffing ­British hoodlum straight out of a Jason ­Statham movie. And Marion outfoxes him using his greatest trick—a mastery of disguise. Farr delights in the screwball theatrica­lity of disguises adopted and discarded, toying with the idea that identity is a mirage—an old Judith Butler chestnut delivered with kid-friendly buoyancy and slapstick laughs.

Sherwood Forest forms the backdrop for all this dragged-out drama. The play builds on a blueprint pioneered by ­Shakespeare in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rendering the forest canopy as an otherworldly utopia where social boundaries give way to magical, madcap chaos. The Icelandic director Gísli Örn Gardarsson—best known for a 2003 acrobatic stage adaptation of Romeo and Juliet featuring trampolines and a springboard—translates that metaphor into a dazzling dreamscape covered in vegetation, rabbit holes and glassy ponds. Huge oak branches gnarl together and snake out menacingly over the audience. At the centre of the stage is a steep grassy sward that transforms into a castle when the script demands, popping out doors, windows and turrets. It’s a convenient piece of mechanical wizardry, but it also doubles as a symbolic barrier, a porous portal between the natural world and the man-made society we’ve carved out of it.

­Gardarsson, a former member of the Icelandic gymnastics team, has preserved the athletic exuberance of the Robin Hood legend. The Merry Men don’t walk onstage, but slide down the sward. They swing, tumble and hang upside down from ­Tarzan ropes. Their brawls—­sometimes fought six metres in the air—are feats of flexibility, the performers bending and rippling their bodies like Gumby. The zany fun is ­infectious: even adults will leave the ­theatre on an adrenalin buzz.

In Farr’s script, however, the central gimmick—the feminist fairy tale—gets lost, and Marion along with it. If anything, the thuggish Robin has more heft, acquiring a conscience and some compassion as Marion melts him into lovestruck goo. In the new fairy-tale canon, feisty feminist characters like Marion are leaps ahead of the narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty, or ­Stockholm syndrome–plagued Belle, or self-annihilating Ariel. Now the world of kids’ popcorn entertainment needs contoured heroines who bristle and snap, who make bad decisions, who breathe and evolve—just like the kids who’ll emulate them. Until then, we’ll have to settle for dazzling set pieces and aerial sword fights.

The Heart of Robin Hood
Royal Alexandra Theatre
Dec. 23 to March 1