Interview: Pauline Greenhill

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In 2014, when I began studying fairy tales, I came across Pauline Greenhill’s “‘Fitcher’s [Queer] Bird’: A Fairy-Tale Heroine and Her Avatars,”  an academic article that offers a queer reading of “Fitcher’s Bird,” my favorite Grimm fairy tale. The article has deeply influenced my thinking and writing on fairy tales and so I was thrilled when, after sending off an email to Greenhill, she agreed to an interview.

Greenhill is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her most recent book is Screening Justice: Canadian Crime Films, Culture and Society, which was co-edited with Steven Kohm and Sonia Bookman, and published in 2016. She also co-edited Fairy-Tale Films Beyond Disney: International Perspectives with Jack Zipes and Kendra Magnus-Johnston in 2016; Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag with Diane Tye in 2014; Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television with Jill Terry Rudy in 2014; Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms with Kay Turner in 2012; and Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity with Sidney Eve Matrix in 2010. She is the author of Make the Night Hideous: Four English Canadian Charivaris, 1881-1940 (2010). She has fairy-tale research published in Feral Feminisms; Law, Culture and the Humanities; Marvels & Tales; Narrative Culture; Studies in European Cinema; and Theoretical Criminology among others.

There’s a storied tradition of studying fairy tales through a feminist lens, but you take that work further, examining queerness in fairy tales. How did you find your way into this field of research?

Absolutely my queer/trans research is an extension of my feminist research! But my route to queer and trans fairy tales was circuitous. I started a masters in Folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1977. At the time, and to a sad extent now, the cool kids avoided traditionally recognised forms of folklore like ballads and fairy tales. Trying to be one of them, I did my masters thesis on family photography.

However, when I got to the University of Texas at Austin in 1981, where I did my PhD, I worked with Roger deV. Renwick, a ballad and folk song scholar who has always been an advocate for studying traditional genres (see e.g. Renwick 1980 and 2009). So for my PhD dissertation on folk poetry in Ontario under Roger’s supervision, I was looking for the old in the new, as it were (Greenhill 1989).

After five years teaching Canadian Studies at the University of Waterloo, I came to the University of Winnipeg’s (then) Women’s Studies program in 1991. (We’re now a Department with six full time faculty and we’ve included “and Gender.”) At the time I was working on Newfoundland ballads about women who dress as men to follow their lovers or seek adventure as sailors, soldiers, or robbers. You can listen to one example here, sung by the fabulous Newfoundland traditional source singer Anita Best on the compilation album Bristol’s Hope–Lately Come Over. Hitherto folklorists’ readings assumed that these songs were about men and their experiences, and my feminist reading asserted that they were also about women.

However, when I talked to my undergraduate feminist theory class, telling them my idea that these songs expressed possibilities for women to control their own libidinal and reproductive economy (that is, to choose their own sex partners/husbands rather than having the partner chosen by their father as is most common in ballads), the students pointed out alternatives to my heteronormative interpretation.

Specifically, I didn’t take into account the fact that these songs often circled around the drama of a man declaring love for and/or suggesting sex with the cross dresser, apparently thinking she was male; or a woman declaring love and/or suggesting sex, unaware that she was attracted to a woman. Following the students’ lead, my first queering of traditional culture ventured that these ballads were (also) about same-sex attraction (Greenhill 1995). I have since continued to queer, and later to explore transgender expression in, traditional ballads (Greenhill 2014).

Fairy tales entered the mix when I invited my friend, colleague, and co-conspirator in feminist and queer folklore Kay Turner to teach an intensive feminist folklore course at the University of Winnipeg in 1997. Kay decided to offer a few classes on the Grimms’ fairy tales, and again our fabulous Women’s Studies students were influential! They read the stories anew, reflecting upon them from their own queer locations. Kay and I were fascinated and resolved to do a book incorporating these interpretations.

Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms (Turner and Greenhill 2012) was 15 years in the making. Part of the problem was the difficulty of finding folklorists in the late 1990s who were willing to venture a queer reading of traditional fairy tales! Then, just as we were getting ready to finalise our plans, 9/11 happened. Kay was working as the folklorist for the Brooklyn Arts Council and turned all her attention toward documenting and recording people’s personal and aesthetic responses. By the middle of the decade, I was despairing of our chances of ever getting the book going, so I submitted my paper on “Fitcher’s (Queer) Bird” (ATU 311) to Marvels & Tales, and they accepted it (2008).

Finally, Kay and I resolved that we had to complete that transgressing! We proposed Transgressive Tales to Wayne State University Press’s Series in Fairy Tale Studies and they accepted. With a combination of work from seasoned scholars and from students, we looked at some literary rewritings, but also at traditional stories. For my own contribution, I managed to sneak in a Canadian fairy tale–“Peg Bearskin” in Newfoundland and “La Poiluse” in Francophone northern Ontario–about a gutsy, masculine-looking and -acting young woman who saves her sisters, seeks adventures and impossible tasks, and eventually marries a prince and magically transforms (herself) into a more feminine presentation.

Why do you think reading these archetypal stories through a queer lens is important?

I like to use the insights of film theorist Alexander Doty on “queering” cinema, because they apply to nearly everything else also. The concept of queering too often “implies taking a thing that is straight and doing something to it” (2000, 2). Doty points out that heterosexual readings are conventionally presumed to be intrinsic, where queer and trans readings, then, must necessarily be taking an already-straight text and rendering it queer–an additive process, a reading-into, a twisting. Doty disagrees with that perspective, and so do I. We presume that texts have no essential sex, gender, or sexuality.

Certainly a lot of fairy tales look superficially straight (especially as redacted by those who bring their Christian, heteronormative perspectives, like the Brothers Grimm). Many focus on heterosexual marriage–either as an ending for men or as the beginning of women’s troubles! (discussed by Holbek 1987). However, sometimes one can be absolutely flabbergasted by how close to the surface queerness is; a lot of fairy tales really work well to undermine heteronormative presumptions. To quote Lewis Seifert, one of the first American scholars to start outing fairy tales, in his introduction to the recent special issue of Marvels & Tales, called “Queer(ing) Fairy Tales,” a lot of times we find “erotic innuendo hiding in plain sight” (2015, 17)–and, I would add, queer and trans content similarly hiding in plain sight.

How could I NOT have seen the gay/lesbian/trans elements in those cross-dressing ballads? Because everything I’d learned growing up straight, and being intellectually formed in the discipline of folklore in the 1970s and 1980s, taught me to simply gloss over them! How can we NOT see a fairy tale type called “The Shift of Sex” (ATU 514), in which a woman transforms into man, as being about transgender expression (Greenhill and Anderson-Grégoire 2014)? What’s NOT queer about a story about a boy born half human, half hedgehog, who rides off on his shod cock (Greenhill 2014a)? Why should pointing out lesbian elements in a story like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”–like Little Robber Girl kissing and sleeping with Gerda, so thoroughly overplayed especially in male directors’ live action films of the tale (Greenhill 2015)–seem anything other than obvious? In part because we’re taught that fairy tales are for kids, who are of course (wrongly!) presumed to be sexuality-free, its queer/trans content (presumed X-rated) seems invisible/impossible! And because, as Doty pointed out, the presumption that everyone and everything is always heterosexual prevails. But once you start looking….

What’s your favorite fairy tale and why?

 I confess to being a bit fickle in my fairy-tale loves. When I was working on “Fitcher’s Bird,” I was smitten. Then “Peg Bearskin/La Poiluse” called me, and “The Shift of Sex,” and “Hans My Hedgehog” (ATU 411). Lately in my fairy-tale film research I’ve branched out to include literary fairy tales, and I was watching and writing about cinema based on Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” I was fascinated by the differences I saw between male directors’ readings of the story and the sexualities involved, and those of four (feminist) women directors (Greenhill 2016).

But the only fairy tale I actually tell–teaching is my usual performance–is a version of “The Robber Bridegroom” (ATU 955). I first heard it told by The Folktellers at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a long time ago. There’s so much to love in that story. It’s a thriller–the story-within-a-story that the hero/ine uses to save themself; the triple incremental repetition “Be bold!” “Be bold, be bold!” “Be bold, be bold, but not so bold, lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.” I so appreciate the horror moments in fairy tales–especially when, as in “Fitcher’s Bird,” “Peg Bearskin,” “The Shift of Sex,” and of course “The Robber Bridegroom,” the sister, usually the younger sister, like me, eventually prevails.

What have you been working on recently?

My colleagues Jill Terry Rudy, Naomi Hamer, Lauren Bosc and I are co-editing the Routledge Companion to Fairy-Tale Cultures and Media. I’ve promised a monograph called Species of Magic and Wonder: Transgender, Transbiology, and Transformation in Fairy-Tale Media to the Wayne State University Press Series in Fairy-Tale Studies. My colleagues Martin Lovelace, Anita Best and I are doing “The Maid in the Thick of the Well”: Gender and the Magic Tales of Alice Lannon and Pius Power Senior, a book on the ten magic tales collected from two Newfoundland source tellers. I’ve applied for a grant to do more on justice issues and fairy-tale media with Canadian and international colleagues.

The International Fairy-Tale Filmography online needs constant updating. And I want to do more on two films: Celestial Clockwork (directed by Fina Torres, 1995), a lesbian/gay/queer transnational version of “Cinderella” (ATU 510A) about a Venezuelan mezzo-soprano in Paris trying to get the lead role in a film of Rossini’s La Cenerentola; and The Fall (directed by Tarsem Singh, 2006), another story-in-story story which explores storytelling and is visually amazing, having been filmed in more than 20 countries.

I’m hoping to do more participant-observation on film sites with the fabulous women from Red Czarina. Director Danishka Esterhazy welcomed a student research assistant and me to the set of H & G , a “Hansel and Gretel” (ATU 327A) film centring on Winnipeg and the surrounding countryside. It was a fantastic experience to see a movie being made. Danishka is in post-production on The Singing Bones, based on Francesca Lia Block’s “Beauty and the Beast” (ATU 425C) short story called “Bones.” Rebecca Gibson will be directing “Jane Garbage,” a modern “Cinderella” story. And check out Danishka’s earlier fairy tale films, The Snow Queen and The Red Hood–a riff on “Little Red Riding Hood” (ATU 333).

So much has been done on film since Sidney Eve Matrix and I did Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity (2010) and Jack Zipes’s The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy Tale Films (2011) came out. (I have to give a shout out to Jack who has been an amazing supporter, mentor, and collaborator.  Thanks, Jack!) And many new fairy-tale films have come out, which I’m dying to share with the wonderful Women’s and Gender Studies students–and of course all the other students–at the University of Winnipeg. I’m hoping to teach a fairy-tale film course in Fall 2017 and screen some films I’ve encountered recently as well as some old favourites. My students loved The Wolves of Kromer (directed by Will Gould, 1998), a sweet film using “Little Red Riding Hood” to reflect on homophobia. And of course, all the cool new theory and analysis, including Anne Duggan’s (2013) work on Jacques Demy’s fairy tale films and Cristina Bacchilega’s (2013) de-colonising reflection on the transnational fairy tale web.

References cited:

Bacchilega, Cristina, 2013. Fairy tales transformed?: Twenty-First-Century adaptations and the politics of wonder. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Duggan, Anne E. 2013. Queer enchantments: gender, sexuality, and class in the fairy-tale cinema of Jacques Demy. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Greenhill, Pauline. 1989. True poetry: traditional and popular verse in Ontario. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

—–. 1995. “‘Neither a Man nor a Maid’: Sexualities and Gendered Meanings in Cross-Dressing Ballads.” Journal of American Folklore 108: 156-177.

—–. 2008. “‘Fitcher’s [Queer] Bird’: A Fairy-Tale Heroine and Her Avatars.” Marvels & Tales 22 (1): 143-167.

—–. 2014 “‘If I Was a Woman As I Am a Man’: The Transgender Imagination in Newfoundland Ballads.” In Changing Places: Feminist Essays on Empathy and Relocation, eds. Valerie Burton & Jean Guthrie, 172-98. Toronto: Inanna Publications.

—–. 2014a “Wanting (To Be) Animal: Fairy-Tale Transbiology in The StoryTeller.” Feral Feminisms 2: 29-45. http://www.feralfeminisms.com/wanting-to-be-animal/

—–. 2015 “‘The Snow Queen’: Queer Coding in Male Directors’ Films.” Marvels & Tales 29 (1): 137-39.

—–. 2016 “Team Snow Queen: Feminist Cinematic ‘Misinterpretations’ of a Fairy Tale.” Studies in European Cinema 13 (1): 32-47.

Greenhill, Pauline and Emilie Anderson-Grégoire. 2014. “‘If Thou Be Woman, Be Now Man!’ ‘The Shift of Sex’ as Transsexual Imagination.” In Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag, edited by Pauline Greenhill and Diane Tye, 56-73. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Greenhill, Pauline and Sidney Eve Matrix. 2010. Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Holbek, Bengt. 1987. Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.

Renwick. Roger deV. 1980. English Folk Poetry: Structure and Meaning. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

—–. 2009. Recentering Anglo/American folksong: sea crabs and wicked youths. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Seifert, Lewis. 2015. “Introduction: Queer(ing) Fairy Tales.” Marvels & Tales 29 (1): 15-20.

Turner, Kay and Pauline Greenhill, eds. 2012. Transgressive tales: queering the Grimms. Detroit: Wayne State University Press

Zipes, Jack. 2011. The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. New York: Routledge.


Interview conducted by Wren Awry.

Photograph by Naniece Ibrahim.