“Beautiful women rarely work strong magic.” In the Night Garden, Cat Valente
They cross’d themselves, their stars they blest,
Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest.
There lay a parchment on her breast,
That puzzled more than all the rest,
The wellfed wits at Camelot.
‘The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not,—this is I,
The Lady of Shalott.’
The Lady of Shalott, Alfred, Lord Tennyson
This is going to be an odd one, so just bear with me.
Two things happened recently: I’ve been reading Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (MBFGW2).
MBFGW2 was nothing to get excited over. I laughed at the funny stuff, cringed a bit at the overly gendered stuff, and was suitably heart-warmed at the revelation that one of the over-masculine male cousins is gay and has a long-term partner and his family is totally cool with it (and kinda knew all along but were waiting for him to feel comfortable telling them).
As you might expect, it’s the cringe-y stuff I’m going to talk about today, mostly because all the gendered stuff was really, ridiculously focused on female gender expression and the idea that all women want, and ought to want, to be considered pretty. One of the things I enjoyed about the first film was the fact that Toula’s “transformation” was as much an emotional, intellectual journey as it had anything to do with her changing how she looked.
So let’s go ahead and talk about that in terms of something completely unrelated–two things, actually–Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott and Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden. My Big Fat Greek Wedding had a bunch of stuff about how women ought to present themselves, but it also had a lot of women with different interests and roles within their own lives and families. Toula was the odd one because she had no particular role; she was merely a follower, going along with whatever her parents said because the idea of pushing her own agenda was too… let’s just go with too much, at this point.
So, the Lady of Shalott lives up in a tower, Rapunzel-style, except there isn’t a prince to rescue her. There is no rescue at all, in fact, because there is a curse that keeps her locked up in this tower, looking down on Camelot and everything it represents. It is a beautiful tower, to be sure, but the Lady of Shalott has no real time to dwell on it, or enjoy it, because she has a web she must weave, never stopping, all her life, lest the curse fall on her.
Of course, there are numerous ways that this poem may be interpreted, but juxtaposed with the freedom and unadulterated beauty of Lancelot, one possible way to look at this is from the angle of female beauty, and expressions of female gender. The Lady of Shalott is trapped in a tower she can never leave because she is doomed to weave a web–a maze of misdirection used to trap the unwary–for her entire life and giving up on it is life-ending for a Lady.
Many people like to look on the legends of Camelot–and, later, Robin Hood–as whimsical fantasy stories. The Once and Future King is a notable example of this, not necessarily because the novel itself is whimsical–it can be read as extremely foreboding and pessimistic at times, in fact–but because our collective memory of it is influenced by Disney animated films and Richard Gere and all manner of modern stories based on those old tales.
The Morte d’Arthur would seem to say it all though. The Death of Arthur. The story of how a great king comes to be and then dies, and the treachery that can be wrought because of so many uncrossable boundaries and unknowable truths. The stories of Arthur may have been accepted as taking place in the distance past–to the Medieval poets who wrote them–but the stories were mired in the mores of the time, particularly the rules of the court and the demands of chivalry–by which I don’t mean simply holding open doors occasionally when you want to get brownie points for being not all men.
Men and women both, in Medieval France and England, were constrained by gender norms, but men at least could go out into the world. Their expression was active; women’s was passive, could be no more than that. The Lady of Shalott was a thing in a tower to be looked at, whose appearance in a boat at the foot of Camelot was so perplexing to the brightest of the court because she was not sitting, stationary, performing her feminine deceptions. She was only herself, unadorned. She had crossed an inscrutable boundary, and was in turn punished.
Toula, when the audience first meets her in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is in a different sort of tower, and one of her own making. She lacks the confidence–for reasons that won’t be discussed here–to participate in the world around her. Toula is the unknown quantity that the Lady of Shalott becomes when she has left her tower, she is presented as a monstrous woman, untouchable and alien to everyone, including other women. This is where fantasy and fiction diverge. Toula is part of a fictional world that can only mirror the world of the audience. Her transformation, her decision to transform, is what gives her the power to become.
In Valente’s In the Night Garden, an astounding work of fantasy, it is the monstrous women, the ugly women, the women who don’t participate in the mores of feminine beauty, who have power. Toula is intelligent and quick no matter what she looks like, but in the world of the film, she can’t find her power until she takes the step to interrogate beauty and its norms. Until she confronts the monster in the mirror, the rest of the world isn’t able to see her either.
I’ve always seen Toula’s transformation as more empowering than conforming, however there are plenty of issues inherent in the Cinderella story. At the very least, Toula is shown experimenting with expressions of femaleness, rather than simply buying wholesale into the form she’s been familiar with her entire life. She finds a level of expression with which she’s comfortable, and that meets her needs. The web she weaves begins to free her from her lack of agency, instead of keeping her imprisoned. But like all transformation stories, it can’t help but expose the fact that women are not seen until they look like women, that identity is still conflated with expression, and that the only power one has is in conforming.
The women of In the Night Garden often live outside society, sometimes come to violent ends, or are imprisoned by those who wish to take their powers, but in all of the tales, these monstrous, ugly, unfeminine women have agency, have a story to tell, and are an integral part of the greater tale. The payoff of reading In the Night Garden is not the tiny stories that make up the greater whole–which never resolve themselves without outside help from other stories–but getting to the end and finding out how the lives of the many women carry through like bright lines to the end of the tale, how they interconnect, how they burn more brightly the more the reader dips into the world of the novel.
Then there’s MBFGW2, in which the lives of Toula and her extended family are revisited 20 years after the first film. Everyone is older, except Paris who wasn’t born yet and is now a bright young–pretty–woman getting ready to leave her parents and go off to college. And great care is taken in the film to emphasize how old the women are, how much they have changed, and how little they want to admit it.
This time, Toula is ugly because she is participating too much. She has forgotten how to perform womanhood because she is too busy being a mother–to both her daughter and to her parents. It was an interesting concept at first, until the constant emphasis on how Toula looked overwhelmed whatever other sentiments the film may have been trying to express. Her husband was pulling away from her, her daughter wouldn’t trust her, until she magically brushed her hair, and put on makeup and a fancy dress. Then Toula somehow became assertive, confident, and with that gained a new desirability to society that allowed her to have stronger relationships with people.
The juxtaposition of these stories raises compelling questions not only about the demands of beauty and societal expectations of gender expression, but about the nature of engaging with those questions at all. How close should a work of fiction mirror the real world, especially if it intends to interrogate questions like how women are controlled through gendered behavior? And how does one engage in discussions such as these with those so baffled by woman’s free expression that she would prove wholly inscrutable to their own inestimable wit?