Essay: How Can Fairy Tales Be Used to Understand Current Politics?

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  • How Can Fairy Tales Be Used to Understand Current Politics?
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How Can Fairy Tales Be Used to Understand Current Politics?


When Marina Warner introduces fairy tale, she describes a map, a map contoured by the landscape of storytelling, whose peaks are populated by the giants Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, and a map whose terrain widens to include the stories to the east (Arabian Nights) and the stories to the north (Hans Christian Anderson). The map grows wider still, to house the storytellers who populate these peaks, offering their own multifarious renditions of fairy tale (Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Speranza Wilde – to name but a few). For fairy tale has as many versions as people willing to tell them.

The first fairy tales originated not from the pen, but by mouth, passed from storyteller to storyteller before being assembled into collections eponymously attached to their gatherer. Later came the literary versions, tales collected, re-written and invented, a fashion beginning in the 17th century that continues to this day. As they bumble through the centuries they gather dust; carrying with them the social, political and moral conditions of the various moments in which they were spoken and written. Warner outlines the defining characteristics of fairy tale; a short narrative populated with mythical creatures, their narrator is matter-of-fact, the tone exists throughout regardless of any violent acts. They start in an indistinguishable time and invariably end ‘happily-ever-after’, their spirit is of hope in the face of rampant injustice and violence.

Such spirited optimism, can offer hope in the dark, but expose the conditions of the murkiness itself. Both artists I will investigate in this essay name their sources as fairy tale, Rachel Maclean’s Spite Your Face is a “dark venetian fairytale” re-told from the Pinocchio tale. Jumana Emil Abboud collects and re-writes traditional Palestinian fairy tale, performing them alongside other storytellers in her recent installation and performance, A Happy Ending III: Tate Tales (henceforth will be written as A Happy Ending). Both use fairy tale to comment on contemporary political contexts; Spite Your Face was made in response to the Brexit vote and Trump election, A Happy Ending responds to the cultural siege of Palestine in the midst of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology defines politics as:

“…the process of organizing social power in a community. Politics takes place at various levels of social interaction, from the micro-level – the politics of friendship, family politics, and so on – to the macro-level (international politics and global politics).”

This essay will predominately concentrate on politics at the ‘macro-level’ due to the nature of each artist’s critique.

The essay is divided along the binary of content and form, though there is inevitable slippage between the two, these have served as two broad categories from which to align my thinking.

First I will concentrate on how content is used to address politics, dissecting themes of Truth and UnTruth in Maclean’s Spite Your Face and considering the linkage of ideology and political statement with the help of Terry Eagleton’s book Ideology.

The source of Abboud’s story and their watery associations and their relation to the politics of water in Palestine today will follow.

In the final section of ‘content’ Maclean’s critique of consumerism will be explored, alongside critical writings about artists working in the post-internet traditions.

Alongside Brechtian writings by Walter Benjamin and Terry Eagleton, I will look at form, and how Brechtian methodologies exist (or don’t) in the strategy of the artist’s work and how these can contribute to a political message.

Each will ask how politics is addressed and how meaning is produced on every level and how this relates to a political message/call to action.

Rachel Maclean

Rachel Maclean is a Scottish artist working in film and digital print. Known for her extravagant costuming and use of green-screen technology, Maclean plays all the characters her films lip-synching to found audio or scripts voiced by actors. Originally commissioned for the Scottish Pavilion of the 2017 Venice Biennale (later shown at Talbot Rice Gallery and The Zabludowicz Collection), Spite Your Face is the film I will concentrate on, so chosen as it re-tells the Italian literary fairy tale Pinocchio and was made in response to the Brexit vote and election of President Trump.

The title itself an allusion to Maclean’s view of the Brexit vote; ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’.

Fig. 4. Rachel Maclean, “Spite Your Face.” Scottish Pavilion. Venice. 2017.

Fig. 4 shows Spite Your Face in its Venice iteration; replacing the altar of the deconsecrated church Chiesa di Santa Caterina. Screened on a large scale, the film is shot in portrait mode its height rising to four metres high. In fig.4 we see the central character, his name refashioned from Pinocchio; Pic, and it is his story that Spite Your Face follows.

Divided into two polarities, Spite Your Face is split between a utopian upper world and a dystopic under world; one literally living atop the other. Told through a continuous narrative the story loops; Pic is granted the chance to ascend to the upper world and is given a bottle of ‘Truth’; a perfume potion that promises to cover up any sign of his humbler beginnings. Once there he gains popularity and power through selling ‘UnTruth’ a perfume that promises the absolution Truth grants, but in fact does nothing. Once his limited bottle of Truth eventually runs out, the lies he told begin to unravel, until eventually he falls from grace, depicted as a literal fall from the upper to lower world. Fallen Pic’s body is marveled at by the younger Pic from the beginning of the story, and so the story repeats itself.

In fig.4 we see Pic in the upper world, a world of rich gold and vivid blue. By contrast –as seen in fig.5– the lower world is a dulled palette of greyed tones; the elaborate gold costuming of the inhabitants of the upper world replaced by frayed and patched garments.

Fig. 5, “Spite Your Face” (accessed 3/01/18)

Truth and Untruth

To conclude the story, the Russian storyteller says, “The tale is over; I can’t lie anymore.” Fiction is often conflated with lying; they are each other’s synonyms. As moral stories fairy tale often warns against lying.

Pinocchio –the story to which Spite Your Face takes its inspiration– is a moral story that does just that. Rogue wooden marionette Pinocchio, refuses to obey any authority instead following his own whims and desires. His actions are not without consequence, when he lies his nose grows, he is tricked, hung and eaten by a shark. Throughout Spite Your Face we see Pic lie more and more but the moral lessons are unclear; the boundary between truth and lies has become unstuck.

At the very heart of Spite Your Face are two perfume products; Truth a cure-all medicine that conceals any indication of the lower world, and Un-truth which promises to do the same but in fact does nothing.

Paradoxically, Truth, rather than revealing the true nature of Pic, masks him, turning his skin glittering gold. Untruth on the other hand, whilst promising to conceal the stench of the lower world, does the opposite. Providing no disguise, Untruth instead reveals the character as they truly are. So Truth, does not reveal the ‘truth’ and Untruth does not present a ‘lie’. Here we see the spillage between truth and un-truth, their boundaries undefined as they morph into one another.

In Ideology theorist Terry Eagleton opens up the idea ‘false’ understanding it in terms of ideological statement.

“…ideological statement involve falsity without either necessarily intending to deceive or being significantly exclusive, ‘I’m British and proud of it,’ for example. Both parts of this observation may be true, but it implies that being British is a virtue in itself, which is false.”

Eagleton outlines a less binary distinction of truth and falsehood, showing the place of ideology when determining these. Statements may be constructed from ‘truths’ but joined together their implication may be false. The political climate in the lead up to the Brexit vote revolved so heavily around each sides perception of truth and false. These binary distinctions contributing to the noticeable divisions between those that voted Remain and those that voted Leave.

In Spite Your Face, what is said to be true is actually false, and what is said to be false is actually true; whilst it acknowledges the misleading statements involved in recent political campaign it still reverts to a binary. Maclean does not interrogate the ideology driving such statements, and thus we do not deepen our understanding of the driving forces of such campaigns.

The Nose and Phallus

Perhaps the most well-remembered feature of Pinocchio is that whenever he tells a lie his nose grows and it is the same curse for Pic. As Pic’s power increases in the upper world, so too do his lies and nose. But, unlike the original, Pic’s long nose is celebrated with other characters wearing replicas. At the peak of Pic’s power and celebrity, the nose becomes sexual organ, used as phallus in a rape scene. Symbolically then, the lies are linked to a predatory male power.

In Maclean’s own words,

“We have become desensitized by the prevalence of misogynistic imagery in contemporary culture and my way of addressing this is to confront it in a direct and visceral way.”

Whilst I don’t dispute that we have become desensitized to misogynistic imagery, I question whether merely showing a scene of sexual assault Maclean is in fact confronting it ‘in a direct and visceral way’. Scenes of rape have become prevalent in current culture; common in TV shows and films used primarily for shock value. In showing us violent assault do we confront it? If our media is saturated with violent sexual assault anyway, does this particular scene help us to confront it in any different way?

Given that Pic has reached the peak of celebrity and the power that comes with that, the scene does point to the predatory conduct of powerful men, much of which has been reported over this year. However, as the scene seems to have little impact on the rest of the storyline (other than showing Pic abusing his power) I question whether it has any other impact than that of ‘shock value’. So it doesn’t do anything to help our understanding of the issue of sexual violence, or call us to any action in order to prevent it.


The Disneyfication of something is defined as the “trivialization of it by presenting it in an over simplistic, commercialized manner, especially in order to appeal to mass-market tourism.”

Adaptations of classic fairy tales have been stripped of their more gothic qualities, sanitised and oversimplified for their Disney editions. The original Pinocchio, for example involves hanging, violent fights and a shark attack. Disney’s version, on the other hand, follows a well-meaning puppet who is led astray by outside forces, whose conscience -Jiminy Cricket- follows him everywhere he goes. In the original text, the cricket is quickly killed by Pinocchio himself.

In an essay on Maclean’s work, Melissa Gronlund writes of the prevalence of Disney adaptations,

“…today the importance of fairy tales rests less in their narrative function than in their contribution to consumerism.”

For, with the Disney treatment, children are treated as consumer; to identify with the characters in the story, they are encouraged to buy the product (i.e. the Elsa dress) rather than heeding the characters example. With the Disney treatment fairy tales have become absorbed into the machine of contemporary consumerism. Consumerism being a dominant force in Spite Your Face, in the absence of any distinguishable political system, the Untruth perfume becomes the dominant political belief. Pic addresses crowds of fans, touting Untruth as the solution to society’s ills. Consumerism is then the ruling world order. In formatting Spite Your Face as such, Maclean points us to recognise the pervasiveness of consumerism within our own society.

In another scene, as Pic swipes a credit card gashes appear on his forearm, spending portrayed as a razor to the arm; a form of self-harm. Consumerism clearly shown as a damaging force.

Showing a world in which consumerism is an omnipresent force Maclean satirises our own society- pointing us to acknowledge the consumer forces that are deeply ingrained. Take Disney for example, from an early age we’re raised to consume.


“In showing a world constituted by consumer objects, one can’t escape the reminder that Maclean’s work, often sharing an aesthetic with these products, is also itself a commodity sold to us.”

In this observation, Melissa Gronlund points to a slight insincerity in Maclean’s critique.

At the most recent installation of Spite Your Face at Zabludowicz collection, the shop sold Maclean emoji-branded t-shirts and tote bags. Naturally it is possible to both engage with consumer culture and be critical of it, but the experience of leaving the gallery and encountering the shop disrupts the potency of Maclean’s message. As a typical consumer interaction, our engagement with this product goes no further than that; it adds nothing to the critique of consumerism, it rather unsettles it. Any kind of understanding of the damage and pervasiveness of consumerist we gain from watching Spite Your Face we are implored to forget as soon as we reach the gift shop.

Maclean broadens our understanding of politics through satirical means she points to the conflation of truth and lies in recent political campaigning, the sexually abusiveness of some men in power and the damaging rampage of consumer culture. Spite Your Face is quite clear in its critique, but its potency is at times lost, or undermined by its own simplicity. We are lead to understand a world in the truth is not what it says it is and we are aware of the parallels with political campaigning today, but truth and lies are still understood in binary terms. Upon looking at Eagleton’s Ideology we can see that a more nuanced approach to this can be found. Maclean’s treatment of misogynistic culture, is to include a scene of sexual assault, which once again indicates a problem, but again we do not deepen our understanding. Similarly, Maclean’s portrayal of consumerism is undermined with her use of it. Whilst Maclean points us to political issues prevalent today, it is just that; pointing.

Jumana Emil Abboud

Jumana Emil Abboud’s engagement with fairy tale manifests as drawing, film, installation and storytelling performance, each iteration of her long-spanning projects often combining several forms at once. I will concentrate on A Happing Ending III: Tate Tales, a recent film installation and series of storytelling performances, of which I was one of the storytellers employed to realise the work.

Fig.1 Jumana Emil Abboud, “A Happy Ending III: Tate Tales.” Tate Modern. London. 2018.

One of six storytellers (the artist included) our plain-clothed storytelling operation nestled between the split-screen film installation Maskouneh (Inhabited) as seen in fig.1. As visitors watched the films we would approach and tell them one of two tales granted to us by the artist. For longer tales participants were invited onto a ledge that surveyed the whole scene, whilst surrounded by evil eyes printed on gauze (as shown in fig.). Stories finished with one of two phrases ‘This is my tale I’ve told it and in your hands I leave it” or “The bird of this tale has flown now it’s another’s turn to

Fig. 2. A Happy Ending III: Tate Tales, 2017

tell the tale” dependant on whether the story had reached it’s ‘happy ending’ or not. Listeners on the ledge would be granted a printed eye (as seen in fig.) for protection, listeners on the ground would be left only with the tale.

Abboud’s retellings of classic Palestinian fairy tales were the stories we told, collected from Palestinian ethnographer’s Tawfiq Canaan’s collections of folk tales and the haunted springs and sources they originate from; Abboud has travelled (alongside photographer Issa Freiij) to the sites Canaan locates as the origins of the tales, so forming the images of the Maskouneh (Inhabited) video installation.

For each fairy tale used by Abboud has an associative geographic location, with water sources particularly believed to be imbued with a magical spirit. Maskouneh (Inhabited) quietly watches the Palestinian countryside, each shot concentrating on a small gesture; a babbling steam, swaying leaves, a roaming horse (see fig.3) The two films run across from one another and -as seen in fig.1- the film bleeds beyond the screen creating a sense of surrounding space. With varying scales, the

Fig. 3. Maskouneh (inhabited), 2018

film shifts between close footage, zoomed focus on travelling gazelles and wider angles surveying the scene as in fig.3. With the long shots, we are intently looking, scanning the scene until the scene begins (as put by Marina Warner in her writings about the artist) “…to strike uncanny, pregnant sensations in those of us watching…” We soon start to believe these places are indeed filled with magical spirit.

Maskouneh (inhabited) also firmly places us within the artist’s context and political context; Palestine. The film shows the crux of the conflict (as outlined by Tina Sherwell in an essay on Abboud’s work), “…it is important to remember that the question of land has, for decades, been at the centre of the uneven Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

The landscape, then, is immediately politicised. Maskouneh (inhabited) situates us in the Palestinian territory, we are firmly put in the landscape that is the ignition and heart of violent conflict. So working hand-in-hand is the fairy tale and the political; the landscapes are the sources of the stories, we see its enchantment in the film, and the landscape is, as well, a part of the conflict. So Abboud is using fairy tale associations to point us to political conflict.

Haunted Springs: The Quest for Water

In her writings on Abboud, contemporary scholar of fairy tale Marina Warner links the

the symbol of water in Abbouds work to its politicisation during conflict. Highlighting the creatures believed to haunt such springs,

“…the monstrous phantasms of water sources on one hand, and holy guardians (local saints-welis and sheiks-as well as the Virgin Mary and Gabriel) on the other, reflect the preciousness of the supply and the hard-won right to freedom to enjoy it.”

So the mythmaking of ghouls and jinns and other such creatures that control water points to the necessity of water, especially hard-fought in arid climates such as Palestine. In a story told at Tate one such ghoul haunts the well of an abandoned village. Abboud’s elicitation to these creatures alludes to the uncontrollable forces that govern water in Palestine today. Israel controls the distribution of water in northern West Bank and restricts Palestinian access to it. Refusing to let Palestinians develop their own water infrastructure and preventing Palestinians from accessing the Jordan River for water. In referencing the sources of water within the work and including the creatures believed to haunt them, Abboud acknowledges the folkloric past; bringing an element of enchantment into the work, as well as alluding to the political issue of water today. So through fairytale associations Abboud is highlighting a contemporary political issue.

Warner also highlights a water association lost in English versions of Abboud’s work,

“It is significant in relation to Abboud’s narratives that in Arabic, the root raawa gives words for both ‘to water’ and ‘to tell stories’: a reciter is a raawi. Narration is irrigation!”

This allusion again links the storytelling to the importance of water, metaphorically the storyteller becomes giver of water; solver of political problem. That this is lost on a non-Arabic viewer points to an ‘issue’ in Abboud’s work; how does the viewer find these associations? Warner remarks, “The overall atmosphere of her art has a strong affinity with hidden water itself, running quietly at a depth.” It is not a didactic way of making work, instead it gestures towards the political issues through metaphoric associations and symbols. Like the layers of the onion, each depth is only found through the removal of one layer, each level of skin leading to the next.

It’s through probing, poking, exploring, leaning in that the layers in Abboud’s work are unpicked. It is an effort to ask of the participant, for to learn of the political elements of these symbols, they have to be uncovered at the viewers own effort.

The Poetic Approach

Abboud’s work differs to the more ‘journalistic’ approaches of other Palestinian artists. Taking Foreign Architecture for example, whose recent display at the Turner Prize and exhibition at the ICA (which ran at the same time as A Happy Ending III), discloses the struggles of Palestinians under Israeli authority through showing things as they are. Detailed investigations disprove Israeli narratives over disputed illegal weapon use.

In her own words Abboud paths a different track,

“But I plotted to enchant you, the viewer instead. Please forgive me for I favoured keeping the imagery free: free of the walls and fences that entrap us, free of damage, free of a traumatised landscape that mirrors the loss and trauma of its people.”

Whilst Forensic Architecture make their political point through disproving the narratives of suppressors, showing situations as they are, using evidential imagery of conflict, Abboud uses different imagery, imagery free of trauma.

Abboud’s wish to enchant us may perhaps lead to a fuller engagement with the work. We are overloaded with images of conflict, articles about the situation in Palestine -particularly the Gaza Strip- are often illustrated with images of the violence. Journalistic approaches are incredibly important to highlight the horrors of war, but a poetic approach is also important, as Marina Warner highlights,

“Jumana Emil Abboud is evolving a sensitive and personal aesthetics in response to the processes of power.

Active political realignments are not the only way to redraw the map: stories –counter-narratives- can put up resistance.”

So we can see that metaphorical story telling has importance in creating a counter-narrative, pointing to issues, gesturing metaphorically. The question still remains how can Abboud engage with the viewer. We see through association that the political point is there, but how can the viewer be motivated to find it? It is through the forms of the work, and its participatory aspect where this activation can be found.

Fairytale Form

Fig._ A Happy Ending III: Tate Tales

Thus far this essay has concentrated on how Rachel Maclean and Jumana Emil Abboud address political issues through the content of their work. Finally, I will consider how the forms in which their work manifests do (and do not) contribute to the political meaning. Whilst doing so I will be considering the writings of Walter Benjamin, particularly with his work about the theatre producer Bertolt Brecht. A far more historic point of view than the artists I am considering (Benjamin is a twentieth-century thinker) Benjamin is significant here as he argued for the importance of culture in mobilising revolution, and whilst revolution is not the primary interest for the artists here, they are considering culture as a place for social change.

Benjamin writes, “Such writers attach the condition in which we live from the outside; Brecht lets the conditions speak for themselves, so that they confront each other dialectically.” So we can see how important the form is considered in Brechtian theatre, rather than making work that is primarily about something, a Brechtian work is something, it does something.

In considering these Brechtian ideas, I will also be using a (slightly) more recent consideration in Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism, which will provide a more reflective overview of Brechtian theatre.

‘New’ Media

A key component to Benjamin’s revolutionary art revolved around the use of media. In Marxism and Literary Criticism, Terry Eagleton outlines Benjamin’s position,

“For Benjamin, the revolutionary artist should not uncritically accept the existing forces of artistic production, but should develop and revolutionize those forces.”

So, in order for a story to be revolutionary (to promote social change) it cannot do this merely through its content, but through its production and how it is shown to the world. Benjamin encouraged revolutionary artists to embrace ‘new media’ here meaning “cinema, radio, photography, musical recording” Obviously these ‘new media’ are now firmly established, so the task of the revolutionary artist is “revolutionizing the media themselves.” Maclean uses film, considered a ‘new media’ at the time of Benjamin but is now customary. So the task remains to revolutionise this media. Spite Your Face is constructed in the less conventional portrait format, rather than the usual cinematic aspect ratio, alluding to film made using a mobile phone, though Spite Your Face was not made using one. The portrait format also resonates with the content of the film, its orientation serving to effectively show the ‘upper’ literally resting atop the ‘lower’ world.

More conventionally shot is the film installation aspect of Abboud’s A Happy Ending III, its quiet contemplative shots are composed in the classical cinematic dimensions, its slowness and fixed angle, whilst beautiful, are not particularly radical. Whilst the film installation has a contemporary conformity, the live aspect of the work returns to a far older technology; oral storytelling. The revolutions in technology that Benjamin predicts and encourages, now feel constant, advancing technology has been absorbed in contemporary art, Rachel Maclean, for example has recently produced a virtual reality work which was installed at Zabludowicz. Now that we’ve had these advancements in media, and artists are adopting them, does it now look pretty revolutionary to return to a more historic technology? Especially when that technology –oral storytelling- is put under threat. Marina Warner describes such tradition as particularly prevalent to Palestinian culture,

As Palestinian culture is under siege in the grips of Israeli occupation, so salvaging a form of culture that is lost is both necessary as maintaining a cultural heritage, but also as resistance.

Epic Theatre

Epic theatre is the form of theatre proposed by Bertolt Brecht, who deliberately sought to break the conventions of ‘bourgeois theatre’; a mass accepted form of theatre in which the audience is a passive spectator.

Benjamin outlines Brechtian theatre, “… intervals occur which tend to destroy illusion. These intervals paralyse the audience’s readiness for empathy. Their purpose is to enable the spectator to adopt a critical attitude…” So a key component of Brechtian theatre is disruption, aimed to engage the audience’s criticality. The work is then a process of production, rather than the completed ‘product’ that traditional linear narrative theatre provides.

Maclean disrupts the traditions of conventional narrative, though Spite Your Face is a story that we could describe in a linear fashion, we are never given the ending; the film is a continual loop. This could lure the audience from the security of fixed narrative; it is a disconcerting notion perhaps that this story will never end; Pic will be in a constant trap of rise and fall, fall and rise. However, we still engage with it passively; there is nothing that disrupts us out of the story. In fact, the enclosed nature of the work creates the impression of product; the narrative is never changing. There is some Brechtian strategy at work, points in the story where Pic encounters an older (or younger) version of himself, the paradox of which disrupts the audience’s engagement, drawing them from passive engagement. However, this is still embedded within the storyline and doesn’t pull us out to the extent we become aware of the form of the work.

Abboud, on the other hand, has more abrupt moments of breaking the illusion. For A Happy Ending II: Tate Tales, longer stories were cut in half, with two different storytellers given each half of the story. This at times provided a cliff-hanger or unsatisfactory ending. For example, in part one of The Handless Maiden the story ‘finished’ with the image of a girl, her hands severed by her brother, lying abandoned by a well. The storyteller concluding with the words “The bird of this tale has flown, now it is another’s turn.” Participants (wished they to continue the story) would then have to try and find the storyteller who carried the final instalment of the tale. Cutting the story in half, we are immediately aware of the form, a Brechtian technique used to disrupt the audience’s expectations and ‘enable the spectator to adopt a critical attitude’.

So audiences were left looking for the happy ending, the completion of the story left in their hands. Implicating the audience, it engages them actively, causing them to think how can I be part of the solution for a happy ending?

Brechtian distanciation, then, is at work more sharply in A Happy Ending III, the abrupt shortening of the story denying the audience of any satisfactory ending, employing the Brechtian strategy in order to implicate the audience. The interactivity of the work heightens the sense of responsibility due to its participatory technique. Physical engagement leading to a heightened political engagement.

Participatory Practice

Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells, offers a historicised perspective of participatory practice, linking rising periods of socially engaged art to eras of dominant political regime. Noting,

“This desire to activate the audience in participatory art is at the same time a drive to emancipate it from a state of alienation induced by the dominant ideological order-be this consumer capitalism, totalitarian socialism, or military dictatorship.”

Audience activation then, is as much a means of liberation from dominant political orders as it is responding to it; the experience of activation a desire for escapism. Bishop argues that art doesn’t provide the way out of these political orders (as some argue) but can shock and motivate us to engage with new political possibilities. The act of emancipating the art from these political ideologies, a form of political resistance itself.

Participation is a crucial distinction between the works of Abboud and Maclean. A Happy Ending III happens through audience participation, the stories actively engaging and involving the audience, the final line of the storytelling, “This is my tale I’ve told it, and in your hands I leave it” serving to implicate the audience; it is in your hands. Maclean’s Spite Your Face does not engage with the audience in this way, the film remains fixed and unchangeable. Claire Bishop argues against primarily judging works through ethical framework and instead focussing on their artistic effect. I think a dual approach is necessary, and with the case of Abboud and Maclean, I would argue the process in which the works are made has a contributory impact on the work’s political message.

The opening up of Abboud’s work, letting outside storytellers (like myself) to join in and to tell Abboud’s stories in their own words, allowed space for other opinions. Abboud includes audience’s names whilst telling her stories, here the audience is actively engaged and implicated, calling for further involvement politically. Whilst interacting in the performance it promotes and openness that allows audiences to ask questions and get involved.

Maclean’s process is less open, and we can see this in the work. Following Maclean as she spent a month in residence is the Channel 4 TV documentary Shopping Centre: Artist in Residence. Working in Birmingham’s Bullring, we watch Maclean deal with consumers, shop workers and management, as she makes a piece of work responding to the centre. At the beginning of the program she installs a vinyl on the window, asking ‘r u satisfied?’ answering it as 1% and 99% and throughout the program her opinion never changes. Her piece of work not taking into account her conversations with workers, consumers or the management. It seems as though she has formulated the ideas of the work before she has even started to make it. She has an opinion about something, and her opinion never changes. I think we, as audiences, ultimately feel this, the fixed opinions of her works could dismantle the political weighting.

Participatory practice can have the effect of emancipating an audience from dominant regime, as well as more affectively activating them. Whilst participatory practice does not necessarily produce the ultimate political art, it provides an opportunity to engage more with the spectator, which can lead to a more active political engagement.

Emotional Engagement?

Whilst Brechtian alienation can jolt audiences into the realisation of the form, I would argue against emotional disengagement being the primary site for critical judgement. Terry Eagleton writes about the effects of alienation,

“The result of these ‘alienation effects’ is, precisely, to ‘alienate’ the audience from the performance, to prevent it from emotionally identifying with the play in a way which paralyses its powers of critical judgement.”

At its core, this assumes that emotional engagement and critical judgement are mutually exclusive. This seems patriarchal in its implication; implying emotional engagement (often socially coded as female) is a ‘lesser’ interaction than intellectual judgement, rather than a part of an embodied, more rounded engagement.

“the concept of rationality…has been defined in opposition to the qualities that correlate with femininity and the female body.”

Rationality is perceived as distanciation, but we can both be aware of the form and be close to it. Aligning emotional identification with bourgeois theatre implies that emotional engagement is counter to radical (revolutionary) change.

I would argue at times precisely the opposite is true.

Hold It Against Me by Jennifer Doyle offers a more contemporary critical understanding of emotion and art. The book aims to,

“…put terms like emotion and sincerity at the heart of this book. To insist on them. They may operate in critical parlance as synonymous for the naïve and the simple, but they are the very things that make these works difficult, complicated, hard to talk about, and worth the effort.”

Here she acknowledges critical reception of emotion as ‘naïve and simple’, but argues its importance as the foundation of the works resonance. The perception within Epic Theatre that emotional engagement is counter to revolutionary thought does not acknowledge the capacity for emotion to make works difficult.

Doyle goes further,

“…political work is done in and through emotion as a site of connection and intimacy, of alienation and radicalisation.”

Here Doyle links the intimate nature of emotional engagement as a means of politicisation; rather than emotion forestalling revolutionary change it can be the catalyst. So despite Brechtian suspicion of emotional connection, I would argue that alienating effects and emotional engagement can work together to harness political motivation.

This we can see in the work of Jumana Emil Abboud. Whilst abrupt endings make us aware of the form, it is our capacity for empathy that pushes us to find the happy ending. In Abboud’s version of The Handless Maiden, we sympathise with the abandoned girl and it is this emotional engagement that motivates us.

Brechtian thought considers culture as a place for revolutionary change, achieving this through alienation to stop audiences from being passive spectators.

Brechtian ideas for culture show art as a place where political change can be realised, and this is done effectively through both form and content. Paying attention to the way in which an artwork is encountered and the potential this has for mobilising audiences, we can see how a work can mobilise participants; through Brechtian alienation and participatory practices. In this way these works are causing us to question politics, highlighting conditions and leaving it with us; ‘Now what can you do?’ they ask.


This essay sought to see how artists might use fairy tale in constructing a political argument in their work. Looking back at the initial proposition, we can see a variety of ways in which this can be achieved.

Considering Jumana Emil Abboud and Rachel Maclean, though it is clear that they both use fairy tale and that both works harbour a political message; they do so by different means.

In the content of Abboud’s work the political message is subtle, metaphorical and poetic. Her films situate us in Palestine; their images showing the landscape so central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She locates the water springs from which the tales originate, pointing to the issue of water in Palestine today. The enchanted jinns believed to have restricted water access historically, now replaced by an opaquer form of suppression; Israeli occupation. Moreover, through the characters of her tales we see metaphorical association with oppression today; their fate is cruel, forced by powers far out of their control. Abboud’s critique is subtle, light gestures are made, the hope that you follow them is made apparent in the form of her work. Blending Brechtian alienation and participatory approaches, we become aware of the form of the work, we are ‘critically engaged’ but we are also emotionally involved. The openness of the participatory approach involves the audience pushing them to fill in the narrative and continue with the story. It is we – the audience – that seek the happy ending and resolution.

Maclean’s political message is strongest in the content of her work. Through re-telling the tale of Pinocchio Maclean blends the ideas of Truth and UnTruth together, pointing us to recognise the slippage between the two. Upon reading Terry Eagleton’s Ideology I have realised this most especially when related to ideological and political statement. Spite Your Face also criticises consumer culture, showing viewers a grotesque world ruled by consumerism where everything is just a little too much. However, this critique falls foul when viewers encounter Maclean branded product, similar to that which she criticises. Thus comes a limitation to her work, the form in which it is presented is less vigorously interrogated than Abboud. Throughout every stage of her making it seems as though the idea is already fixed, this is even apparent in the fixed narrative of Spite Your Face, as it constantly circles, we see the story is ultimately inevitable; there is no possibility of our engagement affecting it in any way. Whilst we still gain a strong critique through the ideas within the work she discusses, some of these at times feel superseded by the forms in which they are disseminated.

Reading ideas about Brechtian theatre –both by Walter Benjamin and Terry Eagleton– has most informed my thinking, leading me to consider the importance of the work’s form. Whilst they call for revolution through culture, Abboud and Maclean are less revolutionary in their intent, though still they consider culture as a place for political realisation. Researching Brechtian ideas has caused me to consider the importance of every level of a works meaning, critique through what the work says is not enough, the work has to do it as well.

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