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Turn and face the gendered transformations

Transformations provide happy endings: the beast becomes human; the sleeping princess awakens; the frog becomes a prince. The idea that wishes really can come true is a premise that provides the foundations of our myths and fairy tales, where metamorphosis is a magical plot device that restores order and brings about happy endings. 

Transformation into a princess, if only for a night, gives Cinderella that one chance meeting she needs to dazzle the prince and make her nocturnal guise a permanent reality. This is a fantasy of climbing the ranks – the phenomenon of social mobility technically known as hypergamy. The virtuous Cinderella has her goodness rewarded. Dressing up gives her an external beauty that reflects an internal reality eventually made permanent by the marriage at the end of the tale. 

You need only flick through any British tabloid to see that this obsession still prevails. “‘Commoner’ Kate Middleton finds happiness with the heir to the throne” is a fantasy that conveniently ignores Kate’s not-so-common origins. Now we have a load of St Andrew’s girls kicking themselves for not joining the running club, and the upcoming reality TV show I Wanna Marry Harry, in which a host of American girls try their very best to replicate Kate’s success. 

The fantasy has its literary antecedents. Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela centres around the eventual transformation of its protagonist from serving girl to wife, to “the joy of the chambermaids of all nations”, in the words of Lady Mary Montagu. Montagu’s observation is rooted in economic and social reality. The outlook for 18th century servant girls was particularly bleak – domestic servants were pretty much bound to stay with employers until twenty-one or until married, and many even forbade their servants to marry servant girls. It’s therefore no surprise that these kind of social transformations should capture the imaginations of a nation’s wishful servants. 

This all gets a bit worrying, though, when you start to fully consider the abuse that Pamela endures to get her happy ending. The same is true for a character such as Patient Griselda, depicted most famously in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, who has to do more than just shove her foot in the slipper to get her happy ending, enduring the loss of first her daughter, then her son. 

So, transforming for the prince can sometimes be pretty painful. In fact, it seems that transforming for love is about shoehorning yourself into a form that will accommodate Prince Charming. Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid slits her tail so she can walk on land to please her man. The statue in Ovid’s Pygmalion is turned from stone to human at the bequest of its creator. Sandy goes from good girl in gingham to black-attired femme fatale to snare Danny Zuco. The lines of gender are drawn in pretty clear ink – these are women transforming to fit in with the systems that will please their men. 

We’re reminded of The Taming of the Shrew’s Kate who, exhausted from the abuse of Petruchio, finally submits to her new husband’s dictatorial reality. The very world transforms according to her husband’s will: “And be it moon, or sun, or what you please. / And if you please to call it a rush candle, / Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.” 

However, this idea of transformation as the submission to another’s will doesn’t always seem to be gendered. The 1993 Pulitzer Prizewinning play Angels in America explores the transformative powers of love, and has the Mormon Joe offer to give up anything to be with the man he believes he loves. In one of the most powerful scenes, he stands naked on a beach and denounces his religion, removing his Mormon undergarments (his skin) and then punning on this removal: “I’m flayed… I can be anything I need to be. And I wanna be with you!” 

The powerful location of the scene is brought out even more vividly than is possible on stage in the terrific HBO miniseries of the play. The beach is a place of continuous transformation – my Geography teacher once told me that no beach is fixed, the sand and its waters never the same. It’s also a place where gay men historically explored and discovered their sexuality. And here Joe undergoes this same change, treading in the footsteps of his gay forefathers, submitting and leaving his body vulnerable to any change dictated to him by his new lover. 

This isn’t always the case, of course. Elle Woods in Legally Blonde wants to change herself into Warner’s ideal man. But, after studying really hard and broadening her horizons, she realizes that Warner really isn’t all that, and finds a new Prince Charming to suit the independent transformation she has undergone. 

I don’t recommend Legally Blonde to any finalists, though. Despite Elle’s metamorphosis into a successful, confident feminist icon, the message is basically that good grades can be acquired through a montage scene of revising on a treadmill. If only the reality were that simple. 

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