Saturday, May 23, 2015

Story Saturday: The princess becomes a prince

This is me, musing out loud about representation.

I am preparing for a performance for Archaeology Day: I'm going to be telling Ossetian Nart sagas at a museum with a great Sarmatian collection (Sarmatians were nomadic people of Iranian origins who lived across the border from the Roman empire, and Ossetians are also people of Iranian origins who live in the Caucasus, hence the connection). I have a dress made and everything!
One of the stories I am working on falls into the tale type called the Shift of Sex (ATU 514), something intriguing I mentioned before when I talked about diversity in storytelling and also about LGBT+ related traditional stories. Now that I am actually working on my own version of telling it, I am doing some serious thinking about how to frame the story.

The summary
In most versions of this folktale I have encountered, the basic story is the same: Family's without a male heir, so their daughter goes out into the world dressed as a boy, and does many heroic deeds. Eventually she rises so high in the favor of the king/community that she is given a leading position/becomes heir. In order to fulfill her role, she is offered a wife, which throws a wrench in the plan, since her secret identity would be outed on the wedding night. Eventually, through blessing or curse, the girl turns into a man, marries the princess, and lives happily ever after.

The question
These folktales were told and recorded decades, often hundreds of years ago. How do I tell the story to make it ring true to people of trans/queer identities today?

The problem
In its current format the folktale suggests that the protagonist can only be accepted and happy if she physically transforms into a male body. Also, because of the different time these stories were born in, the physical transformation is necessary for the marriage to happen. In all versions the intended wife is kept in the dark, and is only presented with the resulting male body, without knowing about the transformation, or having an opinion about it.

The options
1. Build up to the sex change, suggesting it was the girl's own identity/wish/hope/goal all along. Make the male identity (and expression) a personal choice rather than a disguise out of necessity. This is not unprecedented in the tales: At least one version quotes the princess saying "men's clothes have always fit me better anyway." In this case, probably call the protagonist a boy after initially stating that they were born female.

2. Leave out the sex change / male identity and tell the tale as a lesbian love story. This would need more fiddling since the story is still set in a time and place (the Ossetian version anyway) where the protagonist couldn't come out as a girl AND marry another girl at the same time... probably. Female warriors do exist in Ossetian tradition, though.

3. Tell the tale as in option 1, but leave out the actual physical sex change. Have the protagonist come out to the chosen wife and be accepted (and loved). As far as everyone else is concerned, there is no change from what they know.

4. There are probably other options as well. I would love to hear comments and opinions on this.


  1. A long time ago I remember reading an article about women taking the male role in the family and marrying daughters from other families. They would have all the rights of a man and have a chosen male, cousin perhaps, help with the creating kids bit.

  2. My personal fave is number three, if you want to keep it sort of realistic and touch modern issues. I've posted before about not being sure how to characterize trans people in my sci-fi novel, and most of the advice I got was that trans people may not want to just transition and be done, they may express their genders differently from day to day. That's secondhand advice, though, and is not to say that no one would just be sure he was a boy and want the physical transformation, especially at that time in history.

    Number two is particularly interesting to me because lately I've been reading about "female husbands," which seems to be a gender expression we don't really have/need anymore. There were many times and places where a woman would take on a male gender role, up to and including marrying another woman who would remain in the female gender role, and it seems to inhabit a gray area between being transgender and being lesbian (as we would term things now). I don't know if that's something that happened or was recorded for the Ossetians, and like I said I think it has less modern relevance, but it's underdiscussed and fascinating all the same.

    1. I agree, right now option 3 seems to be the most doable without getting overly complicated. It needs two parts, 1. the protagonist needs to fall in love with a girl instead of being ordered to marry and 2. the girl needs to know about the shift and accept the husband for who he is.

  3. Sounds like both of you are mentioning the same thing, and I know several cultures had that tradition. The same motif (lack of male heir results in officially "male" girls) shows up in several folktales and myths around the world, but it seems to primarily be a legal issue. There is a great Serbian (?) movie about a family like that, I watched it a long time ago and it was fascinating.

  4. Making my way around on the A to Z Road trip! Stopping by to say hello and I hope to see you again next year, if not sooner!


  5. Fascinating challenge you have before you, can't wait to hear the result! Love reading your thoughts so far.

  6. Game of Thrones is on my mind while reading your options - option 3 would be most appropriate. Women had to survive in the world of men governing over them. I would love to hear you tell!

  7. I don't have another option in mind to suggest, but I do really like option 3, because it means the heroine being accepted for who she is, including for going around dressed as a man, and finding love and happiness, in spite of being different from convention.

  8. The firast option seems easily doable.... something that disturbs neither the older social order nor todays sensibilities... not the most challenging version though... do share what you do with the story :)

  9. Hi there! I'm currently writing my master's thesis on Tale Type 514, and I came across this blog post in my research. Awesome! Would you mind sharing the source for your Ossetian tale? I would be so grateful. I'd love to share all the other versions I found, too!