The events in Orlando this past week focused people’s minds and the media attention on the LGBT community as well as on terrorism. I am not going to write about that tragedy except to say that, like many others, my heart goes out to the friends and families of the victims. There is no excuse for the violence we have witnessed this week.
June is the month for LGBT celebrations across the country. In many cities and towns there have been and will be parades and demonstrations. Members of the LGBT community no longer have to hide their feelings or try to fit their relationships into an unyielding pattern of what used to be considered “normal” family life. And it has made me think of the ways in which women, who did not find happiness in the stereotypical marriages of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, have tried to write and express their feelings.
Julia Ward Howe is remembered now only as the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which became the most popular song of the Union forces during the Civil War. She was also a writer of popular poetry and articles as well as an activist for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. In many ways she lived the life of a traditional nineteenth century wife and mother, but behind that façade she struggled with her ambition to be a writer and artist. I have been reading Elaine Showalter’s fascinating and eye-opening biography The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe (2016) and learned of an unfinished manuscript that was found among Howe’s papers many years after her death.
Howe’s untitled manuscript tells the story of a Laurence, a character who has both male and female characteristics. The story is tragic as both men and women are attracted to Laurence, but none can accept the ambiguous nature of his sexuality. It is easy to see why the book was never completed. It seems as though Julia Ward Howe, although unambiguously a female, was unable to accept and understand her need for an active intellectual public life—a life that was considered suitable only for men. Howe lived a more or less conventional 19th century life, but her marriage was very unhappy. She could not accept the limitations placed upon women, and could not devise a life that would combine domestic life with her creative needs.
Some 19th century women managed to build what appear to be happy lives for themselves by avoiding marriage and finding emotional satisfaction with another woman. Sarah Orne Jewett, whose well-wrought stories of New England life were popular throughout the
country, lived for many years with the widowed Annie Fields. This was one of the famous “Boston marriages” (a term coined by Henry James) in which two women established a household of their own. We probably will never know whether or not most of these relationships had a sexual component. It doesn’t really matter. The revolutionary part of the Boston marriages was just the fact that women could live satisfying lives without depending on men for either financial, emotional, or legal support. Of course, the women who pioneered these lives had to independent means, whether inherited or earned, to enable them to live this way.
Well into the 20th century many women writers had difficulty reconciling their artistic
mbitions with the limitations imposed by their gender. Willa Cather, whose novels were both popular and won critical acclaim including a Pulitzer Prize was one of the writers who found it difficult to accept a conventional female role. As an undergraduate she had sometimes used the name ‘William’ and cut her hair so short she was mistaken for a man. She wrote several of her stories from a masculine point of view and at times seemed scornful of other women writers. Most of her closest friendships were with women, but she never described herself as a lesbian and she protected her privacy so fiercely that critics and biographers still quarrel over whether or not she had sexual relations with women.
Looking back it’s hard to understand why it took so long for society to recognize the wide range of people’s gender identification and emotional lives. It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that the gay liberation movement began to be noticed and to gradually become acceptable to most Americans. And as it has grown, it has become more inclusive so that now we have gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people joining together to remind everyone of the great variety of human lives and emotions. We can finally see that the rigid rules that required all women and men to act in certain prescribed ways are unnecessary and hurtful. Young people growing up today are not required to hide their gender preferences the way earlier generations did.
There is still a long way to go before equality is achieved, but at least we can celebrate the long road that has been traveled already.
When I clicked on the Google search site a few days ago, I was surprised to find that Google was honoring the 117th birthday of Lotte Reiniger. Who was she? One of the early animation artists who made films out of fairy tales. Her pioneering work in the 1920s was an important part of the movement that led to the torrent of animated fairy tale films from the Disney studios and others.
Now that we are drowning in highly colored, loud, fast-paced versions of fairy tales on screens everywhere, it’s worthwhile to look back and think about how children encounter fairy tales. For most American children—at least the ones who are lucky enough to have a parent or caregiver who reads to them—their first experience of a fairy tale is an unamplified voice telling the tale while showing still pictures in a book. Often the story is read over and over again.
Fairy tales are usually told in a bare, straightforward style. “There was once a poor widow who lived in a lonely cottage. In front of the cottage was a garden wherein stood two rose trees, one of which bore white and the other red roses.” That’s the beginning of Snow White and Rose Red and the story continues in the same bare, clean style.
Lotte Reiniger’s adaptations of fairy tales started with a silhouette animated Cinderella in 1922. You can see the short film on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kku75vGDD_0 and watch how Reiniger brings the viewer into the story—showing how
the black paper is cut into figures who act out the story. The process is almost like that of a child who wants to draw pictures to illustrate the story she has just heard.
Of course Lotte Reiniger was not a child; she was a skillful artist who conceived the idea of telling a story through the traditional art of the silhouette. But unlike the silhouettes that were popular during the 18th and 19th century as portraits or as illustrations in books, Lotte Reiniger wanted to make her silhouettes move and so she invented a new form of animation.
Lotte Reiniger was born in Berlin in 1899. As a child she was attracted to art and to the movies, the new art form that was developing in Europe during the early years of the 20th century. As a young woman she worked in the movie industry and specialized in making silhouette title cards for the silent movies of the era. Then she moved on to making her own movies.
After marrying Carl Koch, a fellow artists who became her collaborator, she produced several more films in Germany. The couple left Germany when the Nazi party was rising to power, but were unable to get permanent visas to live in any other country, so for several years they lived in France, Italy and other European countries. But always they continued to work on their films. After the war, they moved to England where Lotte Reiniger made a number of silhouette films based on Grimm’s fairy tales and shown on the BBC.
Lotte Reiniger had a long and fruitful career. Her work influenced early animation films and deserves to be recognized as an important precursor to the work of later animation studios. But more than that, her films are still beautiful works of art that can be appreciated by children and adults today. Quite a few of them are available on YouTube.
Wouldn’t it be nice if today’s children could see some different ways in which fairy tales can be changed from words into pictures? Cinderella need not be the blonde glamour girl shown in American pop culture. The story doesn’t need to be puffed out with extra characters or elaborate songs. The magic is in the simple story itself. Fortunately, there are many talented artists who have given us different versions of the images our imaginations paint when we listen to the story. Thanks to Google for reminding us of the work and vision of Lotte Reiniger.