The Eye of Profane Pleasures: Fairy Tales, Pornography and the Male Gaze in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Erl-King” (Part 1)

Posted by Elizabeth Turner on February 23, 2016 in Blog, Elizabeth Turner tagged with , , , ,

Part 1: An Introduction to Fairy Tales and Pornography

Winslow Homer, Bluebeard

My first experience reading Angela Carter was during an Introduction to Literature class, at Kutztown University. The narrative assigned was “The Loves of Lady Purple”, a tale that centered upon the life of a female marionette who, after being repeatedly debased as a prostitute, comes to life to kill her oppressive, male puppeteer. The story was only eleven pages in its entirety and yet it wielded an inexplicable power over me. I had never read anything quite like it before and I closed the book, feeling both terribly intimidated and thoroughly bewitched by Carter’s linguistic ability. In the years that followed, I went on to enjoy many of Angela Carter’s works of fiction. However, I found that her most profound writing is showcased in a collection of subversive fairy tales titled, The Bloody Chamber (1979). In her compilation, Carter extracts the latent sexual content from such well-known stories as “Bluebeard”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Sleeping Beauty” and conceptualizes them into new narratives, imbued with Gothic characteristics. Unfortunately, as Carter discloses in the “Afterword” to her collection Fireworks, the literati have been far from kind towards her writing (459). Instead of acknowledging her tales as a celebration of femininity and erotic desire, some critics have condemned her as an “author of pornography” and “the high priestess of post-graduate porn” (Sheets 641-642). In contrast to these allegations, I will argue that Angela Carter is not a pornographic writer, but instead utilizes sexuality as a means for women to gain agency, identity and power.

To convey this point, I will examine two of Angela Carter’s short stories, the titled story “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Erl-King”. In part one of my blog series, I will discuss the role of fairy tales and pornography as they apply to the subjugation of women. Part two will incorporate these themes in addition to drawing upon Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze and fetishistic scopophilia. In the final section, I will conclude by presenting an alternative to the male gaze thus reaffirming Carter’s position as a prominent, feminist author.

As children, we are introduced to fairy tales as both a source of pleasure and wisdom. They function as a moral compass, teaching us the difference between right and wrong, obedience and disobedience, good and evil—though perhaps most importantly, fairy tales have the ability to tell us who we are, male or female, and who we want to become, hero or maiden. In Andrea Dworkin’s Women Hating, she discusses the role of the female in fairy lore. She says:

The lessons are simple, and we learn them well. Men and women are different, absolute opposites. The heroic prince can never be confused with Cinderella, or Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty. She could never do what he does at all, let alone better. …Where he is erect, she is supine. Where he is awake, she is asleep. Where he is active, she must be destroyed. (47-48)

The binaries of male and female are thus set. Girls are taught from an early age that in order to be desirable to men they must be “beautiful, passive and victimized” (48). Females who reject these traditional structures are regarded as wicked and therefore must be nullified. Hence, the wicked witch is “repulsive because she is evil, she is evil because she acts” (48).

Pornography functions in the same way. Just like fairy tales, the major theme of “pornography as a genre is male power, its nature, its magnitude, its use, its meaning” (Dworkin Pornography 24). It does not exist to produce sexual pleasure but instead works to enhance the relationship between male dominance and female submission. In fairy tales, the female is told that she must strive for marriage in order to achieve happiness and fulfillment. In pornography, fulfillment is achieved through sex. In both instances, the male uses marriage and sex as physical entrapments, to possess and conquer women. The male controls with “his eye, his penis, [and] his sword” (Sheets 642). Because the woman lacks a phallus, she is acted upon. The end results in a fragmentation of women’s identity as their bodies become objectified and commoditized under male authority.

Angela Carter writes against these interpretations by revealing pornography and fairy tales as “myths of sexuality under patriarchy” (Duncker 3). Each of which sets impossible ideals of femininity and ignores female desire. Critics such as Patricia Duncker agree with Carter’s initial perspective, yet do not believe that she is creating powerful, feminist narratives. Instead, Duncker argues that Carter is “rewriting the tales within the straight-jacket of their original structure” (6). She points out the “disarming of the aggressive male sexuality by the virtuous bride is [already] at the root” of the traditional fairy tale (6). Therefore, she feels that Carter does not change the implicit meaning at all, but rather allows her females to realize that “rape [or sex] is inevitable”, and thus they resolve, “to strip off, lie back and enjoy it” (7). In this way, Duncker believes that Carter’s stories demonstrate “women’s sensuality [as] simply…a response to male arousal” (7). Though this reading does pose a valid argument, I believe that Duncker has misconstrued some very important details.

To begin, Carter’s females show us that women cannot simply be categorized as all good or all evil. Rather the quality of their character is established by the way that they react to situations of cruelty and oppression. Instead of enduring their misfortunes with patience, passivity and obedience, as Duncker suggests, Carter’s heroines leap into action and fight back in order to regain agency and identity. Furthermore, Carter contends that “happily ever after” does not simply arise from the fulfillment of marriage or sex, but alternatively from the recognition of our own potential as women.


Carter, Angela. Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories. London: Vintage, 1996. Print.

Duncker, Patricia. “RE-IMAGINING THE FAIRY TALES: ANGELA CARTER’S BLOODY CHAMBERS.” Literature and History 10.1 (1984): 3. ProQuest. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Dworkin, Andrea. Pornography: Men Possessing Women. New York, NY: Plume, 1989. Print.

Dworkin, Andrea. Woman Hating. New York, NY: Plume, 1974. Print.

Homer, Winslow. What She Sees There. 1868. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York. 1998. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44. Print.

Sheets, Robin Ann. “Pornography, Fairy Tales, and Feminism: Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1.4 (1991): 633-57. JSTOR. University of Texas Press. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

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