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Postmodern Retellings 102: Jeanette Winterson’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses


Postmodern Retellings 101 focused on modern interpretations of fairy tales that dated from the 1960s or the 1970s. Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter were some of the first authors to tackle this task and ended up developing a great legacy for the new writers to come. As time passed, philosopher Jacques Derrida’s 'deconstruction' remained the main focal point and gender studies surrounding the role of women in society continued to influence greatly. Nevertheless, new retellings started focusing on other motifs or themes in addition to developing new narrative strategies. The boundaries between genders are blurred and the mythopoeic qualities of the original tales are challenged. The meta-folklore is necessary to raise awareness about previous readings of fairy tales and provide the original characters with a voice of their own. Thus, this series will focus on retellings from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.

This series will be divided as follows:

Postmodern Retellings 102: Jeanette Winterson’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses

Postmodern Retellings 102: Gillian Cross’s Wolf

Postmodern Retellings 102: Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose

Postmodern Retellings 102: Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan

Jeanette Winterson’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses

Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry (1989) is one of the best examples of adapting fairy tales and redefining the genre’s conventions from the late 1980s. A re-telling of the Grimm’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses (1812) forms part of the collection and the author deconstructs the traditional features from the source by using oral storytelling as an alternative form of narration. The author challenges the heteronormative and phallocentric rules imposed on both men and women while introducing language as a means to deviate from the original tale.

The fairy-tale genre serves as a template for Winterson to perform an in-depth examination of the subversive power of language and deconstructs the “mainstream representation of the world” (Andrievskikh, 2015, p. 9). In Sexing the Cherry, the author combines folkloric, fantastic and historical elements along with the oral storytelling tradition since the novel is composed of different first-person narratives which maintain the informal style of their narrators. As a narrative style, orality in general and in fairy tales usually offers an alternative version of episodes from the official account of events since it “prioritizes experience over information” and “no experience is universal for everybody” (Andrievskikh, 2015, p. 9). Therefore, the readers of the novel become listeners as the multiple perspectives offered by the characters cover different outlooks on the original tale while blurring the boundaries of identity, time, or gender. Likewise, the French philosopher Hélène Cixous (1991) also explores the relevance of oral storytelling as means to express erotic pleasure: “Writing to touch with letters, with lips, with breath, to caress with the tongue, to lick with the soul, to taste the blood of the beloved body, of life in its remoteness; to saturate the distance with desire.” (p. 4). Orality, then, turns out to be a different approach to the world and, thus, storytelling becomes the perfect medium for the narrator to express their account of vital experiences (Andrievskikh, 2015).

Figure 1. Illustration for 1990 edition of Sexing the Cherry. Dennis Leigh.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses is a German fairy tale written by the Grimm Brothers and published in their collection Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales). The tale follows the story of a king and his twelve daughters who escape from the palace to dance until the morning. Every evening, when the princesses go to bed, the king orders the doors to remain shut the whole night, but their shoes appear constantly worn out each morning, and nobody knows the princesses’ secret. Therefore, the king offers the chance to reign the kingdom to whoever is able to discover the mystery. Finally, an old soldier discovers the secret and becomes the king’s heir by marrying his eldest daughter. In Winterson’s re-telling, the princesses are responsible for narrating their individual stories to an explorer named Jordan. The author develops a sequel to the original story and focuses on the princesses’ lives after their happily-ever-after (Öztemel, 2019). The princesses' narrations showcase a great level of violence since many of them have murdered their husbands. In this way, Winterson satirizes the heteronormative destinies of the girls and “promotes a carnivalesque worldview doing away with all forms of authority” (Walezak, 2009, p. 65).

Winterson deconstructs the characters from the original tale and builds them into postmodern characters since they have chosen their path in life. All of them have broken up with their significant other for several reasons: for example, the eldest princess is a lesbian and falls in love with a mermaid, whereas the second one murders her husband because he does not accept her religious beliefs. The only one who does not slit up with her husband is princess Fortuna, the youngest one among the sisters, who escapes from her wedding (Öztemel, 2019). Winterson’s princesses are not happy because they are not built around mainstream standards. This is the text's key idea named “hypogram” by Riffaterre (1978) and is defined as “a single sentence or string of sentences” that “may be made out of clichés, or it may be a quotation from another text or a descriptive system.” (p. 63). Therefore, by dismantling the nucleus ideas of the genre, Winterson deconstructs the character archetypes following a feminist outlook. The author rejects the trope of the prince as a savior and pushes the princesses to abandon their conventional marriages to free themselves. Nevertheless, not only does Winterson’s tale challenge phallocentric conventions, but she also subverts all forms of authority. The re-telling refers to Russian philosopher Bakhtin’s carnivalistic perception of the world in which deplorable behavior is approved and authorized since the criminal actions of the princesses are accepted (Bakhtin, 1987). For example, as the eighth princess depicts her husband’s murder:

Bedtime came and I stirred my husband's vat of milk and put in the powder as directed. My husband came crashing over to the stove and gulped the milk in one draught. As soon as he had finished he began to swell up. He swelled out of the house, cracking the roof, and within a few moments had exploded. Out of his belly came a herd of cattle and a fleet of pigs, all blinking in the light and covered in milk (Winterson, 1990, 55).

Figure 2. Assassin of Marat. Jean-Jacques Aimé Baudry. 1860.

According to Makinen (2005, p. 86), the princesses reject the heteronormative structure and define themselves by selecting “lesbianism as a political choice” or by stressing their assertiveness. Winterson acknowledges the historicity of the construction of gender which leads her to similar theories to French philosophers Lacan and Foucault, who also explored the historicity of sexuality and whether it could be “re-invented at will” (Kintzele, 2010, p. 10). The author develops a society where people can be defined according to their decisions and not by a biological state and, therefore, deconstructs the male-female dichotomy. This offers the possibility of living in a nonhierarchical world in biological terms, but also of people developing a fluid and diverse gender which is not limited by cultural and social boundaries (Moore, 1995).

In the original tale, the Grimms unfold the conventional social rules which normalize heterosexual and patriarchal organization. The opening of the tale is remarkable in this regard since it makes clear the authority of the male figure, that is, the Father’s law: “the king issued a proclamation that whoever could find out where his daughters danced during the night could choose one of them for his wife and be king after his death.” (Grimm, 2014: 432). Unlike their father, the princesses are depicted as sweet and virginal: “Once upon a time there was a king who had twelve daughters, one more beautiful than the other.” (Grimm, 2014, 431). Not only that, but they are also submissive to their father’s demands and when going to sleep “the king shut and locked the door.” (Grimm, 2014, 431). Ultimately, the king’s real fear is his daughters’ losing their virginity since, then, the royal family could become isolated, and he would never be able to find a noble heir to his throne. Thus, there is an analogy between the girls’ sexuality and their shoes, and “the king's distress is directly proportional to his daughters' delight, as evidenced by the state of their shoes. The holes in the soles of his daughters' shoes clearly attest to the intensity and duration of their dancing” (Thomas, 1999, p. 176).

Figure 3. Illustration of Twelve Dancing Princesses. Ruth Sanderson. 1990.

Nevertheless, Winterson subverts the patriarchal paradigm from the source and returns to the princesses their voices. This is what American philosopher Adrienne Rich (1998, p. 117) defines as “the oppressor’s language”. Rubinson (2005, p. 115) states that Winterson “attacks various artificial sources of sexism which disseminate and perpetuate lies” and, in this case, her most important ally is orality. According to Andrievskikh (2015), orality becomes a new form of narration that monopolizes the previous cultural conventions and, then, turns them into a new construction. Hence, Winterson gives voice to the princesses who craft their narrative and finally have access to agency of language. According to Speer (2015), women have historically experienced communication problems, since language as a social construct was built to deliver male messages. Following this thesis, Winterson wanted to address the struggle for dialogue and the tensions embedded in the language for women (Andrievskikh, 2015). The author creates a world where the princesses are free and can live according to their will: “For some years I did not hear from my sisters, and then, by strange eventuality, I discovered that we had all, in one way or another," abandoned our husbands "and were living scattered, according to our tastes” (Winterson, 1990, p. 48).

Winterson deconstructs language as a patriarchal construct and resorts to orality as a magnificent device to explore “marginalized experiences” (Andrievskikh, 2015, p. 22). By liberating language from the gender-inflicted tensions, the princesses can express their suffering and examine the oppression of the patriarchal norm. For example, one of the princesses' husband was known to be a depraved cheater who would perform perverse sexual rites with mentally ill women: “the women he preferred were inmates of a lunatic asylum. With them he arranged mock marriages in deserted barns. They wore a shroud as their wedding dress and carried a bunch of carrots as a bouquet.” (Winterson, 1990, p. 51). In this scene, the language is filled with cruel motifs which serve to illustrate patriarchal behavior not only as threatening but also as ethically flawed and vicious. In addition, the mention of the women in the asylum seems to make a historical reference to female hysteria, which served to define women as mad for exploring their sexuality in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Winterson ironically does not state who is truly mad: the women from the asylum or the wicked husband “with his maniacal fantasies” (Andrievskikh, 2015, p. 11). Winterson usually inverts all the stereotypical groups of women who appear in the story: the asylum patients, prostitutes and nuns. For example, the group of prostitutes and nuns end up being the same community of women: “Some of the women have lovers in the convent, others, keeping a change of clothes there, went their way in the outside world (Winterson, 1990, p. 31).

Figure 4. Interior (The Rape). Edgar Degas. 1868.

The princesses have created their “private language not dependent on the construction of men but structured by signs and expressions, and that uses ordinary words as code-words meaning something other” (Winterson, 1990, p. 51). That is the reason why they vividly narrate their individual stories which feature grotesque and violent elements. However, not only do the princesses challenge gender expectations, but they also “illuminate how the patriarchal imagination turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, willing its fears into reality.” (Andrievskikh, 2015, p. 11). In this case, another princess relates her transformation to her husband’s prophecies: “He said my nose was sharp and that my eyes had madness in them. He said I would tear him to pieces if he dealt softly with me.” (Winterson, 1990, p. 56). The princess “was none of these things, but” she “became them” and ended up tearing his wrist and his “live from his body” (Winterson, 1990, p. 56). In the end, the princess ends her narration by stating that “as your lover describes you, so you are.” (Winterson, 1990, p. 56). This is the testimony that stresses the philosophy of Sexing the Cherry, since Winterson summarizes the tensions between genders in the predator-prey relationship imagery established in fairy-tale tropes of cannibalism, shape-shifting, or hunting. In addition, the author explores how patriarchy inverts the power dynamics and, as a result, women can become monsters by “the fear-infused imagination of the society.” (Andrievskikh, 2015, p. 12).

In conclusion, “The stories of the twelve dancing princesses function as carnivalesque masks that are read from inside out and reveal” their truth “through the depth of female experience.” (Bratton, 2002, p. 215). Winterson uses oral storytelling to deviate her narrative from cultural and social standards and, in this way, provides readers with a raw and cruel version of the traditional happy ending. By not following the gender stereotypes from the original tale, the author demonstrates that patriarchy forms a vicious circle which traps women and transforms them into male fears. Thus, patriarchy and social conventions make a malevolent symbiosis that serves as a prison for women.

Bibliographical References

Andrievskikh, N. (2015). The Taste of Fairy Tale: Consumption as Theme and Textual Strategy in Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. Pacific Coast Philology, 50(1), 5–24.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1987). Speech genres and other late essays. Austin: University of Texas.

Bratton, M. (2002). Winterson, Bakhtin, and the Chronotope of a Lesbian Hero. Journal of Narrative Theory, 32(2), 207–226.

Cixous, H (1991). Coming to Writing and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Grimm, J. & Grimm, W. (2014). The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: the Complete First Edition. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kintzele, P. (2010). Gender in Winterson's Sexing the Cherry. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 12(3).

Langland, E. (1997). Sexing the Text: Narrative Drag as Feminist Poetics and Politics in Jeanette Winterson’s “Sexing the Cherry.” Narrative, 5(1), 99–107.

Makinen, M. (2005). The novels of Jeanette Winterson: A reader’s guide to essential criticism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Moore, L. (1995). Teledildonics: Virtual Lesbians in the Fiction of Jeanette Winterson. In E. Grosz and E. Probyn (Eds.), Sexy bodies: The strange carnalities of feminism, 104–126. London: Routledge.

ÖZTEMEL AKBAY, F. (2019). An intertextual analysis: The twelve dancing princesses in Jeanette Winterson S sexing the cherry. Journal of International Social Research, 12(67), 89–96.

Rich, A. (1984). The fact of a doorframe: Poems selected and new 1950-1984. New York: Norton.

Riffaterre, M. (1978). Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Roessner, J. (2002). Writing a History of Difference: Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry and Angela Carter’s Wise Children. College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies, 29(1), 102–122.

Rubinson, G.J. (2005). The Fiction of Rushdie, Barnes, Winterson and Carter: Breaking Cultural And Literary Boundaries in the Work of Four Postmodernists. Jefferson: McFarland.

Speer, S. A. (2005). Gender talk: Feminism, discourse and conversation analysis. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

Thomas, H. S. (1999). Undermining a Grimm Tale: A Feminist Reading of “The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes” (KHM 133). Marvels & Tales, 13(2), 170–183.

Walezak, É. (2009). They lived happily ever after, or did they? The Rewriting of Grimm’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry. In G. Letissier (Ed.), Rewriting/Reprising. Plural Intertextualities, pp. 65-73. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Winterson, J. (1990). Sexing the cherry. New York: Vintage Books.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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