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Postmodern Retellings 102: Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan


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: Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan

Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan offers a different response to hegemonic masculinity. According to the author, men can react in different ways regarding patriarchy: acceptance, assimilation, or resistance. In this article, the discussion is focused on the symbol of the swan as the perfect male stereotype to reach freedom. In this way, Cunningham opens a new path to counter-write traditionally hegemonic discourse in terms of literary fiction. To dismantle the patriarchal discourse, the writer uses one of the most stereotypically feminine traits: beauty, which could be a sign of rebellion against the stereotype of masculinity.

The study of masculinity in fairy tales takes place when maleness is not considered to be the norm, as it usually happens in other fields of study, such as psychoanalysis and myth studies. Scholars Joseph Campbell and Bruno Bettelheim combine these two perspectives and disregard the cultural context and intertextual relationships (Attebery, 2018). Therefore, when female experience and coming-of-age are described, masculinity is revealed as universal and is questioned. However, if the story does not revolve around gender tensions, “the universalizing of the male” never disappears which showcases “a symptom of a broader cultural blindness from which the academic world took long to recover” (Attebery, 2018, p. 318). The rise of masculinity studies is relatively recent and this is shown in modern scholarships, such as Simon J. Bronner’s Manly Traditions: The Folk Roots of American Masculinities (2005), and Jeana Jorgensen’s dissertation on “Gender and the Body in Classical European Fairy Tales” (2012). For example, Jorgensen (2012, p. 180) explains the following regarding fairy tales: “masculinity has often been treated as an after-thought, something to discuss once all the interesting things have been said about women’s roles in fairy tales, or something to present in contrast to women’s bodies”. Hence, scholarship has focused on other perspectives, rather than masculinity, which has slowed down the study of maleness in fairy tales.

Figure 1. Michelangelo. The Creation of Adam. 1512.

In this regard, American writer Michael Cunningham has become one of the most important explorers of masculinity in fairy tales. His collection A Wild Swan and Other Tales (2015) rewrites tales from Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimms and other authors to demonstrate the depiction of different masculinities (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Cunningham’s stories represent “responses to the impossible and intimidating model of manhood termed hegemonic masculinity by Connell” (Attebery, 2018, p. 316). These types of male characters are named Little Man, the Monster Bridegroom, and the Erotic Swan and each one of them embodies an alternative to the stereotypical model. Male heroes in fairy tales have usually embodied quite fixed characters, such as the brave soldier, the charming prince or the wise old man. Nowadays, contemporary authors try to adapt those idealistic or grotesque characters into modern or more complex dramatis personae. In Cunningham’s case, he was deeply inspired by earlier feminist retellings from authors Angela Carter and Anne Sexton to subvert the traditional notions of fairy tales. For example, in A Wild Swan, Cunningham assimilates Andersen’s tale of The Wild Swans (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005).

All of Cunningham’s male characters respond to a kind of masculinity that no one can ever reach. According to Connell & Messerschmidt (2005, p. 832), “hegemonic masculinity was not assumed to be normal in the statistical sense; only a minority of men might enact it. But it was certainly normative”. Thus, it required men to position themselves in relation to it and represented the most valued way of being a man. Nevertheless, hegemonic masculinity is never fully possessed or acquired and limits the free will of men to act as they wish at the risk of being considered feminine or unmasculine. Hence, men can only aspire to emulate or resist this driving force as Cunningham explores in his writings. A Wild Swan belongs to a fairy-tale tradition in which men are embodied by swans, an animal both beautiful and highly aggressive (Attebery, 2018). In the Grimm’s The Six Swans, six brothers have been transformed into birds by their evil stepmother and their sister must dismantle the enchantment whereas, in Andersen’s The Wild Swans, the number of brothers is doubled and a great emphasis is put on the beauty of their wings. Andersen was fascinated with swans since he believed these animals were the perfect emblem of male power and beauty (Wullschlager, 2000). For instance, in The Ugly Duckling, the main character feels ecstasy when seeing a fight of swans because he had never seen anything so impressive yet so beautiful. Finally, when the duckling becomes a swan himself, he feels no less masculine because of his beauty. On the contrary, he feels empowered and dignified by it. According to Jackie Wullschlager (2000, p. 189), “Swans were part of Andersen’s private mythology, recurring in his letters as symbols of mystery and grandeur even before he began writing fairy tales”.

Figure 2. Swan and Cygnets Sand. 2011.

Cunningham, in his introduction to A Wild Swan, reflects on the power of beauty: “Vengeful entities seek only to devastate the rarest, the ones who have somehow been granted not only bower and trumpet but comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity and charm” (Cunningham, 2015, p. 3). He directly turns characteristics identified as feminine, such as grace and beauty, into masculine. Straight after his reflection, he opens the book with the tale of A Wild Swan, whose title indicates that the retelling is directly based upon Andersen’s version. Cunningham’s story begins where Anderson ends: the brothers have successfully returned to their human state, except for one of them, the youngest one who has a remaining swan wing. From that moment, the author explores the feelings of the boy who feels awkward and is afraid of suffering fetishization (Wullschlager, 2000). For instance, some women feel weirdly attracted to him since they perceive him as a “ninety percent thriving muscled man-flesh and ten percent glorious blindingly white angel wing” (Cunningham, 2015, p. 11). He always feels inferior because he does not consider himself to be part of the hegemonic masculinity. Therefore, he spends his time hanging out at a special bar where other survivors of fairy-tale mishaps meet.

In this case, the wing “is an emblem of unconventional, unhegemonic masculinity” and is “both stigma and fetish” (Attebery, 2018, p, 332). By proving that the male body can be beautiful and desirable, Cunningham subverts the notions of traditional manhood that represent males as predatory animals, such as in Beauty and the Beast. Susan Bordo (1999, p. 25) indicates that “the old representations of straight, white masculinity have become self-parodies” and, thus, new images have been created. Exemplary masculinity has always been unreachable other than stiff and featureless. In the case of Disney stories, the male leads were also extremely secondary characters because the animators “couldn’t figure out how to make them look natural” (Attebery, 2018, p, 332). The problem lies in subtractive masculinity which means that men must repress features defined as feminine to enjoy the social benefits of patriarchy. This empties the characters of real depth and is proof of the phobia the hegemonic masculinity presents against women. In other words, one must erase all feminine traits and not be effeminate to be masculine.

Figure 3. Albrecht Dürer. Wing of a European Roller. 1500.

In North-American culture, this means that a man should not show any kind of vulnerability or emotion which results in a lack of vitality or alienation from the human experience. Therefore, several writers have opted for traditional stories to subvert the traditional conventions from new points of view, among others. In addition, Rod McGillis (2003) implies that the original fairy tales were already quite rebellious and that had implicit meanings. Thus, he suggests that the apparently hegemonic masculinity of tales is not straightforward nor dominant. McGillis affirms that queerness is implicit in several well-known tales even if the authors were conventionally heterosexual.

According to Connell and Messerschmidt (2005, p. 884), “To sustain a given pattern of hegemony requires the policing of men as well as the exclusion or discrediting of women”. Nevertheless, the fairy-tale queerness defies the categories of gender and sexuality which allows the authors to go beyond traditional norms. This represents a paradox since the same conventions that offer men patriarchal authority, on one hand, threaten to disempower them once they deviate from normative masculinity, on the other hand. In this way, fairy tales “destabilize the binaries (such as masculine-feminine, heterosexual-homosexual, dominant-submissive, active-passive) that are so central to upholding normative categories” (2015, p. 16). For patriarchy, the accusation of queerness is one of the most powerful weapons against men that do not fit in hegemonic masculinity. However, when the accusation disappears, queer becomes a positive term that opens a wide range of discussions.

Figure 4. Sergio Gómez. Vulnerable Man. 2005.

In conclusion, Cunningham explores the issue of masculine beauty and, by doing so, exposes the tensions between desirability and inadequacy. Beauty is not conventionally a masculine trait which excludes all men that have a different sense of self regarding hegemonic masculinity. Nevertheless, for Cunningham, the ambiguity or queerness of male characters is what makes them complex dramatis personae which, in turn, frees them from their rigid stereotypes. In a way, he opens and offers new possibilities of resistance and reinvention of what a masculine man should be.

Bibliographical Sources

Attebery, B. (2018). Reinventing masculinity in fairy tales by men. Marvels & Tales, 32(2), 314-337,493. doi:

Connell, R. W., and James W. Messerschmidt. (2006). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.Gender and Society, 19 (6), 829–59.

Cunningham, Michael. (2016). Adult Fairy Tales: An Interview with Michael Cunningham. Interview with Michael Merriam. Los Angeles Review of Books, 26.

Jorgensen, J. (2012). Gender and the Body in Classical European Fairy Tales. Dissertation, Indiana University.

McGillis, R. (2003). A Fairytale Is Just a Fairytale: George MacDonald and the

Queering of Fairy. Marvels & Tales, 17(1), 86–99. Project Muse.

Seifert, L. (2015). Introduction: Queer(ing) Fairy Tales. Marvels & Tales, 29(1), 15–20. Project Muse.

Wullschlager, J.(2000). Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller. Knopf.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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