The “The Red Shoes,” written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1845, is a story of sin and redemption, as are many of Andersen’s stories. His female heroines often bear the full weight of God’s wrath and His mercy—a mercy that too often feels like wrath. Like “The Little Mermaid” before her, Karen in “The Red Shoes” is forced to suffer for her pride and romantic yearning while Andersen extols the virtues of Christ-like suffering. Sure, one can obtain redemption after sin, but at great personal cost.
I still wonder why I love Hans Christian Andersen’s stories so much. As a girl, I had a beautifully illustrated collection of his fairy tales I later gave to my sister to give to her firstborn daughter. Now it’s back on my bookshelf for my daughter to enjoy. But how much joy can a girl glean from a long list of sorrowful female protagonists who so often end up maimed, shunned, and dead at the end?
Fellow Dane and filmmaker Lars Von Trier has notoriously called Andersen a “celibate wanker,” which is probably true since Andersen abstained from sex, maybe due to his religious beliefs, or maybe due to his complicated romantic proclivities. I think Von Trier is protesting a bit too much here, because it doesn’t take a fairy-tale expert to see the implicit connections between them. In particular, both are drawn to female suffering because they seem to find it transformative, instructive, and beautiful. Just take a look at Breaking the Waves (1996), Von Trier’s signature film, notorious for its protagonist Bess who, like Karen and the Little Mermaid, must suffer for her sins that are really our sins. Get it?
A few decades earlier, British film-making duo Powell and Pressburger released their own Andersen homage, a tour-de-force titled The Red Shoes (1948). Admittedly, it’s my favorite film of all time and I’m not alone; it’s attracted countless kids to ballet over the years.
The film takes as its central construct a play-within-a-play, in this case a ballet based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. The main character, Victoria Page (played to perfection by Moira Shearer who, incidentally, was quite against the whole thing to begin with), is forced to choose between her personal life and her art. She can’t simply “have it all” or “lean in” as so many pop-psychologists have advised working women these days. Oh no. Hers is a life-and-death choice, a moral decision that ultimately ends in her destruction. Why? Because she’s foolish or vain enough to believe life and art can comingle happily for a professional woman.
Is this what Hans Christian Andersen was trying to say? I don’t think so, but it’s an interesting interpretation. In the story’s original context, “dancing” seems to represent the sinful, secular life, vanity, and pure frivolity. For Victoria Page, however, dance takes the place of religion, requiring absolute devotion. Yet, as in many organized religions, we’re left wondering if Vicky can really hold a position of power and fulfill a desire for love and family.
The English musician (and cinephile) Kate Bush saw herself in The Red Shoes too, and even made a whole album (The Red Shoes, 1993) and accompanying short film in tribute, adding yet more layers to the meta-textual trifle that Andersen’s fairy tale has become.
And it all makes sense. Bush appeared on the pop music scene in the late seventies and early eighties—not a moment conducive to solo female artists to say the least. Her sound was (and still is) fiercely strange. She’s also an odd performer too, incorporating mime and dance in ways some people find pretty cringe-worthy. I would imagine her singularity of vision caused her some trouble with record companies, producers, and fellow musicians—many (if not most) of whom are men. What kind of woman is she if she chooses fidelity to her art rather than marriage and family? A danger to herself, that’s what. Of course Bush has gone on to have a son and, as a result, has spent a long time away from the music studio. I wonder why.
This special report brought to you by White Issue contributor Lesley Jenike.