Resistance and Complicity

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This article looks at two interrelated reading approaches to Angela Carter’s short story “The Erl-King” (1979) by way of locating Carter’s questioning of pervasive gender norms and biases. While the model of female complicity she seems to adopt fosters patriarchal ideologies, the model of resistance she also follows enhances anti-patriarchal feminist ones. Hence, this ambivalence can be interpreted in terms of Carter’s understanding of desire as well as a specific form of unconventional, “postmodern feminism” that negotiates sex/gender distinctions yet favors revised power structures and ambivalent zones of contestation. Between patriarchy and feminism, that is, between complicity and resistance, we have (wo)man in a natural state preceding prejudiced ideological constructions and discursive formations. Hence, Carter’s fiction presents alternative visions on gender relations, more plausible (even if framed in fairy-tale structures) and less radical than often thought. In her ambivalent world, female sexuality becomes a site of confinement yet liberation. Carter did not simply write feminist revisions or deconstructions of traditional (patriarchal) tales (i.e., the resistance model). Indeed, her heroines seem to initially invite or acquiesce in their sexual victimization or exploitation (i.e., the complicity model). Carter tried to strike a balance between realism and magic realism, between the real and the ideal, and between the defiant and the complicit. Her stories are not simply “anti-patriarchal” or “feminist” as they blur gender roles, subvert power relations, and offer unorthodox “postmodern feminist” poetics. In Carter’s ambivalent poetics, as this story illustrates, complicity is made a precondition for subversion, yet substituting one repressive ideology with another is a pitfall Carter resisted in her careful revision of the fairy-tale genre.