“She [the young girl] learns that in order to be happy she must be loved; in order to be loved, she has to wait for love. Woman is Sleeping Beauty, Cap O'Rushes, Cinderella, Snow White, the one who receives and endures. In songs and tales you see a young man departing adventurously to seek the woman; he slays dragons, he fights against giants; she is confined in a tower, a castle, a garden, a cavern, chained to a rock, captive, sleeping she is waiting. One day my prince will come . . .Some day he'll come along, the man I love .. ..Woman's supreme necessity is to charm the male heart; they may be intrepid, adventurous, this is, however, the reward all heroines are striving for, and most often the only virtue they are required to possess is beauty. Therefore, it is comprehensible that care for her physical appearance may become for the young girl a real obsession”
Simon De Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 306)
Fairytales have existed among us for centuries, across cultures. They amuse children, stir their imagination and shape their perception of life and reality. Imparted orally and through books fairytales are inseparably interwoven with the idea of childhood. They have a deep impact on our psyche and stay with us for a long time. It is precisely for this reason that these tales that we come across when we are young stay with us through adulthood and till old age.
Stories of Cinderella, Red Ridinghood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast and so on are read and told in almost every part of the world. They are global and universal both in their readership and appeal. They mould children’s understanding of many dichotomies such as good and evil, beautiful and ugly, man and woman etc. Therefore to look at these popular fairytales from a feminist point of view is of utmost significance.
This paper looks at some of the most popular fairytales by The Brothers Grimm and Perrault and the idea of womanhood that they perpetrate. It also looks at some of the Disney versions of these fairytales considering in today’s times that is the easiest and most common way in which children come into contact with these stories. Critical theory, feminist reworking of fairytales and criticism of the feminist criticism have also been looked at.
ALISON LURIE AND FAIRYTALE LIBERATION
Though Beauvoir predicted it decades earlier a real feminist engagement with fairytales happened post 1970s after the publication of two landmark articles Fairytale Liberation (1970) and Witches and Fairies (1971) by Alison Lurie. Through these articles Lurie argued that fairytales can become a true source of female empowerment. She stated ‘ that strong female characters could be found not only among the classic fairy tales, but also among the much larger and more representative corpus of lesser-known tales. The presence of these competent, resourceful, and powerful female characters, Lurie concluded, ought to make fairy tales "one of the few sorts of classic children's literature of which a radical feminist would approve”’. (Haase,2).
Lurie’s articles were met with widespread acceptance as well as criticism. Fellow feminist critic Marcia R. Lieberman opined that the point that Lurie was trying to make was “beside the point” in her response to Lurie 'Some Day My Prince Will Come': Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale’ (1972). According to Lieberman the presence of strong female characters in the not so popular fairytales didn’t make a difference since "Only the best-known stories, those that everyone has read or heard, indeed, those that Disney has popularized, have affected masses of children in our culture”( As qtd in Haase 2). ‘She was neither sympathetic to Lurie's main argument that fairy tales portrayed strong female characters, nor receptive to her important qualification that liberating stories had been obscured by males who dominated the selection, editing, and publication of fairy tales’. (Haase,2).
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS: TROPES IN FAIRY TALES
Fairytales are a rich source of archetypes and tropes. We have the damsels in distress, the jealous female (who is often a step mother, a friend or a sister), the Evil Witch, the Evil Step mother, the Good Fairy and of course, the Prince Charming. Most of the princesses or the central female characters are either orphans or only has a single parent. This holds true for Cinderalla, Rapunzel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty who all also happen to damsels in distress waiting for rescue. No one of them possess any kind of agency nor do anything apart from waiting to alter their destiny.
On the otherside you have the femme fatales- evil step moms and witches to be precise, who have agency but are evil. It is interesting to note how women with power and agency are portrayed to be corrupt, ugly , undesirable and evil. They are never the role models for young girls. The role models are always the passive beautiful princesses waiting for Prince Charming. Infact in many cases these princesess don’t have much to do with the story at all even though they are the title characters. They don’t alter the plot. Their purpose in the story is to be the passive trophy that the prince eventually achieves. The slaying of dragons, killing witches, defeating robbers and armies are all left for the men.
Upon a closer look we can see the Madonna-whore syndrome playing out in these fairytales. The women are never painted in shades of grey. They are either pure as white or evil as black. Beauty is good and ideal, and ugliness is Villainy. To quote Dworkin,
There are two definitions of woman [in fairy tales]. There is the good woman. She is a victim. There is the bad woman. She must be destroyed. The good woman must be possessed. The bad woman must be killed, or punished. Both must be nullified. . . . [the ending of these tales] tells us that happiness for a woman is to be passive, victimized, destroyed, or asleep.. . . It tells us that the happy ending is when we are ended, when we live without our lives, or not at all. Andrea Dworkin (As qtd in Kuykendal, Sturm,2)
Disney has adapted almost all of the most popular fairytales into movies. In doing so, the stereotypes often have been over played and the violent versions by the Brothers Grimm are either toned down or eliminated altogether. Be it Cinderella or Snow White or Sleeping Beauty these movies seem to suggest that beauty is everything and the only thing a woman can possibly excel at is housework. While The Little Mermaid hints that the only way you can win a man’s heart is by having the perfect body, Beauty and the Beast suggests that only beautiful people can be good, and true love is worth an abusive relationship. The Little Mermaid, the movie and the fairy tale alike is particularly problematic. The mermaid trades her voice for a pair of legs. She is symbolic of the woman who is eternally silenced. While in the original tale her heart is broken and she is turned into foam, Disney tones it down to a happily ever after.
In between such stereotypes Disney’s Mulan comes across as a sigh of relief. Inspired from a famous Chinese ballad this movie challenges stereotypes and breaks down gender roles. Mulan takes the place of her ailing father in the Chinese army under the pretense of being a guy. She through her intelligence and skills defeats the Hun, wins the trust and love of the prince who initially throws her out upon discovering that she is a woman and saves China. The romance develops slowly and is earned. They don’t fall in love because they are both pretty. They fall in love because they appreciate and value each other as human beings.
HERO VS HEROINE
Often men and women found in fairy tales are polar opposites of each other. Passivity and obedience is prescribed for women whereas action and adventure is prescribed for men. In his work A Closer Look at Literature Discussion Groups: The Influence of Gender on Student Response and Discourse K.S Evans opines that ‘Fairy tales define women as beautiful objects, powerless to alter the events in their lives, while fairy tale men are powerful agents of their own destiny. There are characters within these tales who defy these descriptions; however, their defiance comes with a price. Powerful women in fairy tales are generally ugly if not also evil’ ( As qtd in Kuykendal, Sturm 2 ) Michael Mendelson in Forever Acting Alone: The Absence of Female Collaboration in Grimms’ Fairy Tales extends this argument when he points out that ‘the exception to this rule is the wise woman or fairy godmother; however, these powerful women are still separated from traditional fairy tale women in that they are not truly human.’ (ibid.2)
If a woman was anything other than beautiful, obedient, passive and patient she couldn’t expect to be a princess. The only thing she was expected or required to do was to look pretty. There is no felt need to develop as a character because she was already perfect to begin with anyway. However ‘Heroes succeed because they act, not because they are. They are judged not by their appearance or inherent sweet nature but by their ability to overcome obstacles, even if these obstacles are defects in their own characters’ (Stone,5)
GENDER ROLES AND SEXUALITY
Fairytales act as a medium to familiarise children with the way they are expected to behave in the society. And they clearly give two different, often opposing behavioural patterns for either gender. Psychiatrist Eric Berne considers fairytales to be actual programs for behaviour. ‘The cultural norms represented in fairy tales play a large part in the socialization processes of the child who reads them. Contained within these cultural norms are the shared beliefs about gender roles held by the child’s society’ (Kuykendal, Sturm 3) Therefore fairytales in a way instructs the readers how to behave and how not to behave, what is desirable and what isn’t etc. The unhealthy importance given to beauty and physical appearance especially for women in the society that we live in today can be considered to be reflective of this.
Overt sexual references, if they even find their way into original collections, rarely appear in children's books. Translations of the Grimms, for example, usually omit the fact that Rapunzel's initial encounter with the prince resulted in twins. The Grimms' "other" Cinderella, "All-Kinds-of-Fur" is usually left out altogether.(Stone,6) Many Freudian readings of fairytales have also been done. It is curious to observe that be it Rapunzel or Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, the girl is locked or cast away during puberty. Phallic symbols such as Rapunzel’s tall tower, or the sharp object that pricks Sleeping Beauty there by putting her to sleep are all suggestive of entrapment of female sexuality by patriarchy. Women are also often not allowed to discover their own sexuality. King Bluebeard’s wives are executed for looking into ‘forbidden rooms’ and in very many stories girls are punished for breaking jugs and pots.
There are ofcourse certain fairytales where we do see the women have virtues other than beauty as well as agency. These women use their wit to change their destiny and triumph over the evil. One such story is that of Hansel and Gretel. Gretel successfully kills the witch saving herself and her brother. She is one of the very few heroines who actually slay the antagonist. Then there is the story of Molly Whuppiee who tricks the giant into killing his own wife and daughters instead of her and her sisters. Also she accepts the King’s challenges and gets her sisters married to the princes before she herself gets married. The story of the Clever Peasant Lass is also a popular fairytale where because of her intelligence a girl from humble beginnings ends up being the queen.
MODERN FAIRYTALES AND REWORKINGS
Over the years feminist writers and others have reworked many of the old fairytales and have also come up with new ones more suitable to our times. While many writers resort to role reversals with the prince being passive and wimpy and the princess being the rescuer others try to be more egalitarian in their approach. Disney’s 2012 movie Brave tells the story of Princess Merida who is determined to change her destiny and that of her family. She runs from marriage, is impulsive, finds her own partner, slays the bad guys and brings change. Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess, 1980), Alison Lurie’s Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales (1980) Ethel Johnston Phelps’ The Maid of the North: Feminist Folk Tales from Around the World and James Thurber’s Fables for Our Time are some other examples of modern fairytales.
CRITICISM OF FEMINIST CRITICISM
Most feminist criticise popular fairytales of today as gendered and not representative. ‘ Kay Stone calls it an an unfortunate source of negative female stereotypes . . . [and] . . . one of the many socializing forces that discouraged females from realizing their full human potential’ (As qtd in Kuykendal and Sturm,2)
Feminist critics and fairytale writers however are themselves criticised for blindly reversing the traditional gender roles than bringing in any real change. Many scholars are of the opinion that in order to be a feminist tale a mere reversing of patriarchal values won’t do. The story has to be re-visioned and rewritten. A truly feminist children’s story has recently been defined as one in which the main character is empowered, regardless of gender.(Kuykendal,Sturm,3). Otherwise the story would become more fractured than feminist. Writers like Donna Jo Napoli have been hailed as authentic feminist fairytale writers for abstaining from role reversing and successfully reengaging with the story. In her version of Beauty and the Beast, titled Beast, the beast is devoid of voice while the reader is exposed to the thoughts of Beauty. The story also successfully shows that even not so beautiful people can be good.
Fairytales are an unavoidable part of childhood. And children shape the future of the society. Not all girls are “princesses” nor are all boys “prince charmings” and many of them may not want to be what these traditional fairy tales prescribe for them. When they put pressure on girls to be beautiful they force boys to be adventurous and outgoing. Children should be made to understand that they can be whatever they want to be and it is okay for girls to want to slay dragons and okay for boys to want to look good, or like unicorns. Therefore it is of utmost importance that they are exposed to stories that truly inspire them to achieve their complete potential and not perpetrate gender stereotypes. Only then can there be a happily ever after for everyone.
1. Haase,Donald. ‘ Feminist Fairy-Tale Scholarship: A Critical Survey and Bibliography’ Marvels and Tales, Wayne State University Press, 2000.
2. Kawan,Christine Shojaei. ‘ A Masochism Promising Supreme Conquests: Simone de Beauvoir's Reflections on Fairy Talesand Children's Literature’, Marvels and Tales, Wayne State University Press, 2002.
3. Kuykendal,L.F ; Sturm, W.Brian. ‘We Said Feminist Fairy Tales, Not Fractured Fairy Tales! : The Construction of the Feminist Fairy Tale: Female Agency over Role Reversal’, Children and Library, 2007.
4. Stone, Kay. ‘Things Walt Disney Never Told Us’, The Journal of American Folklore, University of Illinois Press, 2009.