Can fairy tales be feminist?

Can fairy tales be feminist?

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Fairy tales are one of the most traditional forms of storytelling. Based on folklore and legends from various cultures, they bring together magical lands and brave characters to face an eclectic range of adventures.

Since the Brothers Grimm published their collection of Germanic fairy tales in 1812, these stories have been a staple of our literary education and are the basis of many a child’s first venture into reading.

The genre is loved by many but also viewed with scorn by those who believe it perpetuates negative gender stereotypes. Where does a genre that prescribes narrow representations of women – the witch or the damsel – and one-dimensional men – the widower or the hero – fit in the landscape of 21st century feminism?

From Beyonce to Emma Watson, Hilary Clinton to Donald Trump, feminism is the ideology at the forefront of our current cultural and political conscience. Debates around equal pay, maternity leave and career opportunities fill our newsfeed alongside more caustic commentaries around sexual violence and everyday sexism.

Each of these narratives focuses on one outcome: equality between the sexes. Modern-day feminism is about giving men and women equal opportunities and taking away ‘gender’ from the conversation – you are successful or not because of who you are not because of your sex.

This is very far removed from the ideals of the first formal fairy tale collections of the 19th century. Jack Zipes, renown scholar on the subject, claims these tales dictated that for women to be “good” they must be “obedient and industrious”, a characterisation informed by “a more general patriarchal view of women as domestics and breeders, born to serve the interests of men” (1).

Perpetuated by male story collectors of the period, those tropes became the overriding focus of female characters in fairy tales of that time.

Walt Disney, arguably a prolific male story collector himself, continued this trend in the 20th century when he brought traditional fairy tales to the big screen. 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs places Snow White as the domestic servant of her seven male housemates, while Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora are assigned a similar function in their films.

The early written collections and Disney’s animations from the 1930s to the late 1980s pit women against each other on physical terms, too. The beauty of the young princesses was the source of the evil witch’s or queen’s jealousy, with the fear of no longer being the “fairest of them all” enough to drive the older women to murder and subterfuge.

The young female characters hide from this threat within the domestic world whilst waiting for true love’s kiss, on the lips of their handsome Prince Charming, to rescue them.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

The 1970s saw a range of subversive poetry and literature coming out of the cultural and political debates surrounding Second Wave Feminism. Anne Sexton’s 1971 poetry collection Transformations retold 17 of the Grimms’ tales, with alternative view points, motivations and endings challenging the assumptions we inherited from the ubiquitous originals.

Later that decade, Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber and Other Stories provided alternative versions of ten tales with the intent of “extracting the latent content from the traditional stories” (2).

Disney caught up slightly with its late 1980s and early 1990s heroines offering a more diverse portrayal of women. Belle had a library in Beauty and the Beast and wasn’t afraid to express her intellect, Ariel in A Little Mermaid makes her own choice to swap her tail for legs, and Aladdin‘s Jasmine is a princess who wants to marry for love not convenience.

However, these movies still dictate that a women must give up certain freedoms (to be imprisoned with a beast), facets of herself (her voice) or powers (Jasmine cannot rule without a consort) to get her man, which remains the focus of their pursuits.

So, does the 21st century offer us any alternatives? Have we moved any further in resetting the gender balance through fairy tales?

On screen, we’ve certainly seen progress. Brave and Frozen provide well-rounded, female protagonists who embrace their selves and save themselves from the peril they face. While they may still be princesses, they are not slaves to domesticity and they do not require men to rescue them.

Similarly, the men of these films are three-dimensional characters that aren’t simply confined to the role of ‘hero’ – they get a lot of air time that doesn’t involve talking about battles or how much courage or physical strength they can muster.

On the page, several authors have chosen to unpeel the layers of traditional tales to explore constructs of gender. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, for instance, offered an explanation for the evolution of one of western culture’s most powerful female characters – the wicked witch – that encouraged us to view such stories from multiple viewpoints (something also done by Disney’s Maleficent on film).

Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red turns Red Riding Hood into the hunter rather than the hunted, and Sarah Pinborough’s Poison portrays Snow White as a sexual being not simply an innocent housewife. Kirsty Logan’s 2014 collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairy Tales combines many traditional features of the genre with science fiction, romance and fantasy as a mechanism for exploring love and loss.

Helen Oyeyemi’s 2016 short story collection, What is Not Yours is Not Yours, has been cited by one critic as a “reappropriation” of fairy tales in a similar vein to Carter’s work of the last century (3). Check out this list from Popsugar for other modern takes of fairy tales.

These contemporary tales consider gender and all of its constructs (sexuality, bravery, courage, physicality, power, domesticity and public persona) much less rigidly than their traditional counterparts. Women are allowed to be sexual, strong and independent as well as being innocent, while men are fearful, confused and comedic foils as well as strong and daring.

We’ve come a long, long way from victimised women and heroic men. Nowadays, film and fiction are exploring the makings of traditional fairy tale tropes, unpicking characters and their journeys, to reimagine the original narratives and redefine their protagonists.

Fairy tales of the 21st century allow both women and men to save and to be rescued – that surely is the very essence of equality and, consequently, of feminism.

 

Sources:

  1. Zipes, Jack (2012), The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, Princeton University Press, pg 80.
  2. Haffenden, John (1985), “Angela Carter”,Novelists in Interview, New York: Methuen Press, p. 80
  3. Evers, Stuart Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours, The Independent, 24 March 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours-by-helen-oyeyemi-book-review-a6950496.html
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