Traditional fairy tales are drawn from many sources, including ancient mythology, pagan religion, political allegory, morality plays, and orientalia. Most such tales have filtered through centuries of patriarchal culture and show little respect for women, except as young and beautiful “princesses”. Only to be decorative is the customary female function in these old stories.
– Barbara G. Walker, Feminist Fairy Tales
Okay, let’s take a look at that.
A month or so ago I wrote a piece for SF Signal about the feminism I find in fairy tales and how much it bothers me that it’s so easily ignored. Princesses are dismissed as patriarchal caricatures instead of just accepted as people, and the fairy tale girls who aren’t princesses don’t tend to make the cut into popular culture. Which sucks. Especially when they are off rescuing sacrificial maidens or freeing slaves or otherwise being awesome. And that got me thinking about all the other things that people believe about fairy tales that I don’t agree with in the slightest.
The above quote sums up one such opinion. It’s a commonly held belief that fairy tales are, at best, unfavourable to older women, and at worst, that they demonise them. Think the homicidal queen from ‘Snow White’, the malicious stepmother from ‘Cinderella’, the vindictive witch from ‘Rapunzel’. Each of these characters is in a position of parental authority, directly responsible for the welfare of a younger woman; each, resentful of her ward, chooses to persecute her instead of protect her. And that’s without listing the number of cannibalistic witches who appear to spend their days waiting around in cottages for lost children to come wandering in.
These are, needless to say, not positive examples of female characterisation. And it’s true, fairy tales do tend to favour women who are both young and beautiful – if by ‘favour’ you mean they are the ones who generally get to be injured, isolated and/or incarcerated before marrying someone they’ve only just met. You know, just for perspective’s sake.
The fact is, beauty and youth are good currency for storytellers. Just take a look at the female leads of this year’s most popular films and TV shows and, when you’re over the shock of how few of them there are, try a count of how many are over the age of 40. I somehow don’t think it will take you long. Let’s all gnash our teeth for a minute in perfect harmony.
So the ways we as a culture tell stories could use some improvement, but there’s a rather important difference between acknowledging a chronic shortage of older female characters as principal heroines and declaring all the ones we do have are evil stereotypes, just as there is a difference between useful critique and osmosis prejudice. The latter is the type of thinking that sees any and every female protagonist labelled a Mary Sue or a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and every princess in a fairy tale labelled a passive doll. It’s lazy, simplistic, and doesn’t help anyone.
First of all, let’s think about these women as people instead of psychological symbols. In ‘Snow White’, is it entirely unlikely that the queen might feel threatened by the legal heir to what she considers her throne? In ‘Cinderella’, the stepmother has two daughters of her own who are constantly overshadowed by a girl to whom she owes no maternal loyalty. Is it that astonishing she might want her stepdaughter out of the way when there’s a shot at bringing a prince into the family? In ‘Rapunzel’, the witch treats her ward like a possession, locking her away from the world. Is it so improbable she would resent the prince for ‘stealing’ her? These are villains with emotionally logical motives. They only become infuriating stereotypes when those motives are forgotten or belittled.
It’s also funny how people pay such close attention to female villains while ignoring the innumerable male ones. Predatory wizards, murderous husbands, possessive-obsessive fathers – I mean, every second king seems to think it’s normal to lock up his daughters to prevent them getting unsuitable boyfriends – yet there isn’t the same scrutiny of their characterisation or criticism of their actions. They are accepted as the fairy tale staples they are. Neutral. Defaults.
Wow, if I didn’t know better I’d think that was an impossible double standard or something!
Because there is such emphasis on the negative roles for older women, the positive ones are ignored. What about the brave mothers who stand behind their heroic offspring, like the widow in ‘Snow White and Rose Red’, who gives a talking bear sanctuary from the winter cold without batting an eyelid? What about the fairy godmothers of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, or the elderly spinners from ‘The Three Old Maids’, who might not be official godmothers but turn up when most needed and possess fathomless depths of reverse psychology?
What about the grandmothers? Because one of the stupidest things you can do in a fairy tale is underestimate a little old lady. They’re everywhere and they know everything. If you’re on your way to win a princess, or off to battle with fearsome monstrosities, you’d better hope you come across an elderly woman on the way. The beggar with the spare invisibility cloak in ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’, the Fates in ‘The Three Golden Hairs of Father All-Know’ and the robbers’ cook in its alternative version ‘The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs’, the mother of the four winds in ‘The Garden of Paradise’, Grandmother Jaga from ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’, the wisewomen in ‘The Snow Queen’ – I can keep going for a while. These old women test young adventurers, distributing magical items and detailed advice to those that pass so that their choices will go on to great things, most likely involving a crown.
Those that don’t pass…well, let’s put it this way, you really want to get on that lady’s good side. She might be a Fate or a witch, a Destiny or a fairy. She might just be an old woman who’s a lot smarter than you. Whoever she is, the best thing you can do is pay attention to her.
That way, you might just survive the epic evil sorceress.