Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.
– Countess Constance Markievicz, Irish suffragette and revolutionary
Here’s the thing: princesses in fairy tales are not weak, they’re deeply unlucky.
If a princess is the heroine of her own story, the odds are very high that someone will attempt to either abduct or murder her; in some cases they actually succeed with the latter and through morbid magic she’ll manage to tell her story from beyond the grave, which is not what I consider a happy ending. If she’s a side character, she doubtless exists to be married off to the hero, and is very likely to be kidnapped anyway, so that he can rescue her. We don’t tend to tell stories about happy people. Something has to go wrong in order for there to be a plot, and often it is a girl’s life falling apart.
Is this a problematic device? Hell yes. Does its existence automatically condemn the characters involved? I say it does not.
Many popular criticisms of fairy tales frustrate me. Fantastic female protagonists are forgotten or ignored while the famous heroines are belittled and dismissed; older women are held to an impossible double standard while their male counterparts are accepted as default settings. In an attempt to subvert these tropes, many modern retellings go as far in the opposite direction as possible, and that can be a glorious thing. It is deeply satisfying to give a princess a sword, let her break free and find her own fortune.
Unfortunately this is humanity we’re dealing with, and humanity has an unhealthy obsession with binaries.
That is to say, instead of celebrating these heroines on their own considerable merits, it’s becoming expected that all heroines will behave the same way. That it’s always possible to escape on your own; that it’s your fault if you can’t succeed without help. Why don’t you keep a stockpile of dynamite on your person at all times so that when you are unexpectedly kidnapped and locked in a tower without doors or windows, you can just blow your way out? That’s what a real princess would do.
I have a thing to say about that. No, actually, I have two things to say:
1) Keeping a stash of dynamite on hand, should you be transported to the world of fairy tales and manage to get hold of the stuff, is actually an excellent idea. Bringing it with you when you are kidnapped would, however, be rather difficult logistically.
2) Never blame the victim. Just don’t.
And a third thing: there are many ways of saving yourself.
There are young women in these stories who are controlled by transformative magic, who are locked inside all manner of prisons, who desperately need the aid of a valiant swordsman with a getaway horse. These women have usually seen others fail in the attempt to save them. They have endured the gloating of a captor, the humiliations and isolation of imprisonment. So they come up with plans. And if their would-be saviour wants to succeed, he’d better pay close attention.
In ‘The Troll’s Little Daughter’, the hero would have had no chance of setting his love free if she had not given him detailed instructions. It’s a pattern that can be seen in many other tales, including ‘The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body’, ‘Jekovoy’, ‘The Little Tailor and the Three Dogs’, and ‘The Artful Soldier and the Czar’s Three Daughters’, to name only a few. In at least one version of ‘Rapunzel’, the prince brings her silk to weave a ladder. Though she depends on him to bring her resources (why could he not have just brought a ready made rope ladder and saved everybody a lot of trouble?) she is actively participating in her own rescue. In ‘The Wild Swans’, Elise’s brothers swoop to rescue her from a witch’s pyre, but they can only succeed because she has worked to break their enchantment.
This is co-operative rescue, a balance of knowledge and opportunity, and it works the other way around too – trapped male royals have been known to seek out the assistance of capable young women. The enchanted prince of ‘The Nine Doves’, for instance, the reckless protagonist of ‘Yellow Lily’, the talking bear from ‘Snow White and Rose Red’. Strength should not be gendered; all acts of self-defence should be celebrated, whether they take place with an explosion or a whisper. For this reason, co-operative rescue is one of my favourite fairy tale tropes. It subtly inverts your expectations, turning the protagonists into a team, each playing off the other’s skill set.
It takes courage, and trust, and determination.
It takes heroism. There’s more of that around than you might think.