Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 1: The Princess and the Flamethrower

With the sad news of SF Signal’s closure, I am reposting the first article in my Feminism in Fairy Tales series here on my own blog. It was originally posted on the SF Signal website on 13/06/13.

Tales are not lies, nor are they truths, but something in between. They can be as true or as false as the listener chooses to make them, or the teller wants him to believe.

– Juliet Marillier, Son of the Shadows

I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but I’m pretty sure 2012 was the Year of the Fairy Tale. There wasn’t an official announcement or anything, but the nod was clearly given in secret circles and the retellings spread outwards like ripples on the waters of speculative fiction. Novels such as Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, Sophie Masson’s Moonlight and Ashes and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder were released, there were big movie adaptations Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, there was even a TV series. Hell, there were two TV series! I’m a fiend for fairy tales; I was in paradise. And I was seriously impressed by the ingenuity of all these storytellers for finding something new to say about stories that have been retold over so many years.

But there was also a bitter aftertaste that’s been bothering me for some time. It was so subtle, and so pervasive, that it is difficult to pin down when exactly I first noticed it – in the reviews? The promotional interviews? The posts I read afterwards? What I noticed was this: that when people spoke about a fairy tale adaptation, the assumption was that it would be better than the original. Specifically, that the women would be better.

Because everybody knows women in fairy tales are weak. They are at the mercy of wicked stepmothers and nefarious kings! They always need princes to ride to their rescue! And that’s really pathetic, right? We of modern times are better than that. We know that what every princess really needs is to ditch the frocks and get herself a flamethrower. (Admittedly, I have not yet seen a fairy tale adaptation in which the princess literally has a flamethrower. It is the new dream of my existence that one exists.)

The popular impression of a fairy tale princess is a Disney beauty in a ball gown. The thing is that, like a lot of the other things that ‘everybody’ knows, it’s wrong.

I grew up on the fairy tales retold by Ruth Manning Sanders: a handful of loved-to-death ’80s reprints with missing pages and cracked spines. Manning Sanders covered classics like ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Aladdin’, but she didn’t stop there. Through her, I discovered stories from Jamaica and Iceland, Sicily and Russia, Switzerland, Denmark and Italy. I read about girls who bribed themselves a better destiny, who freed slaves, who met and married wizards or witch’s sons as well as princes. I learned, not by anyone telling me but from my own insatiable reading, that women in fairy tales are not weak. They are not necessarily strong either. They are something more than either.

They are people.

And I kept reading. I found myself heroines like Tatterhood, the hideous elder daughter of a queen, who goes forth to fight witches and rescue her sister; Princess Blue-Eyes, the gorgeous ruler of her own kingdom who beats a Czar and all his three sons in battle; Tokoyo, daughter of an exiled samurai, who saves a sacrificial maiden by jumping off a cliff and fighting a sea monster. Where are their retellings? Why aren’t there movie adaptations of their stories, or an introduction to the Disney canon? If readers of the 21st century are so dissatisfied with the way women are written in fairy tales, why not look beyond the standard Grimm brothers selection pool?

But let’s take a look into that pool, since it is rather irresistible with its sparkling shallows and murky depths. The women in Grimm favourites tend to get the worst kicking, so stuck with labels you’d think they’d been mistaken for a corkboard. Passive! Submissive! Weepy, soppy, weak.

Why? Because they don’t get into swordfights with their evil stepmothers? Because they don’t take on all comers with a metaphorical flamethrower? Modern retellings often put an emphasis on their heroines physically or verbally defending themselves, which can be excellent and deeply satisfactory, but there are other ways of being strong. Surviving in an atmosphere of hatred without letting yourself get infected by it, like Cinderella does – that takes strength. Making a new life among strangers, like Snow White, takes courage. Being imprisoned with no resources for an escape, like Rapunzel, and keeping on hoping for something better anyway, takes fortitude. It’s a quiet bravery, easy to ignore, and so people do ignore it. They pretend that women in fairy tales don’t ‘do’ anything. But they are wrong.

It isn’t about the stories. It is all about the telling. There are very few fairy tales out there that can’t have excellent female characters if they are told by someone who wants them to be that way, and you don’t have to change the stories at all – all you have to do is understand and respect the characters in them. Women in fairy tales can be villains, they can be heroines, they can be ordinary and in between, but they all have individuality until a storyteller chooses to take it away.

Or gives it back.

As Aladdin could tell you, something new is not automatically better than something old. We need them all, the fairy tales that have been transmuted into shining unfamiliar shapes standing beside the ones that are as old as the path in the dark woods. There’s magic, and strength, enough to be shared without belittling either one.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go write a fairy tale about flamethrowers.

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 2: The Demon’s In the Double Standard

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 3: In Dire Need of Dynamite

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