It is a common belief that fairy tales are not in keeping with feminist philosophy. There are various arguments around this point. The most entrenched ones that I personally have heard sum up to a) princesses are poor role models because they are weak and passive and dependent on the men around them, and b) witches and wicked stepmothers are misogynistic caricatures. These are indeed tropes to handle with care, and awareness of their weight.
There are a lot of fairy tales out there. Like, honestly, a lot, if you’ve been thinking ‘she has to stop talking about fairy tales eventually, she will run out of material one blessed day’, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. There are, interestingly enough, plenty of wicked enchanters and terrible fathers whose motivations go unquestioned; there are a long list of princes in dire need of a rescue, and a matching list of heroines who roll up their sleeves and get on with defeating the forces of evil.
The American Disney dream of white spires, sparkling frocks and blonde curls is but one aspect of the fairy tale kaleidoscope. That is by no means an attempt to diminish it: while I do not always agree the alterations that Disney movies have made to the original fairy tales, I have a hearty respect for their popularity and staying power. This is a brand empire built with fairy tales as its cornerstones. From glass slipper to plastic Barbie princess shoe, Cinderella keeps running.
I would argue (I argue often and loudly) that Disney princesses are rarely as weak or dependent as they are widely reputed to be. Tiana is, of course, a powerhouse of indomitable personality and Elsa is a literal whirlwind of barely controlled anxiety who nevertheless overcomes her worst fears to help her sister, but the older princesses are no pushovers either. Ariel is an unstoppable explorer who assembles a hoard of lost artefacts to try and understand another culture; Snow White survives an assassination attempt and comes through the other side as a ray of goddamn sunshine, refusing to let the betrayal harden her against any new chance at friendship; Cinderella endures day after day in an abusive household and still manages to hold onto her hopes for a better life. To dismiss their strengths, to perceive their stories as lesser because they are nearly always love stories, is in my opinion based on the same type of thinking that dismisses anything loved by and popular among young girls. Because it’s fine to tell stories about women until you’re telling stories about those women. And no one ever really escapes being that woman, because if you’re already looking for something to hate, you are going to find it.
But I’m not here to talk about that today. No, really, I wrote a whole series of posts on this a few years back, I can move on now. Deep breaths.
Fairy tales are shapeshifting creatures by their very nature and the women in them are equally variable, depending on the ideas and intentions of their storyteller – and to a certain extent, the wishes of their reader. Grimm, Perrault, Andersen, Lang, Manning-Sanders, Carter, you, me, everyone has a different slant on how the story ought to go.
In honour of International Women’s Day, here’s a round-up of seven of my favourite ladies from fairy tales. They are not always pleasant, they are not always safe, but damn they know how to make a story their own.
- Tatterhood, from ‘Tatterhood’. Rides around on a goat, armed with a wooden spoon, decidedly not beautiful unless she’s busy seducing a prince. Took down a coven of witches that one time in order to rescue her sister.
- Tokoyo, from ‘Tokoyo’. Daughter of a disgraced samurai, she heads off to rescue her father and ends up fighting a sea monster to save a beautiful maiden, in the process saving her dad as well. If anyone knows a movie version of this story, hit me up.
- Kate Crackernuts from ‘Kate Crackernuts’. In a similar vein to Tatterhood, Kate takes on the job of defending her much prettier stepsister after her own mother’s mean-spirited magic disfigures the girl. Follows an enchanted prince into Fairyland three times, restores him to himself and does not change her appearance one iota.
- Snow White and Rose Red from ‘Snow White and Rose Red’. Raised to high moral standards by their stalwart mother, these girls adopt a bear into the family and repeatedly rescue an exceptionally rude little man, until the day the bear eats the man and turns into a prince. The girls are always armed with scissors, because you never know.
- The Sun Princess from ‘The Sun Princess and the Prince’. Lives in an enchanted tower full of astonishing things, locks up her suitors for centuries because she can, completely amoral. She is basically Lady Bluebeard, with a team of henchwomen. I would never ever want to meet her, but wow, she’s an interesting character.
- Catalina from ‘Black, Red, Gold’. Gets kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave but uses the gift of her sorceress sort-of-godmother to not only save herself, she frees the other slaves in the household as well.
- Princess Blue-Eyes from ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’. Much like a witch-maiden, the princess has a habit of stealing people’s eyes. When a prince tries to liberate his father’s eyes from her hoard, she chases him down but decided to get hitched instead of killing him; she puts up with him less than a month after the wedding before deciding she’s got other things to do, but rocks up three years later with their terrifying toddlers in tow when her husband’s brothers are slandering him. Princess Blue-Eyes is not a woman to cross if you value your life.
These are only seven on a long, long list. Here’s to heroines everywhere.