Diversity Aboveground: The Female Origins of Fairy Tales
This week’s column is in conjunction with Fairy Tale Fortnight on The Book Rat & A Backwards Story!
All of our lives, we’re taught that fairy tales were written by men. As we get older, fairy tales aren’t supposed to be as glamorous. Their Disneyfication is stripped away and all their flaws laid bare. Fairy tales are shown to be nothing more than tales told to keep women passive and obedient, but what if we’ve been looking at them all wrong?
Fairy Tales were written down in books by men. This is true, but what about before that? Fairy tales were told to the young and with able bodies doing whatever labor they could, the young had primary caregivers. Who were the majority of these primary caregivers?
But what about all those stories where the females are damsels in distress or have horrible things happen? What about all those evil female characters?
Well, sorry to say, horrible things do happen to everyone and it’s one of the hardest, most important lessons for a child to learn. Now, about those other charges. Let’s look again at these fairy tales. Cinderella’s stepsisters refuse to help her go to the ball and cut off their own body parts in order to secure the prince for themselves. It’s a direct violation of the modern girls’ code where a man should never come in between women. As such, they’re punished by blindness. Snow White’s stepmother allows her vanity to overcome her until she wants Snow White’s death instead of being appreciative of her beauty. Many fairy tales deal with the sin of vanity or coveting what someone else has, aren’t those both issues facing even modern women?
While it seems like women have it the worst in fairy tales, it’s the men who either don’t understand them or ignore them or imprison them. The men allow their second wives to abuse or kill their first wives’ children. The Little Mermaid gave up her voice for a man who never recognizes her love back. Cinderella’s stepsisters mutilate their bodies for a man that doesn’t love them. The Little Match Girl dies of Hypothermia rather than go home and get beaten by her father for not selling her wares. Sleeping Beauty wakes up after giving birth to twins from the prince raping her in her sleep. Red Riding Hood’s stalker is always as a male wolf and the Pied Piper of Hamelin lured away all the children. None of these stories sound like a glowing recommendation of masculinity anymore, do they? It sounds more like women preparing their daughters the only way they knew how about the hard life they faced and everything that could go wrong in it.
At the same time, fairy tales are dominated by princesses and women getting exactly what they want. This appears to be the true beginnings of Mary Sue…when you write a character to be you as you wish you could be. Cinderella does overcome the vitriol from other females to become a queen. The Miller’s daughter outwits Rumpelstiltskin to keep her firstborn child. The Princess Mayblossom learns from her mistakes and kills her captor to rescue herself. Perhaps even more impressive are the stories from lands where females were more oppressed. Udea in Africa finds the seven brothers who were taken from her. Scheherazade finds a way around the Persian king executing her by enthralling him in stories for 1,001 nights. Vasilisa earns Baba Yaga’s respect and is able to start a new life by learning a trade. Her talent at cloth making is so prized that the Tzar insists on meeting her and they later marry. Then, there’s Mulan. China has always been one of the worst countries for women. They either had their feet bound and were turned into decorative objects or were a commodity no different than an ox or chicken. However, it’s China who has a woman dressing up as a man to take her father’s required place in the army and defending her country by any means necessary. How envious must the females have been! Here was a woman earning respect and trust just by pretending to be a different gender. These are tales of wish fulfillment where women can be strong, smart, skilled in battle and even become craftsmen. Peasants can marry royalty and become richer than they could possibly imagine.
If fairy tales are often the embodiment of wish fulfillment for females, there are plenty of modern variations and not just the obvious ones like Cinder or Scarlet. The Hunger Games series is about a peasant of no standing with a dead father and a family to support. Through her courage, ingenuity and skill, she becomes the most powerful person of all the kingdoms so that everyone listens intently to her every word. After saving her world. she is able to retire to a life of comfort with a man who adores her. Aside from the child killing element, it’s what almost every woman would want.
While the thought of actual power in a world where so many feel disenfranchised appeals to most, some women would settle for a man that makes them feel like the only person in the world. At least they know that Edward Cullen would always listen to what they had to say and Christian Grey would never complain about an expensive dinner. They’re the modern day equivalent of the princes of old.
While men are credited with most fairy tales, it appears that oral tradition and tellings were definitely handled by women who added their own twists, opinions and desires to the tales as they passed them on.
While it’s not the usual practice to send a reader elsewhere, there’s an article too important not to mention it. Check out the column, Invisible Women: Why Marvel’s Gamora & Black Widow Were Missing From Merchandise, And What We Can Do About It on The Mary Sue. A whistle blower, and former employee of Marvel, confirms that Disney doesn’t care about female Marvel fans when it comes to merchandise because we have “princesses”.
Which piece of merchandise do you want the most badly?
Next week will have why Victor von Doom’s cultural identity is just as important as the Maximoff twins or Erik Lehnsherr.