Friday 29 March 2013

Fairytale princesses: tougher than you think

Fairytale princesses are still frequently written off as insipid, passive, and generally terrible role models for girls and young women. And while it’s easy enough to find counter examples of bold and brave fairytale heroines (The Master Maid, Mollie Whuppie, the girl in The Black Bull of Norroway) these do tend to be less well known, or at least nothing like as well known as the classics, the famous tales, the ones Disney picked: The Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast.

In fact I don't happen to believe that it's the business either of literature in general, or of fairytales in particular, to provide role models.  (The business of literature is to tell stories about people, who may or may not be admirable.)  But even if it were, is the ‘insipid’ image really deserved? While it’s true that the Sleeping Beauty hasn’t much to do except await ‘true love’s kiss’, I don’t believe this is what makes the story so memorable – as I’ve said here – and I was pleased to discover Ursula K LeGuin saying much the same thing in a fine essay, ‘Wilderness Within’, in her collection ‘Cheek By Jowl’:  she quotes a short, haunting poem by Sylvia Townsend Warner:

                        The Sleeping Beauty woke:
                        The spit began to turn,
                        The woodmen cleared the brake,
                        The gardener mowed the lawn.
                        Woe’s me!  And must one kiss
                        Revoke the silent house, the birdsong wilderness?

For LeGuin, as for me: “the story is about that still centre: ‘the silent house, the birdsong wilderness’.”

As for the heroines of the other tales, they are all pretty active.  Abandoned in the forest, Snow White doesn’t lie down and die like the ‘Babes in the Wood’ but keeps going till she finds the house of the seven dwarfs, where she pays her way by working:

The dwarfs said, “Will you attend to our housekeeping for us?  Cook, make beds, wash, sew and knit?  If you like to do all this for us, and keep everything in order for us, you may stay and shall want for nothing.”
            “With all my heart,” said the child.  So she stayed, keeping everything in excellent order. The dwarfs went every day to the mountains, to find copper and gold, and came home in the evening, and then their supper had to be ready.

I can’t see anything wrong or unworthy about this bargain.  Both sides get something out of it, both are satisfied.  

Cinderella is another hard worker: grieving too, for her mother’s death: in the Grimm's version, 'Aschenputtel', the version I read as a child, there is no fairy godmother, no rats turned into coachmen, no pumpkin.  Cinderella makes her own magic. In a motif similar to that of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, she asks her father to bring her not beautiful clothes, pearls and jewels – as her stepsisters do – but ‘the first branch which knocks against your hat on the way home’. This turns out to be a hazel twig which Cinderella plants on her mother’s grave and waters with her tears, and:

A little white bird always came on the tree, and if Cinderella expressed a wish, the bird threw down to her what she had wished for.

When her stepmother throws peas and lentils into the ashes for her to pick out, Cinderella calls the birds:

“You tame pigeons, you turtle doves and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help me to pick
                                    The good into the pot
                                    The bad into the crop.”

And when the stepmother and sisters have sped away to the prince’s wedding, she goes to her mother’s grave and calls,
“Shiver and quiver, little tree,
Silver and gold throw down on me.”
Then the bird threw a gold and silver dress down to her, and slippers embroidered with silk and silver.

And so on, for the next three nights. It’s clear that Cinderella stage-manages the whole affair:

When evening came she wished to leave, and the King’s son followed her and wanted to see into which house she went.  But she sprang away from him and into the garden behind the house.  There stood a beautiful pear tree… She clambered so nimbly between the branches that the King’s son did not know where she had gone. He waited until her father came and said to him, “The unknown maiden has escaped from me and I believe she has climbed up the pear-tree. The father thought, “Can it be Cinderella?” and had an axe brought, and cut the tree down, but no one was in it.  And when they got into the kitchen, Cinderella lay there among the ashes, for she had jumped down on the other side of the tree, had taken the beautiful dress to the bird on the hazel tree, and put on her old grey gown.

This is a girl with her own mind and her own agenda.  She is a tough cookie, a girl who makes things happen. Although the tale of ‘Cinderella’ is often regarded as the archetypical ‘rags to riches’ story, it’s not, really.  A girl who can get whatever she wishes from a magical hazel tree is not ‘poor’.  In the course of the story, she gets her own back on nearly everyone.  Her father loses his pigeon house and pear tree (chopped to pieces); the stepsisters lose toes, heels and eventually their eyes, and the prince has to (a) delay his gratification and (b) put a good deal of effort into trying to find the mysterious girl he has lost his heart to.

Beauty, in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a similarly strong-minded young woman. The original tale by 18th century Madame de Villeneuve probably protested forced marriages - as Terri Windling puts it in another excellent essay:  "...Animal Bridegroom stories, in particular, embodied the real–life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed."  (Beauty and the Beast", Terri Windling, Endicott Studio) And the modern, Freudian interpretation is scarcely any different, declaring the fairytale a parable about virginal female fears (Beauty  regards male sexuality as brutish and bestial, before coming to womanhood and embracing it).

Here's a slightly different take:  When her father loses all his money, Beauty rolls up her sleeves.  She works. She’s physically brave, insisting on saving her father’s life by going to live with the Beast. She’s got moral courage too: when the Beast asks, as he constantly does,

“Beauty, will you be my wife?”

she refuses, because even as she grows more and more fond of him, she is not ready to say yes.

Why aren’t we all cheering? If this is a parable about sex, it’s less about fear of sex – in most of the modern versions, Beauty loses her fear of the Beast months before the end of the story – than it is about resisting pressure, about taking the time to know your own mind.  At last - she leaves it rather late, but that’s narrative tension for you – Beauty realises that this ugly Beast is someone she truly loves. She doesn't even know he's a prince until after she's committed to him.

Finally, the whole ‘poor role model’ criticism is odder than you might think.  Is there any real danger that a little girl  (this sort of angst is always about girls) might read these fairytales and come away from them not with the message that you need hard work, faithfulness, determination and courage to succeed - but that you can loll around wearing pink satin until a prince comes to carry you away? I find that bizarre. Mainly, the princes in fairy stories are symbols of success.  How else can the tale convey it?  There aren’t that many job descriptions in the castle-studded, anonymous fairytale Wald. Cinderella, Beauty and Snow White can't  become tax lawyers or doctors or bankers or members of Parliament, any more than, in 'The Lord of the Rings', Aragorn can blast the Black Riders with a well directed burst of fire from a semi-automatic. Such things simply do not exist in their worlds.

On top of that, isn't it significant that the same disapproval and disquiet is never levelled at the many male characters in fairy stories who marry princesses?  The Brave Little Tailor, the soldier in 'The Blue Light', the soldier in 'The Twelve Dancing Princesses', the boy with the Golden Goose – no one seems to have any trouble recognising, in their tales, a royal marriage as a symbol of well-deserved worldly success. 

Who would have thought to find the double standard applied even to fairytales? What's sauce for the gander ought to be sauce for the goose.

Picture credits: 

Cinderella, Walter Crane
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jessie Willcox Smith
Beauty and the Beast, Eleanor Vere Boyle


  1. Yes, Aschenputtel is a lot stronger than her French counterpart. There's a wonderful novel by Sophie Masson based on that version,"Moonlight And Ashes". As for the Itlan version, La Cenerentola, she's a murderer! My own favourite fairytale heroine is Kate Crackernuts.

  2. I love this, Katherine.

    There is no doubt at all in my mind (actually there is always a bit of doubt in my mind but we needn't mention it) that the way we popularly view these tales is deeply coloured by the modern spin that has been put on them.

    By modern, I mean the interpretation we've been given since the patriarchal awfulness of Victorian society onward.

    Once we cast aside these unwarranted, anti-female perspectives and read the stories as they stand, a truer and more powerful nature comes to light.

    Certainly, the wise old spinners of yarn did not tell tales that portrayed their heroines as feeble or victims purely. On the contrary, they told tales to give courage and wisdom to the listener. Many of these tales are not so much cautionary as exemplary.

    And in any case, as you say, why the heck shouldn't she marry the prince if the prince is worthy and that is what she wants?

  3. Great post, as ever. I think talk about 'passive fairy-story heroines' and 'poor role-models' are a useful identifier. Whenever you hear or read that, you now you're dealing with someone who knows nothing about folk-lore.
    'Bonehead' is another 'Cinderella' character who not only pro-actively manages the whole story, but is murderous with it!

  4. Some extremely interesting and thought provoking points here, Katherine.
    I agree that folklore tales should be read according to their era (it's vital in my view not to vilify yesterday's writer with today's standards), and I agree that fairytale heroines are hard-workers, but hard-working really doesn't equal brave or bold. No-one's going to label a character kick-ass because she put in 12 hours straight at work, though she should be commended :-). The trouble comes about because traditional folklore tales (the ones full of blood and revenge and what we would now read as 'Freudian' furry beasts) are not read to children - instead, if they have any contact with these stories, it's invariably an eye-achingly colourful Disney book, and these books really do portray an uninspiring and limited view of womankind. There's nothing wrong with marrying a prince but silent obedience does seem to fit hand in glove with the formula (not thinking of Hilary Mantel v Kate here :-)).
    You're right that it's not an author's place to impose role-models but they should give readers someone they can identify with. The traditional female characters were bold by traditional standards, given, but for today's readers?
    An excellent post, Katherine. I'm sure you'll be hearing lots of interesting and varied responses:-)

  5. "Hard working doesn't equal brave or bold." I agree of course - or do I? Indeed there are plenty of kick-ass heroines in fairytales, even by today's standards - take cool Lady Mary who turns the tables on Mr Fox, or the heroine of 'Fitcher's Bird' - or (not well known, but we must ask why?) Margaret in the Irish tale 'Simon and Margaret', who ends up fighting killing the giant in a night-long struggle while the hero sleeps...

    But I wanted to talk about the so-called 'insipid' heroines, because I think there's a still-unnoticed tendency to devalue female experiences compared with mens'. What we deem bold and brave is almost exclusively male, and unless a woman dresses up in armour like Joan of Arc, we miss the boldness and courage she may actually be demonstrating in female terms. Heroines in fairytales often defeat evil by quick wits, trickery and magic rather than by strength. And so do many heroes. It's not given to many of us to be as bold as Jack the Giant Killer. I don't find the quieter heroines less inspiring. But as you say, this is a discussion which could and should run! Thankyou all for your comments so far - look forward to more!

  6. Katherine, I love the point in this last comment (that we tend to undervalue courage not expressed in masculine terms)-- it's ironic that we try to broaden and strengthen the woman's role by (sometimes) narrowing our definition of strength. Besides, whoever became a lawyer or member of parliament without being willing to put in some of those twelve hour days? :-)

  7. Well said. Very well said.

    I resent the Disney remakes for the very reason that they literally dismembered the agency of the princess and relegated her to being screen candy - as someone who is of European heritage and grew up with the "real" versions of the fairy tales, I look at Disney's version of "The Little Mermaid" and yes, there's a funny singing lobster and everything.. but this is not the story that ripped my heart out when I was a little girl. And honestly, I think I grew up better and stronger because I had the story with the real meat on its bones rather than the pretty-pretty-dressup version that is served to today's little girls.

  8. Very good blog. The Aschenputtel princess is like the incest-fleeing princess in Allerleirauh, a fascinating story that, I don't know what the title is in English, but it's the one where she asks her father for various gifts and one is a coat made of all kinds of animal fur - and she also gets her prince through her wisdom and magic. These princesses can work magic - and 'headology' to use Granny Weatherwax's term. A prince is not necessarily a real monarchs son in these stories, I think, but rather a symbol for a good (in every sense of the word) marriage, which would work. Bear in mind that these fairytales were told at a time when a wife was not the bourgeois piece of pointlessness that is our stereotype of past married women, but usually a partner in the husband's business, as farmer's wives still are. Wisdom would be a valuable attribute in such a woman.
    I do love it that you have brought this up, Kath!

  9. This is such a wonderful post! I so agree with you--these supposedly insipid heroines express something less obvious than 'kick-ass' type of 'bold girls', but nonetheless as true, and deeper too.
    Having been inspired by two of the fairytales you mention--Aschenputtel and Beauty and the Beast--in two of my own books, I completely concur with you in your views on these girls. The facile dismissal of them as 'poor role models' (as though, as you rightly point out, that's what fairytales are about)or as Freudian expressions of powerlessness or whatever totally misses the point.Thank you for expressing this all so well.

  10. Thankyou, Leslie, and I know the one you mean. It's called Donkeyskin in English, usually, I think, Leslie, and Robin McKinley wrote a really good version of it called 'Deerskin'. And you're right about working families: wives and mothers were important -

    Sophie, I'd love to know in which of your books you used these two fairytales?

  11. Marina Warner's study "The Beast and the Blonde" took a bit of ploughing through, I found, but was excellent in placing fairy tales in different historical contexts and seeing them as optative (a word I lazily assumed meant affirmative as well as optimistic) You make these points very neatly

  12. What a great post, Katherine. I was talking about this with a friend, who said she hated fairytales as a little girl because she was so aware that the girls in them never had any fun - she wanted to be the one riding off on a horse to adventures but felt that to do so she would have to become a boy (and for years she literally tried to do so). It made me wonder if being kick-ass is actually not about empowerment as such, it's about fun. The fairytale heroines you describe in your post are strong and determined and successful but they are also responsible in a way that the male characters are not. Responsible for saving their father's life (beauty and the beast) or avoiding the sin of incest (donkeyskin) or looking after the dwarves (snow white). I think maybe this is part of what you call devaluing the female experience. Being responsible (by being clever or determined or 'good') is not seen as glamorous, is not showy, is not always fun.

  13. Thanks for this great post Katherine! I've loved classic fairy tales since I was a kid, and I've often had similar discussions with friends and colleagues about why the female protagonists in these stories are not weak heroines, but in fact often show a greater depth and strength than their male counterparts.

    I like what Lily said about devaluing the female experience. That's one of my main problems with books or movies in the contemporary age that think making the female protagonist dress and behave like a man will somehow make her a strong woman. This gives a one-sided view on what strength means.

    On a final note, I know some of the comments mentioned a view I often hear in fairy tale discussions on why Disney movies disservice the original tales. While the originals are of course better than their Disney adaptations, I disagree that Disney heroines are always passive or somehow lacking in strong female character. In fact, the opposite is often true.

    Belle is a wonderful example of this. Even before she ever hears of a magical castle or the Beast, Belle has dreams of her own. She loves to read, is not afraid to speak up for her father whom the villagers only have disdain for, and refuses marriage to the most popular man in town, Gaston. It is her strength of will and sense of responsibility, as well as a warm heart, that carries her through each situation she faces to a happy ending. And aren't those the very same qualities we see in the princesses of our beloved classic fairy tales?

  14. Belle is certainly my favorite Disney heroine, Veronica!

  15. Wow! Fantastic post! I'm a fairy tale girl myself - when other kids were reading Nancy Drew, I was reading the complete unabridged version of the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christen Anderson, and fairy tales from around the world. I love that you point out the strengths in these women. Sometimes, it doesn't take wielding a sword and fighting a dragon to be strong. Thanks again!