Let’s Get Critical: Fairytale Mothers

28th Mar 2011


Primary schools make heavy use of fairytales. Maths with Jack and the Beanstalk, literacy with the billy-goats gruff. And when the kids get home they find the stories again – on TV, in books, films and games.

There are dozens of versions; traditional retellings and radical revisits. As adults we have internalized them. Fairytales are not only the building blocks of our education, they are the seabed of our collective subconscious.

This is why I think their embedded meanings really matter. Traditional fairy tales are deeply conservative – about everything but especially gender. The briefest glance at Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast reveal their medieval origins.

Exceptions can always be found, but in general men lead the action, women are passive, bad women nag, henpeck, preen and grasp while ‘princesses’ (read: good women) are decorative. With grace and stupidity good girls put up and shut up while waiting for their prince.

If you want some creative fun, retell these stories with the gender roles reversed. Puss in Boots becomes a high-heeled heroine, the young and nervous Beau meets a female Beast, a wizard lives in the gingerbread house, Jane meets an Ogress up the beanstalk.

Unlike the heroes of myth and legend, parents in fairytales are strangely sidelined; very often dead and if not then bit players, absent, weak or wicked. The child is the protagonist, separated from the security of the loving family unit.

Mothers are never protagonists. Goldilocks, Jack and Red Riding Hood have mamas who embody a child’s-eye view of a parent – the big someone who tells you to do the right thing, a straw doll; set up to be gleefully smashed down.

What of stepmothers? I believe this term is simply a shorthand story-concept for Bad Mothers. It’s debatable whether children in step families recognize this and don’t make a link between these baddies and their own step-mum.

I also resent that older powerful women are depicted as a kind of fancy-dress Anne Widdecombe. For these reasons I choose not to tell any wicked stepmother stories. Whats that? I’m wrong? I admit stepmothers are fascinating and powerful, their dramatic antics touch our darkest corners, stirring our most primal fears.

The Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel and many others suffer from hateful stepmothers. The one we remember best is Snow White’s jealous older Queen.

Even today we find the sexualised-but-fading power-hungry anti-mother a fascinating mix of glorious and disgusting. Men fear her, women fear becoming her.

The Wicked Queen is like a fairytale Madonna, papering over her wrinkles, hungry for sex, leering over a fresh-faced Lady Gaga, a grotesque allegory of everything mothers must not be; powerful and sexual. I don’t want her as my villain.

But I don’t have to. There are countless brilliant books for adults and children that revisit fairytales from a modern perspective, like the pioneering Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf or Company of Wolves.

As a storyteller who tells tales from all around the world I take their lead, messing liberally with traditional narratives. When I go after terror or revulsion, I find something fearful which is not a sexy older woman.

Purists may dispute me when I change the endings of my folktales, ditch the nagging wives and give my audiences brave heroines. But I don’t care. There’s a place for all those the traditional tales with their restrictive worn-out messages, of course there is. The dusty pages of a book: a closed book.

Taking them in their basic versions, have a think. As a woman, which fairytale would you choose to tell the story of your life?

  • The Little Red Hen (In my opinion this prudent self-confident housewife is probably the best female role model offered by any popular fairytale)
  • Goldilocks (Your curiosity leads you to be chased by bears and you promise to stay on the path from now on)
  • Red Riding Hood (You are stalked by a wolf and rescued by the hero)
  • Jack and the Beanstalk (You could be either Jack’s mother or the Ogre’s wife)
  • The Three Billy-Goats (There are no women in this one)
  • The Three Little Pigs (No women here)
  • Rapunzel (Locked in a tower by the evil jealous older woman, growing your hair until you’re rescued- woo hoo!)
  • Cinderella (You patiently put up with mistreatment from the evil jealous older women before being married to a prince)
  • Beauty and the Beast (You patiently put up with mistreatment from the evil jealous older woman before being married to the prince)
  • Snow White (Eek!)

Guest post by storyteller Vanessa Woolf-Hoyle from London Dreamtime
Photo by Francis Tay


  • Nicole says:

    While I agree with much of this piece, I thought I should mention that one early version of Little Red Riding Hood, entitled The Grandmother, Red Riding Hood is not rescued by a huntsman at all, but uses her wits to get herself out of there. The fact that the versions that remain popular in our culture says more about society than it does about traditional fairy tales. The Grandmother (the name of the version I’m referring to) is fairly well known, but I wonder how many alternatives of other fairy tales have been lost over the years, overshadowed by Grimms’, Perrault’s and other versions that maintain rather than challenge the status quo.

    Also the description of Beauty and the Beast seems a bit off? I haven’t read it in several years to be fair, but I don’t remember there being an evil older woman that Beauty had to put up with…I think her sisters were jealous when she returned home and tried to get her killed, but they make up a rather small portion of the story. The bulk of the story deals with Beauty’s interactions with the Beast.

    Finally, while I don’t consider myself a purist, I do think that there’s room for both traditional and modern fairy tales. I don’t see anything wrong with revising, modernizing, or changing aspects of the original stories — after all there would be no reason to rewrite them if you weren’t bringing something new to the table. But I do think that the idea of traditional fairy tales belonging in the pages of a “closed book” is somewhat problematic. I think it’s important to engage with this aspect of our literary (and oral) past regardless of their antiquated notions. How else would you be able to respond to them?

  • Judy Croome says:

    Michelle Davidson Argylle has recently published an unusual retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. In “Cinders” Argylle takes us into the post-marriage world of Cinderalla and explores what happens when the magic fades.

    Judy (South Africa)

  • Thanks to Judy for giving a shout out for CINDERS. Here’s the blurb for it if anybody’s interested. Also, you can find the book here: http://www.michelledavidsonargyle.com/2008/07/cinders-promotional-feel-free-to-use.html

    Money can’t buy love, but in Cinders magic isn’t a sure bet either. Cinderella – now officially a princess – finds royal life is not what she once dreamed. When a figure from her past stirs up a long-suppressed passion, Cinderella begins to wonder if there really is love under the spell that earned her husband’s heart. But undoing magic can be harder than casting the initial spell, and the results are even less predictable.

    This post is fascinating, by the way. I think fairy tales are rooted in so many of our beliefs and stories. I just finished a retelling of Grimm’s “One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes”, titled Thirds.