11th Jun 2012
Let’s Get Critical: Women in Fairytales
Are fairytales bad for women? We’ve always loved them, but have they contaminated our thoughts and dreams? Do they attack us in the vulnerability of childhood, warping our morals and values? Have they insidiously permeated our literature, music and cinema with misogyny?
It’s now officially 200 years since the Brothers Grimm first published their immortal stories, and since then the genre has evolved fluidly: from the Grimms’ austerity, via the sugary sweetness of The Nutcracker ballet and the homespun Americana of The Wizard of Oz, to Tim Burton‘s dark wackiness.
But, in all this time, have the women in our fairytales ever really changed from the misogynistic archetypes of the Brothers Grimm?
Revisiting their tales, it comes as no surprise to find the Grimms have a confused attitude towards women. It’s unthinkable that a heroine should be plain or ugly, yet we’re repeatedly warned to distrust feminine beauty.
Their stories are populated by dangerously seductive females who conceal evil natures behind gorgeous façades. The wicked stepmother in Little Snow White is even prepared to murder her seven-year-old stepdaughter to regain her status as the most beautiful woman in the land.
Interestingly, this same stepmother chooses pretty, feminine objects as her murder weapons – corset laces and a comb. These kind of ‘feminine accoutrements’ recur throughout the tales as symbols of violence and wickedness.
Consider the treatment of women’s shoes: the red-hot iron ones used as torture instruments at the end of Little Snow White, or Cinderella‘s slipper, which conceals hacked-up, bleeding feet as the stepsisters try to deceive the prince.
This suspicion of the objects women use to make themselves attractive is characteristic of the Grimms’ austere Protestant ethic, and surfaces in many other European fairytales, most obviously Hans Christian Anderson‘s The Red Shoes.
The result is that sexually empowered women are always associated with wickedness. And yet any old or ‘ugly’ women in the tales are invariably crones and witches. It seems the only acceptable role for a woman is to be ‘as beautiful as the sun’ – that is, artlessly and unselfconsciously so.
She must be naturally decorative but lacking the self-awareness that would allow her to use her appearance to seduce or manipulate. Like Rapunzel, stunningly beautiful but with no interest in taking control of her own fate; or the demure Cinderella who remains ‘good and pious’, quietly cleaning the hearth in rags and wooden shoes.
The 1970s feminist movement’s agenda to rework these traditional tales was very much needed. Thank goodness for writers like Angela Carter, who defied the fact that mother/daughter alliances were almost unheard of in the tradition, and had her heroine in The Bloody Chamber rescued from Bluebeard’s castle not by a prince, but by her mother, who arrives on horseback in the nick of time, brandishing a revolver.
But what about modern fairytales not written with a deliberate feminist agenda? Steven Moffat, the lead writer and executive producer of Doctor Who, the BBC’s flagship family drama series, has repeatedly referred to his vision for the programme as a ‘modern fairytale’, and his heroine, Amy Pond, undeniably subverts the virginal Grimm ideal – she’s a kissogram who chains the Doctor up with handcuffs in her first episode.
And yet, the same episode sees her waiting a full fourteen years for the Doctor to come and sweep her off her feet, and she is referred to throughout the series as the ‘Girl Who Waited’.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Doctor Who, but this does seem an uncomfortable contemporary fulfilment of a traditional fairytale archetype – the girl who must remain locked in an unpleasant predicament, waiting for her prince to rescue her.
From the Grimms’ Little Briar Rose (aka. Sleeping Beauty), to Disney‘s Snow White and her song, ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’, to Doctor Who‘s feisty Amy Pond, it doesn’t seem this particular archetype has changed much over the centuries.
While modern fairytales have been all too eager to ditch the virginal heroine and replace her with an ‘empowering’ sexy, bad-ass girl, they’ve been far less aware of the ‘Girl Who Waited’ stereotype.
Perhaps we’ve been too busy rehabilitating fairytales in terms of female sexuality to be alert to this more insidious idea. The ‘Girl Who Waited’ still appears in a surprising number of stories, even ones, like Doctor Who, renowned for having a liberal ethos.
Remember The Matrix‘s Trinity? Tough, resourceful – and waiting for Neo, the man she’s been told she will love, to arrive and save the day.
But there may be some signs to make us cheerful. Ever since the Romantic Era ballet has had a special affinity with fairytales. Now, many people would assert that ballet is consistent with the misogynistic values of traditional fairytales: that by its very nature it oppresses women, casting them in the extremely narrow identity of being delicate, decorative and traditionally feminine, and enforcing physical suffering to maintain this role. The ballet films The Red Shoes and Black Swan, both based upon ballets and fairytales, take this position.
But modern choreographers have shown how both ballet and fairytales can subvert such values. Javier De Frutos and The Pet Shop Boys’ recent The Most Incredible Thing (from a Hans Christian Anderson tale), wonderfully reinvents the princess as a physically powerful and opinionated girl, defiantly dancing to pop music in her bedroom, and has the villain finally defeated in battle by three women (versions of the Muses). And you only have to look at Matthew Bourne‘s work to see the enormous scope for reworking fairytales and dance for a more enlightened age.
There’s even hope that Hollywood, not traditionally the birthplace of feminist-friendly fairytales, will soon move away from the Twilight model and offer us something more inspiring.
Already, the true heroines of Tim Burton’s fantasies are his gravelly-voiced, eccentric, proactive women (usually played by Helena Bonham Carter), and not the angelic virgins who seem to waft around the stories mainly as plot devices.
Yes, fairytales may well be bad for women. So is too much sunshine or champagne. Fairytales can, and definitely should be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle. Just like all of the best things in life.
Do you still love traditional fairy tales, or do you think they’re bad for modern children and adults alike? What’s your take on ‘feminist friendly’ fairy stories?