Feminism and Fairy Tales?

fairy tale pic

Feminism and fairy tales have been at loggerheads since – well, since feminism and fairy tales began to co-exist in the world. Angela Carter’s re-tellings of traditional tales in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979) offered a wonderful critique of the downright sexism in those chauvinist early yarns. I loved those stories when I first discovered them on my A Level course.

That was in the late ’90s. Even back then I could see that far more doors were open to me than had ever been open for the generations of women before. Still, the power of those stories rang true and I added my voice to the cause for equality. (I had “woman” and “equality” tattooed on my back in black Chinese characters not long after this textual experience.)

I still do.

Only I see things a little differently now.

I continue to love The Bloody Chamber, but I can appreciate its literary merit beyond its political message; I believe that women should be respected equally as women, not necessarily as carbon-copies of men – or at least, of course, given the choice to decide that for themselves; and a Chinese friend once told me the tattoo meant “sad”, not “equality”.

Still, life’s all about perception, right?

So I was interested to hear an article on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this week, praising the “feminist” fairy tales of seventeenth-century French writer Madame d’Aulnoy.

The chosen story was Belle-Belle – the dragon-slaying girl-hero who leaves her father’s home to find fame and fortune at the King’s court. Wonderful example of how you CAN write fairy tales with strong women at their heart, if you want to.

Although, nobody seemed to spot that in order to slay said-dragon and find her fame and fortune, she has to – wait for it – disguise herself as a Knight: Le Chevalier Fortune. Oh, and, she has to be beautiful, of course (Belle-Belle), and she ends up married to the King living happily ever after.

Most feminists I know would find a few things to pick at there.

So, what’s going on with these fairy tales?

My feeling is that gender’s not as important as we might think here.

Fairy tale heroes are quite often feminine, and very rarely passive. Red Riding Hood sets out on her own path, despite the warnings she’s given, and she finds the strength to conquer the wolf as a result. Cinderella perseveres and gets herself to the Ball – despite the best efforts of others to keep her away – and claims her prize above the other women who just sit about looking pretty.

The women in the tales are strong. Sometimes it just depends on how we look at them.

Even more than this, though, is the way the fairy tales dispel the dichotomies of “male” and “female”.

Belle-Belle, in disguising herself as a Knight, plays both gender roles within one story, perhaps suggesting that we need to look beyond the distinctions of physical gender.

Across times and cultures, the tales have varied in form and context, often substituting a male for a female hero and vice-versa. For example, Askelaad (Lad of the Ashes), is a Norwegian fairy tale hero with more than a few similarities to Cinderella. The Brothers Grimm tell us not only of Beauty and the Beast, but similarly of the King of the Golden Mountain – a young boy who’s promised away by his father, finds himself living in a mountain with his enchanted wife, wishes to visit his family one last time, loses his wife in the process and has to go on a gruelling journey to be reunited with her.

In these archetypal characters, there is no gender. Gender roles are transcended and blurred. We can identify equally with an archetypal hero of either gender, when the story is heard by our hearts before our minds. Only in this world of the mind is gender a relative truth. Beyond this, the formless, genderless soul is drawing on the nourishment it needs to grow and thrive.

At this level of understanding, the false dichotomies of male/female, good/evil, light/dark – seemingly so central to the fairy tale genre – no longer exist. In this way, the fairy tale speaks in truths beyond our ordinary understanding.

The forked-tongue becomes One.

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10 thoughts on “Feminism and Fairy Tales?

  1. Oh dear – the tattoo! Though if you were actually sad at the time it might have a certain fairy-tale elegance to it. How much do you think the gender play in these old stories is about the world turned topsy-turvy and then restored to its (proper) order?

    1. Ha ha, thanks for your concern re the tatto! Well, I just decided to look at my way in the end 🙂

      Do you mean that the feminine hero part relates to the world turned upside down, and that only when the girl reverts to her proper place in society is everything restored? Yes, I haven’t thought about it like that in a while. I think there’s definitely enough evidence to suggest that’s a reasonable discussion to have.

      But my argument would be that it’s a discussion that can’t be separated from the time and context of the writer/storyteller. I’m not so convinced that the fairy tales themselves are essentially steeped in inequality. I think it’s more that the versions we’re currently working with are clothed in the material of a certain time and ideology. Stripped back to their deeper sense, the tales reveal very different truths that apply equally to women as to men.

      Hope this answers your question? 🙂

      1. I suppose it becomes a question of belief – whether you believe in archetypes that transcend the cultural context or whether the story only exists in its cultural context and is an artefact in our time. I like the archetype version. Gosh, now I feel sleepy. Lovely post.

  2. I think fairy tales definitely show sexism. I think fairy tales try to show what the differences between male and female are. They tend to depict the male as being a saviour for the female, and the female being a damsel in distress. I think it is time that we start to see fairy tales that play with those roles, and switch it up more.

    1. Thanks for your comments on this Ked. We are touched by fairy tales in so many ways and on so many levels. I do agree that on one level they can seem to give that message. But I also feel there’s an archetypal level where things are not exactly as they seem…

      It’s always good to shake things up though!

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