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.