The Feminist Root of Fairytales

"Master and Servant" by Linda Bergkvist

Evidently, fairytales have transformed these past centuries to perpetuate problematic cultural expectations of young girls. These complaints resonate with the contemporary feminist audience, who winces in dismay at tales of submissive princesses passively awaiting their knights in shining armor, who will valiantly defeat dragons, ogres, and evil stepmothers. Criticisms concerning the effects of these fairytales on young girls have generated adaptations, in both films and novels, increasingly characterized by stronger women who seize control of their destinies.

But fairytales since their origins have been feminist. From the beginning they were told by women, not by the men to whom they are currently credited, and these stories revolved around a female protagonists. Sometimes she was a princess, sometimes an average girl—the daughter of a merchant or artisan, and sometimes a poor peasant. But in every instance, she was brave, strong-willed, and spirited.

And everything around her attempted to control her, from fathers, to kings, to stepmothers, to evil witches, to tormenting sisters. And yet the heroine persevered. When her ending was not a happy one, it was never without a useful moral.

These tales were recounted by oppressed women, and they were a survival mechanism. Uncovered in every culture with eerie resemblances, the first thought to be a version of Cinderella dating back to 9th century China, fairytales inspired and liberated the women who gathered to tell them, providing a glimmer of hope—a chance to believe in escape—in societies where so many were denied freedom and education, and instead were (often forced) to wed and (more often still) die in childbirth, particularly if they were poor. (The stories were deemed unfitting for wealthy women—grimy peasants’ talk.) Upon marriage in several societies, a woman’s personhood would be engulfed entirely by her husband’s (considered one unit) and, as the stories replicate, she was often at the hands of abusive men.

The protagonists in these stories were positioned in circumstances beyond their control, faced with obstacle after obstacle that they had to overcome for their own safety and happiness. And these heroines survived, were even victorious, despite intense oppression. As Terri Windling writes in “Les Contes de Fees: The Literary Fairy Tales of France”, “Today, these tales may seem quaintly old-fashioned, dripping with too many pearls and jewels … but to audiences in 17th-century France the rich rococo language of the tales seemed cutting-edge and deliciously subversive … in deliberate contrast with the mannered restraint of works approved by the French Academy (an all-male institution).” Windling continues, stating that the elaborate and elegant language “also served another important function . . . disguising the subversive subtext of the stories and sliding them past the court censors. Critiques of court life (and even of the king) were embedded in flowery utopian tales and in dark, sharply dystopian ones. Not surprisingly, the tales by women often featured young (but clever) aristocratic girls whose lives were controlled by the arbitrary whims of fathers, kings, and elderly wicked fairies . . . as well as tales in which groups of wise fairies (i.e., intelligent, independent women) stepped in and put all to rights.”

These tales were not intended for children. It wasn’t until the early 1750s that they were rewritten to be suitable for a much younger audience. And even before then, when famous (male) collectors first began to record them, the tales were charged with indecency. They were morbid in nature, vulgar and crude, sensual, and casually violent.

They exposed a glaring reality.

And when the stories were changed, cruel mothers were rewritten as stepmothers and incestuous rapist fathers as monsters or the devil.

In my bookshelves among novels and non-fiction are a few volumes of fairytales, a couple with illustrations, that I’ve owned for a long time and that, since I was very young, have never failed to enchant me. There are a few stories that have stuck with me the longest; one tells the tale of a wealthy stranger who is accountable for the disappearance of several young women (one at a time): he arrives at their doors in the dead of the night and they are magically inclined to follow him to his dark manor filled with countless rooms of exquisite beauty. A gift is given to the victim—an egg—and she is commanded not to enter a specific, secret room. Every night the stranger demands to see the egg from her, and examines it. Inevitably, the woman will eventually enter the forbidden room, expecting it to be as beautiful as the others, and find—to her horror—that it contains a barrel full of body parts from his dead previous victims. In shock, she drops the egg, and it lands in the mess and becomes bloodied. Fervently she attempts to wash it before the man returns, but finds the stains will not disappear. When the man returns and calls to see the egg, he finds it sullied and the woman in tears, and hacks the woman to pieces. He then kidnaps his next victim, forcing her to follow him against her will. The last woman he kidnaps places the egg in the previous room before entering the forbidden one, sees what lies within, and at her touch the pieces reassemble into the women he’s killed. When he returns, she shows him the immaculate egg, and he believes she has not entered the forbidden. In the end, she defeats him, and the manor is lit on fire.

Today these stories are attributed to the Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, and other male collectors. They’ve been adjusted repeatedly to appeal to different audiences—which is all acceptable: contexts transform and so does feminist criteria, but the driving voices of the centuries of women behind these stories has been erased with their names. And this is not acceptable. In the contemporary media, reproduced fairytales are still drafted by men. Versions rewritten by men—of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, etc.—are the most celebrated and massively manufactured. And while these versions do retain feminist elements (Belle saves the beast, Ariel is literally silenced by her desire for Eric) they are ultimately constructed by male voices.

The feminist versions are lesser known. In a version of The Little Mermaid, rewritten by a woman, our heroine loses her prince and dissolves, but with a different perspective. “I have known the sea and I have known the land, and now I will know the air,” she sighs amazedly to her new companions, sylphs, upon discovering the beautiful beings that inhabit the air. And Gail Carson Levine’s beloved Ella Enchanted, a retelling of Cinderella with a stubborn, forceful heroine (cursed by a faerie to obey everyone who gives her orders until she frees herself) was compromised in the film adaptation.

Rewriting fairytales is a powerful practice; it is a reclamation of a long—and lost—feminist tradition. Even stories that aren’t fairytales, and in fact appear in novels written by men, like the legend of Cupid and Psyche, harbor astonishing potential. (Who knows from whom the author heard it?) Psyche, a beautiful mortal woman, provokes the envy of Venus, who commands her son Cupid to shoot an arrow and penetrate Psyche while she sleeps, in such a way so that when she wakes she will see a vile creature before her and fall in love with it. After much arguing, Cupid reluctantly agrees, and in invisible form enters the room of the sleeping woman. He sees she is so beautiful that she cannot be safe, and he takes pity on her. As he reaches quietly for an arrow to fulfill his promise, she wakes suddenly, and looks into his eyes, and, startled, Cupid pricks himself with his own arrow, falling madly in love. He cannot complete the mission. When he reports this to Venus, she is furious and curses Psyche herself, so that Psyche cannot see him. Cupid, angered with his mother, vows to never shoot another arrow so that finally, Venus must agree to his demands, because no one is falling in love and thus the world has ceased worshipping her.

But Psyche betrays Cupid by breaking a vow, and in order to win back his love and forgiveness, must successfully undergo a series of three dangerous trials arranged by a vengeful Venus, each one more impossible than the former—the last of which includes a visit to the Underworld. Deeply moved, Cupid forgives Psyche by the end.

And even what may qualify as the most anti-feminist of traditions can be reclaimed and rewritten—why not? men have been claiming fairytales for centuries—because the act of writing, in itself, is empowering.

And so, here’s something rough I scribbled very quickly in class (when I should have been paying attention; we were discussing Hamlet and Freudian behaviors, mind you, and it was not the least bit interesting) alluding to characters traditionally rendered silent:

Helen to Penelope

Cousin, you are your husband’s wife, as sly
and patient, constant, loved and I—

launched a thousand ships, beguiled
Paris. I expect you comprehend

the unsteadiness of power, the impulses of men.
Penelope, you cried.

But recognize you wait, day after day, maintaining
what you may, aiming needles running thread

with disruptive suitors at your gate,
and war for your bed—

yet your husband is named valiant, brave;
I’d rather tremble before the wave

than stay to wash my linen sheets
unsung for dangers I quietly keep

away; who hymns my praise, Penelope?
Or yours? Men only celebrate waging wars!

Therefore, I did. So affectionate, keen,
writes the alleged seductress to the queen,

fault me not for your husband’s sins,
or for seeking liberty or rights therein.

With a glance I’ve conquered the sea
save judgment, patient Penelope!

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Okay now go write.