A while ago, I wrote a post on how fairy-tale heroes, far from being the bland princes who tend to grace Disney animated features, were actually a bunch of murdering bastards hacking and cheating their way through the Other World. It’s time the womenfolk got their due as well. Are fairy-tale heroines more Disneyesque than the princes? Do they typically spend their time languishing, waiting for their princes to come, and singing wistful songs about wanting much more than this provincial life?
Well…the answer to that one is kind of complicated. The heroines whose exploits were recorded by such personages as Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm aren’t necessarily the same heroines rampaging amorally through actual tales of the folk. Monsieur Perrault was a courtly gentleman whose views of women seem to have been rather strict, despite the fact that he wrote in a tradition shared by many highly intelligent and opinionated ladies who could probably have run intellectual circles around him, singing “Fa la la” all the while. In Perrault’s small but extremely influential collection of fairy tales, female agency is Bad. When Little Red Riding Hood is so foolish as to go off and pick some suspiciously metaphorical flowers, she dooms herself to a short future as wolf chow, and the narrative voice chimes in with a chiding comment about silly young ladies who allow themselves to be seduced—I mean eaten—by charming gentlemen—I mean wolves. Cinderella wins through mostly because she just sits around and lets everyone else do stuff for her. Bluebeard’s wife makes the colossal mistake of wondering what her husband keeps in that there mysterious room, and she nearly dies for it. Sure, her husband is a psychopathic serial killer, but as the narrator makes clear, it’s really all her fault for not obeying him in the first place. Silly Bluebeard’s wife: if she’d just not unlocked that door, she would have had a long and happy marriage. But you can’t stop them womens and their terrible curiosity! Hahahahaha!
The Grimms were less, well, brain-meltingly misogynistic, but they were also recording their stories in an era in which fairy tales were beginning to be considered appropriate mostly for children. We have this idea of the Grimms as the purveyors of gore, and it’s true they didn’t shrink away from a little light cannibalism, but they did edit out a lot of the sexy bits. They also played up the moral elements, meaning that their version of Little Red was in trouble not because she was metaphorically in danger of losing her virginity but because she was literally disobeying her mother. If you disobey your mother in the Land of Grimm, bad things happen. But since a lot of the Grimms’ stories were told by women and were thus women’s stories featuring girls, what we ended up getting were all these stories in which little girls were rewarded for being obedient. It wasn’t quite the same kind of passivity as that idolised by Perrault, but it was still passivity.
These are the fairy tales we know now: the ones in which the ideal woman is Snow White in her coffin or Sleeping Beauty in her castle or Rapunzel in her tower. There are exceptions, but we tend not to notice them. A lot of people who read the Grimms’ version of the Cinderella story are surprised to see the protagonist running in and out of pigeon coops to escape a father who goes after her with an axe. Perrault’s Cinderella has won out over the Grimms’ more active version.
However, if we hop over to England and take a look at the fairy tales of Joseph Jacobs, we see something a bit different. Jacobs, like the Grimms, was a folklorist; also like the Grimms, he was collecting stories expressly for children. However, though he undoubtedly did a bit of careful editing, he was more likely than the Grimms to preserve the batshit insanity of his heroines.* Obedience is less likely to be a driving force in the lives of these girls. Some of them, such as Molly Whuppie, have as much of a claim to the title of “murdering bastard” as do the heroes. Others, such as Kate Crackernuts and Cap o’ Rushes, know what needs to be done and damn well go and do it. Most of them end up married, but to be fair, most of the heroes end up married as well. Jacobs’s girls are just as liable to be clever or wily or brave or completely mad as his boys are. Jacobs’s stuff offers only a hint of the material out there; there are many collections that haven’t been edited for children at all.
Disney is no more likely to get anywhere near these girls than it is to tell a story of a boy who isn’t genuinely good at heart and just needs a bit of a push into true heroism. Brave takes a stab at it, but when all is said and done, Brave is still the story of a princess who learns to listen to the wisdom of her parents. It would be interesting to see what happened if someone tried to do something filmic with some of the more amoral fairy-tale heroes and heroines. What if you don’t win through because you’re good and kind and obedient? What if you win through because you’re lucky and a really good liar? Some of the heroines are also pretty handy with the murdering, just like the heroes, and they’re not really in it for love. Winning a husband or a wife is not, in fairy tales, the same thing as falling in love and living happily ever after. The husband or wife doesn’t even have to be particularly willing.
I get tired of everyone assuming fairy tales are all about morals. To Hades with morals! Have you read Perrault’s morals? They’re all “Don’t get ‘eaten’ by ‘wolves,’ if you know what I mean”** and “Why are you not obeying your murderous husband, silly woman?”*** and “As long as a kid’s wearing pretty enough clothes, all the girls will want him, obviously.”**** And then you go look up the Grimms, who were writing explicitly for children, and you find this story about a woman beheading a small child, framing her own daughter for the murder, and feeding the boy’s flesh to her husband. Fairy tales are all about stories. If I want to learn to be good, kind, and obedient, I’ll read sweet little condescending picture books about anthropomorphised turtles. Hands off my fairy tales, bowdlerisers. Let their protagonists, male and female alike, stab and con themselves all the way to gloriously undeserved happily ever afters.
*This is somewhat of a simplification. The Grimms do have some heroines who are batshit insane; they just aren’t as well known.
**”Little Red Riding Hood.”
****”Puss in Boots.”