I teach a university-level class on fairy tales. I enjoy it a lot, and I think many of the students do too. However, one of the hardest things I have to do in this class is convince my students that the passive fairy-tale heroine is not the norm.
You know the one I mean, right? The girl who sits around waiting for her prince to come. The princess in the tower. The obedient youngest daughter who marries a monster to save her father. The dead girl in the glass coffin. The disobedient wife who would be murdered by her blue-bearded husband if her brothers didn’t turn up at a crucial moment. The maiden curled up in the ashes, waiting to go to the ball.
My students met a lot of these girls first via Disney, and it can be surprisingly difficult to demonstrate to them that the passivity is not natural to the characters; it derives from Charles Perrault’s need to demonstrate proper courtly behaviour or the Grimm Brothers’ mania for teaching obedience to little children or Disney’s tendency to take female-centric stories and make the prince—originally just the reward character—into the rescuing hero. “Even though most heroines are passive…” write my students in their essays, or “Passivity is the norm amongst fairy-tale heroines.” When they come across an active heroine, they assume she’s an anomaly.
Here’s the thing:
Fairy-tale women are ridiculously active. A lot of European peasant stories were originally told by women, and these storytellers were not sitting around going, “Well, the big strong men are the only ones who matter, so let’s just shut up and do another princess-in-the-tower story.” They were sitting around telling tales about girls who damn well went out and got things done, often with the help of a magic spindle or two. “Then the girl set out to find the North Wind,” some old spinner would say before she gifted her character with a spindle just like the one she was using at that very moment, only golden and magic.
There are stories of girls rescuing enchanted princes and killing giants and exposing murderers and saving their sisters from fates worse than death. There are beautiful heroines and ugly heroines and plain heroines and heroines whose appearances aren’t mentioned at all. There are clever girls who out-riddle kings and vengeful girls who teach lessons to the men who abandon them. There are girls who calmly tell their fathers they love them more than salt and willingly deal with the consequences. There are girls who kill their own abusive stepmothers. There are girls who cover their finery in suits of leather and crawl bizarrely around on the ground, singing comical songs about themselves, until sympathetic queens take them home to work in the kitchens.
We have this odd idea that telling stories about women is new, as women just haven’t been that important until recently. We forget, a lot of the time, that not all storytellers are men. We forget as well that “important” is not synonymous with “the bits the guys think matter.”
The truth about fairy-tale women is that they’re just as diverse as fairy-tale men. Some of them are passive. A lot of them are not. They’re funny and clever and stupid and ugly and pretty and wily and brutal and cruel and ruthless and eccentric and tragic and silent and loud and merciless and calculating and sly. When we dismiss the bulk of these characters as anomalies and treat the passive princesses as the norm—and the spunky princesses of the Disney Renaissance as a deviation from this norm—we miss out on a wealth of material.
This International Women’s Day, go find a fairy-tale heroine who isn’t stuck in a tower. Read about Molly Whuppie or Kate Crackernuts or Tatterhood or the princess in the suit of leather or the girl who grows the magic orange tree or the girl who goes east of the sun and west of the moon to save the white bear. They haven’t made it into Disney movies—yet—but they’re not hard to find. You just need to know where to look.