First of all, let me preface by saying: I've heard feminist arguments before that I thought were weak and/or failed to take into account the culture and context in which the tales were created. Things like "the fact that Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are in coma-like-death clearly indicates that men want their women passive." Which I didn't buy into. First of all, a couple tales in which women are immobile for a while doesn't indicate that those circumstances are set as the ideal for all women everywhere. Secondly, the sleep is clearly a curse, not the desired state of being. The happy ending occurs only after the heroine has been awakened, therefore giving mixed signals at best.
Another slightly better argument I've heard: "Since females in fairy tales do domestic chores and then have a happy ending, this means that domesticity is a trait of the desirable female in the eyes of the storyteller." But again, nearly always, the chores are represented as an undeserved punishment imposed by (usually) a cruel mother/stepmother. The happy ending includes the female, generally, as married to a Prince and therefore never in need of doing housework again. But consider it as well in the context of the culture--in a time when most people were living off the land, women did housework. Housework itself is not demoralizing or degrading, someone has to do it. I think it totally natural that women would pass the time cooking or cleaning by telling stories and imagining that someone hardworking like them would be rewarded so richly. Plus, at the time, men weren't going into the office and leaving all the chores to the women, they were probably working in the fields or doing their part to supply the family with their needs. But the interesting thing about this argument is the fact that there is a notable lack of males who ever do their own chores in tales. Males tend to go on supernatural quests, while females end up doing chores somewhere in their adventure. But one more thing--Cinderella often gets accused of being too passive. But what options did she have? She couldn't go out, get a GED, and work her way through school. Back then women could be wives, be servants, be a teacher if they were educated themselves, or be prostitutes. Those were pretty much their only options. If Cinderella had run away, it would have been to be a servant to someone else who probably would have treated her about the same.
All that to say, I think Maria Tatar has the best arguments I've read to describe the reality of gender roles in folktales. She does take into account the cultural context, and also analyzes the trend of the tales through different cultures and time periods, rather than picking apart details of a certain version and assigning them meaning, even if it's a meaning most educated people wouldn't necessarily pick up on, much less uneducated peasants telling tales among themselves.
The Victorian age witnessed the birth of children's literature as its own genre. Stories for children were made specifically to induce fear of disobeying. While this summary may not seem to surprising--as an educator myself, I know firsthand the need for obedience in the classroom--but the many specific examples she quotes of excerpts from literature or actual childrearing practice are shocking. In stories, one disobedient act by a child would be punished by often a painful death, if not the deaths of others around them. Parents were encouraged to beat and whip their children for mild offenses, even infants. Tatar gives examples of oral fairy tales, and then the written Victorian versions (mainly the Grimms), and it's clear that the tales were altered to fit in with this harsh trend in childrearing. (What I really wish someone would publish is the complete original notes the Grimms took while listening to their oral sources, then the first edition, and the subsequent versions, to trace the evolution even within the Grimms themselves. Some revisions are surprising, but some tales have very little editing.)
Tatar also refers often to Maurice Sendak as a more modern contrast to the Grimms, which was very enlightening, since I was only familiar with his "Where the Wild Things Are."
From chapter 4-"This simple fact of children's literature as a product of adult reconstructions of childhood's realities does much to unravel on of the mysteries of fairy tales...whenever a book is written by adults for children, there is a way in which it becomes relentlessly educational" (p.92)
The next section of the book deals with women and girls. I had known life wasn't ideal for women in Victorian times, but the more I learn the more horrified I am. Women now tend to long for the old-fashioned man with manners and chivalry, and I think we think every man back in the day was a Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." I've always preferred the Bronte sisters to Jane Austen--their novels introduce a slightly darker side to Victorian life. Especially Anne Bronte's "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," the lesser known of the Bronte novels, but probably more indicative of what life was really like for a typical woman. If anyone wants to learn about life for women in Victorian times through a novel, read this book. Warning: you will get very angry while reading this book.
That had nothing to do with Tatar, by the way. Tatar again cites cultural views of women and their role, as well as lesser-known tales and versions to give a more complete picture. Like children in the didactic tales, women are often severely punished for things like disobeying their husbands. "Even the harshest penalties remain unchallenged when women begin breaking all the rules in the book of feminine behavior by taking steps in the direction of acquiring knowledge and power" (p.119). Males actually get off pretty easily for more severe sins--think of the father in Donkeyskin, most versions of that tale end with the Princess reconciled and living happily with him. Daughters are expected to be completely devoted to their fathers, then transfer that total (even blind) devotion to their husband--while, of course, still remaining on good, obedient terms with their father. "Never once do these stories show a heroine making a move in the direction of autonomy--the tales ceaselessly turn on the question of retargeting the object of the woman's devotion."
Tatar points out a very interesting contradiction existing in most tales--characters are applauded for disdaining worldy wealth and then rewarded with...worldly wealth. I had noticed this in "Beauty and the Beast," that the sister that wants a simple rose rather than the jewels and expensive clothes of her sisters is given more dresses and jewels than she could ever wear, as well as a complete life of luxury. Tatar explains this as the affect of didactic morals being placed into a tale that was not originally didactic, therefore has competing messages. I definitely agree, but I think another way to view this would be to think of the riches (or even the handsome prince at the end of Beauty and the Beast) as symbolic: to those who appreciate the simple things in life and are content rather than always wanting more, those simple things provide genuine pleasure. The Beast, which is initally seen as ugly, ceases to be ugly once Beauty gets to know him because she sees the beauty of his character.
Chapters 8-10-Violence, Cannibalism, and the Juniper Tree
Tatar explores the surprising amount of violence found in most tales, especially the un-moralized oral tales, but also the extemity of the violence found in moralizing tales when punishing the villain. Food itself also plays a very significant role in folktales. Tatar again alludes to culture--to a people often exposed to starvation, infant deaths, deaths of mothers giving birth, and child abandonment, some of the more dark themes explored in fairy tales make more sense. Returning again to the subject of gender roles, she talks about how a "happy ending" often consists of father and children living happily without the mother. A lot of this could be attributed to the reality of stepmothers stepping in after a mother had died in childbirth, who would desire for her own children to have what inheritance there was. Or, it could be attributed to the fact that these tales were largely collected and published by men, who felt more comfortable with female than male villains.
The epilogue contains a very interesting critique of Disney's "Snow White." I don't think Disney consciously knew he was, as Tatar claims, creating "a complete absorption of maternal figures into the realm of evil" (232)--as Tatar does point out, he was really just following the trend the Grimms before him paved the way for. And for those who attack Disney as being chauvenist, while there are good arguments against him, consider again the context--Snow White came out in the 1930s, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in the 1950s. American notions towards women were very different then than they are now. Not that that completely excuses Disney, but people back then weren't aware of what messages they were implying as much as they are today.
To close, a quote from the epilogue:
"No fairy tale text is sacred. Every printed version is just another variation on a theme--the rewriting of a cultural story in a certain time and place for a specific audience." (229)