Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Jane Yolen: The Female Hero and the Women who Wait

In the foreward to Kathleen Ragan's Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, Jane Yolen discusses how Victorian versions of fairy tales tended to make the females more passive, and then Walt Disney continued this trend, emphasizing females who do nothing to help themselves, but must be rescued by cute sidekicks or men.

"We, the reading and viewing public, then accepted whole cloth that in folklore, as in life, everyone but the heroine is a capable being.

John Everett Millais
Was this life reflecting art or art reflecting life? As story lovers we conveniently forgot the ancient tales of Diana of the hunt, or Atalanta the strongest runner in the kingdom, or the inordinate wrath of the mother goddess Ceres, or the powerful female warriors known as Amazons, or the thousand and one other stories with a heroic female at the core. We accepted the revisionist Cinderella, patient and pathetic, forgetting how, in over five hundred European variants alone, she had made her way through a morass of petty politics or run away from an abusive father to win a share of a kingdom on her own. We let the woodsman save Little Red Riding Hood when earlier versions had already whoen her-and her grandmother-the truly capable actors in the drama.
Walter Crane

In book after book, film after film, we edited, revised, redacted, and destroyed the strength of our female heroes, substituting instead a kind of perfect pink-and-white passivity.

Why? I do not know."

I'm glad that, though Yolen does point the finger at Disney, she acknowledges that the evolution of the roles of females in fairy tales was the result of culture at large and can't really be boiled down to one man's chauvenist agenda-even uses the pronoun "we" instead of a more accusational "they." Certainly the brothers Grimm and Walt Disney shared responsibility, but this attitude was far more complex than just the stories collected and told by these men.

I posted this a couple years ago and had actually forgotten about it until recently and am sharing this story again: partly to demonstrate Yolen's next point, that there has been a cultural shift in our thinking in more recent years, but also to counter those who blame Disney films for destroying little girls' ability to see their role as anything other than the worst possible female stereotype:

 "I used to nanny for two girls, ages 5 and 7. Sarah's favorite Princess was Ariel, Michelle's was Cinderella. Among the games we would play, we would often assume the identity of our favorite Princesses and act our stories with our combined movie characters (I was obviously Belle). Now, I did not guide the play at all, but let the children come up with their own stories, but mostly what we did was rescue our Princes from the villains. We would often get ransom calls on our imaginary cell phones and have to bike down the block to Ursula's fortress and have to come up with a plan to get Eric out of there. We NEVER played that the girls were sitting around the house, trapped by the villain, and needed the boys to save them. To counter this, several children do like to play trapped, or captured-but then generally they really don't want to get rescued, either by a pretend Prince or by a girl-the excitement is in the being trapped. So maybe children aren't all mindless slaves who see a couple Princesses who do domestic chores cheerfully and assume from this that their lot in life is to sit and look pretty and prepare to be a good housewife. Just sayin'."

Keep in mind, this was before the more recent movies like Brave and Snow White and the Huntsman that intentionally show women as warriors

1 comment:

  1. Major respect for her avoiding pointing the finger and admitting to not knowing. I feel the same.