Monday, March 24, 2014

Gender roles: Victorian fairy tales vs. Native American

As I mentioned in my anniversary post, over the four years I've been blogging I've grown-I've learned a lot and probably changed my opinions and views slightly in some areas. For example-I began reading into fairy tales more because I liked them. I liked the Disney movies, and the older Grimm tales that I thought to be more "authentic" and ancient tales.

Then as I started reading from feminist authors I was shocked by how these fairy tales seemed to be attacked because of their passive female characters and the gender roles they were assigned. At first I was defensive. And I do stand by some of my arguments-we have to remember not to condemn Cinderella too much for accepting her lot as servant; at certain points in history women really had very limited options. What bothers me even more is the idea that housework/raising children is a negative thing. It's one thing to be confined to the kitchen and the home, another to have the responsibility of taking care of home and kids, which is a huge and incredibly important job no matter which gender does it. And just because a fairy tale ends with a romance as a happy ending doesn't mean we assume that the princess was sitting around doing nothing but longing for a prince-but that depends on the version, because in some (Disney's oldest princess movies) they literally do sing about wishing for a prince.
But I realized that feminists were correct in lamenting the state of modern/relatively modern princesses in fairy tales. There are two ways to look at a fairy tale: a story in and of itself, and a story that fits within a history of the tale. Some authors/tellers are aware of a tale's history and intentionally make changes; others are unaware and simply tell the tale in a way that makes sense to them and their listeners. And when you trace most tales from their ancestors-ancient tales with similar motifs, literary fairy tales that preceeded the Grimms/Andersen tales most people think of as the "originals," you do realize that women in fairy tales underwent a loss. They became less active and creative. Women in Victorian fairy tales reflected the loss of authority and autonomy that Victorian women had. Even though modern authors are giving us "new" fairy tale heroines, Little Reds that defend herself against the wolf, and princesses that weild swords and forge their own destiny and sometimes even reject Prince Charming, the Victorian tales are still perceived as "real" and modern versions more as one author's vision-fairy tale females in general are still perceived in a very negative light.

So if this development in fairy tales was due to society, what about fairy tales from a culture that is more egalitarian? In general (of course remembering that each tribe is very unique) Native American cultures gave more authority and respect to their women. For example, those who taught their tribe sacred rituals were usually "a young woman or child, since most cultures believed that women and children have a more direct connection to the sacred energy of life" (Huffstetler). Tribes like the Cherokee were matriarchal-identity and citizenship was found through the mother and not the father. The women were in charge of their own houses and owned the children. "A Cherokee woman had more rights and power than Eurpean women. She decided whom she would marry, and the man built a house for her, which was considered her property...the house and children were hers. She and her brothers reared them. If she bore too many children, or if a child were deformed, she had the right to kill the unwanted infant. Should the father kill one, he would be guilty of murder. To obtain a divorce, she packed her husband's clothes in a bag and set it outside her door. She was free to marry someone else, and so was he." (Ehle)

With such a starkly different idea of gender roles, I was curious as to how this would be reflected in their folktales and stories. To clarify, I did not do a thorough search of Native American folklore, I sifted through a couple of books and perused a few websites. Anyone with more expertise on the subject who can confirm or contradict anything I say here is welcome to enlighten me in the comments! But some patterns I noticed:
Image from here-also a good source of Native American tales

First of all, it was difficult to even find tales that mirror traditional fairy tales. There are no "rise tales" (rags to riches stories, i.e. Cinderella) in Native folklore because they didn't have class structure like in Europe. Within the tribe there seemed to be much more equality. Most Native American tales seem to be legends that explain how the world came to be the way it is-how the stars got in the sky, why the mole burrows underground, etc.

Favorite European tales tend to be predominantly romance and adventure. As far as romance goes, I didn't find any tales that involved a woman sitting around waiting for a man to come and save her. Several tales started with women who rejected several suitors. These women are not desperate and hoping to fulfill themselves through marriage (although I believe marriage was still an expected destiny for most Native American people, they just had less of a love at first sight mentality).

There is a beautifully tragic tale from the Zuni tribe about a grieving man who lost his wife and followed her into the land of the dead. It reminded me of Cupid and Psyche, only this time it's a man seeking his wife and not the woman-he must go on a long and difficult journey to keep up with her. Like Psyche he is given a warning-he must not touch his wife. Like Psyche he disobeys-but without the happy ending. I was recently musing on the sad fact that Western myth and folklore tends to blame women for curiosity, if not for sin in general. This tale is a distinct contrast, because the man is responsible for death itself-"if he had practiced patience and self-denial for only a short time, then death would have been overcome." Yet the tale ends by saying that, if no one died, the earth would be overcrowded and it would lead to more war.

Yet some elements were not too different from the fairy tales we are familiar with. In Hero tales, the heroes are still largely men. The culture still has ideas of gender roles-the women stay home, take care of children and the fields, while the men are hunters and warriors. Yet maybe gender roles themselves are not the problem. Yes, it becomes an issue in a society like ours where we have so many job options available and women are denied certain opportunities. But for most of human history, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" wasn't really a question for children. They had to tend to their farms and family businesses and keep each other clothed and fed. The problem with gender roles is a lack of respect for certain roles, and that's the main difference between European women who were considered their husband's property, and Native Americans who gave both genders authority, over different areas.

Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle
Myths of the World: Tales of the Native American by Edward W. Huffstetler


  1. I've never been that into Native American tales. I do know a storyteller who specializes in them, though. My issue toward gender in popular fairy tales comes from both sides of the fence. The feminists certainly have a point in that women are often depicted as passive. However, often in the same stories, the men appear as little more than plot devices intended to bring the woman to her accepted happy ending. Whether one of the many nameless princes or the woodsman from "Little Red Cap", it's a case of a passive, female somebody being rescued by an active, male nobody. Yet, for some reason, these are the tales that became popular and remained popular to the point that people want to rewrite and reimagine them rather than try to popularize lesser known tales (like there's a quota of fairy tales that's already filled). There are tales with strong female protagonists, but it takes digging to find them. A good book of them is Tatterhood and Other Tales edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps. If I may also suggest another favorite, I'm a big fan of a short Chinese tale entitled "Li Chi Slay the Serpent".

  2. You're absolutely right-stereotypical fairy tale males aren't necessarily the best role models either. When a story is accused of being sexist, it's a good litmus test to switch the genders. Often you'll find that people could get just as up in arms about women being portrayed in just about any role, we can be too hyper-defensive.

    Li Chi! I blogged about that tale two years ago, thanks for reminding me of it! For more of my thoughts on feminism in fairy tales and taking it into cultural context, here's my post on it:

  3. Interesting fact older little red ridding hood stories pre victorian the girl does save herself by tricking the wolf its not a new idea. Though your right about the lack of respect for certain roles a lot of the disrespect for certain female characters seems to come from what roles they forfil. Reading peter pan essays is frusterating becuse of of how often the ladies get dismissed becuse of the archtype's critique see them as. Wendy- motherhood Tinker bell- gets written off as whore / jealous mistress and Tiger lilly- sexy women of color steriotype and as a result all the nuance and the role they play in the story and their relationships to peter get written off or shoved under the submissive women lense. Which makes me raise an eyebrow becuse Tink and Tiger Lilly's feelings for peter do not make them submissive and Wendy isn't a character i like but geeze even i give her more credit for being a good influence on peter and the boys and takeing care of all of them. i just wish jm barrie toned down on his wish forfilment with Wendy being the mother he wanted to have but i get it came from a place of neglect. I used to be one of those people who was not a Cinderella fan but i recently lisened to the telling of the Charles Perault version and on a re study Cinderella seems more concerned with connecting with her stepsisters then the prince to me. She even sits with them at the ball and asks to share food. Of course in this version he stepsisters actually do ask if Cindy wants to go to the ball and when they don't reconize her their actually civil and enjoy interacting with her. Takeing this into account Cinderella's choice at the end to forgive her step sisters makes sense. It makes me wonder if Cinderella marries the prince so she can raise her stepsisters status as a peace offering. I know Cinderella gets a lot of flack for being a female competition tale but Perault's version seems more about the complications of sisterhood between non biological siblings and the story of an abuse victim trying to build her own family. The prince is never treated as important as the stepsisters akward attempts to try and treat Cinderella as a sister as if they aren't sure how to do so or Cinderella's desire to actually have a family. Diffrent versions of the same fairy tale seem to convey diffrent themes.