Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Feminism and Fairy Tales

After referencing the book Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, Amazon recommended Not One Damsel in Distress to me. It's the same concept: a collection of folktales, but only those which feature active heroines.

I haven't read the book or the introduction, but I looked at some of the reviews. Most people seem to be confused about what folklore is-they kept referring to the "author" or "writing style" and were shocked by the more gruesome and violent details in the stories, saying they weren't fit for children. That's up to parental discretion, of course, but this one review of Jane Yolen's introduction caught my eye (emphasis mine):

"First, she states that stories about heroic women have been "hidden... disguised... mutilated... truncated." Now, I'm not a scholar of folklore, or even an avid reader of it, but even I was familiar with many of the tales she included in her book. So I feel that Yolen may have been a bit over-dramatic on this point.
Another alarming statement is her explanation of why she only uses the term "hero" even though her protagonists are female--"Because heroines... sound like lesser or minor heroes, just as poetess and authress sound as if they are not as good as their male counterparts." This sentence caught me by surprise, since, as a woman, I would take no more offense at being described as an authress as I would at being described as a "chica" rather than a "chico" in a Spanish class. Using a specialized word such as "heroine" simply allows more clarity if it better suits the purpose of the author.
At any rate, I felt that this letter revealed the author to be super-sensitive to feminist issues and perceives her gender to be attacked at any hint of a difference between men and women. The letter was flavored with a bitterness that presented the book almost as a revenge against men rather than a valuable collection to be enjoyed."

Again, not having read the book or introduction myself, I can't really reply to Erin's comment. But I think her comment expresses what a lot of people feel-male and female-about feminists and how we analyze fairy tales and other stories. To be honest I've felt the same way at times when reading other books, often by authors I respect-not all arguments about fairy tales being sexist are as strong as others.

The truth is that, even though women are now treated with much more equality than they have in the past, sexism is still alive and well. Many of you have probably already seen or heard of the Like a Girl campaign, which shows how harmful phrases like "you throw/run/etc. like a girl" can be on a girl's self esteem. The video below contrasts how younger girls perceive "like a girl" verses older-and how once girls have gone through adolescence they perceive "like a girl" to be a negative thing. 

Some female engineers at the University of Illinois were disturbed by how few women go into the field of science (only 11% of working engineers are female), so they are creating a line of female scientist dolls. In this Chicago Tribune article, they talked about observing middle schoolers giving up during science experiments, claiming "we can't do this, we're girls."

It's a very tricky line to balance, but how do we encourage a feminism that is all about empowering women but not about finding offense at every hint of past cultures or possible discrimination? How can we talk about a Princess doing domestic chores as negative stereotyping without insulting all the women who still do primarily take care of their homes and children? If you're looking for negative portrayals of females, you can always find them. The fact is, in life there are weak and passive women, and there are cruel and vindictive women, just as there are men of all sorts, so we can't view every instance as an attack against all of one race.
Arthur Rackham

This topic has been touched on many times, by myself here on the blog (you can read more of the posts with the gender roles in fairy tales tag if you're interested) and by people much more informed by myself. But many people find a deep connection with a favorite favorite fairy tale, often from the versions they were exposed to as children. To hear someone say that your favorite tale is just a sexist example of women being confined to the kitchen is really disheartening-even insulting to anyone who really identified with the main character. Fairy tales can be interpreted so many different ways-you can be Cinderella any time you feel you're under-appreciated or overworked; you can be Sleeping Beauty when you feel like you're stuck in a rut and your life isn't moving in the direction you want it to; you can be Snow White when you feel trapped by someone's hurtful actions; Rapunzel if you feel distanced from the world; The Little Mermaid if your love interest doesn't feel the same way about you. We all find ourselves in similar situations, male and female, and can find solace in the classic tales as the characters find their way through their struggle.


  1. If you like those other books, try Tatterhood and other tales edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps.

    1. Haven't heard of that one! Will have to keep my eye out for it. It's encouraging that there are multiple volumes like this one; fairy tales with strong female protagonists aren't just a few rare exceptions

  2. Really strong, honest post about feminism. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this! I think people do get too preoccupied with finding examples of negative female behaviour and treatment, without taking into account the context (for example, when you wrote about Cinderella's historical background in a previous post). It's easy to attack a fairy tale with feminist claims, but not in all instances are female protagonists bad heroines. They're just working with the situations they've been put into, like any woman in the real world.

    1. Thanks! It's such a sensitive subject; on the one hand there are very real concerns that we shouldn't ignore or take lightly, but on the other hand sometimes if we get too defensive we weaken our own message.

    2. Yes there are very real concerns, but you're right. It is easy to jump on the bandwagon and slate everything which does weaken the message. There is a place for feminism in fairy tales, but it's not in every single one featuring an abused female character.