While some scholars have fully embraced certain methods of looking at fairy tales, some theories are more controversial. It can be easy to dismiss other claims, but Shippey has, I think, a very well rounded outlook-recognizing both the flaws and the values in various trends. Sexism in fairy tales is still a very important topic, but sometimes going too far in one direction can actually hurt your cause. I appreciated reading a male perspective that seems a little more moderate than Jack Zipes (who appears to be way more offended by female roles in fairy tales than I am).
A large part of the reason for unbalanced gender portrayals in stereotypes is simple the culture of the Victorian period that ultimately determined what we now consider to be "classic" versions of "standard" fairy tales. It was a patriarchal culture and this was reflected in the tales that were collected, told, edited, and retold. Yet, Shippey says, "Fairy tales may be transparently patriarchal, but once this is grasped they need be so no more; they can be rewritten with an entirely different, or inverted, orientation." Yet, how does one go about rewriting fairy tales in a non-patriarchal lens? It's not necessarily as simple as it might appear.
Some authors have decided to write more active heroines who play the traditional "hero" role, sometimes doing the rescuing, sometimes rejecting the Prince to show independence. Things things can be done well...they can also be done poorly, or simply too much. Shippey points out that these kinds of stories may still be just as moralistic as the Victorian ones that were meant to train young girls into being the ideal, submissive wives. The fact that it's an opposite moral doesn't take away from the fact that stories can lose their power when they become more about making a point (even a good one) than telling a good story. They come across as preachy (and can also suffer from being very unrealistic, especially when authors set feminist heroines in historical contexts without necessarily grasping the culture well).
Merida from "Brave" and Danielle (Cinderella) from "Ever After", modern weapon-weilding Princesses
The irony is that as more and more authors write feminist tales that reverse traditions, they are actually embedding those traditions in the fairy tale realm. If a princess rescues a prince, there is still a victim that needs rescuing and a hero that does it; if one gender is presented as negative and the other positive, that's still sexist, just reversing sexes.
The other ironic factor is that, by choosing the most well known passive princesses to use as the basis for a "twisted fairy tale," we are still only being exposed to those core Princess tales that tend to feature passive females, rather than exploring other types of tales. There are countless dark or inverted versions of Snow White, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, etc. out there-yet the public still tends to think of the Grimm/Perrault versions of these tales as the "real" versions, and a twisted version as only that-not the new normal. Why not expose the public to Kate Crackernuts or Janet from Tam Lin? What about the many tales that don't involve romance or rescuing at all? What about "Snow White and Rose Red", a tale that shows sisters with very opposite personalities,but both seen in a positive light (because, just as we can't all fit into the prim, dainty, Victorian ideal woman, we can't all fit into the bold, athletic, feminist stereotype either!) There are countless wonderful folktales that have positive messages for modern culture (see Multicolored Diary for lots of examples!) while still having the timeless, "authentic" quality that most people crave who desire fairy tale entertainment.
Andrea Adams, illustration for "Kate Crackernuts"
Shippey also points out something really interesting-even among fairy tales themselves, the idea of "transforming" or "reversing" the stories already exists! "Bluebeard" and "Beauty and the Beast" are like opposite tales-"the one tale of an ideal husband who becomes a monster, and the other a tale of the monster who turns into an ideal husband." There's also Sleeping Beauty, waiting for a kiss to come back to life, verses the Beast, waiting for love to bring him back to his former life. Of course, I find it interesting that in the two contrasting examples he uses, he compares tales to "Beauty and the Beast." It's a tale that doesn't fit the traditional mold-it's essentially the story of a helpless male who needs to be rescued by a woman. (And yet, nobody gets all up in arms because this implies that males are helpless! Our very idea that a helpless woman in a story translates into "all women are innately helpless" is in itself kind of sexist...but I digress).
Another concern I have with the gender-focused approach to fairy tales is that, by being so fixated on gender and stereotypes, we're further emphasizing the divide between genders, whereas I would love to see children encouraged to relate to and empathize with characters of all kinds. In the words of Kate Bernheimer, "While I appreciate the celebration, both in scholarship and in popular culture, of the strong female characters in fairy tales, I think that, first and foremost, our devotion to fairy tales is with 'the whole of the mind' and not with our gender." Yes, it's important to realize that gender is usually a huge part of our identity, but it doesn't need to define us and our experiences, especially in negative ways.
Shippey makes an intruiguing suggestion: "Are all female-protagonist fairy-tales, then, all versions of each other?" An interesting thing to think about, especially when you realize that there really are dozens of versions of each of the standard Princess tales. You can find versions that end unhappily, versions in which the heroine is more passive or more active, versions that combine elements from other stories-it becomes clear that fairy tales themselves aren't sending out certain "morals" or messages, unless that message is that situations play out differently for different people, in different circumstances, at different times.
And of course, there are many authors who have written feminist tales and done it very well. He spends a lot of time discussing the stories of Angela Carter, among others. It's a great article that goes into more topics than addressed here. He ends with reminding us that the future of fairy tales in this century is yet to be determined.
What do you see as the future of fairy tales in the 21st century? How should fairy tales (or really stories in general) portray genders, and what would you like to see in terms of either reinventing the classic tales, digging into unknowns, or creating new stories?