Tuesday, November 21, 2017

From the Archives: Marina Warner on the Silence of Women in Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are often accused of portraying negative female stereotypes, encouraging young girls to become passive and silent and obedient to men. 

In one sense this is true-when men such as the brothers Grimm collected fairy tales, they tended not to include stories which existed in folklore that featured strong, clever female heroines, and instead gravitated (however consciously) towards stories with active males and passive females. Not only that, but as Marina Warner cites from Ruth Bottigheimer's analysis of speech patterns in the Grimms, as the Grimms published their later editions, the female heroines used less and less words and the female villains spoke more. Thus girls tend to subconsciously receive the message that to be good and desirable like the female heroines in the stories, they must be quiet.

There are two famous examples of females who aren't simply reserved, but are completely unable to speak--Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, and the sister from "The Wild Swans" and its variants. 

The Little Mermaid stands in direct contrast to the sea maidens of antiquity, the sirens. Sirens used their voices, beautiful and alluring, to draw men to them and cause their death. Their voices are therefore powerful, and evil. The Little Mermaid gives up her voice willingly for the chance to win the love of a prince and her immortal soul. Now the desire is hers, but it is she who is forsaken. 

The Disney version makes Ariel, in Warner's words, "a fairytale heroine of our time." She knows what she wants (another word count fun fact-the word "want" is spoken by Ariel more than any other verb) and will go through anything to get it, but this time hers is a happy ending. But in this version, according to Warner, "female eloquence, the siren's song, is not presented as fatal any longer, unless it rises in the wrong place and is aimed at the wrong target." The female voice is now powerful like the siren's, but not inherently evil.

The sister in the Wild Swans is silent by choice (in a way)--if she speaks one word before the shirts of nettles are made and placed on her enchanted brothers, they will stay swans forever. In one sense, this can be seen as yet another example of encouraging women to be quiet and submissive, but although she is rewarded for enduring, the silence is clearly meant as a hardship--the happy ending includes a return of her voice. Other tales have forms of silenced heroines as well, such as the heroine from Goose Girl, who gave her word (under pressure) not to tell the truth of her situation to a living being--but she is able to find a clever way for her to reveal the truth anyway.

It's possible that, as women throughout the centuries were frustrated at their own lack of voice within the community and family, they told stories such as "Wild Swans" to express their own frustration. Yet there is also something to be admired in the self control and determination of the heroines. This is Warner's personal memories of reading the Wild Swans, one of her favorite childhood stories: "it still seemed to me to tell a story of female heroism, generosity, staunchness; I had no brothers, but I fantasized, at night, as I waited to go to sleep, that I had, perhaps even as many tall and handsome youths as the girl in the story, and that I would do something magnificent for them that would make them realize I was one of them, as it were, their equal in courage and determination and grace". The actions of the sister are indeed impressive-there are different forms of heroism, not all that are as easy to recognize. 

Fortunately, we are not as constrained by the severe gender expectations of the Victorian times, but that doesn't mean these stories or even these particular versions have to be thrown out and completely replaced with new "girl power" tales. There are times when we all feel silenced-we don't feel like our opinions are being taken seriously at work, we feel overlooked in a certain relationship, etc.--and even today people of many races, faiths, and sexual orientation are still being denied basic rights. It can be encouraging to read stories that give us hope that there will come a time when we will be able to speak again and the truth will be revealed.

Illustrations of Little Mermaid by Margaret Tarrant, Six Swans by Elenore Abbott
Information from Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers


  1. I'd like to take a look at Ruth Bottigheimers original publication one day, because the number of words spoken by women in literary work is not the best indicator for its feminist value and I don't think she ever meant to imply that. For example often when speech was taken from the Grimm heroines, it was replaced by action. For instance, Aschenputtel no longer needs to be coaxed into going to the ball by the doves and Gretel no longer needs to pray for an idea to defeat the witch. I don't think we have to discuss that the Grimms' model of feminity is old-fashioned at best and highly problematic at worst, but I don't think the simplified message that is often taken from Ruth Bottigheimer's research is doing either their or her work full justice.

    1. That's really interesting, I've never heard that. Many scholars seem to have an ultra feminist, anti-Grimm agenda although from what I've read of Marina Warner she seems to be more moderate than some.

  2. Great post. Thank you so much for sharing it. I am sharing one thing with you, I write a book “Fairy Tales: Getting Gnome: Return to the Forest”. I hope you like this book. Please let me know your response.This is very Intersting book. Thanks,

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