Thursday, April 9, 2015

On the Gender Dynamics of Princes and Princesses.

Oh, Grimm help me! I'm actually going to try and talk about feminism and gender relations in fairy tales here (if this kills me, please remember to tell tales at my wake).

Now keep in mind that I haven't really done a whole ton of research regarding this subject other than what I've read in other fairy tale blogs. I tend to be more "tale-hunter" than scholar, so I don't know what Jack Zipes or Vladmir Propp or Marina Warner say on the matter. I just know what I've seen. So, I know it's a thorny issue but bear with me.

This subject came up as I started to view responses to the new Cinderella movie pile up online. Some were glowing while others absolutely condemned the movie as putting forward the worst values of the story. It also came to mind as I started to read up on the common uses and reactions to the legend I'm going to spotlight at the end of the month (which legend? You'll find out).

Okay, so fairy tales and their cinematic adaptations have come under fire for a long time now for not being particularly feminist. By this, they mean that they put forward values regarding women that are seen as negative and backward. Common criticisms are that they are passive, lack agency, are valued largely for their appearance and always need a man to save them. Apparently, the presence of a female character just as a romantic interest is also something of an issue. This is why Disney's Frozen is considered a grand example of a feminist fairy tale. The main female characters are brave and/or powerful. They possess agency and make choices. There's a love interest, but his presence takes something of a back seat to the relationship between sisters. Now this is all well and good, except that Frozen isn't actually a fairy tale.

Now, it's just me but aren't some of the expectations for women in fairy tales a bit high? I mean, it's nice to aim high, but in many cases the men in these stories don't have all that going on themselves.

Let's take a look at the three most infamous examples: "Snow White", "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty". All three are considered examples of stories where the female lead needs to be rescued by a man. However, is the lot of the prince really so great? We don't know, because he's hardly in these stories at all. The prince may be the one who enacts change at the end of all three of these stories to some degree, however he usually just appears at the end of the story to conveniently wrap everything up. Even in a genre where characters are one or two dimensional at best, he's barely a character. He's more like a reward for the female lead for having put up with so much trouble. "Congratulations on not dying. In exchange you get to marry someone with money and influence". This is probably one of the reasons that while every little girl wants to be a princess at some point, little boys rarely want to be Prince Charming if at all (plus, the job involves too much kissing).

The mainstream really has a strange relationship with the concept of the fairy tale prince. They've somehow gotten the reputation as being sort of idealized knights errant: handsome, brave, courteous men who ride white chargers and slay dragons. It's gotten to the point that we've seen it parodied in Shrek, Into the Woods, Enchanted and even the Ever After High web cartoons (I think I'll leave a link to a cartoon featuring Daring Charming right HERE. The man is a hilarious combination of prince stereotype and high school quarterback). Is this often the case? Well, not really. I've read one or two Russian tales in which a prince slays a dragon. Overall, I'd say it's maybe a case of one in fifty tales feature this example.

The truth is that a grand majority of the "prince" stories I've read usually require him getting a lot of help from outside forces. Take my recent post about "The White Cat" for example. While the youngest prince is arguably the lead in the story, it's the female lead of the White Cat that has all the resources that allow him to surpass his brothers and gain the throne. What he offers is his heart and his time. There are any number of other tales with that thread, too. A prince tries to win the daughter of an ogre or sorcerer or giant. So, the father sets a number of impossible tasks for the prince. The prince, distraught that he can't do the impossible turns to the daughter for aid. She then either gives him detailed instructions or just does it for him. In many cases, a prince's task doesn't rely so much on honor and valor as being able to follow directions.

This now brings me to the subject of agency. Now, this term can have a couple of different meanings. However, in this case, I'm going to define it as "the ability to enact change". After all, many fairy tales are really tales of transformation at heart. The thing is that once you get down to it, a great deal of agency in fairy tales comes from outside forces. These are forces that are mysterious and magical and that exist beyond our ken. The Fairy Godmother in "Cinderella" is one of these forces, but so is the old woman who gives the invisibility cloak to the soldier in "The Twelve Dancing Princesses". They may not participate in the main action themselves but they push other characters in the right direction or give them tools to get the job done. We assume that these other-ly forces are responding to the main character's innate goodness or kindness or that they're working to right some kind of wrong, but we're never really sure.

Of course, this doesn't even take into account Jack tales. Jack tales are their own animal. Jack is an active character who sets out to seek his own fortune. He usually succeeds using his own wits and some luck. He rarely gets married at the end of his stories, though he does find fortune. However, I doubt anyone who feels the desire to read a feminist story would like to see a female equivalent to a Jack tale. Why? Well, a lot of those people are looking for a character that can be a positive role model for young girls. Jack is often not role model material. He's a fool and a scoundrel on his best days. His successes are usually found by stealing and trickery in some stories and sheer dumb luck in others. I find that a few of the stories that don't have the typical romantic resolution usually feature rogues as their leads. My favorite Grimm tale is "How Six Men Got on in the World" which doesn't have any romantic elements at all. Heck, the only female character is a greedy and haughty princess who gets punished alongside her father. However, the story also happens to be about a band of super-powered con artists who trick a king out of his fortunes. Even Jack isn't immune from dealing with outside forces. One version of "Jack and the Beanstalk" by Edwin Sidney Hartland features a beautiful fairy who takes credit for Jack trading the cow for beans and their miraculous growth.

Okay, that's all I've got for now. Like I've said before, I didn't research this one much (maybe someday in the future). Also, I should point out that none of what I've listed above is completely universal. There are a few stories that do feature princesses who do a whole lot on their own and rescue princes (don't make me link to my post about "Kate Crackernuts"). Every rule has an exception. If I've made any mistakes, let me know. However, I think that maybe what I've managed to do is bring up a few discussion points. Also, maybe I've pointed out that relationships and gender norms in fairy tales can be a bit more complicated than people think. Just like in real life.


  1. YES! Thank you for sharing this! Especially coming from the male perspective. It's so true: fairy tale characters of either gender very rarely save themselves, and very rarely (if ever?) alone. They always have magical helpers, or karmic return from animals they've been kind to, or something. And fairy tale characters of both genders tend to end up with a royal spouse at the end, but no one's concluding that the men who marry princesses are showing little boys to do nothing but sit around and wish for a girlfriend!

    It's still a complex issue, and throughout the Victorian period fairy tale heroines did slowly become MORE passive than their folkloric counterparts. But rarely do even these versions of the tales outright bother me. If females were less likely to go out on their own and seek adventure, maybe because it was too dangerous for women to travel on their own until recently. If they did housework, it's because that reflects what women did at the time-and many women still do!

    I like to think I have a "revised" feminist perspective. I'm still absolutely feminist and I'm all for active, clever female characters. But to imply that a modern woman must always rescue herself from all danger and be competent at everything is just as dangerous a message in some ways as the opposite. In my reading for my post a while back on Little Red Riding Hood and women's safety, I read that most women overestimate their ability to take on an attacker in a fight. We might actually be making foolish decisions because we're told over and over again that women can and should take care of themselves.

  2. This just might be my favorite post of yours ever. Huzzah for boldly presenting this issue with the complexity it deserves.

  3. Arrrgh! I just wrote a nice longish and erudite response, and when I posted it, it disappeared! Okay, no time to rewrite it - suffice to say, I totally agree with you. In real fairy tales, princesses get their trophy prince at the end just like in the prince-centred tales he gets his reward princess. That's not "being rescued by", it's "being rewarding with". Different deal. (And I just wrote a post on gender today, too. Must be the day for it.)

  4. What a thought-provoking post! I look at it this way. If someone is adapting a fairy tale, it needs to be in a way we haven't seen before, and - most important - it needs to be a good story. If they go at it with the goal of, "I'm going to write a feminist version of X fairy tale, and feminism is the most important thing about it," it's most likely going to be a failure. These are stories, first and foremost. If they're being rewritten with a job to do or an agenda to fulfill, they're going to fall apart. That's not to say that there can't be feminist elements to a character, or whatever. I just don't think that should ever be the point of an adaptation. The point is to breath new life into these wonderful old stories. In any event, great post!