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).
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).
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.
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.