Actually, fairytales weren’t always so sexist

What modern mother hasn’t cringed at the pink and passive fairy tale princesses served up to her impressionable girl? The Disney versions of Snow White and Cinderella, Belle and Rapunzel are heroines of such vapid foolishness one wonders how they survived into the 21st century. The answer is that they are rooted in a tenacious and remarkably unaltered cultural tradition, the fairy tales first published two centuries ago by the Brothers Grimm.

The fifty iconic tales in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen collection feature a parade of weak, disobedient heroines whose errors draw down harsh punishment, and an equally noteworthy succession of heroic boys. Numerous studies in recent decades have found the 19th century social world they portray so unremittingly sexist that some leading folklorists warn against reading them to children at all.

This is why the discovery of a huge new trove of unedited German fairy tales is nothing short of a revelation. These tales, only of few of which were published in the 1850s, were collected in the Upper Palatinate region of Germany by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, a scholar intent on preserving the rapidly vanishing folk wisdom of his region. What they reveal, in abrupt contrast to the Brothers Grimm, is an equal-opportunity world where the brave and clever children are as likely to be girls as boys, and the vulnerable, exploited youths are not just princesses, but princes…

… Clever, resourceful girls also make an appearance. The Three Princesses tells the story of sisters enslaved by a witch, the youngest of whom saves an unsuspecting prince in an ingenious way. Grabbing a sword, she magically turns herself into a lake, which the old witch sucks down. The princess slashes her way out of the witch’s belly and claims her prince.

From The Economist.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, history, parenting

Tags: , ,

14 replies

  1. I wish the Economist article had emphasised more of the other ways in which the Grimms redacted their collection:

    First published as a large academic collection, the tales were very consciously edited and re-edited by Wilhelm Grimm into a shorter and less bawdy work explicitly intended as moral instruction for 19th century children.

    There wasn’t just gender politics going on in their simplifications and erasures – there was tons of classist bullshit too. Not all of the original heroines married princes you know – some of them happily married the woodcutter next door.

    • P.S. and in quite a few of them, marriage wasn’t how the story ended because that wasn’t the “moral instruction” being highlighted by the story. The protagonists triumphed by using their natural wily ways against the malicious antagonists, and then they were reunited with their loved ones with the implication that they just got on with their lives, and that the protagonists didn’t always have to be unmarried during their adventure and be ‘rewarded’ with a status-enhancing marriage partner to wrap it up.

  2. Thanks tigtog, I find that extra information fascinating. History is my weak point and I’m very much still trying to fill in a lot of blanks.

    • I love folklore, particularly the original tales that were told to let children know that not everything is how it seems on the surface and that they ought to be a bit wary of things that seem to good to be true.
      In some of those folktales, the innocent don’t always triumph over evil, either.

  3. While I’m not particularly a fan of the Grimm’s tales, their versions are certainly a lot less watered-down than Perrault’s tales, which is where Disney got their blandness from.
    The trouble with folk tales is that there’s no such thing as an Ur version of any of them. There is no one original source. Which is why the academic study of folk tales features categories of story, where similarities are grouped together.
    So to say that fairytales weren’t always so sexist is to elide a great deal of the historic literature and context. Sure, in some of the Cinderella-type tales, the Cinderella figure saves herself and/or the day. But in some of them she dies. In some of them she’s fleeing from her step-father who wants to rape and/or marry her. In an earlier version of Sleeping Beauty, the prince rapes SB while she’s asleep and she wakes up having given birth to twins.
    I did a substantial chunk of my MA on fairy/folk tales and only barely scratched the surface. I’m fascinated by them and love them (and I abhor their Disneyfication), but I’m also very aware at the ease with which they can be and have been manipulated.

  4. Blarg. I meant father, not step-father.

  5. tree – thank you for this further analysis, sooo fascinating. I always had the feeling that there was so much more to these fairytales than I knew about because they just seem so layered and heavy with meaning. So, thank you.

    • tree makes a very good point regarding my glib “original tales” phrasing – we don’t actually have any such thing, as sie notes. What we do have is less refined/redacted versions of types of stories, which is what I meant and should have wrote.

  6. I rember being shocked the first time I read a different version of Cinderella where the ugly sisters were put into barrels with spikes on the inside and rolled down a hill. In another version the sisters weren’t physically ugly, just their behaviour was. Fascinating subject.

  7. I heard a story teller, Brian Hungerford ?, at Woodford Folk festival unpack Little Red Riding Hood from Disney to Sumerian, Cinderella as a Chinese tale about virtues of foot-binding and power in the celtic tales of fairie, esp as it related to the weather and selkies. top stuff. interestingly it has made it a little easier to read some of the asinine versions that the kids love.

  8. I recently read Angela Carter’s two collections of Feminist Fairytales (the second not quite complete before her death). Carter has her own personal ideology to push of course, but she certainly doesn’t reject the Grimm fairytales, or pinpoint them as being the point at which the ‘anti-feminist fairy tale’ has its popular origin.
    The Disney fairytale template is obviously the origin of a number of unfortunate modern tropes – pink princesses, bland endings, all that stuff about Prince Charming – that seem less relevant and less important the more you read in the fairytale genre. This obviously owes to their desire to appeal to a mass cinema audience, and the values in mid-20th century America that the original Walt Disney was keen to promote. But they have formed their own tradition too, and one that cannot be so easily discounted – the recent musical/comedy ‘Enchanted’, starring Amy Adams, was quite a delightful self-parody of the early period in Disney fairytale movies.
    And of course this is just the beginning of analysis when it comes to the Schönwerth collection; and it could hardly be denied that The Economist, too, are wilfully promoting an ideological interpretation of fairytales in order to appeal to their own audience. Perhaps this article is just as suspect as any other…
    I’ll be delighted when the Schönwerth tales are published, can’t wait to read them. Happy Easter, everyone.

  9. More info on the classification of folk tales here. There is a three volume set of books which I have – see here – which I found terribly useful when doing my Masters, as you can’t get all the info online.

  10. Carter has her own personal ideology to push of course

    Tim, you really need to think about this. If Angela Carter’s view is feminist, does that make everyone else’s pure and perfectly disinterested? Were the bourgeois anthologists/abridgers of Edwardian times, who produced the fairytale anthologies I read as a child, ideology-free?
    Perhaps “default” ideologies rumble along due to their own inertia (Prince Charmings and the rest) without too much pushing? Does that mean we’re not justified in trying to give them the occasional push in another direction?

  11. Helen said

    Perhaps “default” ideologies rumble along due to their own inertia (Prince Charmings and the rest) without too much pushing? Does that mean we’re not justified in trying to give them the occasional push in another direction?

    Ssssh! No pointing out that the naked Patriarch has his willy showing, emperors deserve some respect!

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