Fairy Tale Heroines: The Good, the Bad and the Sleepy

Like many young girls I once wanted to be a Disney princess. Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella…. I wasn’t really fussy. I suppose the idea of being totally gorgeous, with a beautiful singing voice, and a handsome prince, still appeals to some degree. But as I got older, I started to gravitate toward different kinds of stories. I found myself liking heroines who weren’t perfect. I also started to want them to *gasp* do stuff!

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The old school Disney princesses were largely reactive. Snow White runs away because it’s that or be killed. Sleeping Beauty just sleeps while the prince does all the hard work. While Cinderella is a little more proactive, she still sits around crying until her fairy godmother shows up to help. This passiveness isn’t just Disney’s fault. The heroines in the stories on which the films were based were really just… there.  That was largely reflective of the the way an ideal woman was expected to behave.

But that changed. In my early childhood, I saw Ariel decide to leave everything she’s ever known and venture into a new world, in The Little Mermaid. I saw Belle give up her own life to save her father in Beauty and the Beast. I liked these heroines more because they actually made choices.

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Is that only because society’s expectations of women changed? I don’t think so. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast both feature female characters who make active decisions that shape their lives. That much is the same in the original stories.

Those are the stories that I gravitate to more now. They’re the ones that I’m most interested in re-imagining in my own work. In Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, The Snow Queen, The Wild Swans, East of the Sun, West of the Moon,  and many more, the heroine drives the action of the story.  Actually my current work in progress is based on one of these stories, so stay tuned for that!

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I know a lot of people are critical of fairy tales because of the gender roles that they reinforce. And yes, even in some of the more modern Disney films we see some disturbing stereotypes. But try to reframe it. Point out that these characters show tremendous courage at different points. Make it explicit that it isn’t brave if you’re not scared.

We can even look at some of the more passive heroines through that lens. Yes, Cinderella sobs until her fairy godmother comes along. But before that she survives in an abusive environment day after day (it’s not like she could just leave with no money and nowhere to go) without losing her characteristic kindness. When she hears about the ball, she decides to make a dress and go herself. Yes, she cries when it’s ruined (who wouldn’t, after all that work?) and accepts outside help. But that doesn’t make her weak. It just means she seized an opportunity when one showed up. As for goals, really she just wanted to take a night off and go to a party. She didn’t want the prince until she met him.  In the Twelve Dancing Princesses, the daughters of a controlling father rebel in one of the few ways available to them; by sneaking out of the house and doing what they want at night. They even drug the men who are supposed to be watching them, so that they can sneak away.

I always get frustrated when people assume that fairy tales are simple. Because they’re anything but.  Gender roles are just one example of this. Their complexity is part of why the speak to people on a universal level. It’s why I love them, and why they inspire me creatively.

11 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Heroines: The Good, the Bad and the Sleepy

  1. hehe yes I think this post explains why my favourite disney “princess” was Mulan because I wanted my heroines to do more than just get waked up by a prince (and also Belle, because she was a dreamer and liked reading)
    I love your point here about there it isn’t brave to not be afraid and I think your point about looking more deeply at some of the more passive heroines is so important! I also think there’s a lot more complexity here. I don’t think that Cinderella has no character to be honest- part of her issues is that she’s ended up in a difficult situation (which a lot of people, especially young people) end up in, where they get taken advantage of (it’s funny that people don’t describe Harry Potter as passive, even though they’re in a similar position being mistreated by relatives). I also think that there’s a lot to be said about her kindness- which, again, isn’t the same as passivity. I think it’s fairly reductive to say it’s just about reducing gender roles and it’s a shame people can’t see that there’s more to the story than that (ie also learning about being kind and how things will work out in the end if you’re a decent person) Cinderella in the disney version is a good friend, a dreamer, and kind to people even when they’re unkind to her. Now obviously I don’t think people should always be kind to unkind people, but there is something to be said about turning the other cheek some of the time!
    Anyway, sorry for rambling, this was a great, thought provoking post! 😀

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    • That’s actually a really interesting point about Harry Potter. Do we not accuse him of being dull and passive simply because he’s male, or is it because he rebels when he gets the chance? Then again Cinderella also rebels once she gets the chance… At the moment I’m working on a Snow White retelling with a male in the Snow White role. I’m interested to see if readers think he’s “boring” or “passive” as a female Snow White is often accused of being….

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      • Yeah exactly- like you said, Cinderella rebels too- a lot of the time and in a lot of versions it’s about learning to stand up for yourself- I don’t think that’s so different for Harry Potter. Sometimes it’s just harder to stand upto people you’re closer to (even in just proximity). Hmm I thought about it a little bit, and I guess structurally it’s similar to any story where the prince has to run away from an evil relative (or is forced away) I guess it makes me think of Captive prince (though I haven’t read the end of that series)- he’s sold into slavery *but* he does resist the conditions and is fighting to get back. I guess the idea of being in exile isn’t necessarily passivity either- it’s just circumstance. I think we could do with being a bit less harsh on these female characters 😉 Anyway this is such a great discussion and loads of food for thought!

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      • I think the journey in which a protagonist learns to stand up for himself (or herself) is an archetypal story. But our expectations for male and female characters in the position are very different. I think part of the harshness female characters experience is due to the expectations that women should be able to “do it all” whereas men are expected to be useful in certain areas only. So when a female character is good at one thing and not something else, readers are less tolerant than they might be with a male character (but remember that female characters aren’t supposed to be “too perfect” either!). I think that when we see readers get upset with female characters who show ordinary human fallibility we should point it out. Would the reader be equally upset with a male character in the same position? Are there any examples of men in stories in similar situations who get a different response from readers?

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      • Yes absolutely- most fairytales are made up of very straight forward archetypal stories, structures and characters. I definitely agree with you there. I think people can often be hypercritical of female characters not performing certain roles in a way they aren’t about male ones (however I’ve read so many books recently where the male characters have been stripped of all personality, so that the female character can be the centre of the story without any distractions- which is so irritating because they are just straight up bad characters). I one hundred percent agree with you. That’s an interesting question- I personally think there are a lot of double standards. Though they’re both tv I would say something like the Sansa rape in Game of thrones vs Jaime in Outlander- which had very different reactions- are the best examples off the top of my head. I guess another example is someone like Peeta in the Hunger Games, who is “allowed” by the book’s audience to be a sensitive baker who becomes a damsel over and over again, in a way that would never have been accepted if he’d been the female character. In the same way, many of the copycat dystopias around that time had far more passive male characters (like I said before, being nothing more than a pretty face- The Jewel series comes to mind)

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      • Well I think that the rapes in Game of Thrones vs. Outlander had more to do with the way they were shot and handled than just gender. In Game of Thrones the focus wasn’t even on Sansa: it was on a witness. So there was the sense that her reaction to her own rape was sidelined. Whereas in Outlander we did see Jamie’s reaction during and after the fact. I think that had more to do with how the rape affected the person, rather than gender. Though in both cases those TV shows are based on books. I didn’t read past the first book in the Game of Thrones series so I don’t know how that incident was handled there, but in Outlander, Jamie’s rape was brutal and graphic (more so than it was onscreen) but we saw the impact it had on him both in the immediate aftermath and in the long term. It served a purpose in terms of narrative, and character. I think that in those cases, that’s what matters more than gender in terms of how the scenes are received.

        But you do make a good point about male characters being “allowed” to be more passive/victimized/distressed. In The Hunger Games the gender roles are very obviously reversed: Katniss is the hunter/protector. She’s reluctant to commit herself emotionally and be vulnerable. Peeta is the sensitive baker who is eternally devoted. If that had been reversed (Katniss as the loving baker, Peeta as the protective hunter) most readers would have complained that it was a negative portrayal of gender dynamics.

        I think there’s a certain element of laziness in having a character of any gender be all aggressive/assertive or all passive/victimized. How many real people behave one way all the time? Not many! More often people are strong and tough in certain situations and reticent and vulnerable in others. To have a character behave in a consistent way across many different events makes them seem one dimensional, because so many factors influence how people respond to different challenges.

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      • Mmm I actually felt the Sansa rape was highly effective partly because it was all implied and therefore struck more of an emotional blow (but obviously that was my opinion)… but despised the gratuitous way the Outlander one was shot. I take your point, but I personally felt like had there been half an hour worth of rape scenes with a female victim eventually enjoying it (a misinterpretation of how book Jaime said he was aroused) in any show… well I don’t think it would have gone down well at all- so I personally found it hypocritical that a far more outrageous scene brought about zero reaction. I read both- and while it is a different character in Game of thrones- that character was a “stand in” representation of Sansa and the effect was very similar. I did understand and respect people’s opinion on whether it should have been Sansa (my only problem being a lot of people implied it wouldn’t have mattered had it been someone else/hadn’t cared about other violence or rapes in the shows up until that point). That said, I personally found the way Outlander was handled had more to do with the showrunners spin on it and was less emotionally well developed on the show (1/10 of the book is devoted to Jaime’s recovery, as opposed to a third of an episode). Personally, I didn’t watch past season 1 because of that, so I have no idea how it was handled after that point. Like I said, the silence on the whole Jaime thing was deafening. And even reviews complaining about rape in the books talk of rape threats to the female characters. Personally, I can agree with you that it served a purpose in Jaime’s story, but I also think it did for Sansa- I know it disrupts the order of the book- but in terms of her recovery and growth (even having lingering effects in this season) I think it’s been handled pretty well

        Yes exactly- personally I don’t mind either way round- but a lot of people feel differently

        That is very true! Excellent point!

        Sorry for being long and rambly on the first point- there was a lot to unpack there.

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  2. Well on Outlander 1/3 of an episode in the first season was devoted to Jamie’s recovery, but in the second season that story line was carried through, and we saw his emotional and psychological recovery continue. It was a major theme in the second season. But I do agree that if it had been a woman who we saw graphically raped like that, it would have been (rightly) panned as gratuitous. However, because it was a man, whom the show had previously depicted as powerful both physically and psychologically, seeing him in such a vulnerable position was shocking and disturbing. It was a reminder to viewers who associate sexual assault as something that happens to females, that it happens to men too, and is just as brutal and traumatic.

    In the case of Sansa I think the objection was less because it was implied rather than shown, and more due to the fact that the focus wasn’t on Sansa. It was on someone else. They could have implied the rape by showing Sansa’s face and her expression. Instead someone made the decision that it would be more effective to show an onlooker’s reaction. I think a lot of people felt like that implied that Sansa’s response was less important, in a scene where it’s her agency that’s taken away. Personally I didn’t object to Sansa’s rape as much as I did to other rape scenes on Game of Thrones. I took more offense at the depiction of Daenerys’ wedding night being rape on the show (it was consensual in the book), because then the plot had her fall in love with her rapist. Or when Cersei was raped, again they took an act that was consensual in the book (though very disturbing nonetheless!) and made it rape on the show. I didn’t like the way that those incidents were handled. In Sansa’s case, I might have preferred the camera to focus on her expression during that scene, but I didn’t take as much offense to the way it was depicted overall.

    I think that, like strength and aggressiveness, we have different expectations of how sexual assault should be depicted with men and with women. We’ve seen women be graphically assaulted a LOT on television. When a man is put in a similar position it makes a very strong impact with audiences. That impact isn’t the same with a woman because audiences have been desensitized to that to an extent. I think that the response to Jamie’s rape on Outlander drew people’s attention to that discrepancy. The discrepancy itself is worrying because rape is horrifying and traumatic regardless of who it happens to.

    And now I’ve rambled on quite a bit. I suppose the point is that our society has definite double standards regarding gender. I don’t know if there’s any way to break those down completely, but drawing attention to them can help. So can writing and depicting characters who are complex and three dimensional regardless of their gender.

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  3. Pingback: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” | Fran Laniado- Author

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