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.