Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Where fantasy and fact collide in fairy tales

When we want to look at something like sexism or classism in fairy tales it’s important that we keep in mind that fairy tales have changed over time and really tell us more about the people who told them (at that particular time) than the fairy tales do themselves. A good example is the story Blueberd by Charles Perrault. The heroine of this story has no option but wait for her brothers to rescue her from death and that says something about the patriarchal culture of the French court in the seventeenth century when this story was circulated. In Fitcher’s Bird, an older version of almost the same story that was recorded by the Grimm brothers, the heroine saves herself.

Even though many people are quick to claim that fairy tales are basically misogynistic, we must remember that is was mostly women who told other women these oral stories. They wouldn’t do so if they didn’t feel a connection to these stories (though obviously this doesn’t mean it can’t be sexist just because women like it).

Every book you read about the role of women in fairy tales will say that the prevalence of stepmothers in these stories is based on historic fact. In the past, women married young, bore many children, and then died young (usually in childbirth). Childbirth was no easy feat in centuries past and women could expect to give birth more than ten times. Fathers then had to remarry in order to have someone to care for the children and the house while he worked. The new wife would likely have children of her own and if there’s little to go around we can guess how family dynamics might play out. This is just the reality of the way things were.

You’ll find some people asking why Disney hates mothers and it’s important we see the difference between Disney’s need to categorize every women as either good or wicked and the prevalence of missing mothers in his stories. First, they’re not his stories and that’s a very important fact. Second, the mother has to be missing in these stories because there has to be something that prompts the child to leave the house. As I said in my previous post, the Good Mother can’t do that and therefore it’s easier to just take her out of the picture.

But why does the relationship of the father and daughter fall apart so completely in many of these stories? Well, some say it has to do with the erotic undercurrents that happen between daughter and father beginning with adolescence. In response to this awkwardness, many fathers distance themselves from their daughters as the father does in Cinderella. And unfortunately some fathers grow too affectionate like in the Donkey Girl or Thousand-furs.

From Spinning Straw into Gold by Joan Gould:

In a patriarchal story like this one, the wife, even if she’s dead, must bear the guilt for her husband’s incestuous demand. How could a father be so beastly as to want to sleep with his own daughter is his wife hadn’t forced him to that extreme by her jealous cunning that extended beyond the grave? Stories like this, which used to be common in pre-Freudian times, have nearly vanished from our bookshelves. We can tolerate fantasies about child abandonment, infanticide, even cannibalism, but not incest. That may be too close to home.

“My father was a king. The King can have sex with anyone,” wrote the poet Anne Sexton in her private notes.

If there were a lot of agricultural tasks in fairy tales because agriculture was such an important part of the peasants who told these stories and then a complete shift in fairy tales so they could rationalize the life style of the wealthy class in seventeenth century France then one cannot completely disregard the role of women in fairy tales as fodder for fantasy.

And maybe the reason women are always shown as getting married is because they didn’t have many other options. For most of our history education has been a privilege and a lot of women had few options besides getting married. If that was the reality these young girls faced then maybe we should consider a story like Beauty and the Beast was used as a way for them to come to terms with that. Maybe it helped remind them that their new husband may look and act like a beast but there could be a prince underneath. When you read fairy tales in their older forms you do not get the impression that the prince is the end-all be-all of the story (which of course Disney changed).

My problem ultimately is that we don’t have many modern stories to counter these ones. (Not to mention many people don’t even know these stories themselves which is kind of sad.) Maybe marriage was the only viable option in the past, but that’s not the way things are anymore. And yet, where are all the fairy tales that reflect that? I think fairy tales are great, but we should be balancing that with stories about Sybil Ludington, Joan of Arc, Clara Barton, or any of the other amazing women from our history.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. We just need a healthy balance and I’m not sure if that’s going to be so easy with a corporation like Disney peddling dresses and crowns from every place they can.

Wow, I didn’t really have a plan when I set out writing this and I feel like I’m all over the place.

Up Next: I plan on wrapping this baby up by Friday, so expect only a few more posts.

-Picture: Book of Fairy Tales

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