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Fairy Tale Girls Should Always and Never Do What They’re Told

Lately, I’ve been thinking about fairy tales.

There was a fantastic panel at Swancon – with Ellen Datlow, Richard Harland, Jenny Blackford, Amanda Pillar, and Brain (aka Angela Slatter) – in which the panelists were kicking around many ideas about fairy tales: the evolution of the form; classics and modern retellings; questioning the theory that these tales are intended to be cautionary. This last point got me thinking about the lessons such narratives were supposed to impart, and to whom they were meant to be addressed. I asked a question of the panel about the irony of women’s roles in these stories, but since my thoughts weren’t fully formed on the matter I couldn’t articulate what I meant clearly – not to mention the fact that it was getting on in the day, I hadn’t consumed nearly enough coffee, and I’d spent all my energies being articulate on the Steampunk panel immediately before the fairy tale session. So I began a train of thought, but it was not quite resolved that day.

This post is a lengthier musing on this issue of the ‘cautionary tale’ – still not completely formed – in which I realise that fairy tale girls are stuck in a paradox that most can do nothing to escape. This discussion clearly sprouts from my interest in fantasy world-building, particularly in making sure the logic of the fantasy world works. My thoughts have evolved in a couple of steps:

(a)    Fairy tales may or may not be cautionary tales for readers/listeners;

(b)   Any lessons these stories contain reflect the social and moral worldview of the tellers, so we’d expect ‘lessons’ geared toward 18th century children to be different from those directed at 21st century children;

(c)    If the fairy tale world is to function logically, it should also be evident that the characters within the story are also being ‘cautioned’ in some way. There must be a cost for the fictional characters’ actions, otherwise the lessons for children in the real world will not have any effect. In other words, the characters have to follow the fairy tale’s rules – or obviously break them – if the ‘lesson’ is to be made clear to the readers.

This last point got me thinking that, in so many cases, the girls in traditional fairy tales have little hope of becoming anything but objects in a lesson. This is not a new idea; not by a long shot. Anyone who has read Angela Carter or the collections of fairy tale retellings Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have edited will know I’m not blazing any new trails here. But what strikes me is that, within the logic of their own worlds, it remains pretty clear that even if girls triumph over whatever challenges the tale-teller sets for them while the story is being told, they’re still ultimately doomed to fail in the future.

Clever girls, beautiful girls, law-abiding girls will inevitably become angry, vain, greedy women; and if they don’t, if they try to be independent, they’ll die.

Let me clarify what I mean with a couple of examples.

Let’s say there are a few ‘lessons’ children are meant to learn from ‘Red Riding Hood’: don’t stray from the path; don’t listen to strangers; be smart and pay attention; think before you act; and so on. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to simplify things here because there’s no space to discuss the various incarnations of this tale over the years in a post like this one. But in many versions, Little Red meets the wolf who has eaten her grandmother; she manages, due to her cleverness, to get out alive. That’s all well and good, until we start thinking about poor Granny. Granny is a great role model for lively girls like Little Red. Granny is an independent woman who’s obviously had children, and is now living it up in her little cottage on the other side of the woods. She doesn’t need Grandpa – there’s no mention of him – all she needs is a bit of company every now and again and she’s content. We can imagine that Little Red will turn out to be like her Granny: she hasn’t strayed from the path; she’s a survivor; she’s going to wind up independent and happy. Except, according to the world’s logic, by living alone (i.e. without men) Granny has strayed from the path; by being a clever girl Little Red has also strayed from the conventional narrative path in which damsels in distress are rescued by men. What the story seems to be telling us is that if Little Red grows up and decided to live without a man, as Granny did, then she’ll get eaten sooner or later. (Was Granny so desperate for male companionship that she opened the cottage door to a wolf? Or was she vulnerable because there was no man around?)

If we think of Snow White, another unsettling idea emerges. ‘Purity and truth will make you beautiful’ says the teller of this tale. ‘And these traits will also bag you a Prince.’ Poor Snow White is beguiled by her stepmother’s magic; she’s forced out of civilisation and into the woods; she needs the hunter’s help, she needs a prince’s kiss – but as long as she’s beautiful and pure, she won’t need intelligence. (Is Little Red uglier than Snow White, I wonder?) Snow White will succeed because of her looks and her true heart, and she and her Prince will live happily ever after.

But what about her ‘evil’ stepmother?

She must have been a girl once. And with her obsession with ‘Who is the fairest’ I’d wager she must have been quite the looker in her time. She managed to nab herself not just a Prince, but a King – and if magic was involved in this transaction, why couldn’t it have been the ‘magic’ of her beauty? The logic of this world tells us that a woman’s appearance can entrance, enchant, and act to save her life – why couldn’t it help a mature woman to attract a King? Stepmother could have been just as pure and true as Snow White when she was a girl; when she was lovely; when she earned a powerful man’s love. So I can’t help but think that, actually, in this world – where beauty leads to marriage, and women are stripped of their names (I’d be bitter if I was only called Stepmother, and Snow White is a description not a name) – the ‘evil’ stepmother is really just Snow White twenty-five years in the future. Remarried (her dashing Prince killed in the wars, perhaps, or gored on a boar’s tusk);  no longer pure (or so speaks the squalling brood of heirs she’s produced); and her looks fading, more wrinkles appearing every time she looks in a mirror to ask, ‘Who is the fairest?’

As far as I can tell, the moral of these stories is: do what you’re told, girls, and you’ll serve a purpose in the short-term but ultimately you’ll die a crone; don’t do what you’re told, and you’ll die sooner. Either way — and this is imperative — don’t you dare get old.

We’ve already got enough imperfect women in our world.

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