Why – and how – feminists should be reading fairytales.
Fairytales are undoubtedly an important part of the storytelling tradition. For many children, fairytales form part of their introduction to different forms of media. The stories we are told at an early age are often fairytales read from books, or are improvised tales that begin and end with the classic fairytale trope of ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘they all lived happily ever after’. A common and accessible introduction to theatre is the pantomime, many of which are based on fairytales. In film, too, the modern British child finds fairytales cropping up consistently, with Disney producing fairytale on fairytale consumed hungrily by children enthralled by the drama, action, and inevitable happy ending.
Many of us are raised on fairytales, but do not necessarily continue to read them as we grow older. There is an assumption, certainly in Western attitudes, that fairytales are for children. However, fairytales are important for children in the same way that they can be important for adults. Many of the popular tales allow the reader to escape, for a little while, to a place where goodness wins and the villains either learn their lesson or meet an unfortunate demise. The epitaph to Coraline, by Neil Gaiman, is this quote from G.K. Chesterton: ‘Fairytales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten’. It is this concept that makes fairytales so appealing to children, and it is this concept which can make fairytales a very useful tool for feminism.
Fairytales acknowledge that dragons exist – and that these dragons exist in many forms. Similarly, there are multiple challenges faced by women and other oppressed genders, and multiple ways of fighting these challenges. It would be a disservice to reduce the real challenges faced by individuals daily to a trivial battle in a fairytale, but that does not mean feminists cannot find strength and identification within fairytales. This can admittedly be hard to do when so many of the popular fairytales fail to explicitly tie themselves to feminism and lack diverse representation. However, there are ways in which feminism can be found in, for example, the Disney fairytales which saturate the modern media landscape.
The first written use of the term ‘fairytale’ came from Countess d’Aulnoy, a French author who wrote a series of stories which frequently centred on female heroines, titling them ‘Les Contes des Fées’, or Fairytales. These stories, and the stories of her female contemporaries, granted their female characters autonomy and were frequently critical of the French court. The origin of the word ‘fairytale’ thereby lies in female-written stories celebrating female-focussed naratives that subverted the power of the male-dominated court. When we acknowledge this feminist history of the fairytale, we can begin to uncover the feminism which lingers in even the Disney fairytales which favour a male prince rescuing the damsel in distress. Cinderella is aided by another woman, her Fairy Godmother, to attend the ball which ultimately changes her life. Belle refuses to be frightened into submission by the Beast, and instead sees the love and humanity within him. This is not to say that women should have to seek out the goodness in everyone – sometimes the beast is just a beast, and it is never a woman’s job to change the beast for the better. But in fairytales women can find a way of building something out of nothing – Cinderella builds a better life for herself by seizing the opportunity to attend a ball. Belle refuses to let her love of books be dampened, and this love of reading is part of what grants her the happy ending (we very much appreciate the importance of books in this fairytale!). In reclaiming fairytales, feminists can recall d’Aulnoy’s heroines and read narratives that celebrate the power of a woman seizing opportunities in a patriarchal world to create a better life for herself.
It can be hard to seek out a feminist reading of some of these fairytales – at times it can feel like clutching at straws, and some fairytales are harder than others to read in a feminist way. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, for example, titles the central female character as both asleep (and therefore unable to speak or act on her own behalf) and an aesthetic object. It is hard to find the feminist message in this tale. Some fairytales, therefore, demand a retelling. There are numerous feminist retellings of fairytales, which give the female characters more autonomy and an ending that doesn’t necessarily rely on marrying Prince Charming. These tales offer more representation and equality, whilst maintaining the fantastical magic of a fairytale. They give readers the opportunity to escape to a different world, but a world that still acknowledges their existence and strength. Retellings offer children an alternative fairytale narrative which celebrates diversity, and offer adults the opportunity to return to a genre which may have failed to include them fully in the past.
Fairytales may be a formative part of the childhood experience, but they are not confined to childhood. Adult readers can read fairy tales now, knowing that they can find empowerment within the stories. Read the retellings. Reclaim the narratives. Enjoy the tales you loved as a child knowing that you can place yourself in that story, even if you were not originally written into it. The history of the fairytale is one of oral traditions and retelling; the genre demands the constant act of storytelling, so read the stories, and then tell them. Tell them as you want them to be told – as feminist tales that demand change, believe in goodness, and strive constantly to build happier endings for people that have been disadvantaged by the dragons of circumstance and society.
Written by Elle Borthwick