In the world of fairy tales, legend and history are hard to separate. It is much more difficult to discern what fairy tales communicate to the children that devour them. Nearly every American is familiar with Disney’s version of fairy tales -- singing beauties, heroic princes and the personification of flora and fauna. Contemporary versions of fairy tales are toned down, written for children to stomach and swallow whole. The less modern versions were fables taken from local legend and riddled with instructions on life roles.
Though the Brothers Grimm are credited as two of history’s greatest storytellers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did not dream up these fantastic legends. Instead, they recorded them secondhand from the local women in the town of Kassel, Germany, where they were raised. These women learned storytelling in their own nurseries and recounted the narratives to generations of children. The feminine element of the stories is hard to ignore considering that most of the Grimms’ fairy tales place women in the main roles.
There is some suspicion on how the stories have changed so much over the years and through the translations. Some academia believe the informants refined the stories for the religious brothers’ sakes. There is also suspicion that the brothers changed the Pagan traditions in fairy tales to Christian symbols, so that healers became witches, heroines became idle, and sexual elements were cultivated. The stories were further edited when the Grimms realized that children were the primary readers. Aimed at children, the hyper-Christian, woman-hating Grimms focused their versions of the fables toward the maturation process and the intended roles for the genders, imposing further gender stereotypes into an already unfortunate environment.
It is important for any reader of the Brothers Grimm to realize the subverted directions to “proper” gender roles in the fairy tale. Clarissa Estes believes that fairy tales “are embedded with instructions which guide us on the complexities of life. Stories enable us to understand the need for and the ways to raise a submerged archetype.” The discussion of a submerged archetype may encourage us how to live until we expose the archetype and raise the truth to the light.
The Grimms’ comprehension of women is misogynistic at best. Their idea of a woman’s place in society becomes clear. Their approach to femininity is bipolar, a question of good and evil. Much is revealed about intended gender roles by examining characterization in Cinderella and King Thrushbeard.
Cinderella is the paradigm of “pious and good”, while her stepsisters and stepmother are characterized as “treacherous and wicked at heart.” While this explanation seems simple, and is usually taken at face value, one has to consider the Grimms’ explanation of Cinderella’s goodness. Cinderella is apparently “good” only because she is religious and passive. She never does anything aside from looking beautiful to warrant such praise. In fact, nearly all heroines in Grimms’ fairy tales are beautiful -- from Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty to Rupunzel to Little Red Riding Hood -- and therefore “good.” Specifically, Cinderella is good because she is beautiful, passive, innocent, and beguiled.
Cinderella is victimized by her “wicked” stepmother and stepsisters, who are “beautiful and fair in the face, but treacherous and wicked at heart.” They force her to wear rags and act as a servant in order to break her spirit and undermine her beauty status. In making Cinderella a metaphorical slut, these women are another tool of the Grimms’ to serve the mechanism of patriarchy. Whenever a woman in a fairy tale possesses or acts with power, they act in favor of the patriarchy (Zipes 148). In Cinderella, the stepmother knows the only way to gain social status and succeed on the system’s terms is to marry her daughters into wealth. She knows woman’s power directly correlates with woman’s beauty. Thus, her stepdaughter is a threat that must be eradicated.
Jack Zipes, in his book Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, examines an earlier version of Cinderella in its original matriarchal tradition. “[The traditional Cinderella] does not turn her cheek but rebels and struggles to offset her disadvantages. In doing so she actively seeks help and uses her wits to attain her goal which is not marriage but recognition. The recovery of her lost slipper and marriage with the prince is symbolically an affirmation of her strong independent character.” (30) In the Grimms’ version, Cinderella is changed to demonstrate her “goodness” through housework and submission, no doubt a way to reinforce that a “good” woman is always rewarded with an affluent marriage and unending happiness. The brothers change this local legend, legendary because a woman helps herself, to better accommodate their Christian beliefs and influence the gender roles of the lower-classes toward that of the bourgeoisie. One interesting aspect of the local version is that Cinderella’s slipper is made of silk. This is not Charles Perrault’s glass slipper, or the Grimms’ golden one, this is a slipper that allows Cinderella to run.
The Princess of King Thrushbeard is the Grimms’ representation of a bad woman. She, like Cinderella, is beautiful, which apparently gives her potential for “goodness.” The Grimms say she is “so proud and haughty that no man who came to woo her was good enough for her.” She even makes fun of her suitors. The reader might assume that the Princess is just arrogant, never considering that she is obviously and unwillingly forced to marry. Her father, the King, gets angry that she won’t accept a proposal (from a parade of men that she doesn’t know and doesn’t like) and marries her off to a beggar. He believes he needs to teach her a lesson to make her “good.”
The Princess is “bad” because she is proud, because she has standards, and because she probably wants more than a lifetime of idle days in someone else’s castle. She is berated by her beggar husband for not intrinsically knowing how to cook or clean. Instead of having a sympathetic (or even kind) view of the Princess, the Grimms assume a position of misogyny. According to the Grimms, she is not a woman forced into a compromised setting, she is a materialistic, egotistical bitch.
In Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin writes, “[Female characters] have one scenario of passage. They are moved, as if inert, from the house of the father to the house of the prince. First they are objects of malice, then they are objects of romantic adoration. They do nothing to warrant either.” (42) In almost all fairy tales starring women, marriage is the ultimate goal for both male and female protagonists. The princes actively pursue a bride. The beautiful maidens wait to be chosen. Considering that the Brothers Grimm were adamant Christians, and that the Christian goal of marriage is procreation, one can gather that the Grimms’ intention is for these women to marry and have children. The Princess tries to break from this cycle, but is instead humiliated and “broken” by both her father and husband -- a notion implying that women need to be tamed like animals or disciplined like children. After the true identity of her husband is exposed, despite ridicule, humiliation, lies and belittling, the Princess’ “true happiness began.”
The Grimms’ version of Cinderella differs sharply from Disney and Perrault in depiction of the stepsisters’ desperation to marry and the scenario’s ensuing detailed gore. The first stepsister cuts her heel off with a knife in order to fit the slipper, the second stepsister severs her big toe to fit the slipper. The prince is duped both times, only to discover on the way to his castle that the slipper is overflowing with blood. The stepsisters, desperate to gain status through marriage, symbolize the feminist point of view of how women sacrifice their bodies, intellects, and aspirations in hope of finding a man. The slipper is sometimes thought as a symbol of the vagina, where the woman with the tightest vagina, instead of the smallest foot, wins the crown. In the Grimms’ world, a snug vagina would determine that a woman is virtuous. One could then determine that the “wicked” stepsisters were perhaps promiscuous in thought or deed, and therefore “bad”.
The Grimms’ characterization of man is simple. He is aggressive, handsome, wealthy, powerful, and therefore “good.” He matters, acts, and succeeds. The man’s goodness comes from every trait the women does not possess. “The male as savior is dominant and protects the virtues of the humble female.” (Zipes 149) It seems that the “worse” she is, the better he is for assuming her as a liability, like the deceptive King Thrushbeard and his victimized bride.
Cinderella’s father, a rich man, never tries to regulate the discourse between his new family and his old one. Presumably, Cinderella would have special treatment, being his biological daughter from the first marriage. After all, his first wife became a better wife when she died, thus leaving behind a grieving, helpless, and therefore better daughter. Interestingly, Cinderella’s father is mentioned only once -- to clarify that he is rich. He never appears to influence his daughter’s fate. To the Grimms, he is only rich, therefore powerful, therefore “good”.
In King Thrushbeard, the Princess’ father appears briefly at the beginning of the tale only to force his daughter to marry for the sake of status. When his plan fails, he forces her to marry a beggar and promptly kicks his “proud and haughty” daughter out of her home. The basis for the King’s justice is the frivolous use of power to determine and execute what is best for his daughter. He, too, is the “good” father, keeping with the Grimms’ Christian notion of family values.
Cinderella’s father marries an evil woman who supposedly tortures his only child from his first marriage and does nothing to stop it. The Princess’ father abandons his daughter with a strange man. In the Grimms’ world, these men are patriarchs, beyond moral law and codes of decency. In the Grimms’ world, women are a commodity whose wealth are based on degrees of silence and beauty.
Even though Cinderella and the Princess are on either end of Grimms’ spectrum, they do hold one major trait in common: both women are victimized. In fact, most women in the Grimms tales are victims. Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel are victims of a wicked witch. Cinderella is a victim of her stepmother. The Princess is a victim of her own pride. None of these women use their cunning wit to save themselves. They remain passive. They never think, act, initiate, confront, or question, but are always saved in the nick of time by the handsome prince.
The roles accessible to women and men are clearly expressed in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. We see that powerful, aggressive women are bad, and that good women are paralyzed. We see that men are always good, no matter what they do or don’t do. We see that the realistic modes of femininity and masculinity are radically polarized until the ideal woman is portrayed as a housecleaning doll and the ideal man is portrayed as a heroic dragonslayer.
The root of fairy tales are instructions, mandates meant to lead us down the Grimms’ idealistically proper way of life. These stories are much more than children’s fiction. They give analytical adults the opportunity to discern and dissect the traditional roles of women in history, and the misogyny that assigned women to generations of subservient territory.
Dworkin, Andrea. Woman Hating. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974.
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Grimms’ Fairy Tales. New York: Young America Classics, 1947.
Luthi, Max. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.
Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. New York: Wildman Press, 1983
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