When the title of this post was suggested to me, I found myself a little conflicted. Can fairytales be Feminist, I asked? Or is this an unanswerable joke question, like whether Grumpy Cat has a Communist agenda?
Let’s just take a moment to remind ourselves what Feminism actually is – untainted by any of the wonky ideas that society may have about it, or any of the behaviour of individual people who reject or embrace the concept. It’s pretty easy:
FeminismBasically, Feminism is the struggle to ensure that all sexes (there are more than two, FYI, but that’s a whole ‘nother blogpost) have equal rights. A Feminist individual is someone who believes in equality regardless of gender and hopefully works in whatever way they can to bring that about.
“The advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”
So... are fairytales Feminist? Maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe a better way to phrase it would be: Can fairytales be Feminist? Do they have the potential to embody Feminism? Or is that impossible?
Because the thing is, folklore and mythology from pretty much any society you care to name certainly seems to depict a lot of highly sexist attitudes, not to mention celebrationg the Patriarchal societies that spawn those attitudes. And this makes sense. Though initially fairytales were contemporary, evolving narratives, they began to be written down - and considered ‘finalised’ - in Western Europe throughout the 18th and 19th century. They reflect those historical modes of living which were prevalent during that time – when men wore trousers and girls wore skirts, and if they swapped at all it was for reasons of comedy or in order to preserve female virtue.
They haven't really been allowed to evolve since then. We consider those versions the 'originals' or the 'classics' rather than just one of many different possible iterations of archetypal tales. As such they’re filled with a lot of ideals that woman are still fighting against - hello, diametrically opposed innocent damsels (virgins) and wicked ambitious older woman (whores) all desperately hoping to snag a man! And there are an awful lot of young, aggressively heterosexual males rushing in to save the day... and the depictions of people of colour or non-Christian people is pretty awful. The depiction of non-straight people is nonexistent.
But fairytales – the ever changing, oral stories to which our current, sanitised, Disney incarnations are only distantly related – stretch right back to the time when humans were still figuring out what humans even were. When firelight was all that stood between us and the howl of creatures in the dark, and for all we knew a fairy, dragon or young God might be lurking around the next tree trunk any time we went out to cut wood. They contain archetypes, larger than life, fundamentally human characters and quandaries which, while they MAY be warped and stretched and manipulated to reflect the politics of whichever person or society promotes them, are still able to rise above – or sink below – cultural mores in order to share essential truths.
What are fairytales about after all? What questions do THEY ask US?
What is love? What is good – and what is evil? What does it mean to be brave? How should we react to injustice? How can we better our own lives, and what are the risks if we try? What makes a monster? What is a hero?
These questions are ultimately ageless. And a-political.
Our individual interpretation of fairytales, the prejudices and perspectives we ourselves bring to these archetypal stories, are what make them either positive or negative. And individual interpretations can vary, at last count... preeeetty much to infinity.
For instance, Cinderella may be a dutiful and obedient girl who never takes any steps to better her own life because her highest goal is the proper, 'feminine' one of attending a ball in a pretty dress – whose beauty is rewarded when she happens to be young and lovely enough to catch the Prince’s eye (marrying up in society being any woman's dream, of course).
OR... she might be a resolute and morally ambiguous young woman, who cunningly uses the ball to leverage her youth and beauty in order to gain the prince’s power for her own ends.
Beauty might be a dutiful and obedient girl who allows herself to be sacrificed in place of her father, and who, after being bullied or emotionally blackmailed into marrying the monstrous being who imprisoned her, is rewarded when he turns out not to be physically repulsive anymore (though his personality may still be in question).
OR... she could be a ferocious young hunter who goes after the Beast of her own free will in order to destroy him and the curse, and who chooses instead to save him, in the end, because he has proven to her that despite his beastly exterior, he is truly worthy of love.
But these Feminist ways of re-imagining our familiar fairytales – taken from my books Shadows on the Moon (Cinderella) and Barefoot on the Wind (Beauty and the Beast) – can be very controversial. Not just among Mans Right's Activists! Even from a Feminist viewpoint.
The recent Disney live-action Cinderella promoted itself with the motto ‘Have courage... and be kind’. You’d think this was a mild enough statement that no one would get cross about it, but you’d be wrong.
Online, many people rose up against the idea that a young woman suffering under injustice and abuse from her family ought to care about being kind – surely survival would be the order of the day? ‘They’re encouraging young women to be weak!’ was the battle cry. ‘Don’t tell them to be kind, tell them to fight!’
But before anyone could blink, an equally strong counter-argument blew up, stating that kindness was a Feminist virtue, that striving for some kind of unrealistic butt-kicking ideal of femininity that eschewed goodness and kindness for macho ideals of ‘strength’ was ignoring the real struggles of real women who had survived – and might still be living with – abuse. ‘Living in a bad situation you can’t get out of isn’t weakness!’ these people declared.
Who’s right? Who knows! Both, most probably.
The fact is that, just as with magic itself, fairytales can be used for good or evil. They have the potential to be both damagingly misogynistic AND empoweringly Feminist. Like most questions of story, the final interpretation is down to the reader themself to make.