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Thumbs Up: Fairy Tales

Fairy tales have gotten kind of a bad rap with feminists in the last fifty years or so. Since Disney co-opted them, basically. But this article by avowed fairy tale addict (and author) Catherynne M. Valente on the Tor website reminded me of two things:

1.    Fairy tales are, more often than not, dark and scary things.
2.    Fairy tales have more power than most people give them credit for.

Why else would we spend so much time condemning Disney Princess as forcing passivity upon our daughters? Why else would society use fairy tales to try and defuse the power that little girls have the potential to wield?

If you have ever read any of the original Grimm's Fairy Tales, you know how little they resemble anything Disney. Neil Gaiman has adapted several of the original fairy tales to his own liking, and used them to create outstanding works like the short story "Snow, Glass, Apples" and the novel Stardust.

Reading through the original Grimm Fairy Tales, I was struck by the fact that they were obviously aimed at an audience comprised equally of sons and daughters. Fairy tales are a culture's instruction manual. Thus it is perhaps not surprising how many of the original Grimm Fairy Tales involve women who marry men who turn out to be dangerous, and how they are able to extricate themselves from this dilemma. (Nor should it be surprising that these tales are still very much relevant today… if not very Disney-friendly.)

For example, take tale #40, The Robber Bridegroom. A miller with a beautiful daughter is approached by a man who "appeared to be very rich," who asked for his daughter's hand in marriage. The miller grants the stranger his daughter, but his daughter suspects that her new fiancée is dangerous. We are told that "She did not trust him, and whenever she saw him or thought about him, she felt within her heart a sense of horror."

The miller's daughter stalls as long as she is able. First she says she doesn't know how to find her fiancee's home. Then she claims that she wouldn't be able to find it, even though he has given her directions. Her fiancée offers to leave her a trail of ashes (!) to follow. When she finally arrives at his house, her instincts turn out to have been correct.

The miller's daughter escapes her fate by trusting her own judgment, listening to the opinions of women who know her fiancée better than she does, and by taking the initiative to act in her own best interests. She leaves behind a trail of pea seeds; a savvy contemporary woman keeps an extra $20 for cab fare in her purse. It is all the same. And in the end, her fiancée faces justice because she has the courage to speak out and publicly expose his misdeeds.

I don't think we're going to see a Disney version of this particular fairy tale any time soon. But girls of every age should read it, because fairy tale or not, "The Robber Bridegroom" speaks the truth. And the same is true of most other fairy tales, as well.

Photo credit: Flickr/lapidim