In January, Shivani Kabra wrote, “children read fairy tales at an impressionable age, when it is highly probable for them to be influenced by the notions and beliefs disseminated by them. Since childhood, they have been subjected to plot lines which assert females to either be helpless victims or selfish, malicious villains. This belief is carried by them into adolescence and adulthood, and becomes an integral part of their thinking process.” I know this certainly was the case for me. I learned to read by reading the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, I am a certified Disney enthusiast, and I believe – in my core – that no one is too old for fairy tales. Such an experience requires the reader to acknowledge that the most famous fairy tales, the ones that stood the test of time and spread across the world, those fairy tales usually depict patriarchal tendencies. To say the least.
However, that doesn’t mean we should abandon fairy tales en masse, because there are also relatively positive female characters available (such as Gretel from Hans and Gretel, or Red Riding Hood), and it should be remembered that fairy tales are ever-changing. So, while Andersen, Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Giambattista Basile created collections of stories that we still consume today, that doesn’t mean those versions are the only or even the original versions of those stories (or that men were the only ones to collect those tales: consider Madame d’Aulnoy). I could even address Kabra’s assertion that “the imposition of these [gender] roles allows for the permeation of the belief that the ‘woman’ is a secondary character meant for advancing the needs and purposes of the protagonist i.e, the ‘male’.”
What the heck, I will address it. Because it should be taken into account that there is another pattern in fairy tales that recurs rather often, as Seanan McGuire indicates in her book, Indexing: “Everyone thinks of [fairy tales] in terms of poisoned apples and glass coffins, and forgets that they represent girls who walked into dark forests and remade them into their own reflections” (p. 144). There are many fairy tales with female protagonists, the majority of which show the woman or girl conquering whatever danger or evil they are facing. Combine that with Sandra Cisneros’ notion (that “people should read fairy tales, because we’re hungry for a mythology that will speak to our fears,” and it should become clear that writing off all fairy tales as merely reflecting patriarchal values would be doing the genre a great disservice.
This becomes readily apparent when considering the recently growing popularity of fairy tale adaptations in mainstream media, as those doing the retelling carefully consider how to present these stories to a modern audience. This approach pays off. For instance, in film, the recent productions of Maleficent (2014) and Cinderella (2015) were unexpectedly popular at the box office (see here for more recent TV shows and movies inspired by fairy tales, with mixed results).
One medium in particular seems to suit this trend as if created specifically for it: young adult books retelling fairy tales are inescapable these days. Of those, The Lunar Chronicles is probably the most pervasive. In this series, written by Marissa Meyer, Cinderella is Cinder, a disabled mechanic of Asian origin. Snow White is a woman of colour. Red Riding Hood (here Scarlet) is on a space quest to free her grandmother. As Cress, Rapunzel is coming to terms with a whole new world when she finally escapes her stepmother. I don’t want to call them strong female characters, because too often people take that title to refer only to the woman’s physical strength. Rather, these women are amazingly complex characters, who can certainly hold their own next to the male cast.
If children are impressionable and easily influenced by stories they read, that is still the case for young adults, or even regular adults for that matter, albeit in a lesser degree. Growing up usually does instil a tendency to question whatever message you’re receiving. So why should you just keep consuming messages that tell you that you are ‘less than,’ when there are worthier tales out there? Let’s listen to Kerry Winfrey, as she puts it quite well in this interview “we all become better, smarter and more open-minded people when we read about people who have different backgrounds, cultures and viewpoints.” It is time to acknowledge that fairy tales are simplistic stories, with patterns and characters and plot points that recur in more complex narratives later in life. In which case, why not read YA fairy tales, with complex female protagonists? If we’re still educating ourselves, if education and growing up are continuous processes, why stick with stories that have no place in them for the reader? Rather, explore! Branch out! If a story doesn’t satisfy you, find another that does! In the case of feminist YA retellings of fairy tales, this certainly is a good place to start: http://www.thesepaperhearts.com/2015/09/the-ultimate-list-of-young-adult-fairy-tale-retellings/
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