It is a truth universally acknowledged that fairy tales are anti-feminist. Even those of us who like them are meant to agree that, yes, the heroines lack agency, the heroes lack nuance, and there’s far too much cooking and cleaning for any modern woman’s taste. The idea that these fairy tales need a make over — or that new fairy tales must be written to appeal to feminist audiences — has been on the minds of authors and filmmakers for decades. Films like Frozen and Brave use fairy tale ideas and tropes to tell new kinds of stories, and an entire genre in the world of young adult fiction focuses on retelling fairy tales with a feminist twist. But, the more these stories seek to unpack the traditional fairy tales and rewrite them for a modern audience, the clearer it becomes that none of these authors or filmmakers has any idea what fairy tales are actually about.
The original fairy tales were passed down orally — often by a mother to her children — and contain the “accumulated wisdom of the past.” They are stories designed to teach children universal truths about the world in short, easy to digest stories. They use symbolism as a kind of shorthand that remains largely the same from story to story, which allows the teller to pack a lot of detail into a very short tale. (You can read my post on fairy tale symbolism here.) Because of this, understanding the symbolism of fairy tales is imperative if you want to rewrite one — or try to write your own. But it’s exactly this symbolism that modern filmmakers and writers don’t seem to understand.
In an interview for BBC Women’s Hour, Jessie Burton (author of The Restless Girls, a novel based on the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses) expressed her frustration with fairy tales’ “insidious message that it’s quite dangerous to step outside your world.” She used the example of Little Red Riding Hood, saying “Red Riding Hood stepping off the path into the woods, it’s her fault that she does that.” But traveling through the woods is a fairy tale symbol. It represents “the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious” (Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment.) In other words, stories in which characters must “step off the path into the woods” deal specifically with transition, internal struggle, and, at the end of it, new clarity. They’re not about blaming the person entering the woods, they’re about whatever internal struggle that person is facing, and her own mental battle to find her way through it.
The Disney film Brave is an excellent example of the ways in which filmmakers’ misunderstanding of fairy tale symbolism leads to some very unfortunate storytelling. Brenda Chapman, who wrote and co-directed Brave said, “I went through many fairy tales looking for a mother-and-daughter story, and I just didn’t find one . . . So I decided to try to create my own story.” But there’s a reason Chapman didn’t find any mother-daughter fairy tales.
Princess fairy tales are all about growing up. They take the princess from a girl to a woman — usually represented by her newfound ability to bear children — symbolically depicted by the entrance of the prince. This means that they must leave the mother figure behind, often through some kind of struggle. Because of this, the mother figure is often represented as an evil crone (think Snow White’s Evil Queen) or a terrible stepmother (think Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother). The crone wants the girl to remain a child indefinitely so that she will never usurp her in beauty and sexual availability. The maiden must separate from the crone and embark on her own inner journey towards adulthood in order to become a fully realized woman. These stories aren’t expressing that mothers aren’t important, they are expressing the — often painful — truth that children must separate from their parents in order to live full and healthy lives.
Not understanding this — or anything else about fairy tales — Chapman created a film which uses the imagery and symbolism of fairy tales, but has the heroine moving towards rather than away from her mother. This necessarily sends the message that not growing up is preferable to leaving home and creating a life of one’s own. This is not to say that Chapman — or anyone else — couldn’t have created a story about mothers and daughters (she could have) but when she takes on “anti-feminist” fairy tales in order to do it, she ends up falling flat on her face.
In the BBC Women’s Hour interview, author Kiran Millwood Hargrave says that “some of the more harmful aspects” of fairy tales need “correcting.” She says “People are really taking these fairy tales apart and they’re . . . they’re sort of wrenching them open and just showing their workings and maybe questioning some of the things that we take for granted.” And this may be true. But if these “inner workings” — which have been in place for thousands of years — aren’t understood by modern storytellers, then the books and films they create won’t ring true.
Fairy tales don’t need to be “corrected,” they need to be understood. This would allow us to, first of all, recognize all the places that fairy tales already are feminist, like the ways in which they depict women at the center of a story, emphasize internal courage, and often end with the princess emerging victorious from an inner battle. And, if there are places where a more modern take is warranted, it would allow authors and filmmakers to create coherent stories that cleverly and cogently add to the genre.
It isn’t that we can’t retell fairy tales with a modern twist. It isn’t that we can’t rethink some of the tropes inherent to fairy tales. It’s only that, if you’re going to write in a genre, you have to understand the genre. It’s our only way back to happily ever after.