Participants of my ongoing Saving Cinderella class have the option to a write guest post on the topic of the session they attended. This post is in response to Session 1: The Importance of Fairy Tales and Why Feminists Get Them So Wrong.
To enroll in a future session of the class, click here.
The following was written by Whitney Glaccum.
Hearing a mother remark of her own child, “Oh, I wish she would stay this age forever!” makes me recoil in horror. Children must grow up. The only alternative is death. Countless fairy tales and Disney Princess movies explore the difficult path to adulthood, which usually involves imprisonment, murder, or slumber versus an uncertain path that inevitably must pass through a deep, dark forest.
For me, the most troubling tale of children lost in the woods has been the version of Hansel and Gretel turned out of the house by the woodcutter and his wife, their mother. In some versions, the wife is their stepmother and their mother has died long ago. The idea of a stepmother grousing that someone else’s children are consuming her precious resources always made perfect sense. I can think of many real-life examples of women fighting to keep their husbands from spending too much — or anything at all — on children from a previous relationship. But their own mother? How could she force them into the forest, and when they return home, force them even deeper into the woods with only a little bread and a campfire?
I confess that I have been taking the forest too literally. In my defense, I have been trained to assess forests scientifically. I spent my first summer living away from home tromping through a swamp in northern Florida. Growing up and leaving home entailed spending day after day identifying every species of tree in the forest, measuring their diameters at breast height, and analyzing the composition of the forest across a hydrologic gradient. The real forest, I know from experience, is full of mosquitos, thorns, and venomous snakes. It’s easy to get lost in a forest when you are too far from the road, and sometimes you hesitate to enter the dense vegetation because you cannot tell what lies beyond it. And in the swamps of Florida, very often there is a snake on the other side of the palm frond. Come to think of it, it’s like life. It’s like leaving the comforts of home for the unknown future of life as adult.
Reading the forest in Hansel and Gretel literally, the woodcutter and his wife are cruel parents to abandon their children in an unfamiliar place. Reading it symbolically, however, completely changes the nature of their actions. Hansel and Gretel are just a boy and a girl who must leave their parents to learn to survive in the world on their own. What should they find while wandering lost in the forest, but a snake (or in this story, a witch). The witch puts Hansel in a cage, but the real drama involves Gretel because the young girl must become a woman to secure her future, and as a woman, ensure the creation of future generations.
Hansel and Gretel do successfully return home, along with jewels and riches recovered from the witch’s house. While their father is there to welcome them, their mother is dead. Since the forest abandonment was the mother’s idea, is death simply a fitting end for a mother who treated her children so cruelly? No, the mother’s death symbolizes the children’s maturation. Her absence was essential to their growth. In traditional fairy tales and Disney movie versions, the mother’s death is the catalyst for the princess to leave home and childhood behind. The stories continue to resonate because, just like a Disney princess, we all must grow up.
Whitney Glaccum is married with three daughters.