Fairy tales are important. They’re a massive part of our cultural history and they’re part of curicula in schools world-wide. Children are introduced to fairy- and folk tales in the cradle, and they’re seen as an important part of childhood. Fairy tales are also, on the whole, deeply misogynistic. The traditional versions we know today were written down in cultures that actively sought to suppress women: Perrault wrote down stories told in the salons of France in 1697 in his Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé: Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oie; the Grimm brothers collected tales from German oral traditions in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen of 1812 and Hans Christian Andersen produced his first volume of fairy takes, Eventyr, in 1835. The first of these works is almost a century before A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the last around 60 years before the first wave of feminism really got going.
One of the joys of fairy tales is that they are part of a strong tradition of oral storytelling. They mutate, fudge and grow, transcending arbitrary boundaries to fit the societies and cultures in which they are told. Take Cinderella. There are dozens of tales across cultures:
- An Ancient Egyptian version of Cinderella recorded by Roman historian Strabo in the first century BCE, for example, has its protagonist Rhodopis kidnapped from Greece and sold into slavery, and it is a rose-red golden slipper with which she bags her man.
- In India, 300 BCE, Shakuntala is abandoned by her mother, cursed, and is finally recognised by her husband by virtue of a ring.
- T’ang Dynasty China saw Tuan Cheng-Shih write down a cinderella story in which put-upon Yeh-Shen is delivered to true love by way of a golden slipper and feathered cape.
- Little Burnt-Face, of the Native American Mi’kmaq, marries the invisible Great Chief after winning approval from his sister.
For many of us twenty-first century dwellers, this oral tradition means traditional tales can easily take on the foibles and sensitivities of modern living, which in turn mean that published fractured fairy tales, political in nature or otherwise, are common.
I’ll be moving on to folk tales from antiquity with a strong feminist message at a later date, but for now, here are my favourite feminist reworkings of some traditional tales.