Dissertation Corner: Tia Clifford on Fairy Tales for Feminists

Recent graduate Tia Clifford sums up some of her dissertation ideas for us in this blogpost.

Fairy-tales: the term itself is attributed to Madame D’Aulnoy, a French writer who coined the term conte de fée in the 17th century (Zipes, P. 222- B).

Engraving of woman with arms folded
Dorothea Viehmann: a German storyteller and source for many tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm

Oral fairy-tales, I contended in my dissertation, were often likely to have been told by women. Noticeably, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were given the title of “dignified scholars” after the publication of Children’s and Household Tales, their first revised fairy-tale collection for mass consumption in 1812; however, the lexis originally surrounding fairy-tales, prior to their appropriation by male writers, tended to be negatively gendered as “domestic art”, “women’s art” or “old wives’ tales” (Maria Tatar, P. XVI). I suggested that fairy-tales were initially a form of female rebellion against the patriarchal society oppressing women. Some fairy-tales acted as proto-feminist critiques of patriarchy, but they can also be viewed as survival manuals or as warnings by women for women regarding the dangers of a male-dominated society. In “Little Red Riding Hood”, for example, young girls learn that men are not always what they seem and that deviating from the socially accepted path will lead to danger.

Maria Tatar asserts that, “Fairy-tales are shaped by the culture around them” (Tatar, P. 304). Specifically, I looked at the representation of the figure of the stepmother and how this changes with changing attitudes to women. When we think of the stepmother figure in fairy tales, she is usually the “wicked” stepmother. One of the factors in the stepmother’s creation as “wicked” was a response to the trope of death of the birth mother in fairy-tales. This was founded in historical reality, as women frequently died in childbirth. Fairy-tale tellers mirrored this by embedding warnings into fairy tales, telling stepmothers not to mistreat their stepchildren. This warning to the women who would inevitably replace them was the last form of protection birthmothers could offer their children. However, the Brothers Grimm altered the role of the stepmother, making them all wicked, thus removing the sense of women teaching women through storytelling. The role of birthmothers was also altered by the Brothers Grimm, who portrayed them as to blame for their child’s hardship due to their abandonment of them through death. Likewise, the fathers were portrayed as good, although mostly absent, and easily influenced by the evil stepmother. The socialisation of girls through mediums like fairy-tales not only destroys their self-identity, as girls are taught to value patriarchal ideals and beauty standards, but, I argue, also distorts models of familial relationships for girls.

However, in recent decades, women writers such as Angela Carter have reclaimed fairy tales as tales told by women from a feminist perspective.

An open book with a fairy tale picture of a girl and a cauldron
“The Witch of Duva” from The Language of Thorns by Leah Bardugo

I therefore looked at a number of twenty-first century fairy tale retellings, including those of Young Adult author, Leigh Bardugo. Bardugo rewrote the story of “Hansel and Gretel” as “The Witch of Duva”. She wrote this from a feminist perspective that celebrated female solidarity rather than competition or revenge. In Bardugo’s retelling, women are initially subject to the prejudices and preconceptions of the reader, based on our expectations from fairy-tale stereotypes. Bardugo focusses the attention of her modern retelling on the perceived, taught and internalised roles of women. Initially, therefore, we think the stepmother is the evil character. However, Maggie Reagan asserts that within Bardugo’s retelling “Those who seem innocent are shown to be guilty, one-dimensional characters become more complicated, and mothers who once were absent are given presence and power” (Reagan, L.18). In the tale it turns out that the father is sexually abusing young women, and the stepmother, who is the best friend of the dead birthmother, is actually protecting the girl when she attempts to drive her away from the house of an abuser, sacrificing her own safety. The exposure of the readers’ internalised stereotypes surrounding stepmothers occurs through Bardugo’s contortion, re-characterisation and questioning of core fairy-tale character’s roles. Through her feminist lens, Bardugo questions why women in modern-day society are still internally and externally characterised against women’s classic fairy-tale roles: good mother, bad stepmother, innocent daughter, witch. Bardugo uses the readers understanding of the classic fairy-tale to manipulate the popularised fairy-tale narrative of Hansel and Gretel.