Once upon a time…

Fairy tales tend to focus on the agency and strength of male characters, right? Author Maria Turtschaninoff asks, “Are there any feminist fairy tales?”

Snow White and Prince Charming figuresThe young farmer’s son goes out into the world to find his fortune and ends up marrying the king’s daughter. The huntsman saves Red Riding Hood from the belly of the wolf. The prince rescues the sleeping princess with a kiss… This is how we are accustomed to viewing fairy tales. The protagonist is almost always male. Even when the story is named for the heroine – Rapunzel, Cinderella – it’s the male character who has agency. He saves the day by being clever, or brave, or tenacious, or strong.

I have grown up on a healthy diet of fairy tales and feminism and yet I never spotted this imbalance myself. It’s very insidious. We are so used to its prevalence in books for children, animated movies, and cartoon TV series that it’s difficult to notice.

“After watching The Jungle Book my own niece pretended to be the unnamed girl that appears right at the end of Disney’s movie – because all other characters are male. ”

Most children’s stories are about male characters. And fairy tales are today viewed as stories for children (it was of course not always thus), so why should they be any different? Fairy tales are also from a different time. A time when women were expected to be quiet and bound to the home, passive and meek. When a woman’s greatest virtues were beauty and goodness. Of course that’s how the ideal woman is portrayed in fairy tales.

Or is it a given? Is it truly how women were portrayed in fairy tales, or is it a tendency imposed by those (men) who have collected the stories, who have edited them? That process is never neutral. It’s never completely unbiased. A lot of stories were collected during the Victorian era. The stories, especially the ones with female heroines, were heavily edited for educational purposes.

Would it surprise you to learn that there are many versions of Red Riding Hood – and in one, the heroine learns from her experience with the big bad wolf and later vanquishes another wolf on her own?

Red Riding Hood standing on a bookWould it surprise you that there are many classic fairy tales, from all around the world, where the heroines are not simply patient and good, but trick the fairies in order to rescue their abducted children, wear out three pairs of stone shoes to save their sick brothers, or use their wit to make fools of their husbands, thus winning financial security for the family for years and years? They trick Saint Peter to get the souls of their husbands into heaven; they avenge the murder of their fathers, and they suffer great pain to save their beloveds from enslavement and rule kingdoms successfully.

These stories exist. They are just hard to find. In an excellent collection of folktales from around the world featuring heroines, Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters, anthologist Kathleen Ragan writes about the difficulty she had in finding the stories. “The subtle and pervasive power of editing has been severely underestimated,” she says in the introduction.

Ragan found that in a book of 220 folktales, four per cent of the protagonists (not necessarily heroines) were female, and in another collection of 107 folktales, just two per cent of the protagonists were female. Often the characters were negative: nagging mothers-in-law, wicked witches and evil stepmothers. It took her some serious digging to unearth the wonderful stories in the anthology, where the female heroines get to be active, well-rounded characters (See also Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales).

legs in an ethereal dressDoes representation matter? Some argue that children identify with the main character regardless of gender. But if that were the case, argues Ragan, one would expect a 50-50 split. Instead there is a “one-to-nine heroine-to-hero ratio”, and it is no accident. After watching The Jungle Book my own niece, just like Ragan’s daughter, pretended to be the unnamed girl that appears right at the end of Disney’s movie – because all other characters are male. Including the animals.

Representation matters. Women in stories matter – and not just for the girls. I am the mother of a boy. I want my son to grow up knowing that he doesn’t always have to be the strong one, the hero. If necessary, he can be rescued, too.

Of course, new fairy tales are written all the time. And it’s very popular to reimagine old fairy tales with a more contemporary, feminist twist. But it’s not always even necessary. The original feminist heroines are there: smart, witty, fun-loving, strong, bold, steadfast, old and young. They are just waiting for us to rediscover them.

Maria Turtschaninoff’s award-winning novel Maresi, the first in the Red Abbey Chronicles trilogy, is published by Pushkin Press on Thursday 14 January in hardback.


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Written by Maria Turtschaninoff

Maria Turtschaninoff is an award-winning author and fan of all things fantasy, folklore and fairytale.