Feminist Fairy Tales: Research Problem Statement

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Feminist Fairy Tales and Retellings of Empowerment


The original and conventional fairy tale most frequently portrays its females in ways reflective of the cultural and societal interpretations of women as weak, inferior, or lacking agency, placing their value solely on their relationship with a man: “Girls and women play dead or doormats (as in ‘Snow White’, Cinderella,’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty,’) or are severely mutilated (as in ‘The Little Mermaid’)” (Paul, 1999, p. 117). Instead of including and representing women as unique individuals in their own right, sex-role stereotyping is used to portray female characters as characters whose worth is defined in terms of masculinity or the lack thereof.  Because traditional fairy tales often echo and amplify patriarchal values and perspectives, they are a frequent target of critique and reinterpretation, especially from a feminist perspective. Children’s literature has the ability to reclaim these fairy tales by developing the female characters into unique and diverse figures with their own agency and worth as well as portraying and promoting feminist perspectives and values.

While there are certainly a variety of examples of feminism to be found in every category and genre of literature retellings of fairy tales are unique in their ability to reclaim outdated and outmoded themes and stories.  Because they tell and reimagine an already familiar tale, the staid obsoleteness can be developed into a more relevant tale capable of both maintaining the original meaning, and supporting more forward-thinking perspectives that “provide sources of comfort and pleasure, models for behavior, and identity, reflections of self and reality, and visions of better or less painful possibilities” (Tribunella, 2011, p. 25).  Fairy tales introduce a somewhat predictable framework that is quickly and easily graspable by children and models simplistic ideas about identity and reality.  Retold fairy tales can develop the simple and familiar landscape into new stories, viewing the same ideas from new angles to produce more accurate and positive views of a variety of concepts and roles.  While new ways of supporting these perspectives are constantly being developed and explored, this is a particularly powerful and relevant way feminism is explored and reclaimed. Classic fairy tales, which typically feature limited, powerless, and one-dimensional female characters with little to no agency or character development need more empowering retellings.

While recent interpretations of fairy tales are portraying more and more progressive female characters and protagonists, there is still a sad lack of including developed females in modern fairy tale retellings, and feminist theory insists on “the right to be included but not just as an honorary white man” (Paul, 1999, p. 113), but as a valuable person in their own right.  Representations of strong female characters congruent with feminist ideals are crucial to the healthy development of young girls into confident young women. Retold fairy tales that feature female characters in a positive and empowering ways have the power to positively affect perspectives of femininity.  This positive affect is not limited to females only. Staid and traditionally patriarchal gendered identities are usually congruent with the “specific binary logic of gender relations, which historically subordinated the feminine to the masculine” (Hately, 2011, p. 87). Historically prevalent literary representations of gender have subscribed to the patriarchal binary and constructed and promoted restrictive models of femininity and masculinity that are ultimately inaccurate, unhelpful, and damaging.  Feminism is integral in producing gender representations in children’s literature that is more accepting and empowering for both males and females.  Increased exposure to female-centered books educate and benefit boys versus girls in many ways, and books with powerful female characters have the potential to help both females and males feel more acknowledged and comfortable, as well as inclusive and positive toward others.

Accurate and affirming female representation in literature is constantly changing over time.  This is extremely apparent when looking specifically at fairy tales and comparing original tales to more modern interpretations based on these original fairy tales. This positive and affirming representation is on the rise, but needs to be encouraged through education and information in order to maximize the societal benefits. It should be noted that a feminist retelling of any kind doesn’t need to eliminate any and all female characters in traditionally, socially, or culturally feminine roles. What is needed is an admission of the agency of female characters in choosing their own path and having value of their own, unconnected from a man.  A more equal representation of strong and empowering, identifiable and variable roles and narratives for women is required.  While identification equality has improved, the ways we communicate effectively about feminism and equality in children’s literature should continue to be emphasized in order to correct the historical imbalance.

While there are many theoretical perspectives from which this topic can be considered, the primary viewpoint used in assessing this imbalance will be that of Feminist criticism.  Fortunately, this critical theory is adept at incorporating key aspects of many various theories as well as relevant and applicable to each of them in turn.  This social construction of the patriarchy, which “promotes the belief that women are innately inferior to men” (Tyson, 81) through many avenues, both overt and discreet, such as words, body language, tone of voice, facial expressions “creates the failure that it then uses to justify its assumptions about women” (Tyson, 2015, p. 83). It is a patriarchal construction that is vastly apparent in many examples of children’s literature, but particularly in fairy tales.  Because fairy tales can provide guidelines for both boys and girls that teach normative values, it is important to look at the literature being published through a feminist lens in order to observe and evaluate the accuracy and helpfulness of the messages being presented – do they promote patriarchal standards and traditional gender roles, or do they promote equality and feminine empowerment?

Feminist criticism examines “the ways in which literature and other cultural productions reinforces or undermines the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (Tyson, 2015, p. 79) in these works of literature.  The adaptability, flexibility, and comprehensive nature of feminist critical theory makes it an impressively thorough and versatile tool with which to observe children’s literature.  It is capable of utilizing a variety of theoretical perspectives and taking advantage of the most useful aspects of those perspectives while disregarding the more irrelevant and outdated components. Patriarchal conditioning is destructive for men as well as women, which is why it is so important to encourage positive role models, both female, and male, in children’s literature, such as these retold fairy tales. While feminist theory is an “interdisciplinary theory that can connect divergent thought” (Tyson, 2015, p. 90), and can, indeed, adapt and assimilate ideas from other theoretical critiques and disciplines, this must be done with caution because so many of these critical theories and ideas are deeply entrenched in patriarchal frameworks that emphasize male experience and power. Extracting the merits from the engrained patriarchal perspective can be a dauntingly difficult process, but it can be done.

There is a vast deal of interconnectivity between feminist critical theory and many other critical theories.  Feminist criticism can incorporate diverse aspects from a variety of theories and perspectives, including postcolonial criticism, and lesbian, gay, and queer criticism.  These critical theories are all alike in their goals of deepening understanding, as well as being closely aligned with the idea of “providing a welcoming climate for texts by people marginalized by patriarchal colonial societies” (Paul, 1999, p.114).

Similar to feminist criticism in many ways, postcolonial criticism possesses a unique hybridity as well as the potential to be applied to any marginalized or oppressed group of people typically found being dominated, such as children, women, persons of color, the poor, and more.  It is a discourse that sheds light on “ways in which authority over the ‘other’ is achieved in the name of protecting innocence” (Paul, 1999, p. 120). Both discussing and understanding people perceived as inferior and emancipating them in order to return their power and worthiness in society’s eyes is incredibly consistent with feminist ideas. In traditional fairy tales, females, as well as those classified as ‘other,’ are routinely stripped of their own identities.  Postcolonial critical theory views these discrepant power dynamics and portrayals in new light through a variety of theoretical approaches, which makes it, just like feminist critical theory, extremely versatile and effective in its broad application.  The perspective of lesbian, gay, and queer criticism also explores portrayals of marginalized individuals and the dynamics of power in society. Literary interpretations in this critical theory also deal with similar recurring themes of marginalization and ‘otherness.’

Popular retellings of fairy tales continue to explore and expand on ideas consistent with these critical theories by introducing strong and developed characters in familiar narratives.  Reworking a fairy tale takes work, but fortunately, the familiar nature of a fairy tale provides a strong and solid basis on which to build upon.  With structure, imagination and applied alternative viewpoints, classically traditional fairy tales can be developed and transformed into entirely unique constructions.  Retold fairy tales have a structural advantage in the creation of their retellings, because they already have the base of their world constructed, and can build upon those “identifiable and workable laws underpinning it” (Yolen, 1996, p. 173). Because the concrete universe has already been established, the same tale can be told from a new perspective, spurring on critical thinking, new questions, and the expansion of previously unknown horizons.

Building on a familiar universe, but including additions of explanations, possibilities, developed characters to create a solid feminist message is epitomized in Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. This book is a prime example of challenging readers to look beyond simplistic and repetitive explanations to search for more meaningful perspectives.  In contrast to the traditional Cinderella story, Ella becomes, through her own strength of will, her own knight in shining armor.  She saves herself, her princes, and her entire kingdom.  In Levine’s retelling, there is substantially more depth and detail about the protagonist and her quest to break the curse herself, and discover herself in the process.  Her story is applicable to many real-life situations and encourages the questioning of blind obedience, the value of making your own decisions, the importance of standing up for what you believe in, and the strength and courage of making sacrifices to protect the people you love.  Such depictions of self-rescuing female heroes can inspire readers that they, too, have the power and strength to overcome challenges and obstacles in their lives.

Gail Carson Levine may not have intended that Ella Enchanted become an icon of feminism, the book as well as the title character have certainly become empowering and inspirational to many readers, never losing its relevance to feminism. The book’s message of encouragement to be an independently powerful woman and refusing to be confined by obedience, never lessens in its impact.  It both encourages and emboldens readers to be true to themselves and confidently pursue their dreams and ambitions, however unconventional those may be.  Oppression is not always familiar, recognizable, or visible, but, like Ella discovers, we can give ourselves the power of the freedom to make our own choice.

This message of freedom is accessible in its relevance to many.  Ella’s depth of character and the powerfully realistic and relatable message combine to portray the importance of internal battles, as well as external.  The main conflict in Levine’s book is simply the struggle between one seemingly insignificant girl and the unwarranted and random restrictions to which she finds herself bound.  Her inner strength and conviction communicate a resourcefulness easy to admire and aspire to in the struggles and challenges of the real world.  While this retelling of Cinderella deviates from the original substantially, its feminist message is one that accentuates the positives of the original, while decreasing the negative associations.  The alterations are minimal, but they drastically contribute to a vastly more positive and empowering message for readers.

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier deviates from the original tale quite a bit more than Levine’s Ella Enchanted. The story is unrecognizable in many ways. A primary alteration is the reduction of the number of sisters from twelve to five. As a result, each sister is afforded the attention on their individual characters instead of representing mere place-holder personalities with little to no character development. It would be difficult to delve completely into the character of each sister if there were so numerous.  This way, the reader can more easily connect to and distinguish between the sisters as they each have their own unique characteristics.

Not only are individual characters more fully formed, but the relationships are more fully formed as well.  The included romances are fleshed out and seems more natural and realistic, each developing organically through genuine connection and believable interaction.  In addition, romantic relationships are not the focus.  The story is primarily about the importance of family, the strong relationships between the sisters, and the sisters discovering their own agency rather than being caught by a male power.  The book has a strong feminist message, one that is rare in most classic fairy tales.  Furthermore, this telling has the second sister as the protagonist, emphasizing the removal of typical fairy tale restrictions and tropes, as in such fairy tales, it is invariably the oldest or the youngest sister who receives the primary narrative attention.  By breaking from this needlessly restrictive tradition, the message can be appreciated by a greater range of readers, those typically excluded, or overlooked, just as females tend to be in general.

A frequently retold fairy tale is that of Rapunzel.  Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel, and Cameron Dokey’s Golden approach this classic tale in vastly different ways, while still accentuating vastly similar themes and ideas.  Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel updates the Grimm brothers’ Rapunzel in ways that enhance and amplify the original message and delve more deeply into the characters and their relationships.  Napoli revitalizes the Rapunzel story with her plural narrative, realistic behavior patterns, and insightful relationship depictions, allowing the tale to resonate more believably with modern value systems.  The detailed character development enhanced the story and provided more satisfying character interactions and empathy for their thoughts, feelings, and actions.   The Grimm brothers’ version doesn’t make any mention of Rapunzel’s parents after she is taken away, and their Rapunzel is perfectly content to live alone in a tower. but Napoli’s Rapunzel reacts more realistically, growing depressed, panicked, frantic, miserable, and angry by turns.   The reader can see the goals, desires, and motivations of each of the characters, in a display of imaginative literature that discloses “alternative ways of being in and thinking about the world” (Meek-Spencer, 2003, p. 547).

Golden by Cameron Dokey takes a different view of the Rapunzel story. This retelling of Rapunzel turns the traditional tale completely on its head, provoking questioning of the entire tale.  The main character isn’t technically even Rapunzel. Or is she?  It is a story of how two girls come to terms with their own limitations and strengths to accept their unique identities and defining features for what they truly are.  This retelling explores questions not only of identity, but also of what it means to be a girl in terms of the body and physical features.  Depictions of the body in shape their perceptions of what a natural body should look like.  The relationship between the body and gender has “historically (whether overtly or covertly) been a tool of negotiation between our understandings of bodies, and meanings derived from and attributed to them” (Hately, 2011, p. 86). Golden provides a positive portrayal of girls with marginalized bodies, encouraging a more accepting perception of diversity and an understanding, tolerance, and celebration of those with a body shape that is in some way different.  The ability of literature to shape human behavior, power structures, and ideologies is exemplified here in the explicit acceptance of girls and their value regardless of their physical appearance.

The effects and promotion of feminist children’s literature, particularly the representation of empowered female characters in retold or reclaimed fairy tales is one that necessitates further exploration through a closer looking at various retold fairy tales such as Ella Enchanted, Wildwood Dancing, Zel, and Golden. In order to ascertain how representations of positive and empowering females affect children’s perspectives of femininity, and discover how these affirming representations can be encouraged and improved further study is needed, especially the instigation of a research survey looking at peer-reviewed articles about and reader responses to feminist perspectives in retold fairy tales.  With the combination of primary source material and scholarly sources obtained through research methods and databases, these books can be assessed as to their efficacy in teaching about key feminist concepts, improving acceptance and positive attitudes in readers towards females, and increased self-esteem based on increased positive representation for females.

Literature has an immense impact on society and the understanding of assumptions about a woman’s characteristics, roles, and overall place in the world. Not only are female characters frequently lacking from the majority of children’s literature, the books that do feature female characters may not meet the requirements of feminism as far as promoting positive portrayals of femininity or equality of the sexes.  To determine whether or not a work of children’s literature can be deemed feminist in nature, there are a variety of aspects to observe and analyze and a close reading of the text and illustrations is necessary.  What is important in these works is that the characters are portrayed, in words and image, as strong, capable, and worthy, regardless of their gender, and that harmful stereotypes are not used to influence perception of limiting gender roles.

Reclamation of fairy tales in particular “seem to have enjoyed the most dramatic revival as a result of twinned interests in women’s studies and children’s literature studies, (Paul, 2005, p. 121),” there is still farther to go. Children’s literary portrayals of girls, girlhood, and femininity have historically been consistent with promoting the patriarchal and traditional gender roles. Even female characters who begin by representing atypical or rebellions gender behaviors often grow up to “accept and extol conventional female norms” (Reid-Walsh, 2011, p. 93).  This reinforcement of patriarchal ideals is blindingly evident in when examining traditional fairy tales.  Fortunately, as attention is called to the significant lack of empowering feminist characters and messages in children’s literature, more books, both fiction and non-fiction, are emerging, and the discussion about the importance of feminist literature, especially for children, has also become noticeably more prevalent. It is this prevalence that can be observed very effortlessly in the retold fairy tale, and one that merits further investigation into its impact on communicating and understanding feminist ideas.


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