Many of us have grown up hearing the same handful of well-known fairy tales, whether via Disney or Brothers Grimm. Let’s be honest: Traditional fairy tales are pretty problematic. Lots of them cast women as victims, requiring a man to save her. Many are also filled with sexist and patriarchal tropes.
So to celebrate February 26, Tell a Fairy Tale Day, we thought this might be a good time to even out the narrative: We asked our favorite feminists to take a known fairy tale and put a little feminist spin on it.
Which fairy tale deserves a feminist makeover?
Mayim Bialik: “I’ve already been super clear about which fairy tale is the most degrading and misogynistic. I even made a vlog about it, which I am told is right on the money by all of my feminist friends! Here’s a hint: She can’t even speak but has to get a man to fall in love with her!!!”
Carrie Nelson: “Beauty and the Beast. That’s the one that is most insidious to me, because the story—at least, the Disney-ified version of it—actively courts feminist viewers. So many of my friends loved Belle as young girls because she was the heroine who read! She was a nerd! And that is a great and feminist reason to love a character, but I always struggled to get on board. Something about that story, even at a very young age, didn’t sit right with me. It wasn’t until I got older and revisited the material that I realized that the story completely glorifies an abusive relationship.
The Beast is violent against Belle (his captive), so she is kind and loving to him in an attempt to ‘change him’—e.g., make him stop hurting her. This is a real power dynamic that we see play out in Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) situations, where survivors try to de-escalate their abuser’s anger in an attempt to stop the violence against them. But unlike these dynamics, Belle’s plan works, and the Beast is cured of his curse, and they live happily ever after. This message is so disturbing. I understand the feminist love of the material, but I want to see a version where Belle escapes the Beast and lives happily ever after—on her own, with her books.”
Sa’iyda Shabazz: “I’m going to say Cinderella, but not for the reasons you may think. I’m totally fine with the Prince Charming thing (even though it’s totally lame that after they dance together for like, hours, he doesn’t ask her for her name). I HATE the stepmother and stepsisters making her their slave. In my version, she’d peace out as soon as she was old enough and never look back. Then she would have been assertive enough to tell Charming her name on her own.”
Katie Klabusich: “Could we start with Snow White? I mean, she is attacked by her wicked stepmother (a problematic trope in itself) because she’s young, innocent, and beautiful. Then she needs seven men to save her. When they fail due to the stepmother’s cunning use of a poisoned apple, she has to be saved by true love’s kiss—A KISS SHE IS NOT AWAKE FOR. The extent of the lack of agency Snow White is allowed throughout the story is enough for a dissertation-length dissection.
While a lot of fairy tales need feminist makeovers, the blatant consent problem here is particularly alarming. She’s not not just kissed while essentially passed out, but this kiss determines the trajectory of the rest of her life. Imagine awakening to discover you were violated and now expected to marry the person who imposed themselves on you. No thank you!”
Shannon Luders-Manuel: “I was extremely disappointed in the finale of Sex and the City, a modern-day, adult ‘fairy tale.’ For six years, journalist Carrie Bradshaw had an on again off again relationship with older, wealthy ‘Mr. Big’ who couldn’t commit. In addition to playing into stereotypes by having her last boyfriend, whom she and her friends simply referred to as ‘The Russian,’ slap her across the face, the writers had Mr. Big suddenly ‘realize’ his love for Carrie at the end of the show. I cringed whenever I heard friends say about a noncommittal love interest, ‘He’s my Mr. Big,’ expecting the interest to suddenly treat them with the love and respect they deserved. In real life, it’s often wisest to let this person go and create your own happy ending.”
Jen Selk: “I like The Little Mermaid, and I wouldn’t change it so much as restore most of Hans Christian Anderson’s original vision, because that’s a cautionary tale I can get behind. Like, The Little Mermaid agrees to drink a potion that hurts like being impaled, that robs her of her voice, that makes her feel like she’s walking on knives, and that forever exiles her from her home and family, all for some useless dude who is too clueless to realize that she saved his life? HELLO! He’s not worth it! So yeah, either she should stab him and move back in with her fish-family when she gets the chance, or die and become useless foam on the sea like she probably deserves. The sea witch, however, can live happily ever after. She’s the real hero of the story.”
Awanthi Vardaraj: “The ones where there’s an evil stepmother, or a strong female character who was evil because she was strong and outspoken and action-driven, or just didn’t fit in with what women were supposed to be like at the time. I mean, don’t get me wrong; the passive princess routine drives me up the wall, but not as much as the evil stepmother routine. What is with this nonsense? It’s as though all stepmothers want to do nothing but talk to mirrors, poison our husband’s children with rosy apples, or, alternately, put those children to work while the fruits of our loins sit around acting like spoiled prats.
Back the bus up. Stepmothers aren’t like that; we love our children—yes, our stepchildren are our children. I’m not even going to say we love them like they’re our own. They are our own. Enough. Full stop.
Meanwhile the women who are villains, the ones who are NOT passive, they must be shown their place; they must be utterly destroyed. Let’s completely change that as well, shall we? If you haven’t read it already, you must read Andrea Dworkin’s fabulous essay about fairytales. ‘The good woman must be possessed. The bad woman must be killed, or punished. Both must be nullified.'”
Therese Shechter: “Ummmm…most of them? So, let me plug Stories for Free Children, which came out in 1982 to re-imagine existing fairy tales and add some new ones to the canon. The collection celebrated difference, challenged gender and racial injustice, and generally presented kids with a radical new way to look at the world. It was edited by Ms. Magazine editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin and included a revisionist version of Atalanta, which eventually found a second home as part of Free to Be…You and Me. It’s been ages since I read it, and –- no surprise –- I hear some parts haven’t aged particularly well. Still, it’s definitely worth a look, and inexpensive used copies abound.”
Have a question for our ragtag group of raging feminists? Send it to Avital Norman Nathman at TheMamafesto@gmail.com and it might just be answered in a future Feminism 101!