ROAD TRIP WEDNESDAY: How to Correct a Fairy-Tale

Road Trip Wednesday #95: Adult Characters Who W ...This week Road Trip Wednesday asks ” In honor of this month’s Bookmobile book, Marissa Meyer’s CINDER, name a fable or story you’d like to see a retelling of. If you’re feeling creative, come up with a premise of your own!”

In general, women get the short end of the magic wand in fairy-tales. We’ve all heard how the original tellings of such tales at Sleeping Beauty and Snow White involved some kind of rape, but even the sanitized modern interpretations don’t have much to recommend them. More recently this is starting to change. TANGLED ‘s Rapunzel is sort of kick-ass I guess and Tiana in THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG is pretty cool too.

But being a tough heroine is maybe not enough. Maybe these stories need to be picked apart from their core to examine what they said about the people who wrote them and the time in which they were written. More importantly, if we are going to retell a fairy-tale how can we make it say something about US and OUR time?

File:Franz Jüttner Schneewittchen 6.jpgFor example, let’s take on what has been retold again and again, SNOW WHITE. An interesting feature of many of this kind of “princess” fairytale is the pitting of one powerful and already high status women against a younger and lower status and always more beautiful young girl. This is certainly the case in SNOW WHITE wherein the Queen takes against Snow White because her mirror declares the younger woman more beautiful. We see the same kind of girl on girl conflict between Cinderella and her step mother and sisters, and also between Sleeping Beauty and the witch/fairy who curses her.

At the time these tales were written high status and powerful women were maligned and mistrusted, suspected of witchcraft (the villainesses in SNOW WHITE and  SLEEPING BEAUTY are both witches) or gold digging social climbers (like Cinderella’s step mother). In retelling these stories with the evil jealous female rivals still in place (EVER AFTER, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN and MIRROR MIRROR all include these rivals) we are reinforcing these old values and neglecting to challenge them historically. The real impediment to young women in this time was not, in fact, older more powerful women in general, but men, and the oppressive state.

Not much has changed today. The difference is, the fairy-tales of old were likely penned by men who projected their own power struggles onto their female characters. Can women today relate to being marginalized and oppressed by older and more powerful women? Possibly but this is hardly a major neurosis of our time (although this is certainly what happens to young men in many milieus). As in olden times, the most dangerous foes for young women are still predatory males and the state. But again, the difference is NOW GIRLS ARE WRITING THE STORIES.

So regardless of what story is being re-spun, what I’d love to see is not only an empowering of the female heroes but a vindication of the female villains. Maybe Cinderella’s MOTHER died leaving her in the care of an evil step-FATHER and two abusive step brothers. This is, after all, a far more likely scenario (in general girls are more likely to be abused by fathers or stepfathers than by mother or stepmothers). Maybe Snow White is marked for death by an evil KING, who views her as a blemish on the honor of the kingdom, perhaps because she was seen consorting with the prince, who is, of course, above her. (this sort of “honor killing” is all too common) Maybe Sleeping Beauty is cursed by a judgmental WIZARD because her mother aborted her previous pregnancy (well, okay, that’s some poetic license but still…).

I don’t mean to paint men as the villains here. I’m completely okay with Prince Charming or whoever riding in to save our fair maiden. Or not, maiden kicking butt works too. All I’d like to see is a re-examination of the source of conflict in these stories and an exculpation of, (full disclosure, I’m 45) meddling old broads like me.

15 thoughts on “ROAD TRIP WEDNESDAY: How to Correct a Fairy-Tale

  1. Excellent analysis, Gabrielle! And I agree with you. If we want to go beyond “ooo, that was a nice story, let me tell my own version” to actually relating the re-telling to a 21st century audience, you have to go beyond the characters to what they represented at the time they were written. Very well said.

  2. Great post!
    You know, I read an article written by someone who works at Disney (it was over a year ago, so the name of the guy and where I found the article escape me) that they wanted to change the Princess image and that begun with Rapunzel and Tiana … now we have Brave too. The article said that girls today are way different that 40-50 years ago (duh!) and that they had to adapt because the previous Princess were all weak and waiting to be saved and with perfect manners and singsong voices blah blah blah, and that’s not how girls are today. It was very, very interesting. Much like your post 😉

  3. Great thoughts, and I totally agree! Snow White takes on the evil corporation threatening to tear down her beloved forest! (or whatever). I agree, since so many women are writing fiction now, we need to use this to our advantage and change some of these old stereotypes by reinventing known heroines. I agree, it doesn’t have to replace a woman with a man per se, but making another woman the source of evil gets tiring. Here’s my YA Highway Post

    1. This idea of girl on girl hostility is very prevalent in contemporary YA with the “mean girl” frequently pitted against a less popular heroine. It’s also a common trope in TV shows. The older female villain is less common in contemporary YA, but still very common in fantasy YA.

  4. This is such a great examination of fairy tales. I think the only retelling I’ve seen of late that puts an interesting spin on the Snow White story is Once Upon a Time–with the whole battle over the child thing it has going on. I could see that being relevant. This is some great food for thought.

  5. I agree with the others that this is something that I haven’t really thought of as in relation to women and their relationships with each other, or the reflection of changing times.

    When you pointed out the Disney princesses, I realize that I do like the more modern takes of the stories, such as Belle and Mulan. I think Disney does rely on the romance, but I’m married to my true love, so I’m partial to those stories. Brave’s take on the princess was welcome to me since it finally focused on the relationship with her family rather than focusing on a mother-less or orphaned child. That is why I decided to write my book. I wanted something more, blending those elements, to create something that I would like to read.

    Great post! Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  6. I like how you deconstructed the conflicts and gave some ideas for updates — great post! Life today is so different from life when these stories were first told, and the challenges young women face, and how they respond to these challenges, has changes as well. I love your ideas!

    1. In a way, young women are much more likely to face antagonism from their age peers than from powerful older women. There are all kinds of “super-woman” expectations that even very young women face and project onto each other.

  7. Oooh I love this! I totally agree. I was thinking about this when I wrote my post. Many of the messages in these stories were relevant a long time ago, but in these retellings maybe certain elements should change to reflect how dramatically society has changed. Great analysis. Great post.

  8. Great post! Truly, I love it! I wrote something similar in my post about how when these stories were originally told the world was a very different place. In these modern retellings perhaps we should be considering changing it up a little to better reflect out society. Great post, great analysis, very insightful and thought provoking. The academic in me gives it an A+

  9. Great post! Certain fairy tales seem to have tons of retellings around the same time and I have to have something with a very unique twist. Someone blogged about a male Cinderella and I thought that would be the neatest thing to read!

  10. Hi Gabrielle, I’ve been following your blog for a while now and am always interested in the information that you post, so I mentioned you in my blog Keeping it Real In West Van and nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger Award. Have a great day!
    See my blog at

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