Gender Issues within Fairy Tales
Why is it that in a time when women were considered an inferior gender, they would become the main characters in fairy tales? One reason could be that fairy tales are one of the few genres created by women. The fairy tale originates in the seventeenth century when aristocratic women would gather in salons and play a game of who could make up the best story. This gave women a chance "to demonstrate their intelligence and education," and "to picture themselves, social manners, and relations in a manner that represented their interests" (Zipes 20). Many of these oral stories were later published by men, and through the years have been rewritten by men.
Perhaps the most popular writers of fairy tales are the brothers Grimm. The women in their renditions are portrayed as either beautiful, tortured women who must find a way out of their situation (usually through the aid of a man) or the woman is the villain who is usually causing the torture for the beautiful woman. The villainous woman is usually a stepmother who embodies "the many faces of maternal evil" (Tatar 140). Also, Tatar states that "instead of functioning as nurturers and providers, cannibalistic female villains withhold food and threaten to turn children into their own source of nourishment, reincorporating them into the bodies that gave birth to them" (140).
This cannibalistic female is seen in tales such as Hansel and Gretel where the old witch lures the children into her house made of candy and tries to cook Hansel for her supper and make Gretel a maid. The female villain, however, is not always a cannibal; "many are experts in the art of weaving spells: these are the witches and enchantresses." (Tatar 141) This type of villain is portrayed as the evil queen in Snow White, who turns herself into an old beggar woman and gives Snow White poisoned gifts. One of the traits of these enchantresses is that they turn men into animals, which "may be read as a telling commentary on women's attitudes toward male sexuality" (146).
The beautiful woman usually embodies good virtues and behaves as a woman of the time period is expected too. They represent the opposite role of the villainous woman because the heroine is all that is good while the villain is all that is bad. The heroines are also usually title characters as is the case of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. These heroines also usually go through torture such as "having her eyes torn out" but is rewarded for her torture as in the same example when the heroine's vision "one year and a day later, are replaced and can see seven times as clearly as before," which makes "the listener feel how suffering can purify and strengthen" (Luthi 144). Another reason for women playing such a key role in fairy tales is the Oedipal complex. In fairy tales the Oedipal complex manifests itself from the female perspective (or the Electra complex)....