How Women Are Represented In Fairy Tales

How Women Are Represented In…



This is my new thing. I read a million books a year. I teach English Literature. I’m a woman. Naturally, it fascinates me how other people sharing the same biological functions as me are represented in book form, and I like the idea of sharing my findings. Start a discussion. Shatter the patriarchy. That kind of thing.

            Mostly it’ll be SFF stuff, but I’ll occasionally throw in a classic, a poem or two, maybe a play, even a movie or TV series I’m currently into. Anything that’s been written down will be analysed by my feminist eye!

            So to kick it all off:

…Every Single Classic Fairy Tale. Ever.


Grew up on fairy tales, me. Because my parents aren’t sociopaths who wanted to traumatise their kids, my first fairytale foray was in the sickly-sweet world of Disney (I still cry when Dumbo goes to visit his mum). But, when I was about eight, I found a copy of fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm. That shit was brutal. I loved it.

            Three decades later, I still have a penchant for vicious fiction, but my obsession with language and its ability to shape how we think about stuff and people has resulted in a somewhat more rigorous reading of the world around me.

            And I got really pissed off with passive princesses, vengeful step-mothers, and men who turn up just to save the day.


Maid, Mother, Crone

Archetypes, then. Every single classic fairy tale ever contains at least two of the above female archetypes (and we’ll see them pop up time and again throughout this HWARI series), sometimes all three.   

            The heroine is always a Maid. A passive, sex-free innocent who needs a man to help her out of dire straits, whom she will then marry because she’s that grateful, and that useless on her own.

            The Crone, usually (but not always) old with magical abilities, is the Maid’s nemesis. She will always, always, get killed by the man.

            The Mother is usually absent. If she’s not dead at the start of the story, she’ll soon get bumped off so that the Maid is on her own and can be saved by a man. Mothers are usually good and kindly, because they did the socially-required thing and got married before having sex, and she only had sex so she could reproduce, not because it’s fun. If you see a step-mother, however, she’s evil, because she’s not part of the original family unit. She’ll function as the Crone but without magic (sometimes). Fairy godmothers, on the other misogynistic hand, are always good. Probably because they’ve got “god” in their names and the Church would never allow its supernatural entity to be defamed in literature. Also because fairy godmothers are only substitute mothers, they haven’t married the heroine’s dad for money like step-mothers invariably do, so they’re allowed to be good.

            So there we have it; the female archetypes in all fairy tales ever: Maid and Mother (or godmother) = good. Step-mother / Crone = bad.


Archetypes in Action

Little Snow White, then. Linguistically, the only way this princess’s name could inform readers of her purity and innocence even more would be if she were called Virgin Child. “And as soon as the child was born, the queen died.” So her father remarried.

            This new woman, “proud and arrogant, and she could not stand it if anyone might surpass her in beauty”, performs the dual roles of step-mother and Crone because she’s pretty gifted with magic. Her jealous rage at Snow’s youth and beauty (because in a patriarchal society they’re all that’s valued in women) causes her to plot her death in various ways, none of which works because she’s always foiled by men.

            Man #1: can’t kill Snow in the forest because she’s so young and beautiful.

            (Very short) Men #2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8: remove the suffocating bodice, then dislodge the poison comb (both articles of “beauty”). They’re smart enough to work out the Crone’s first two ruses (which they wouldn’t have had to do had Snow not kept falling for the same old-peddler-woman routine), but for ruse number three they need the deus ex machina…

            Man #9: Falls in love with a corpse, orders clumsy servants to carry her in the coffin back to his castle. When they drop her, the poison apple falls out of her throat. They get married and invite the Crone to the wedding, where they do this to her:

            “Then they put a pair of iron shoes into burning coals. They were brought forth with tongs and placed before her (the Crone). She was forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance until she fell down dead.”

            Bit harsh.

            Moral of the story: “Women, distrust each other always. Wait passively, then a man will save you from your own stupidity.”

 Read it here:


Cinderella. After telling her to “remain pious and good”, Cinders’ mum dies. Dad remarries, step-mother’s a bitch and so are her two “beautiful, with fair faces, but evil and dark hearts” daughters. She plants a hazel tree on Mother’s grave, and even though it’s magic, it’s still not powerful enough to get Cinders out of her shit home. For that she needs a man. Cinders uses the magic to get dresses (I ask you!) to wear in front of one. Man falls in love with her because she’s young and beautiful (and looks rich), so why wouldn’t he?

            Cinders then runs away a lot and sits about for ages, waiting for him to come and find her, because fairy godmother forbid our heroine were anything other than passive. No one likes an assertive woman in these stories. But find her he does. Only, the bitch step-mother and the bitch sisters try and prevent the course of “true love”. And this was where the Grimms really went to town on those naughty sisters. They ended brutally because they deviated from a woman’s trajectory, mutilated themselves to win a man’s favour, and weren’t as pure as our Maiden. Their story ended thus:

            “When the bridal couple walked into the church, the older sister walked on their right side and the younger on their left side, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them. Afterwards, as they came out of the church, the older one was on the left side, and the younger one on the right side, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each of them. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.”


            Moral of the story: “Women, distrust each other always. Wait passively, then a man will save you in time, even though you’ve got a magic fucking tree.”

 Read it here:


But Sleeping Beauty is the worst. You literally cannot get any more passive a heroine than this woman who was put to sleep for a hundred years. By another woman. Let’s have a look at the cast: Maiden: young, “the most beautiful person in the world”, has no control over events and needs saving. Actual Mother is rarely mentioned in the story. Maiden is bestowed wondrous gifts by seven fairies who, despite all that power at their seventy fingers tips, still can’t save her, except to weaken the death curse of the “very old fairy”—Crone. She’s the socially outcast woman with power whom nobody likes, and then they’re all surprised when she’s not nice back to them. But none of these women—because casting a magic spell that keeps working for more than a hundred years is pretty fucking powerful—is any match for a man with a destiny.

            But all that’s in the sanitised Charles Perrault version. The original version by Giambattista Basile, entitled Sun, Moon and Talia is truly terrifying because of the message it sends. Our hero man (who already has a wife, by the way) is so overwhelmed by Maiden’s beauty that he has sex with her while she’s unconscious, gets her pregnant and fucks off. Because she doesn’t wake up. Nine months later, she gives birth to twins and it’s the babies sucking on her fingers that dislodges the poison spindle allowing her to come to her senses. On his next visit, he tells her what happened. Apparently, learning of her rape meant “their friendship was knitted with tighter bonds, and he remained with her for a few days.”

            But it doesn’t end there. The man’s actual wife, who has “a heart of Medea”, now takes on the mantel of Crone because she’s not young and beautiful like our Maiden/Mother, becomes incensed with jealousy at her husband’s betrayal and orders the two children to be cooked and served up as the man’s dinner (it’s all right—the cook saves them). Then she orders Maiden/Mother to be burnt alive. Man stops this in time (he’d been away at his villa), calls his wife a “renegade bitch” and has his her burnt alive instead.

            And they lived happily ever after. 

            Basile’s moral of the story: “Those whom fortune favours, Find good luck even in their sleep.”

            Actual moral of the story: “Women, distrust each other always. Wait passively, then a man will rape you, and murder his wife.”

Read it here:


Why do these archetypes exist, Maria?

Good question, I’m glad you asked. I have a theory about that.

            We live in a patriarchal society, have done for about two thousand years, here in the west. At some point, some men decided how women should be. The perfect woman, in order for a man to own her through marriage, had to be a pure, innocent virgin. If she’d already had sex, then she was the archetypal Whore (I’ll talk about that in a sec) and no good to the man. So the Maid got married, then had sex — but she didn’t enjoy it. She only had sex so she could have children and further the man’s lineage (through sons) and become the Mother. Still useful to society. Once the Mother is past child-rearing age and ability, however, and is of no further use to the man, she becomes a Crone; despised and feared by all society because she’s no longer young and beautiful and can no longer bear children thus she is useless to society. As women, that was (still is?) our trajectory. A straight line: Maiden —> Mother —> Crone.

            Now. Should we deviate by having sex before marriage, we swerve off our trajectory between Maiden and Mother and become the archetypal Whore. She is loathed by society because she doesn’t do what she’s told, she flaunts her sexuality and she won’t follow the rules. Watch any teen-slasher horror movie ever, and if there’s an outspoken young woman who likes having sex, I guarantee she’ll die first. Society still doesn’t like women who aren’t passive sex objects for their one life-long man.

            Deviate the other side too, between Mother and Crone, by getting married for a second time and thus becoming a step-mother and you’re still bad. Why? Because you’re only supposed to stay with one man ever for your whole life, that’s why! You’ve deviated from the mandated trajectory. Notice how, in fairy tales, the father’s not suddenly bad because he got remarried. You never see a Maiden heroine whose father’s died leaving her alone with Mother until evil step-father comes along. You’ll never see it.

            In fact, you’ll notice now (in everything you read and watch from now on. You’re welcome) that men don’t have the same single-line trajectory that we do. You have young male heroes, you have fathers, you have wise old men to help the hero on his journey (Crone’s absolute antithesis, right? She can never help the young heroine on her journey), but it’s not expected for male characters to move from one, to the next, to the last. In life as in books. Men are free to move around the path as they will, sowing their wild oats without becoming a Man-Whore and dying horribly at the hands of a Maiden heroine, remarrying as many times as they want without becoming an evil step-father and dying horribly at the hands of a Maiden heroine. Nope. They can do whatever they want without any societal backlash. Because they wrote the rules. Patriarchy.


The End

So that’s how women are represented in fairy tales: five archetypal characters. Go and read a selection of them right now and I challenge you to not find at least two of them. All right, in The Three Little Pigs, The Ugly Duckling and other animal-based fairy tales it might be a struggle because all of the characters are animals, not women. But they are anthropomorphised, so it could still work. I might even make that the subject of another post. For now, go and read some human-centric fairy tales and see how women are represented. Every single time.


            Now I’m not saying that people should never use these female archetypes ever again. Sometimes a story may be crying out for a bitch of a step-mother in order to get the plot moving, and as every writer knows, the story is always the thing. I’m simply saying, to all writers out there who put women in their fiction, be aware of them. We may well be propping up the patriarchy by writing in a female archetype that our forefathers dreamt up once upon a time, a long time ago.