Vanishing Men in Fairy Tales: Sexism Works Both Ways

With her usual readable and engaging style, Maria Tatar tackles fairy tales in her book Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. She points out that adults have always mediated which fairy tales to tell children and how; to not do so is to ignore how thoroughly bizarre fairy tales can be, especially when used for didactic purposes. The Grimm brothers, who forced lessons into and on the tales they collected, produced positively schizophrenic narratives: Obey your parents or get eaten by a witch! Except you might get eaten anyway. But be sure to obey!

Of course, the Grimms "cleaned up" their tales alongside adding moral lessons. The scatological humor, the sex, and the more extreme violence was expurgated (although the violence lingered longer than the poop jokes and sexual humor). The original tales were likely told by adults to both adults and children (before children were pushed outside of adult discourse and labeled innocent tots).

Donkeyskin is one of those stories no one
ever tells children. It has been made into a
movie and a very good book.
Tatar then goes on to discuss the implicit sexism in these tales. In general, collected fairy tales portray female villains as more wicked than male villains. Along the same lines, while female protagonists inevitably gain their rewards through submission and humility, male protagonists earn their rewards mostly just for being male.

In earlier, non-cleaned up versions, the female protagonists were more likely to employ wit and assertiveness. For instance, in one of the earliest versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Little Red escapes the wolf by exclaiming, "I've got to go outside to pee!" Once outside, she fetches the woodsman.

However, over time, the witty female protagonist got replaced by the meek female protagonist. Tatar attributes this to the attitudes and beliefs of the male collectors--with good reason. The Grimms, for example, produced several editions of their collection, The Nursery and Household Tales. In each subsequent edition, the "lesson" got stronger, the female villains got worse, and the female protagonists (as well as the characters of children) got meeker and more passive.

However, Tatar also tries to attribute the sheer number of tales with evil mothers/stepmothers to male choice: "the men who recorded these oral tales--and for the most part the great collectors of the nineteenth century were male--showed, whenever they had a choice, a distinct preference for stories with female villains over tales with male giants and ogres."

There is obviously some truth to Tatar's observation since many of the tales about negative male behavior included incest! The Grimm brothers were obviously squeamish about including incest tales in their collection.

Adolph Tidemand
However, I think there is another explanation that Tatar bypasses--both men and women can be storytellers, raconteurs. However, by the 1800s, men were beginning to work outside the home (unlike in earlier centuries where men and women worked side by side). Circles of storytellers were becoming more and more female-oriented, at least in day-to-day life (at home around the hearth, sewing or shelling peas). And the people who supplied the Grimm brothers with many of the tales for their collection were female.

And women tell stories about women.

When women talk about parenting, they will sometimes talk about men, but they will focus on sharing tips--and criticisms--from and about other women.

In other words, women are equal opportunity critics. Take, for instance, the Salem Witch Trials, where women accused women of being witches just as often if not more than they accused men (one unusual aspect of the Salem Witch Trials was how many men were, in fact, actually accused). Likewise, women are just as likely, if not more likely, to decide that another woman is a "bad mother" than men.

It is a huge mistake to assume that women are not as prone to promoting cultural assimilation--how to be a good wife/mother/citizen--as men. It is also a mistake to dismiss such female encouragement as the result of brainwashing or stupidity or gender betrayal. Some of the most vocal female proponents of cultural assimilation have been women promoting liberal agendas; the definition of "good woman" has changed, but the expectation that women--those ultimate networkers--will comply with the current definition is just as strong as it has always been.

Even Disney neglected male heroes in
earlier films. Does anyone remember a specific
characteristic of the prince in Sleeping Beauty
Cinderella, or Snow White? The heroines all
have personalities; the princes don't.
This inequality has changed in recent years.

In any case, trying to pinpoint why women criticize other women misses the point. The most noticeable thing about fairy tales isn't their emphasis on negative female characters, but the complete absence of men at all. Sure, there's "Jack & the Beanstalk," "Puss 'n Boots" and others but the best-known fairy tales are about women. When the men are present, they are negated into irrelevance. The father in "Cinderella"--is there a father in "Cinderella"? Technically, yes, but nobody ever remembers him.

Passive and humble or not, female villains and heroines occupy the pages of most fairy tales. Granted, the witty bawdiness of the original Little Red is more satisfying than the silly disobedience of the later Little Red, and that can be laid at the door of male collectors, but Little Red as a female rather than male character cannot be--it indicates that women raconteurs actually mediated not only the deliverance of these tales to male collectors but also their use in oral culture.

I point this out because although I consider Tatar one of the best analysts of fairy tales on record, her analysis often gets rather single-minded. Every motif in every fairy tale is defined as chauvinistic. Even the absence of male characters!

Twist the lens, however, and a very different explanation comes to the fore, one covered by Loudon Wainwright III's "Men," although thankfully things are improving as men and women share more responsibilities inside and outside the home. Still, to be fair, let's consider: maybe there's an absence of male characters, even male villains, in fairy tales because the female raconteurs didn't find them particularly interesting. Can't blame that on men.

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