The Roles of Women in Fairy Tales
As children most of our life lessons were acquired through the simplicity of fairy tales. Subliminal messages taught us to always believe in true love and that good wins out over evil. Those messages over centuries have changed to fit the growing times. Cinderella is a story that taught us not only does true love win but good wins over evil and eventually the world is set right. In both Charles Perrault’s classic, Donkeyskin, and the Grimm’s Brothers retelling, Cinderella, they seek different ways to seek help and have different familial relationships that changed the role of women with each retelling of the story.
In one of the original versions of the classic Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault, after the death of his queen, the king wishes to remarry. The only way he can do this and keep his promise to his queen is by marrying his daughter, Donkeyskin. Extremely upset by the proposal Donkeyskin, “saddened by this kind of love, grieved and wept night and day.” In a time of need and desperation Donkeyskin turned towards her fairy godmother who gave her advice in order to avoid her fathers proposal. While Donkeyskin managed to run away from her problems shows value from personal strength and wisdom rather then devotion towards ones family. Perrault’s Donkeyskin was able to escape as a result of her own skills and resourcefulness. When baking a cake for the prince, Donkeyskin hid her ring inside the dough so that her “young admirer would accept the ring.” These stories and their morals were passed down for generations by women. Women were the ones who told these oral tales to young children and other women during social gatherings. When these stories are changed from oral tales to written, the ideas related to them continued on. Perrault recreated these oral tales and made them into published tales. Perrault’s version of Cinderella empowered women to take on society whereas the Grimm’s Brothers version changes the role of women.
Cinderella, by the Grimm’s Brothers begins with the death of a young girl’s mother. She tells her daughter to be good and pray faithfully before she passes away. The father remarries a evil woman who has two daughters of her own. The three of them turn the young girl into a servant who must sleep on the floor in the cinders, and they give her the nickname Cinderella. Cinderella is emotional abused and poorly treated throughout the story but is humble due to her mother’s words to be good and pray faithfully. The Cinderella from this tale faces familial conflict not form her father like in the Charles Perrault version, but from her stepsisters and stepmother. The stepsisters constantly ridiculed her and did everything imaginable to make her miserable. When the king throws a three-night long festival so his son can find a wife, Cinderella helps her stepsisters get prettied up because that what she was told to do by her mother, be nice . When she asks to attend the ball, her stepmother refuses her from going by setting her an impossible task—to sort a bowlful of lentils from the ashes. Cinderella continuously prays at the tree growing on her mother’s grave three times daily. “Three times every day Cinderella would go and sit beneath it and weep and pray, and each time, a little white bird would also come to the tree. Whenever Cinderella expressed a wish, the bird would throw her whatever she requested”. These doves helped her go to the prince’s festival by giving her a dress of gold and silver. These birds are a symbol of the relationship between Cinderella and her mother because the birds cake from the tee over her mother’s grave. The love Cinderella felt for her mother was what helped her meet the love of her life and of course they lived happily ever after. In, Charles Perrault’s version, Donkeyskin is a heroine who uses her skills and resourcefulness to help her escape her familial relationships and seeker help from her godmother whereas in the Grimm’s version personal strength and wisdom is replaced by devotion to one’s family and sense of duty. Cinderella needed aid of the doves and is saved by being virtuous and a dutiful daughter. These changes show the shift from the older tales which are filled with more sexual themes, such as marrying your own daughter, to the more child-appropriate, the be nice and nice things will happen to you, bedtime stories which resemble the current versions we know today.
To further explain why fairytales are changed throughout the years and why the role of women changed we look to Bruno Bettelheim’s work, The Uses Of Enchantment. Bruno Bettelheim discusses how “in order to master the psychological problems of growing up-overcoming narcissistic disappointments, Oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries” we must must loom to fairy tales. Bettelheim goes into depth about how the unconscious mind and why we even need fairy tales. He starts to discuss this dominant culture. “The dominant culture wishes to pretend, particularly where children are concerned, that the dark side of man does not exist, and professes a belief in an optimistic meliorism.” Bettelheim is explaining that we need struggle and pain in order to understand the nature of the world. Fairy Tales teach us that struggle isn’t bad it makes us persevere. In the Grimm’s Brothers, Cinderella, the story begins with the death of the parent which according to Bruno Bettelheim, “creates the most agonizing problems.” Without Fairy Tales this promotes deep inner conflicts and emotions. Fairy Tales provide different deep meanings to children and adults. With all of this Bruno Bettelheim agrees that we can only appreciate a Fairy Tail in its true form, not through retelling. “One especially crucial limitation must be noted: The true meaning and impact of a fairy tale can be appreciated, its enchantment can be experienced, only from the story in its original form.” We need Fairy Tales to unlock our psychological needs and wants.
Fairy tales at their most basic are the stories of our lives in their most stripped down form. They are stories of love and loss, desire and death, riches and ruin. Throughout generations and retelling the stories have changed but they teach us how to survive and are a shortcut to a common understanding of the way the world works. It’s important that we keep these stories in circulation, especially the originals, because they tell us so much about what it is to be human.
“Our greatest natural resource is the minds of our children” – Walt Disney