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Interpretation of Gender Roles in Fairy Tales

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Interpretation of Gender Roles in Fairy Tales

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Who Has The Power: Males or Females?

In the 21st century, feminism is an emerging topic, which can be seen through various artists’ works. When examining fairy tales, one can see that gender roles are different. For example, Cinderella has been considered too passive as a heroine, Little Red Riding Hood is too promiscuous, and the Little Mermaid is too unselfish. On the other hand, men are portrayed positively, where fortune and power appear to be inherent in males. Like the stories “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Little Mermaid,” “Cinderella” is also not a very feminist tale because females are generally subject to misfortune and rely on male characters for power, and males have the ability to reverse these unfortunate situations.

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In “Cinderella,” the heroine is a typical example of a female who is subjected to misfortune. The story describes how a girl is forced into a mistreated situation by her stepmother and stepsisters. At the beginning of the tale, Cinderella’s role is immediately demoted from someone’s daughter to a servant: “This meant the beginning of a hard time for the poor stepchild… every day, she got up before daybreak to carry water, start the fire, cook, and wash” (Tatar, 117). Cinderella’s role suddenly turns into a very passive character; she allows things to occur to her rather than actively attempting to change her situation. She is incapable of altering her fate and must instead passively wait for the Prince. This pattern is recurrent in fairy tales: “The beautiful girl does not have to do anything to merit being chosen” (Lieberman, 386). What this suggests is that the females in fairy tales don’t have the ability to reverse their situations. In the case of Cinderella, she has no other way to leave the family except to wait for the Prince to come. Thus, she accepts her situation passively by fulfilling the demands of her stepfamily.

One could argue that Cinderella does attempt to reverse her situation, making her role more active in the fairy tale. Cinderella is resourceful in trying to place her energy towards going to the ball (Lecture Notes, 5/11/17). Cinderella’s persistent effort to go to the ball is representative of her taking action to take charge of her fate. More importantly, Cinderella’s greatest contribution to her freedom might be her ability “to take control of the situation… [and] make the prince completely dependent on her” (Rohrich, 118). Furthermore, the plasticity nature of fairy tales enables certain versions of Cinderella such as that of Disney to present a more feminist point of view. For example, Disney’s “Cinderella” has a protagonist who is “adept at engineering [her] own rescues” (Tatar, 102). Cinderella is self-sacrificing, and at the same time, she is an individualist (Lecture Notes, 5/18/17). There’s also small passive resistance embedded in the storyline when she’s ordered around: “Yeah, yeah; now what do they want (Lecture Notes, 5/18/17).”

Although Cinderella takes actions that help her find freedom, these actions are largely reliant on the Prince. Without the Prince, Cinderella would still find herself trapped within the abuse of her stepsisters. This idea is characteristic of fairy tales: “This duty to find her lost husband or to win him back again… is often the fate of women in fairy tales” (Rohrich, 111). Females don’t have power in fairy tales, but instead, whatever power they have is bestowed upon them by the male counterparts. For example, Cinderella’s stepfamily is entitled to their authority because Cinderella’s father decided to remarry and share his power. Consequently, the characters in “Cinderella” have gender roles that resemble “a patriarchal world in which… the woman has a servile function” (Rohrich, 113). Although the Disney adaptation features a more feminist view, ultimately, Cinderella still serves as a servant for the family. Thus, in this tale, gender roles for males and females are truly different because regardless of what Cinderella attempts to do, her efforts are largely unsuccessful until a male character appears.

On the other side of the spectrum, characters who don’t fit the female gender role are punished. Often, domestic skills are all-important, while those who don’t exhibit industrious and domestic skills are not typical of the female gender roles (Lecture Notes, 5/18/17). Domestic skills are not character traits that the stepmother or stepsister has. Feminine power is seen through the stepmother and stepsister; however, their ambition for power is so great that they’re willing to trade their own body parts for power. In particular, when the Prince wants to marry the person who can fit the shoe, one of the stepsisters tries on the shoe that doesn’t fit her, and the stepmother responds, “Cut the toe off. Once you’re Queen, you won’t need to go on foot anymore” (Tatar, 121). Notably, this access to power for the stepmother and stepsister is not from within their own abilities but reliant on the Prince, a generic male role. The stepmother and stepsister characteristics are nonconforming to the ideal female gender role, and consequently, they are depicted differently: “Women who are powerful and good are never human; those women who are human, and who have power or seek it, are nearly always repulsive” (Lieberman, 393). The stepsisters are depicted with “hearts [that are] foul and black” (Tatar, 117) and have repulsive behaviors such as throwing lentils and peas into the ash for Cinderella to pick up. Females that have both good personality and power are also depicted differently: “Powerful good women are nearly always fairies, and they are remote” (Lieberman, 392). This woman is the fairy godmother who has power and kindness. Unfortunately, she is depicted not as a human being but as a mythological being. In contrast, the stepmother and stepsister with repulsive personality who have power are depicted in a detestable way. At the end, the stepmother and stepsisters’ power is rather insignificant because they have lost their power to demand Cinderella to do house chores. The stepmother and sister return to being passive characters without the presence of the Prince.

The same distinction between females and males as seen in “Cinderella” can also be seen in “Little Red Cap,” the Grimm version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Little Red Riding Hood is already powerless against the wolf, resulting in her being swallowed, but the Grimm brothers “transforms [Little Red Cap] even more into the naïve, helpless, pretty little girl” (Zipes, 33). More specifically, Little Red Cap, without protection, doesn’t have the power to survive because “she is lost and unable to cope with foreign or strange elements in her surrounding” (Zipes, 33). Subsequently, a male presence, such as the Huntsman is necessary to arrive as a powerful entity and rescue Little Red Cap. As a result, Little Red Cap’s “salvation comes only in the form of a male patriarch who patrols the woods and controls the unruly forces of nature” (Zipes, 36). The male character is the only person who controls the power, and Little Red Cap is subjected to misfortune until his arrival. This resembles Cinderella being forced under countless misfortunes caused by her stepfamily before her Prince shows up and sets her free from their grip.

Similar to Cinderella, the selfless Little Mermaid from Hans Christian Anderson’s tale is also an example of a powerless individual. In the tale, the Little Mermaid is given power to “achieve access and mobility [to the human world]” given that “[she] remains silent and… sacrifices [her] connection to the feminine” (Sells, 181). With fairy tales, characters obtaining “autonomy… is never easy” (Sells, 179) because, for the Little Mermaid, she is dependent on the Prince’s power to successfully remain as a human. The Little Mermaid is forced to rely on “true love” from a male to even obtain access to the human world. Unfortunately for the Little Mermaid, this is not enough; after being betrayed by the prince, the Little Mermaid, once again, sacrificed herself so he could stay with his newlywed. Although it seems that the Little Mermaid is free, what she actually obtains is far from freedom. “Anderson’s reward was never power over one’s own life, but security in adherence to power,” (Sells, 180) so her sacrifice of 300 years of good deed is not at all emancipatory but rather safety by being subservient to God. Cinderella was granted safety from the abuse of her stepmother and stepsisters by the Prince, a higher power than her, if the shoe fits. Suffering the same fate, the Little Mermaid was granted safety by God, also possessing higher power, after serving 300 years of good deeds. This goes to show how female characters in fairy tales have to depend on a male figure with more power to grant them their haven, further highlighting the hierarchy of gender roles in fairy tales.

Upon reflecting various classical fairy tales, one can see these stories share gender roles that reflect a traditional patriarchal view. Across the three fairy tales of different plot, a common trend of males and females role recurs. “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Little Mermaid” both show dependence of the females upon male figures. The tale “Cinderella”, too, contains gender stereotypes such as Cinderella needing power from the Prince to shape her destiny, and because of this, it leaves its mark as an anti-feminist fairy tale.

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