LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Fairy Tales: Depicting the Development of Female Gender Roles

on January 17, 2013 3:14pm

          For centuries, fairy tales have permeated many cultures and societies. While these tales often served to entertain children and/or teach them morals, they also serve as reflections of the societies and time periods in which their numerous versions developed, spread, and were transcribed. In particular, the evolution of many tales follows the development of gender roles and expectations of the societies in which they originated. This can be seen in how many popular tales have adapted over time and are depicted in popular culture today.

            In many traditional fairy tales, female characters fell into a dichotomy, filling the role of the heroine or the villain. The heroine was a depiction of the ideal young woman: beautiful, compassionate, youthful, calm, and often naïve. The female villain is depicted as older, often a mother figure (or stepmother), who is cunning, jealous, and downright malicious. This could be seen in tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” both of which featured a young, beautiful, virtuous young woman at odds with a malicious, jealous stepmother. This dichotomy reflected the common conceptions of women during the time that they were told and transcribed, as women were valued for their beauty, youth, and virtue, while ambitious, scheming, outspoken women were seen as tainted, inappropriate and improper.


Cinderella startled by her stepmother’s reflection as she comes up behind her.


Snow White and her stepmother disguised as an old beggar.

            With the dawn of filmmaking in the 20th century, fairy tales began to appear in a new medium, and eventually became wildly popular. In recent years, we have seen a resurgence of this wild popularity in many different forms, such as film, television, and music, and in adaptations that reflect modern depictions of gender roles. For example, in the 2012 movie Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White, though similar to film adaptations of earlier films, is depicted as much stronger, outspoken, and motivated, as the audience sees her suit up in armor and fight for the kingdom that was rightfully hers. In another adaptation of “Snow White,” Mirror, Mirror, also released in 2012, the audience watches as an in-control, and clever Snow White feeds her stepmother a poisonous apple originally meant for herself. These films are just a few examples of contemporary adaptations of traditional fairy tales, with more outspoken, clever, and go-getting modern heroines that are much more reflective of the typical woman in our American society today.


3 responses to “Fairy Tales: Depicting the Development of Female Gender Roles

  1. I like the fact that you recognized that the “classic” ideals of women in these fairy tales are drastically different than the majority of women in modern society. In the traditional Disney princess films, the women fit the stereotype of a damsel in distress. Although the princesses such as Cinderella and Snow White are the protagonists of the story, they are not what I would consider heroines. Each requires saving from another character: typically a prince. Although the princess was not the heroine, she was always the most loved character, which, like you mentioned, was because she fit the role of what a woman of that time period should be. However, one thing I read last summer about the so-called evolution of Disney princesses supports your point that even though this tales are still classics, the gender roles depicted in them have shifted dramatically away from the “classic” female image.
    The movie Brave received a lot of criticism about the female character Merida. Critics were furious regarding the fact that Merida was not well groomed, liked to spend most of her time outdoors and dirty, and because she did not have a love interest in the movie. This new princess defies most of the characteristics the classic princesses posses: beauty, grace, and love for a prince. Several critics even went so far as to say that because Merida had no love interest she was a lesbian.
    What I found most interesting is that despite terrible reviews from critics, the movie was extremely well received by audiences. Average viewers commented how much they loved the new independent princess who didn’t need a man to save the day. They loved that her big red curls weren’t perfectly in place but still beautiful in their own right. They loved that she had a weapon of her own so she stood a chance in a fight and did not need to be protected. So this brings me back to the ultimate question of what makes a classic: will this film be a classic tale in fifty years like the other princesses due to popular appeal? Or is it just a fleeting phenomenon that could never be a classic because it does not conform to “classic” stereotypes?

  2. cwood520 says:

    I definitely find a lot of truth and insight within this blog by BKFINING as it seems to aptly describe the development of fairytales as a reflection of society specifically through the vehicle of the female gender role. As we have learned from much of our readings so far about the origins of fairytales as well as their progression throughout time, we see that these stories are not just a reflection of society and its cultures, but they are also a fundamental part of that culture too. In the Introduction to The Classic Fairytales by Maria Tartar, Margaret Atwood was quoted describing her first childhood introduction to fairytales by asking, “Where else could I have gotten the idea…so early in life, that words can change you?” (xii, Tartar) Here, as detailed by Tartar, Atwood is exclaiming over the shaping qualities and “transformative spells” that the fairytales that dominated our childhoods possess. Tartar says they, “…both shape our way of experiencing the world and endow us with the power to restructure our lives.” (xii, Tartar) I agree with this claim completely, these powers of fairytales are evidenced in our every day lives – walk into a kindergarten classroom today and ask any little girl what she wants to be and nine times out of ten she’ll say princess. Ask a little girl fifty years ago and she’ll say a princess, even ask a hundred years ago. Though the allure and attraction of the ‘princess’ character hasn’t changed for years, what we have adapted our princesses to look like and act like has changed and progressed as our society has. As BKFINING pointed out in the blog, so rightly observing that the “contemporary adaptations of traditional fairy tales, with more outspoken, clever, and go-getting modern heroines are much more reflective of the typical woman in our American society today.”

  3. thethenabean says:

    Great post! Gender plays such a significant role in reading fairy tales, and Disney, in spite of a “modern” retelling, perpetuates these roles. While most of the princesses (generally considered to be the “heroines” of a role) are passive and demure, the villainesses, against whom we are meant to cheer, often show feminist qualities like ambition, intelligence and autonomy. While certainly problematic to only incorporate passive portrayals of women, it is perhaps even more detrimental to show women as either incapable or evil.

    One of the ways most interesting to me that Disney conveys this dichotomy is with the wardrobe they draw for the women in their films. While the princesses are typically shows in both feminine color and silhouette, the villainesses wear masculine shapes and wear those colors that indicate power and darkness. Take, for example, Sleeping Beauty and Malificent – while Aurora wears a pale pink gown, Malificent is in a rich, dark purple (one that typically indicates royalty), with artificial shoulder “spikes” and plenty of black. Aurora’s image is one of sweetness and girlhood, where the Queen is powerful. In this way, without ever explicitly stating the difference, Disney portrays one as evil and one as innocent.

    While this utilization of colors is certainly not unique to Disney, it is problematic again in its failure to recognize that the two concepts are not mutually exclusive; that is to say, a princess may be, at once, innocent and capable.

    This trend has been somewhat reversed in recent films; in “Tangled”, for example, Rapunzel wears purple and is very much in charge of her own fate. Similarly, Mulan is a character for whom the terms “powerless” and “demure” simple do not apply. However, even these seemingly empowered princesses still rely on the approval and companionship of men – so perhaps Disney still has a while to go.

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