Misogyny in Fairytales

Some of my readers, looking at the title, may wonder if this topic is perhaps too deep and too random for me to explore. It’s not everyday that you explore misogyny, let alone in a context as far off as fairytales. Am I psychologically trained enough to handle such complexities as the Oedipus complex or feminist portrayals? Well, perhaps you’re right. No, in fact, I daresay you’re right indeed.

This title is far from random, though. I visited the Singapore Writers Festival today, and the Fringe events this year were much more enticing than the main event itself, for its theme was “Once Upon A Time”, which showcased the producers and films which took fairytales and remade them in their own imaginings. And as you may expect, many of these modern takes were much more confusing than their original versions (remember that we’re not looking at Hollywood re-imaginings here). I watched Barbe Bleu, which is Bluebeard if you’re Franco-savvy enough, and all I can say is that it demonstrates starkly how confusing the original story must have been. One main problem of the Singapore Writers Festival is that it has so many programmes and panel discussions lined up at the same time, and attending one means you skip many others, and it can be so hard to decide which one to go for. I should go into the psychology of making choices sometime (or have I already? I feel as if I have) but basically the SWF is about the hard choice of where to spend your time without a Time Turner.

“Misogyny in Fairytales”, for that matter, is the name of a panel discussion that will happen tomorrow. I’ll try to tackle it now, in a more general and pared-down sense, where of course I bring in a smattering of my own unlearned opinions and the experience of having watched Barbe Bleu, which is but one of the movies in the entire Fringe event.

So the idea is that fairytales seem to have many recurring riffs, such as the idea of a princess protagonist who started out as a poor but pretty woman who married a prince in the end, and sometimes there are evil stepmothers or otherwise older women with malevolent interests. Why are women portrayed in either weak or powerful-but-unlikeable roles? It seems to teach girls that if they are too agentic and strong in pursuing their goals, they end up being seen as bad people, and no Prince Charming will want to “save” them. Most fairytales like Cinderella have pretty healthy lessons, but things like Bluebeard and Grimm tales like The Little Mermaid are a bit questionable. And this also ties in to the scandal about Frozen, the upcoming Pixar feature, which is an adaptation of the Snow Queen but turns almost all the female characters in there into males. Why is gender so prevalent in fairytales?

Compare them to, say, children’s books like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Roald Dahl certainly did not have much trouble writing Matilda, which is a story about feminine power if ever I saw one. Enid Blyton wrote about girls’ boarding schools, but also had things like the Famous Five where the gender division in the team was fairly equal. Granted, she had a thing with teams where there were more boys than girls (think the Mystery series and the Secret Seven, among others), and there must always be 1 “older boy” and 1 “quiet girl”. But the kids were usually evenly powered gender-wise, and Roald Dahl alternates between boys and girls as his protagonists. He probably even favours girls, because The BFG — a book I liked — also had a strong protagonist in Sophie. The Magic Finger also belonged to a girl, I think.

But yes, what is the difference between fairytales and healthy children’s reads, and why are fairytales so restricted? Of course then again, we are also looking at a very restricted view of fairytales. Things like Goldilocks was also a fairytale, and it didn’t involve princesses or marriages, just a really obnoxious girl. But witches are definitely a thing even in Hansel & Gretal, or The Witches in Roald Dahl, and it’s so superficial to always say the witches are ugly and have a big hooked nose whilst the good people are all gorgeous even in rags. What lessons are they even teaching?

I’ve a hunch fairytales are the next most twisted thing in our modern age, right after clowns.

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