I will let you in on a little secret. I love fairy tales. I love fantasy fiction. I love wizards and dragons and elves and fairies. I love worlds where the struggle of a good soul has meaning and stories that show the purpose of hardship. I love rugged heroes. I hate princesses. I hate fair maidens. Fairy tales come under fire for being sexist and that’s because they usually are (or racist, or classist or a hundred other things that are hard to shake out of a blanket woven centuries ago which, you know, was back when it was acceptable to be racist and sexist and classist). Regardless of their flaws, fairy tales still hold such a special place for me because of one very important thing; I crave the fantastic in a world devoid of magic, heroes, and good triumphing over evil. Classical fairy tales are the bedrock of fantasy literature and unfortunately their worst trait has become their defining allure: weak female characters.
Talking about women and fairy tales isn’t going to be easy because fairy tales have a history of male dominated storytelling, which is also going to make it nigh impossible to talk about women and Fairy Tales and not talk about Disney. Full disclosure: as a 90’s child, of course I grew up with the Disney Princesses and that does hold some pleasant nostalgic memories. But let’s also remember that nostalgia is laziness with prettier accessories. As an adult, I almost fell out of my chair when I saw that Frozen didn’t end with a marriage and I thought wow, it has taken way too long for them to get that point. The Little Mermaid was released in 1989 (I was four) and it took Disney twenty-five years to finally be ok with young women doing the rescuing without a wedding somehow involved. Not that Frozen didn’t circle the idea with those weird singing dog turds. Wikipedia tells me they’re supposed to be trolls, I think they’re dog turds.
The fairy tales that are coming out now feel forced and under-developed because Disney wants to corner the market on pixie dust and little boys’ shadows before the last stroke of midnight. All of the big fairy tale related hoopla these days are Disney projects: Once Upon a Time, Into The Woods, and the live-action Cinderella that comes out in 2015 are all theirs. This kind of popularity makes it hard to argue with the fundamental staying power of classical fairy tales. Unfortunately, staying power in this instance means “ability to make a lot of money”.
The classics are cash cows because everyone recognizes Cinderella. Even if she wasn’t Mickey’s BFF, you’d still get the gist if I told you a story about a girl whose stepmother and stepsisters abused her, she escaped and went to a bangin’ party where she had to pretend to be something she wasn’t to get the attention of the hottest and richest dude there and after a bunch of wacky mishaps involving loss of magically impractical footwear and evil plotting by her stepmother, eventually she gets rescued. I could set this story in the pleistocene epoch and have her coach pulled by glyptodons and it would still be pretty evident that I was rebooting Cinderella.
And herein lies the problem. We are telling the same inhibitive stories again and again just to make money. As a viewing and reading public we all seem to be okay with paying for these reheated and sticky trope casseroles because what little girl doesn’t want to be a princess?
There’s this feminine ideal that comes with fairy tales that we still impart on little girls and young women; almost all toys aimed at little girls focus around being a princess. Look up “fairy tale wedding” on Pintrest and tell me with a straight face that shit looks empowering. Through these canned retellings we’re just reiterating to little girls that they have to be kind and polite and cute and to be anything other than that is to be unloveable because hot boys will be offended by their strength. I’ve been told this school of thought is back handed in that I’m not giving little girls enough credit to realize that fairy tales are just stories. They shouldn’t be “just” stories. They should be impactful, powerful, and empowering stories that tell little girls to stand up for themselves and to do the right thing even though it may be unpopular. Fairy tales weren’t “just stories” for the women in my generation. Think of how many times you’ve heard one of your girlfriends joke that Disney gave her unrealistic expectations about romance and ask yourself if fairy tales were really ever “just stories”.
When the all mighty Disney opens it’s magical maw and spits out yet another neutered fairy tale, you get the odd half-hearted obligatory outcries about sexism and body image, but does anybody actually do anything about it? And by “anybody” I mean women writers and by “do anything” I mean write new fairy tales that don’t end with a marriage or a girl just being happy because she has a sweet new ride and some fancy clothes.
This is where modern fairy tales and fantasy have a great opportunity, there’s a niche that’s not being filled by the current popular trend: strong female characters that don’t take shit, don’t lie about who they are or hide their motives, and don’t need rescuing. And lately we’ve had a good showing of them: Hermione Granger, Éowyn, The Hempstock Women, Tiffany Aching, or any female character in Game of Thrones (dead or alive).
But wait! There’s a problem here. That’s a lot of intelligent, strong, and powerful female characters and only one of them was written by a woman. Yeah, that stings. Ladies, we might need some aloe for this burn. Maybe if I whistle a bluebird will bring me some.The women on this list endured horrible tragedy and hardship to become women of power, insight, and change and all of them were sometimes impolite, unkind, and not always dressed cute. Nothing about Brienne of Tarth ends well when there’s a cute dress involved.
Why is this still happening? When I pitched my first manuscript to a panel of male editors and agents the first question they asked was “is it a romance?” and immediately on the heels of that: is there sex in it? After I answered in the negative, they asked me if my manuscript (which they hadn’t read) could be re-worked as a romance, or if I could add a few sex scenes. They didn’t ask any of the men who pitched their manuscripts if it was a romance novel or if there were any sex scenes. After that experience, it doesn’t surprise me that aspiring women authors are hiding behind romance. In a contemporary literary world where the most dominant female author is E. L. James, it’s only natural for publishers to try and benefit from that popularity and assume that they can ask a new author to add in some synonyms for throbbing and then just switch around the branding. The Who Doesn’t Want to be a Princess strategy has just upped the ante to Who Doesn’t Want to be a Frigid Princess who gets Banged by an Emotionally Distant Asshole (who is Rich and Hot)?
As aspiring authors, we have a choice. We don’t have to add in the sex or waste our otherwise precious creativity thinking of a way to make the word ‘turgid’ sound less gross; fantasy and fairy tales are selling without it. In The Sleeper and The Spindle, Snow White saves Sleeping Beauty. It is beautifully told and everything a fairy tale should be; it has bravery, triumph of good over evil, and some women who kick ass and it is written by Neil Gaiman. Understand I believe this man can do no wrong (he’s also married to a very prominent feminist), but he shouldn’t have to write strong women because we’re not writing them. We shouldn’t be waiting for the men to save us and set the precedent for strong female characters. What does it say about women fantasy authors when Queen Cersei is more likable than Bella Swan? The problem here isn’t that Twlight is badly written, or weirdly abusive or whatever tired crap we want to throw at a successful franchise: the problem is that it’s selling because there’s nothing else out there. As authors we shouldn’t be hiding behind romances if that’s not where our hearts are, and we shouldn’t (I really hope you’re listening to me, ladies) under any circumstances be publishing under our initials because we’re afraid we won’t be taken as seriously as men. J. K. Rowling published under her initials back in 1997 under the direction of a publisher who thought young boys wouldn’t want to read a book written by a woman. In wanting to emulate the venerable Ms. Rowling, a lot of young women authors are submitting under their initials and therefore perpetuating a terrible ideal. By all means, please emulate J. K. Rowling by writing the next Luna Lovegood and not by thinking your work isn’t equal to a man’s.
Maybe the fantasy genre lacks strong female characters because big evil male publishers only want virginal heroines who get rescued by a hot rich guy with considerably sized junk. Maybe it’s because Disney gave us unrealistic expectations for our cuticles and our creative time is otherwise absorbed trying to get the perfect manicure. Or maybe it’s because we’re not writing them. Who knows strong women better than a strong woman? Stop waiting for the white knight, ladies. At this point, we should all be aware that he’s not real and that we can get the job done just as well (if not better).