Raising Feminists, The Fairy Tale Edition


Cinderella by Anne Anderson

This weekend my husband and I went to the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. We’d been meaning to for a while, and though we missed the exhibit of Walt’s massive train set (my husband has a 7-year-old boy’s love for trains) the rest of the museum was pretty cool. Lots of tech stuff, lots of original art, lots of “making of” information and displays. Because my husband is a recording guy, he ate it up with a spoon. And because I’m a story guy, if you will, I ate it up with a spoon too.

And it reminded me of raising the kids. We have two daughters. And I told them approximately 2,763,421 bedtime stories (some nights I had to tell more than one), many of them based on fairy tales.

We had a lot of books of fairy tales–my extremely foxed, beat up copies of Andrew Lang’s Red, Blue, Yellow, and… Olive? Fairy Books; Hans Christian Andersen’s stories; individual picture books of Cinderella and Rapunzel, and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and Rumplestiltskin, and… let my husband read No Fighting, No Biting for the 1476th time. I was the go-to parent for fairy tales. And we inherited from my sister-in-law a bunch of the books made from Disney fairy tale movies: Cinderella and Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

The thing is, in reading Lang, or the Disney versions, I noticed each time that they are sometimes a little, um, regressive. What’s a mother to do?

I made a policy for myself, fairly early on, that if I was reading Cinderella I would not sugar-coat. I read the version where the sisters cut off body parts. Why? Because frequently this would lead to discussions about what body parts one might be willing to cut off in order to marry a prince. I suggested I might be willing to cut off my nose, but my older daughter nixed that. “What will hold your glasses up? And besides,” sternly: “You can’t marry a prince. You’re married to Daddy.” And my daughter announced that she was not going to cut off any body parts at all, thank you very much, prince or no prince. That’s the spirit, kid.

And we got into conversations about why the sisters were so desperate to marry the prince, and whether Cinderella was equally desperate–there’s almost nowhere you can’t go, discussion-wise, with a smart five-year-old girl who is trying to put off lights-out. This led to discussions about what Rumplestiltskin was planning to do with the baby he was taking in trade for all that gold he spun, and why the witch in Rapunzel wanted the baby rather than, say, a suitcase full of gold.* When we read The Twelve Dancing Princesses we noticed that in one version the hero takes the youngest princess to wife as his reward (while the illustrations in our edition made it clear the eldest was expecting to be the prize). “Of course,” my daughter noted. “The youngest one is the nice one. The older ones were mean.” Even in princesses, manners count.

With my younger daughter, many of the same questions arose. But because she is a very different person from her big sister, she was always most interested in whoever in the story had the hero role. She did not, she assured me, want to be a boy. She just wanted to be the boss of the adventure. So we read Mulan and Aladdin and The Lion King, and she would tell me what she would have done if she were there–depending on her mood, she would either enact bloody vengeance or explain things to the bad guys until they surrendered in self-defense. Younger girl was more interested in being part of the action than in being a princess.

And of course they watched all the movies. But because there’s a five year gap between the two girls, they didn’t necessarily watch them at the same time.  When older girl was about eleven, she wandered through the living room where her sister was watching Cinderella. “This is kinda a stupid story,” she announced to no one in particular. “He wants to marry her because she’s beautiful, and she wants to marry him because he’s a prince. What are they gonna talk about?”

And I, listening in from the kitchen, raised my hands to the heavens in a gesture of YES!


* These discussions led to my writing Sold for Endless Rue, an historical novel mapped on the Rapunzel tale, because I really did wonder why the witch wanted the baby.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Raising Feminists, The Fairy Tale Edition — 9 Comments

  1. Would you like a list of fairy tales with heroines who win out at least partially due to serious effort on their part?

    • Oh, there are plenty of those in Lang. “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” and several variants. “The Master Maid.” Etc.

      • Okay. If you didn’t know about fairy tale and folklore compiled by people other than the Grimms, Andersen and Lang, I wanted to share some of my favorites, because it sounds as if you and your daughters are a bit tired of the more passive princesses.

    • At this point the daughters are 25 and 19, and if they’re reading fairy tales they’d doing it on their own dime. What I was thinking of here was of the fairy tales that they wanted to read over (and over and over) when they were small, which very often were the standard Lang/Perrault/Disney stories. Later we moved on to stories that were a little less on the beaten path.

      If you’d like to share your list of stories, though, that would be lovely.

  2. When I was about 11 I made all my cousins act out The Twelve Dancing Princesses at our grandparents’ house. This was before they moved ‘to town’ so it was a huge country house with an enormous basement, which is where the dancing took place.

    I was the Hero, of course. 🙂

  3. I always loved the version where it is a returning soldier who figured out what the curse was upon the twelve dancing princesses, and when asked, he said: “I would marry the eldest, for I am no longer young.” And her smile held all the wisdom of the witch who had pointed him toward his adventure. And he wondered, but was blessed with happiness…and probably never asked.

    I remind myself that 25 was old in those days, if you survived a war.

    Awesome raising of feminists!

    • Grimms’! The one with the youngest, in Lang, is from French.

      But my own favorite variant on that is “Kate Crackernuts.”