From Werewolf Hunters to Rights Activists: Updating Fairy Tale Heroines

Picture Cinderella, with her apron and her broom and her face covered in ashes. She’s probably scrubbing a floor. She’s probably singing. She’s definitely not complaining or thinking bitter thoughts or doing anything that could endanger her selfless perfection, because that perfection will inevitably lead to a handsome prince coming along and rescuing her from her awful, tedious life.

Now, be honest. You kind of hate her, don’t you?

Back in the days of the Grimm brothers, when women had few rights and few choices and were largely viewed as property of their fathers or husbands, this type of heroine offered hope. It suggested that if a girl were good and pious and silently put up with all the miseries of her life, she had a chance of being lifted up to something better. Not by her own doing, of course—that would just be silly. But by the graciousness of a fairy godmother (or the ghost of her dead mother) and the attentions of a rich and charming prince. Her life could get better, but only if she were the type of girl that deserved it.

Unfortunately, that stereotype doesn’t work so much for today’s readers, particularly today’s teenage girls who are raised to believe they can start companies and be elected president and make more money than their future husbands and not even feel bad about it. Today’s teens want heroines who are courageous and empowered, who are willing to fight for what they want and choose their own destinies. And while dashing heroes continue to populate today’s fiction, the trend is leaning toward an equality between the protagonists, with skills and strengths that complement each other, and it’s perfectly acceptable for the princess to slay the dragon herself when called upon.

Two of my favorite young adult fairy tale retellings both offer fantastic examples of updated heroines. In Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red, Little Red Riding Hood is split into two sisters who spend their nights hunting werewolves with a vengeance. There’s no need for a woodsman coming by to save these sisters from any big bad wolves. However, this is an extreme example, and weaponry and battle wounds aren’t necessary to make the leap from damsel-in-distress to damsel-in-charge. Take Ella, the witty advocate for giant’s rights in Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. This delightful take on Cinderella does feature a prince, and a charming one at that, but in the end it’s Ella who proves to be perfectly capable of improving her own life.

These two cases-in-point barely scratch the surface of the twisted fairy tale genre. While writers continue to experiment with settings, time periods, and tales both common and forgotten, this trend seems to be here to stay. Those passive girls of old are becoming extinct, being replaced with bold and plucky heroines that don’t only deserve a happy ending, but go out and claim it. It’s a trend I’m delighted to continue in my own fairy-tale-based series, and one I look forward to seeing even more of as the genre grows.

Marissa Meyer is the author of Cinder: Book One of the Lunar Chronicles, which combines space opera, fairy tales, and a heroine who’d rather wear work boots than glass slippers. Be a fan on Facebook or follow Marissa on Twitter (@marissa_meyer).


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