Fri
Dec 16 2011 10:00am

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).

11 comments
M—
1. M—
"To slay the dragon," please.

I'm picturing a princess being pulled in a dragon-drawn sleigh in pure grammatical defence.
Melissa Shumake
2. cherie_2137
@1- yes.

ella enchanted is one of my go-to books for a quick afternoon pick-me-up.

fairy tale retellings are really some of my favorite books, generally speaking.
Charles Moore
3. Shadeofpoe
@1. Really? That's what you took away from this? Someone messes up on a homophone, which we have all done before, and you feel it absolutley nesssecary to jab at it?

Awesome post, love that the Fairy Tale ladies are getting a bit more independence.
M—
4. brontëgirl
It's been twenty-two years since I've seen it and I need a re-watch to make sure, but when I saw Disney's "Cinderella," the title character came across as being a bit snarky and sarcastic, which I thought interesting.
M—
5. mutantalbinocrocodile
I'm not sure I'd go so far as "snarky", but I do think that the Disney Cinderella doesn't represent Cinderella as completely passive. She comes off to me as dignified and verbally intelligent, and she does drive the plot forward herself by insisting that the invitation to the royal ball implicitly includes her as well as her stepsisters.
M—
6. LM
I'm a working mother with an M.S. and the breadwinner of my family, so I certainly approve of promoting more choices for women, and the idea that people can change their own situations instead of waiting to be 'rescued'.

But, it irritates me a little that it is now in vogue to completely bash these old heroines/stories, and lookd own our nose at them, as if we shouldn't also strive for selflessness, kindness and cheerfulness in the face of adversity. While I would never, never, never imply to my children that they need a love interest to save them, and I welcome the heorines of newer stories that have more personality and facets to them, I do think there are still positive things to learn from the old stories. Let's put it this way - I think we should I like your above description of Cinderella not because a prince will save me, but because I think it's the right thing to do. It doesn't also mean that I wouldn't be trying to improve my situation and that of others in my plight. I understand this nuance would be absent in the old stories, but that I think there is a balance to be struck.

I'm not implying that all modern retellings (and I enjoy reading them) or this author take that tack, just that I notice it sometimes. I hope this isn't coming off as overly critical, because I do enjoy this post!
M—
7. wizard clip
The peasants who originally told these stories knew that young girls had to be smart and resourceful and could not count on a prince or woodsman to come and save them, and the tales as they told them reflect this reality. The Grimms, upper class and educated, did not care for the idea of self-possessed girls (not to mention murderous biological mothers), and when they found out that children were reading the stories they'd collected, they began transforming the heroines into more passive creatures in keeping with their own sensibilities.

I'm not knocking the Grimms. Their versions are mazing in their own right, but it's worth seeking out earlier versions of these tales that are truer to their oral origins.
Ashley Fox
8. A Fox
Also I would argue that the empowered femine in Fairie Tales is not really as modern a trend as implied. Check out Angela Carter, beautiful stories reinventing old tales.
M—
9. Teka Lynn
I don't hate her. I feel sorry for someone who's living a horrible life and getting through it as best she can, never giving up hope. Which is actually pretty damn admirable.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
10. tnh
The stepsisters are generally described as vain, haughty, selfish, and needlessly cruel. I always got the impression that if their roles had been reversed, Cinderella wouldn't have kept all the pretty dresses for herself, and left all the housework to her stepsisters.

As Bruno Bettelheim long ago observed, people adopt fairy tales for different reasons, and take different meanings from them. Cinderella contains a lot of possible messages, such as: (1.) Things may be bad, but if you keep your head down for now, when you grow up you can go have a different life somewhere else. (2.) If you already know your family members are jerks, don't expect them to act any different on important occasions, no matter how much is riding on it. (3.) If your immediate family members are awful, explore your other ties. (4.) There's a time to do as you're told, and a time to take matters into your own hands. (5.) Behave now like the person you want to become.

Which is the correct meaning? Whichever one you want it to be.
M—
11. EP
Many of the original folktales regarding Red Riding Hood had her saving herself too. She was cunning, and would trick the wolf into letting her go one way or another. It wasn't until much later that these tales got sanitized over and over again.

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