Feminist Fairy Tales?

February 28, 2023

That’s the $64,000 question.

And if you’ve ever heard us talk, you know there’s basically a zero percent chance that we’re going to give you a “yes” or “no” answer.

(In our lecture for our Wine-Dark Sea course last week, we said that we need a giant stamp that says “COMPLICATED,” because, well, this stuff – folklore, gender, and why we tell stories – is complicated!)

Once upon a time, the field of fairy-tale studies was born from scholars having an argument.

No, we’re not making this up. “Once upon a time” was the 1970s.

A scholar named Alison Lurie wrote these two articles, “Fairy Tale Liberation” in 1970 and then “Witches and Fairies” in 1971. Lurie argued that folk and fairy tales can be feminist texts because there are a LOT of strong, interesting, complex female characters in them, especially in many stories that weren’t known so well.

A year later, Marcia R. Lieberman fired back with “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale.” Basically, she was like yeah, there are some cool, powerful ladies in obscure texts, but it doesn’t matter because they’re not known, and the famous fairy-tale girls just sleep and get eaten or killed.

(If you want to read more about this academic duel and fairy-tale scholarship as a field, check out Fairy Tales and Feminism edited by the awesome Donald Haase.)

This clash started inspiring a lot of other questions that fairy-tale scholars are still trying to answer:

What is actually in fairy tales – the famous ones and the ones that hardly anyone has heard of? Who picks which fairy tales go into books and ultimately stick around? Where do we find obscure fairy tales? What about the fairy tales told, collected, or written by women? And waaaaay more.

At this point, you may be wondering, “ok, Sara and Brittany, but are they feminist?”

The thing is, fairy tales, like folklore more generally, aren’t a monolith. In other words, different tellers and writers have different ideologies – different ways of understanding the world, which are reflected in the stories that they create.

So some fairy tales are self-consciously feminist, while others are reactionary.

Some fairy tales are definitely “stay at home where you belong or you will be eaten and you’ll deserve it!” while others are all “yeah, pick up that sword and crown and RULE THE WORLD, girl power!”

And most of them are somewhere in between.

Want to know more? We’re doing a whole online talk for the Smithsonian Associates (!!!!!!) called Feminist Fairy Tales: Who Needs a Prince? where we’ll get into all this and much more. It’s happening on Monday, March 13, 2023 from 6:45 – 8:15 PM ET. There will even be a Q&A after where you can ask us your questions! You can read more and get a ticket here.

Hope to see you there!!

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