Passive Princesses? Nope!

January 16, 2024

A self-guided version of our Fairy-Tale Heroines course is open for enrollment RIGHT NOW, and we have tales from India, Romania, Iceland, China, Iraq, Ireland, and more! It’s by far the most international course we’ve ever done.

But if you’re by chance thinking something like:

“But Sara and Brittany, fairy-tale heroines? Aren’t they just… like… asleep most of the time? Or timid/passive/powerless/stupid little girls waiting for men to just rescue them?”

NOPE! But if that was your first thought, you’re absolutely forgiven for thinking so. The most commonly told and retold Western fairy tales would certainly have you believe they are.

As Sara says in Module 1, the most popular fairy tales end up being a parade that goes “passive princess, passive princess, passive princess” without ever showing the incredible variety of heroines that are out there!

Feminist scholars have pointed out repeatedly that traditional Western fairy-tale women “must be beautiful; their beauty includes Western stereotypical attributes like white skin and blonde hair; their bodies are passive, pliant, and patient; and their beauty correlates positively with other features such as kindness.” In Jeana Jorgensen’s 2019 Journal of American Folklore article discussing her computational analysis of femininity in classic Western fairy tales, from which that quotation was taken, she discovers that this assessment is largely rooted in fact. She literally counted the instances in which these attributes were part of the stories in six different collections of Western tales. It’s a LOT.

So why is this the case?

Well, a lot of it has to do with society and the process of canonization. For a long time, men were typically in charge of what got printed, filmed, discussed, etc. and their choices depended largely on patriarchal norms of the time in which they were working. In cultures where women were supposed to be subservient to men, it made sense to prioritize the tales in which they were. It also has a lot to do with the fact that most of the famous fairy tales are Western stories in which patriarchy was (is) kinda a big deal.

This isn’t the whole story, of course (and if you’d like to know more we’d refer you to Donald Haase’s excellent critical survey essay, “Feminist Fairy-Tale Scholarship,” in the collection of essays titled Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches), but it’s a big part of why the fairy tales we all tend to know are the way they are.

Part of our project in putting together Fairy-Tale Heroines is to bring more awareness to fairy tales that don’t follow the pattern. Tales from other parts of the world, where the pattern didn’t even exist the same way, yes, but also more obscure Western tales that don’t follow the “rules.”

And no, we don’t just mean tales in which there are women warriors (though those are great, too, and we’re going to talk about them!) You CAN be a heroine even if you like sewing and storytelling and dresses and husbands too though.

Whether you are Team Sword or Team Sewing or Team All The Above Please, we know you’ll find stories and heroines to love in this course. Click here to check it out!

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