Fairy Tales… NSFW?

By Cecily Hayton

Fairy tales told to children over generations are often viewed as harmless and pleasant ways of helping young people learn to read, yet the dangerous undertones of the tales are often overlooked.

A feminist reading of various fairy tales reveals uncomfortable treatment of women and unequal gender dynamics, as well as subtly subversive sexual themes pervading many stories. Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood and The Little Mermaid are just three of these such tales.

A feminist reading of various fairy tales reveal uncomfortable treatment of women and unequal gender dynamics

Sleeping Beauty

The darkness of the original versions of Sleeping Beauty has been suppressed in its Disney counterpart. In Giambattista Basile’s original story, rather than being awoken by a prince’s kiss, the sleeping princess is woken by her new-born twins sucking the splinter out of her finger. The twins were conceived when she was raped by the prince while asleep in the palace.

Despite the explicit rape, Basile’s version has been viewed by some as having a happy ending, since the prince ends up marrying the figure of Beauty, who Basile names Talia. The antagonist in this tale is not the rapist prince, but instead, his jealous wife who attempts to eat the twins – his rape is completely ignored, and readers begin to hope that the prince will choose Talia over his wife.

Her dependence on a man casts a dark picture of a woman’s place in society.

Her dependence on a man casts a dark picture of a woman’s place in society. However, it is not only the traditional stories that have darker themes of conventional femininity and sexualisation of young girls.

Even Disney’s version, which is explicitly targeted to young children, puts Aurora, as the princess is now known, in a position of vulnerability and requires her to be resurrected by a man. In recent films, Disney have attempted to move away from this portrayal of a stereotypical princess in need of saving and towards independent heroines.

Despite this, even the modern story of Sleeping Beauty retains the subtle allusion to menstruation and the beginning of Aurora’s womanhood with the appearance of blood as she pricks her finger. Coupling this with her initial dependence on a man casts a dark picture of a woman’s place in society.

Little Red Riding Hood

Though less explicit, the story of Little Red Riding Hood and its later derivatives can also be seen to have undertones of sexuality and rape. The picture of a young girl walking alone in the woods being approached by a threatening figure is a precursor to images from contemporary rape culture.

Little Red Riding Hood and its later derivatives can also be seen to have undertones of sexuality and rape

Charles Perrault in his 1697 tale made it clear that the wolf was a seducer who invited Red Riding Hood into bed with him. Perrault even explained the moral of his tale, which implied that ‘wolves’ can come in all different forms, and often in the form of seemingly amenable men. Little Red Riding Hood can also be seen to have undertones of sexuality and rape.

Angela Carter’s 1979 retelling of the story, entitled The Company of Wolves, depicts the young girl in the woods seducing the wolf after he eats her grandmother. Carter undermines the traditional perspective of the tale, which highlights the original’s disturbing sexual themes.

The Little Mermaid

Like Sleeping Beauty, the original story of The Little Mermaid contains much darker themes than the Disney interpretation, but modern versions preserve the undertones of sex and present an uncomfortably anti-feminist protagonist.

In Disney’s film, Ariel still gives up huge amounts of herself for the prince – her tail and her voice – as well as giving up her relationship with her family. This portrayal could be seen as a dangerous role-model for any young girls watching the film.

Modern versions present an un-comfortably anti-feminist protagonist. Though the Disney version has uncomfortable aspects, Hans Christian Anderson’s original tale is much more explicitly dark and sinister. In his story, Ariel (who is only known as ‘The Little Mermaid’) is given an ultimatum: either she forces the prince to fall in love with her, or she will turn into sea foam and die.

Modern versions present an un-comfortably anti-feminist protagonist

Perhaps this could be seen as a reflection of a young woman’s plight in life – an unmarried woman would struggle more than one with a dependable husband. Anderson’s story also depicts the prince treating the mermaid-like a pet or a child, heightening the uncomfortable gender dynamics.

Photographs: Plum leaves via Flickr Creative Commons

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