Monday, April 7, 2014

Bad Marriages - Feminism in Fairy Fairy Tales

Article by Ty Hulse

Learn about Analyzing and Interpreting Fairy Tales

Many fairy tales, especially those told to the Grimm Brothers were passed on from mothers and grandmothers or nannies to their children, as men participated very little in raising children during the "Once Upon a Time." Yes there were peasants who told each other the tales in bars, hospices, or on trips, and there were wondering entertainers who told tales, but women were the ones from who most children learned fairy tales. This means that to some extent the themes that exist within fairy tales are the themes which the women of the past wanted to exist within them.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that fairy tales aren't the tale of the warrior caste, they are the stories of peasants, and as such they are primarily about people, men or women, who succeed through kindness, hard work, luck, cunning, or by following the advice of others. In other words there aren't many strong characters, mythology is the realm of the warrior women. The moral of these stories are the morals of a culture that was obsessed with hard work, rather than being true to oneself.

You can learn more at Fairy Tale Hero Archetypes and Fairy Tale Heroines.

Further for all their fancifulness with regards to the existence of magic, fairy godmothers, and the like, fairy tales tended to take a realistic, though often harsh, view of the life of women and girls. This is likely in part because part of the purpose of these tales was for mothers to prepare daughters for the troubles they might face, and pass on information on how to survive the harsh and cruel reality, while giving some, all be it, magical hope to them.

For every Cinderella who lived happily ever after there were other women who like in Rumpelstiltskin was married off to a greedy king who was going to kill her if she didn't do impossible work. It's important to keep in mind that women rarely ever chose who they would marry instead they were married off, given away by their fathers. In fairy tale worlds of magical creatures they are given away not only to cruel men but to beasts, pigs, lions, frogs, devils, and dragons.

In most such cases there were four methods by which women could deal with this situation.

1-Take control of the situation. In the original "Frog Prince Tales" the princess would get tired of the annoying frog and so throw him against the wall causing him to burst out of his skin. While in "Hans My Hedgehog" the princess burns the hedgehogs animal skin forcing him to stay in human form.

Of course, it would have been difficult for most women to take control of a situation by force, because they went to live in their husbands town, which meant they were were outsiders with few allies.

(Note there is an alternative explanation for the notion of the women taking control in these relationships which is that shamans and witches across Eurasia would get familiar spirits. If they were to survive as witches they often had to take control of their familiar spirits. When shamans heard tales of fairy tales in which a person committed violence against a magical being they identified the theme of the story as a shaman encountering their familiar spirit for the first time. and establishing their dominance in the relationship.)

2-Women could try to win over their 'beast' husbands with love and kindness.

3-Women could try to gain an ally. Given that they were in a strange village when they first married, women would often seek out an ally who could help them. Of course there were risks involved in this as well. In a variation of "Rumpelstiltskin" a little man named Tom Tim Tot tells the girl that he'll help her, but then she belongs to him. In this story it's obvious that in return for the alliance girls were often expected to give up things they might not want to.

An ethnologist pointed out that serf girls were often pushed to sell their bodies for extra food, and help, while Purkiss tells of a Scottish girl who was living in a strange new house where she was bugged repeatedly to give up her body. In order to survive this situation the women would often have to gain some knowledge, some secret with which she could blackmail her oppressors. This is likely one of the primary reasons women in fairy tales, and witches, often gained control of a situation by learning a secret, such as Rumpelstiltskin's name.

In Mikso Hane's book "Peasants, Rebels, Women and Outcasts," she tells of a women during the Meiji Era whose husband and his parents forced her to do nothing but weave all day. She couldn't take care of her son, she couldn't eat for very long, if she spent to long in the bathroom they would hit her, etc. She was essentially imprisoned to make them money, which they than used. Then she was cast aside for the husbands mistress. Standing out in the snow, watching her husband laughing with this other women she finally snapped, and burnt down the house.

The point is that in the past women could easily be married to both abusive and greedy husbands, who often simply exploited them for their labor, and for sex of course. There's a French memoir, in which a woman wished to be married but married an abusive husband, so she wished for children, but her children were just more work, so in the end the only dream she has left is for death.

This last point, the dream of death tells of the last means by which women had to defend themselves. Painful endurance, and or running away. There are many tales in which a father will essentially sell his daughter to a devil, such as in "The Girl with No Hands." In this story the girl cuts off her own hands and endures pain and suffering to avoid having the devil take her. Essentially she makes herself unable to work so the devil can't take her.

In Japan there are tales from Tono of wild women who ran off into the forests and mountains to live, likely to escape abusive husbands. While In Selkup lore Satyr like creatures would teach unhappy women the secrets of hunting so they could live int he forests on their own.

In the end then fairy tales were very often based on the possible dissatisfaction of marriage. Though at the same time they gave women hope, hope that they could change their spouses or find an ally. While such dreams are pleasant modern feminists have pointed out that what they really do is prevent women from trying to change their situation. Hope for magic, hope for a better world, in this case often prevents action to make things better.