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From Grimm to Disney: How popular fairy tales have evolved into new age feminist anthems

Disney is rewriting and completely reimagining the fairy tales with strong feminist heroines and brave young people subverting gender roles and traditional ideas of romance and courtship.

Written by Swati Saxena | Updated: July 12, 2016 1:56:00 pm
"Frozen" fans have requested Disney to give Queen Elsa a girlfriend after it was revealed that the studio did not use any LGBT characters in their 2015 films at all. Queen Elsa from Disney’s Frozen.

Little Red Riding Hood is a familiar story for most. A young girl sets out through a path in the woods to visit her ailing grandmother. She is followed by a wolf, who tricks her into finding out her grandmother’s house and reaches there before her and assumes grandmothers clothes and identity. In some versions, the wolf eats the grandmother; in others he merely locks her in a cupboard. The puzzled girl encounters the big eyes, ears and mouth of the wolf before he attacks her. In the nick of time, she is saved by a passing woodcutter who kills the wolf and rescues the girl and the grandmother.

The story has been adapted and changed since the medieval times, since most of us encountered it as a fairy tale by Brothers Grimm. It has also been subject to many interpretations; it is seen as a cautionary tale (the girl is believed to have strayed from the dictated path), a rite of passage into womanhood, and most notably a tale of sexual predation or child abuse. The attack of eating of the young girl by the wolf is interpreted as rape and the young age of the girl makes it an act of pedophilia or sexual abuse of children.

Another popular story most of us read as children is Hansel and Gretel. Two young children, brother and sister are sent to the woods by their abusive stepmother, with plans to abandon them; to save herself from scarcity of food. While the first few attempts of the stepmother fail, with children finding their way back home through trails of pebbles they leave. She is ultimately successful when instead of pebbles Hansel leaves bread crumbs as a trail. These crumbs are eaten by birds and children are irrevocably lost in the woods. They stumble upon a candy house and while eating it they are captured by the owner: a cannibalistic witch, who promptly locks Hansel in a cage with intent to eat him and makes Gretel her slave. They manage to kill the witch and escape and find their way back to home, now happy, with their stepmother dead, and family rich with jewels stolen from the witch.

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The story abounds in themes of child abuse and abandonment. Firstly, there is the familiar motive of a lot of fairy tales, the evil stepmother. Secondly, there is the banishment and abandonment in, again incidentally, the woods. The woods in both stories function almost as a metaphor for a child-unfriendly landscape with tricksters disguised as predators. Importantly, there is another theme often not commonly explored in fairy tales, that of poverty and hunger. The stepmother banishes the children to ration the food and children are also lured into the cannibalistic households because they are hungry and proceed to eat the gingerbread and candy house.

Banishment of young girls to woods is a fairly common theme in fairy tales. The most famous instance being of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The jealous queen, again a stepmother to Snow White, banishes her to the woods with order to kill her, in order to retain her status as the most beautiful woman of the kingdom. Snow White escapes, gets shelter with the dwarfs and even though the disguised evil queen gets to her through a poisoned apple, a kiss from a prince awakens her. The ending resembles another popular fairy tale: Sleeping Beauty, where a young girl cursed with never-ending sleep awakes when a passing prince kisses her. The potentially disturbing undertones of kissing a sleeping girl and overriding her consent, is brushed aside with romantic overtones, with the awakened women going on to marry their kissers.

In fact, the unsanitised version of Sleeping Beauty in Basile’s narrative is much more explicit. Here, the sleeping girl is raped by a passing King, she gives birth to twins while still asleep and is only awakened when one of twins sucks the poisoned flax from her finger. When the King’s wife learns about this, she orders the twins to be killed and served to the king as food. The children are ultimately saved by a kind cook and the evil wife is burned. The story’s ‘happily ever after’ ending shows the girl marrying the king, a man who raped her and killed his first wife.

Both these stories, feature slightly older adolescent girls facing abuse and threat at the hands of older women personified as evil witches. Both, ultimately, have to depend on men for their salvation and have little agency of their own — they are literally asleep until the climax, awakening only to marry.

Cinderella, another young girl, shows more pluck and get a chance to briefly meet her suitor at the ball, with a lot of help from her fairy godmother. However, before that, she is kept as a domestic slave by her stepmother (again) and stepsisters, locked up and hidden. Both Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella (now widely popular Disney movies) reveal the motives of jealousy and insecurity of older women against younger one’s beauty and perceived threat from her sexuality.

Rapunzel, another young girl kept locked up in a tower, literally uses her long hair (a symbol of beauty and sexuality) to engineer her escape, albeit not without the help of a prince.

Most fairy tales place young children and women, most vulnerable even otherwise, in threatening or potentially dangerous situations. The threat is often ignored and kept at bay since there is comfort in knowing that there will be a ‘happy ending’ and thus, the problematic way in which such a dubious happy resolution is achieved is often ignored. Nowhere is this demonstrated with greater clarity than in Beauty and the Beast where a young girl is forced to live in the house of, literally, a beast to make up for her father’s transgressions. In a Stockholm syndrome type situation she falls in love with her captor and in an interesting reversal of roles frees him from the curse. He is revealed to be a prince and they go on to marry.

tangled-759Most of us know these stories through colourfully illustrated story books or for today’s young ones, through Disney adaptations. Disney’s attempt to retell these popular stories for today’s time has significantly changed them. Tangled, Disney’s adaptation of Rapunzel has a witty, plucky heroine who can do stunts and gets a chance to save the hero through the healing power of her hair.

Disney is also rewriting and completely reimagining the fairy tales with strong feminist heroines and brave young people subverting gender roles and traditional ideas of romance and courtship. Most notable examples are Brave set in medieval Scotland where a young princess Merida defies convention by rejecting offers of marriage and aptly defeats her suitors in a game of archery. She then goes on to save her kingdom and parents while battling a warring clan in woods. Woods are unsafe for her as well but she has the courage to overcome all odds, thus the title.

brave-759However, it is Disney’s retelling of Snow Queen in the movie Frozen which has been revolutionary in more ways than one. The love celebrated here is the one between two sisters Elsa and Anna, both strong characters in their own right. The tropes of ‘prince charming’ and ‘love at first sight’ are undermined and the romantic relationship that comes to fruition is allowed to develop through witty banter and mutual understanding. Here, the most important demons that have to be fought are within and victory is won by celebrating, embracing and owning one’s powers. The weaknesses of the woman turn into her strengths and it is this alone which saves the kingdom and not a knight in shining armour. Recently, Frozen fans trended #GiveElsaAGirlfriend for a sequel, and if Disney does so then fairy tales have truly come of age.

Views expressed by the author are personal.

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