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How Women Are Reinventing Fairy Tales and Deflowering Tradition

From Helen Oyeyemi to Angela Carter, female writers subvert classic stories like "Snow White" and "The Little Mermaid" to comment on sex, race, and gender.
Photo by Per Swantesson via Stocksy

When I was little, I had several gorgeously illustrated books of fairy tales that told the "original" stories of Cinderella, Snow White, and the Little Mermaid. "Original," in this case, is a tricky matter—the stories were closer to the more gruesome versions that had been written down a century or two ago than to the Disney film versions. Cinderella's stepsisters were eternally cursed after trying to fit their feet into her tiny slipper; Snow White almost died three times, first being choked by a corset, then almost being poisoned by a magic comb, and finally eating an apple that got stuck in her throat; and the Little Mermaid died as a human whose feet hurt as if she were walking on knives, and earned eternal life as a wandering wind that could continue to stalk the prince she loved so much. (He loved another woman.) None of these women ever seemed particularly happy, even at the end.


Many people know that the origins of the fairy-tale Disney movies—Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid—are far more gruesome, tragic, or disturbing than they're presented for young audiences. Despite the contemporary, Disney-fied notion of "happily ever after," happiness isn't the point of fairy tales. In fact, fairy tales themselves are far more modern than we think. In her book Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale Elizabeth Wanning Harries writes, "Most fairy tales, as we now know them, do have elements of folk tradition. But all of them, and particularly the Grimms', have been extensively shaped and codified by successive literate tale-tellers." Many of these literate tale-tellers have been men (though Harries' fascinating book does explore the women who wrote earlier versions and tales).

Read more: Author Helen Oyeyemi on the Politics—or Not—of Writing Black Female Characters

Fairy tales try to strike an odd balance: On one hand, they're morally educational; on the other, they're meant to entertain. Sources for fairy tales are similarly complicated—the tales we know best are the ones that men have put down in writing, but at least some of those tales are based on folklore and oral storytelling, which has long been the provenance of women. Anne Thériault wrote for the now-defunct website the Toast that "fairy tales are women's tales. They're bent-backed crones' tales, sly gossips' tales, work-worn mothers' tales and old wives' tales. They're stories shared, repeated and elaborated on over mindless women's work like spinning or mending or shucking corn. These stories are the voices of those who were, within a social and cultural context, so often voiceless; they're women's whispered desires and fears, neatly wrapped up in fantastical narratives filled with sex, violence and humour."


But how do women relate to fairy tales in a modern, Western context? It may be telling that two of the most famous male fantasy writers—Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman—have both chosen to take existing folklore and try to tell it accurately, to replicate the earliest or most definitive versions of the stories in English: Pullman in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm and Gaiman in his recent Norse Mythology. Female writers have tended to do something quite different with the fairy-tale format. So often the victims and damsels in distress in fairy tales, women have most often chosen to entirely reinvent familiar stories using only certain recognizable markers to communicate to readers larger points of social criticism. The trend is clear in YA, where more straightforward retellings often pass a kind of judgment on the nature of fairy-tale tropes, like the damsel in distress, that are damaging. For example, fantasy writer Robin McKinley's Spindle's End, her most famous book, is a riff on Sleeping Beauty in which the damsel saves herself. Similarly, Ella Enchanted riffs on the Cinderella story by giving the Cinderella character, Ella, a full and complex life along with a fairy curse. Such books are geared towards a younger audience, though, so the social criticism may not reach adult readers. The icons of such writing in adult fiction are more rare, but still definitely there.

One of these authors is Angela Carter. Her most well-known book, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, is full of subtle shifts in perspective and variations on the theme of empowerment—though not, as might be expected from a feminist writer of magical realism, misandry. The title story is a take on the narrative of Bluebeard, in which a wealthy man has married a shy new bride but must go on a business trip almost immediately after their wedding night. Leaving her alone in his mansion, he hands her his big ring of keys, instructing her to enjoy the use of all the rooms but one—one that is his only and that she mustn't go into. She does, of course, and when she enters and sees her predecessors there, dead, she realizes that the trap is somewhat inevitable—as much as this man may say he loves his wives (he is a widow thrice over already in this tale), he keeps setting them the same impossible task of suppressing their curiosity. By blatantly ignoring his restriction, each of these women rebelled a little. Our heroine, wife number four, is saved soon after her discovery of the dead wives hidden in the secret chamber by none other than her loving and independent mother, riding in on horseback.


But Carter's tales aren't all that simple. Many, including "The Bloody Chamber," feature somewhat flowery sex scenes that bring to mind the words "throbbing member" even if the particular phrase isn't invoked. At first I was put off by this, but you may recall that I claimed there was no misandry in these stories. While some stories describe sex that doesn't seem entirely consensual, the heroines still get something from the interaction. Whether it's relief at it being over and the knowledge that they are strong enough to survive it, or satisfaction of their own, the narrator of each story uses sex deliberately in the telling of the tale as if to spice things up, to deflower the often desexed fairy tales we've grown up hearing. By making it explicit that the women are being sexually objectified (while owning that situation to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the story), Carter defiles the already false safety of fairy tales and criticizes women's often inevitable roles in them.

Another author who uses the fairy tale to great effect is the incredibly prolific Helen Oyeyemi, whose six books all play around with the genre's conventions, drawing from traditions that range from Yoruban to French to English. Her first novel, Icarus Girl, is not a fairy tale as we understand it, but it nevertheless offers the kinds of moral lessons fairy tales often do: Mythical qualities connect to discussions of identity and belonging. In her 2014 novel Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi writes a version of Snow White that subverts the original's insistence on beauty as equal to skin as white as snow. The whole wicked stepmother thing starts when a woman named Boy gives birth to a dark-skinned child and finds out that her husband has been passing as white by virtue of his light skin.

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But Oyeyemi, like Carter, is never heavy handed in her use of metaphor. About Boy, Snow, Bird, she said that she had indeed intended to rewrite Snow White, but "I had to come at it slant because that's how I tend to read fairy tales." The fairy-tale moments in her work are there, whether it's in the use of a classic phrase like "once upon a time," the sense of timelessness even in stories rooted in reality, or the ability to turn things that are mundane (like mirrors and locks and keys) into magical portents.

When the words "magical realism" are used to define a work of fiction, they're often congratulatory and meant as praise: Italo Calvino comes to mind, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Helen Oyeyemi, Angela Carter, and others aren't writing magical realism per se—they are presenting a reality and then manipulating it, over and over again, with elements of wonder that critique the world we live in. While the magical realists are considered geniuses, it is only recently that the space for fabulism has grown to allow literary merit to writers like Oyeyemi and Carter, as evidenced by the former's stirling reviews and the uptick in books and articles about the latter. This space will only grow, allowing writers to plumb fairy tales and other trope-y forms in order to break the social constructs so inherent within them.