Kate Forsyth is a bestselling children’s author and an expert on Fairy Tales. In fact, she is studying for doctorate in precisely that. After taking exception to Mia’s vendetta against Cinderella and her happily ever after sisters, we invited Kate to put forward a different point of view and are delighted that she has.
Mia has said the heroines of fairy tales make her want to claw her own face off. She worries about the effect on her own daughter of an obsession with pink, plastic princesses churned out in their millions by Disney Inc.
Don’t blame fairy tales, blame the men who took the tales and retold them. Charles Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and most of all, Walt Disney.
Fairy tales were originally told by women to the children who sat at their knee as they worked to keep the family fed and clothed and clean, just as women do today. Fairy tales reflected the world of its tellers – poor wood-cutters and cobblers, fishermen and farmers, girls that had to work to make a living and dreamt of spinning straw into gold. The power in the stories was always held by women, whether for good in the shape of a wise woman, or for evil in the shape of witches.
In the late 17th century, Perrault turned the wise woman of these tales into a fluffy fairy godmother with a sparkly wand, and moved the stories into castles. Then the Grimm Brothers came along and rewrote the tales according to their own stern and patriarchal vision of the world.
In their original 1812 edition of Children’s & Household Tales, there are 61 female characters that have magical powers compared to only 21 males; and many of these are dwarfs.
In this edition, the Grimm brothers were simply recording tales told to them by the women of their acquaintance, some young, some old, some poor and illiterate, others middle-class and well-educated.
In later editions, the Grimm brothers re-wrote these stories to make them “suitable for children”. Many stories with active female protagonists were discarded or diluted.
The original Little Red Riding Hood, for example, was a peasant girl who escapes the wolf due entirely to her own cleverness. It was Charles Perrault who gave her a red cap – symbolic of passion and blood – and made the tale a cautionary one in which the heroine is gobbled up by the wolf. It was the Grimm Brothers who brought in a male hunter to save her, making her seem like a twit.