Saturday, April 3, 2010

Snow Wimp

Why is it that all the Disney-fied fairy tales we were subjected to when we were children (and sheepishly revisited when we were quite a bit older) contained only two types of female characters – the innocent, doe-eyed damsel-in-distress, or the evil, vain villainess? Every story it's the prince, or the brave goat-herder who saves the princess from the fate she has been condemned to. The girls don't ever seem to show any initiative. Don't despair, dear readers! I have, with the aid of Google and my personal fairy tale collection (some of the older books are just gorgeous) found some pretty cool 'self-rescuing princesses'.

As you're probably aware, thanks to Disney, the Brothers Grimm, Hollywood and half a dozen other sources, there are a lot of versions of the same story in existence. Some of the differences are minor, like whether or not Snow White's wicked step-mother foisted a poisoned comb off on the girl or not. But others are pretty extreme. Many fairy tales were supremely gruesome, even before the Grimm boys got to them. In fact, the Grimms were the first step in a long process of watering-down. Of course, some tales simply could not be watered down. Ever heard of The Little Match-Girl? It's a Danish fairy tale, short and incredibly sad.

I digress. If you're after a bit of swash-buckling girly action, here's where you might start – and I'm listing a whole bunch of different mediums, from books to movies to plays. These girls step out and face up to the 'big bads' for love, for family and for justice.

Arabian Nights, the Hallmark version, directed by Steve Barron and released to TV in 2000. The DVD isn't too hard to get. Stories within stories, our heroine is named Scheherezade (try saying that five times fast). This beautiful, clever woman chooses to marry the Sultan, her childhood friend, who has gone mad after his first wife tries to kill him on their wedding night (she ends up dying instead). Through stories, courage and love, Scheherezade cures him and restores the kingdom (having a mad king isn't so good for international relations). The movie also features a version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, in which Morgiana the beautiful slave-girl saves her master's life not once, but twice.

Sweet Vassillissa or sometimes known as Beautiful Vassillissa is a Russian tale about a beautiful girl with a cruel stepmother and two stepsisters – yeah, sounds Cinderella-ish but the similarities end there. She is sent to the house of the local witch, in hopes she will be killed, but through her solid work ethic, faith in her departed mother's blessing and her kind nature she ends the tale happily married to a kind King.

Molly Whuppie is sort of like a female Jack-and-the-Beanstalk. Which is totally cool with me, I mean, she saves her sisters from being eaten by an ogre.

Into the Woods is a mad, twisted fairy-tale-musical in two acts, a collaboration between revered playwrights Steven Sondheim and James Lapine. It's quite funny and manages to mash up things like Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella with an original (I think) tale about a Baker and his wife. Well worth seeing, doing (lots of fun) or even reading if you're into reading plays. I actually did this play for high school drama. Because it was high school, we didn't have a lot of guys in the class, and as a wacky twist, both of the princes in the production were played by girls, dressed as guys. Said girls got wigs, stuffed their pants, and one even put on a fake mustache. Good times.

East of the Sun and West of the Moon is an older fairy-tale, found in a book edited by Andrew Lang around the late 1800s. I quite like it, not only has it got beautiful imagery but it's a fun bit of role reversal – it's the Prince who's trapped this time and his beloved, a beautiful 'husbandsman's daughter' who must rescue him.

So indulge in something a bit different! Find some old fairy tales, or dig into the roots of some nursery rhymes if you're keen. They're not just for kids, and thankfully, are not all about wimpy girls with no common sense either.

Until next we meet,


  1. Ooh, these sound good ... may google and see if I can find any of the stories online.

    On a similar rant-y note (hope you don't mind!): Mulan 2. Ick. Mulan was a brilliant story, because they told the story and it shows the Chinese culture and values and brings us the tale of a strong female protagonist who is willing to go through a lot for the sake of her family (to save her father, who is in ill health, from going to war) and her country.

    Mulan 2 ... really bad Disney sequel where, for some reason, Mulan and the 3 princesses suddenly have 20th/21st century Western views about women's rights and freedoms and individuality that just have NO place in their world.

    3 princesses deciding that instead of marrying the men their father has arranged for them to marry (which would cement alliances and help keep their nation safe) they want to marry 3 random guards ... that's really irresponsible of them. See ... if they really thought that other girls living at the same time as them had the freedom to 'be anything I want to be' ... wow. That's an impressive level of ignorance.

    [/rant. Sorry for length!]

  2. Lengthy-comment away! :)

    I haven't actually seen Mulan 2, but I'd have to agree with you in that Disney is not really known for its fidelity to original stories, historical context, or its truly strong female characters. It's a real shame, since they are such an influential company.

    I was watching last night... such a good movie!


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