Misfit Sisters: Fairy Tales and Female Rites of Passage Narratives

Sue Short
Sue Short

Horror films, according to James Twitchell, are modern morality tales designed to instruct adolescents about appropriate sexual conduct, arguing that “horror myths establish social patterns not of escape but entry”.

In punishing “deviant” behaviour, the genre allegedly serves a conservative function that is used to support such institutions as monogamy, marriage, and the nuclear family. Fairy tales have similarly been viewed as endorsing particular values and modes of behaviour, with a psychotherapist, Bruno Bettelheim, arguing that they enable a way of “coping with confusion, inner turmoil and certain drives which the pubescent ego must learn to control”.

They have an expressly moral purpose, in other words, warning against certain drives and desires. However, it is not necessarily the morality of such texts that explains their appeal, but their ability to challenge existing conventions.

Fairy tales and horror share a number of elements, including the possibilities and pleasures offered by a fictional domain in which many rules cease to apply — and the path to adulthood is often difficult to find. Far from viewing horror narratives, or the fairy tales that have preceded them, as being solely motivated by aims of conformity and containment, they also offer a vital opportunity to question what we know.

Just as the horror film’s audience is not necessarily confined to the adolescents that Twitchell and others assume (and is not necessarily male, for that matter), so the fairy tale demands to be reassessed in terms of its presumed function — which is commonly conceived, in feminist terms, as a means of socialising young women into a patriarchal value system.

This article investigates such claims by looking deeper into their history. It unearths the warnings that were once given to female characters and the trials they endure in their passage to womanhood, questioning whether there is more to such tales than a simplistic approval of domesticity, marriage, or virtuous femininity — particularly given the spirit and resourcefulness that female characters once exhibited — traits they are seen to share with a growing number of protagonists in contemporary horror.

The origins, intentions, and transitions that fairy tales have undergone are important to note, for while men are more commonly associated with collecting and writing fairy tales, there is much evidence to suggest that women largely assumed the role of tale-telling.

Marina Warner argues that this is why so many stories have a discernible slant “towards the tribulations of women, and especially young women of marriageable age”. A closer investigation is clearly needed if such tales are to be fully understood, which necessitates acknowledging their female sources and appreciating the aims of various tellers over the years.

The epigraph heading this chapter is taken from Hans Christian Andersen’s story, ‘The Snow Queen’, which follows a young girl’s quest to find her best friend, Kay. Many interesting female characters feature in the tale: the old “sorceress” who delays Gerda with enchantments because she always wanted a daughter; the clever princess who wants an intellectual equal in a spouse; the snow queen, who has seduced Kay with kisses and cold rationality, and, of course, Gerda herself.

The recognition of her power, made by a “Finn wife” encountered on her journey, reveals the complexity of such tales. Gerda’s innocence is seen as the source of her power, just as her quest is legitimated as “pure” because it is a selfless pursuit of Kay. Although she suffers a great deal, like many of Andersen’s heroines, her quest is vindicated by her strength of purpose and the innocence which compels others to help her.

Nevertheless, there is an implication in the Finn wife’s words that if Gerda were to know of her power she would instantly lose it. In other words, though she exhibits approved “feminine” (even “maternal”) traits, such as compassion and responsibility, Gerda cannot lose her innocence, recognise her abilities, and effectively grow up.

This warning is in keeping with Andersen’s tendency to graft an overt Christian morality onto his tales, yet the sense of an innate power existing within Gerda invites further consideration, anticipating as it does the question of female agency that is central to this analysis, and which horror has extended via its various adolescent females.

It is in attempting to understand the ways in which fairy tales set out to both champion and caution female characters that the chapter concerns itself, recalling a time when they were largely invented by women for the younger females of a given society.

Joseph Campbell describes ‘rites of passage’ as ceremonies that mark key points in an individual’s life, including “birth, naming, puberty, marriage and burial”. His analysis of myths from around the world suggests that similar tales have been used to prepare individuals for their future roles in society — a function that Twitchell claims applies to horror also, particularly in helping male audience members negotiate adolescence.

However, the question of specifically female rites remains key. What part does gender play in conceptions of adulthood, and how does the assumption of womanhood differ to that of manhood? How has the meaning of these tales altered over time with respect to female abilities and aspirations and, in particular, to what extent has horror provided a new forum for these concerns?

The part women have played in both writing and relating fairy tales over the centuries has been largely obscured, with male writers, collectors, and film-makers having gained far greater prominence. Mention fairy tales, and we immediately think of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, or perhaps Walt Disney.

Those with a more scholarly interest in the subject might add predecessors such as Giambattista Basile or Charles Perrault, yet women’s involvement in the field has only recently attracted critical attention and is far from common knowledge.

The brothers Grimm exemplify both the cumulative process of fairy tales, and the part gender has played in prioritising certain voices. Far from originating the stories in their ‘Nursery and Household Tales’ collection (1812), they compiled them from a variety of (mostly female) sources, getting them into print and thus preserving them for posterity — while simultaneously acquiring enduring fame for themselves.

By contrast, their sources are far less well known, as are the myriad anonymous individuals responsible for initiating and developing such tales in their early oral form. Folklorists have asserted that storytelling in pre-literate societies was typically a female domain.

As Warner states: “Although male writers and collectors have dominated the production and dissemination of popular wonder tales, they often pass on women’s stories from intimate or domestic milieux.”

Far from merely passing these stories on, however, they also altered them, with the cautionary attitude that was often expressed towards men and marriage frequently removed. Even when women were in a position to publish their own work, such as the educated female writers who used the fairy tale to question ideas of romance and marriage during the early eighteenth-century, they have been largely forgotten.

Elizabeth Wanning Harris points out that, “for more than a century the tales of d’Aulnoy, Lheritier, La Force, Bernard and other women dominated the field of fairy tales”, yet these writers have since been eclipsed by the men we mostly associate the fairy tale with today.

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