My grandmother brought me up on fairy tales. Every evening, as daylight faded and silhouettes grew blurred, my mind’s eye would open up to the world of magic. Talking animals would trot into our living room, princesses with stars on their foreheads and moon crescents in their hair would sit beside me, and the firebird would light up the room while trying to steal a golden apple from our fruit bowl.
I learnt to use fairy tales as a bartering tool at dinner time. I would eat on condition that I was told a story. Soon enough, the power balance shifted in my grandmother’s favour. I would hear the end of the story only after I had wiped the plate clean.
Like most five year-old girls, I longed to be a fairy tale heroine – but not Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella or Snow White. Their fates made me nervous. After all, who would want to be so entirely dependent on a prince? What if he forgot to kiss you? What if he did not have the nous to match your foot with the ermine slipper? You could be stuck waiting for ever. At least, as a Russian or Arabic heroine, rescuing the prince was your prerogative, so you could make sure you did the job of finding yourself a husband properly. So there it was, the comfort zone of the control freak.
The contrast between Eastern and Western fairy tale heroines is particularly noteworthy where the relationship with magic is concerned. Who casts spells in Western tales? Old, asexual fairies and young, evil witches. In the East, the young heroines are alluring and spellbinding.
A recurring character in Russian fairy tales is Vassilissa the Wise. We are told that her beauty is such, that no fairy story can narrate it nor pen describe it. She is the daughter of the most powerful wizard of them all, and he teaches her everything he knows. However, when she surpasses him, he casts her out with a curse upon her head. It is Vassilissa who rescues, counsels and ultimately seduces the Prince. As he sits with his face in his hands, hopeless in the face of impending trials, Vassilissa urges him to go to bed and sleep, because “the morning is wiser than the evening”. Once he falls asleep, she summons all the fairy folk at her service, and goes to work on the problem. When the Prince wakes up, she presents him with the solution.
The Tales of a Thousand and One Nights are also full of stunning, resourceful women.
The role of the Western heroine is to be beautiful, kind and, above all, innocent… Sometimes to the point of blatant stupidity. How can Rapunzel fail to feel the difference between a frail crone and a strapping young man climbing up her hair? Little Red Riding Hood is obtuse to the point of risibility. Cinderella is a rag doll pushed around by a wicked stepmother, prodded forth by a fairy godmother, and finally picked up by a prince. At no point in the story does she take a decision. As for Sleeping Beauty, she cannot even wake herself up without a man’s help.
What kind of message is being given here to little girls? There is nothing you can do except be pretty and wait…
This is a complex subject worth exploring in a PhD thesis. I cannot do it justice in a blog. However, I would like to end with a perfect example which illustrates the contrast between Eastern and Western femininity. Blue Beard and Sheherazade.
Both stories share the selfsame premise. A young woman marries a serial killer, and fights for her survival. In Blue Beard the (nameless) heroine unlocks a closet she has expressly been forbidden to open, and stumbles on the bodies of dead wives. When Blue Beard discovers her, he decides to kill her on the spot. Whilst pretending to say her final prayers, the young woman shrieks for help and calls for her brothers. They finally arrive and slay Blue Beard. End of story.
In Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, Sheherazade marries a king who kills a new bride every morning. To save herself – and put an end to the senseless murders – Sheherazade devises a ruse. On the morning of her execution, she begs the King to grant her permission to tell one last tale to her sister. He agrees, and stays to listen. Hence, she starts weaving a story within a story, unravelling tales of travel, love and magic, night after night after night. On the morning of the thousand and second day, she kneels before the King, ready to die. However, after all this time, the King has learnt to love his wife, and value her wisdom. Not only is Sheherazade spared but her love, her patience and her intelligence turn a brutal murderer into a just and much loved king.
I know which heroine is the best role model for me. How about you?
© Scribe Doll