While drafting one of my posts for Sci-Fi November I hit upon the fairy tale legacy. It’s something I’ve recognized for a while, you probably have too even before I gave it a term.
The fairy tale legacy is what everyone seems to be constantly fighting against – the idea of a princess that needs a hero to save her – the passive heroine – the damsel in distress. Everything most fairy tale retellings are trying so hard not to be.
Most people lay the blame of the fairy tale legacy at Disney’s feet. After all, the Grimm Brothers certainly didn’t make their stories all soft and pretty. Disney has been trying to overcome that perception for years. I first noticed it in Enchanted and it continues in their new live action versions of these stories. The thing is, I don’t think we need to fight the fairy tale legacy because I don’t think that’s what these stories actually say. So, I’m going to explore the agency of these heroines in different fairy tales throughout 2015.
Because in each of the most popular stories the women are the focal point of the entire story (even the most passive of them – Sleeping Beauty). Even in the dreaded Disney version, the ones we deride as setting the standard for helpless princesses, it’s her goodness more than the prince that saves her. But more on that in the months to come.
The focus today is that, at some point, someone decided all fairy tales are about weak women. And that wasn’t acceptable. So all fairy tales going forward must be about a woman who saves herself – and who possibly even saves the prince.
The problem with such a flat, simplistic point of view is that it keeps the characters from feeling authentic.
You can tell the difference, don’t you think, when someone has written a character consciously fighting the fairy tale legacy and when they’ve just written a character; when they’ve let the story progress the way it needs to. Even if I don’t name names. The movies where she has to save the day with almost a meta quality to it – the moment where she says, “I can save myself.”
Which is not to deride a self-sufficient heroine. Far from it. But there’s a difference between an authentic character and someone consciously defying the fairy tale legacy.
Let’s gender swap for a moment with Frodo (I call it the Frodo Road because I clearly like naming things). Tolkien didn’t fight to make Frodo strong. He wasn’t trying to make him a warrior like Aragorn or powerful like Gandalf. Still, he’s strong in his own way; particularly suited for his task.
He takes the ring as far as it is within his power to – which is all he said he’d do – bear the ring as long as it was within him to do so.
Frodo undertook his quest out of love – to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed.
– J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter to Mrs. Eileen Elgar (September 1963)
And in the end… though he did everything he said he would, though he’s honored as a hero, he didn’t destroy the ring.
Which does not make him less strong or less heroic.
And yet, if Frodo were a princess fighting the fairy tale legacy, he’d bear the ring. Without help from Sam. He’d be a savant with a sword. And kill Gollum. He’d cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom and he’d probably also be a ninja.
Because princesses working to defy the fairy tale legacy aren’t allowed to be carried up the mountain – it would make them weak. They aren’t allowed to reach the end and not be the one to save the day.
But characters are so much more interesting when they are allowed simply to be – instead of fighting against something.
If you don’t buy into the fairy tale legacy – don’t start from a premise that princesses are weak – then you don’t have to work to undo it. You can simply write the princess you need to write and let the story take you where it will.