Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 4: Heroines

Um, sorry it's been almost a month since my last post in this series. Part of the reason it took me forever to get this post out was that I wasn't really sure if I wanted to talk about each heroine in her own movie/fairytale post or if I wanted to talk about them all collectively in one post on the character type. I kept writing half a post and then going "nahhhh I'll do it the other way" and rewriting a new one and then changing my mind again over and over. All of which is to say I've decided to do both, so I'll talk a bit today about fairytale heroines in general, and Disney fairytale heroines and the concept we have of them independent from their individual stories. I'll talk more about the characters themselves in the upcoming posts focusing on one movie at a time.

When we think of women and girls in fairytales, we don't often think "heroine" is the term for them. Princesses, sure, victims, almost definitely. The fairytales that probably come first to mind aren't fairytales in which women or girls save the day. We think of them being rescued by knights, brothers, fathers, princes, etc. but we don't usually first think of them saving themselves. That is not because there aren't heroic women in fairytales; in fact, there are probably more heroic, brave, strong, resourceful, clever women in fairytales and folk tales all over the world than there are princesses or women who fit this idea we seem to have formed of helpless girls in need of rescuing. But those fairytales don't come to mind first.

The reasons for this go back, once again, to the Grimms and Perrault, mainly. The stories popularized by them don't tend to feature heroines, and their collections are the big ones referenced today. Though the most popular fairytales today are the ones told in Disney films, Disney took those from the popular Grimms and Perrault tales; that's not to let Disney off the hook, because clearly the tales they chose from the larger set of Grimm/Perrault tales are the most popular, but Disney probably wasn't going to adapt "Princess Amaradevi" or "Molly Whuppie" before "Cinderella" or "Sleeping Beauty." So the heroines' stories take a little more digging to find, but they are there - just not as prevalent in the Western canon.

In large part, the Grimms and Perrault were telling stories intended to promote certain behaviors in their readers. Looking at the women in these tales, we can tell what those behaviors were for girls: obedience, loyalty, humility. The stories of women being tricksters, stories of girls saving their families and themselves, stories of disobedient girls who still manage to wrangle a happy ending for themselves: these stories by and large did not make it into the Grimms' collections, and even fewer of them made it to Perrault. World folklore is full of these women and girls, though: brave huntresses in North American and African lore, witty princesses outsmarting their husbands and suitors in India and the Middle East, trickster goddesses and helpful female spirits in Polynesian mythology. They are everywhere. The elements of characters like these are reintroduced to the fairytales we hear most often by modern fairytale retellers like Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue, which is really interesting as an exercise. We think of these sorts of retellings as thoroughly modern when often the character elements they're introducing are aspects of older fairytales that we've lost along the way.

Heroines aren't completely absent in Western canon, though. The Grimms' "Little Brother and Little Sister" features a heroine saving her brother and their "The Singing, Soaring Lark" also stars a courageous lady on a quest. Gerda in Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is another standout example. But these aren't the stories we hear told as often as "Snow White" and "Rapunzel," and it's worth noting that they aren't told as often because the collectors of fairytales didn't deem them worth telling.

The Disney Princess, as a concept, isn't generally thought of as a heroine. Many are their own heroines, many of them save the day, themselves, and/or their families, but the criticism leveled at The Disney Princess is generally along the lines of them being passive, in need of rescuing, following the Grimm/Perrault rules for obedient, blindly loyal, ambitionless objects, essentially shells of characters rather than full-fledged people in and of themselves. And the elements of that present in the characters, to whatever extent, is more or less directly traceable to the Grimms and Perrault. But the heroines in those stories did pick up elements of their forgotten sisters, and those elements are also present in The Disney Princess: conviction, kindness, courage. Princesses can be heroines, and arguably many Disney princesses are. Both the criticisms and defenses of Disney princesses have canonical support, because the princesses contain both the positive and negative elements of the characters on whom they are based. We'll get into more of that in later posts, but for now it's worth bearing in mind that the reason The Disney Princess is so hotly debated is because both sides are right, and the fairytale princesses from whom The Disney Princess came have both positive and negative elements to them as well.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, there is a LOT more to discuss on this topic, but with the next post in this series I'll start getting into each film individually, which will either be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs if I decide to go chronologically, or The Princess and the Frog because I finally found a cheap copy on Amazon Marketplace and when that gets here you bet I'm watching it right away, so it'll probably be fresh on the mind.


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