Fairy Tales and the Romance of Gender

Fairy Tales and the Romance of Gender

Last update on Sept. 19, 2013.

There is a twitter feed I enjoy: @AbandonedPics. It's a string of photos of old castles and mansions and amusement parks.  All of them are abandoned. The emotional punch comes from the simultaneous experience of admiration (at the grandeur) and sadness (at the neglect). The view of gender in many of the best loved Fairy Tales evokes the same admiration (at the grandeur) and sadness (at the neglect). The belief that there is a proper way to be a man and a proper way to be a woman stands in our own day like a neglected castle with ivy spiraling up the tower and moss softening the stones.

Fairy Tales assume the reality of gender. This clear conviction threatens those who seek to believe that gender is as non-essential and morally insignificant as a person's hair color. We might call these people gender deniers, androgyny evangelists, or if you like, feminists. They dislike Fairy Tales intensely. Some feminists dislike Fairy Tales so much that they sawed off the head of the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen and deposited it in a woman's toilet. Not too many feminists resort to vandalism of statues. Many are content to vandalize the stories by re-writing them with feminist priorities.  It is natural to ask what inspires such a persistent assault.Frazen fairy tales

Fairy Tales are good because they have true visions of gender, but they are culturally powerful because they have romantic visions of gender. These tales carve a favorable emotional space for masculine men and feminine women. In other words, they do the good work of telling the truth beautifully. In the best Fairy Tales, or the best anything, rationality (truth), ethics, (goodness), and beauty (imagination) speak with one voice.

Many Fairy Tales tell the truth beautifully, but here are a few notable ones.

Beauty and the Beast tells the story of a man with an appearance as ugly as his heart. The love of Beauty transforms him into someone lovable. The end of the story reveals a man whose outward appearance changes to match his newly gentle spirit. The story also follows the course of Beauty's feelings from a rational appreciation of the Beast to love. The power of a woman's love to alter a man is romantically presented. We take delight at the transformation of the Beast into a prince of course, but in a way it is a dressing up of the delight we feel when a bachelor is transformed into a husband.  

The Water Fairy is an interesting tale about a hunter who is captured by a water fairy. His wife endeavors to rescue him from his captor by displaying her beauty (she combs her hair on the pond's edge), her industry (she weaves on the pond's edge), and her creativity (she plays a flute on the pond's edge). With each accomplishment, the waters recede to reveal more and more of her husband until finally he is released and they are ultimately reunited. The wife's ability to rescue her husband has none of the masculine flare of so many recent Fairy Tale revisions. She models her commitment to her marriage by embracing her femininity not by despising it.

The Maiden and the Vagabond is an Irish tale. A haughty princess spurns a worthy suitor, and she ends up married to a vagabond singer. The misery of her humble circumstances grows even more as she takes work as a kitchen maid in a castle. Now instead of enjoying the admiration of others as in her former days, she hides in the wings hoping to get a glimpse of the royalty. The prince of the castle is to be married. She spies the wedding party from the wings and notices the groom is the former suitor that she spurned. He observes her in the wings and demands that she come dance with him. Ashamed, she stumbles forth and sees that the Prince is none other but her vagabond husband. He had disguised himself as a vagabond and shared her miserable existence in order to teach her humility. The princess is taken away and dressed in new clothes. She returns, dances with her husband, and takes part in the wedding feast. The former ugliness of spirit is overcome. Now her inward beauty matches her outward beauty.

Sleeping Beauty tells of a princess who is cursed with death and yet it is softened to sleep. She waits in alienation behind the curse of creation, and the coming prince must endure a wall of thorns to kiss his bride and wake the past. Christians have special resonance with this cultural expression of longing and find that it echoes Scripture's extended metaphor of Christ as Bridegroom and the church as bride. It is an especially romantic vision of the curse of sin that Christ endures. The kiss as a token of love also resonates with the Christian understanding of the cross (the kiss of righteousness and peace that brings salvation Ps. 85:10).

Tolkien once said "We need … to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity--from possessiveness." He termed the act of regaining a clear view "recovery." All of the stories above (and more besides) help to clean the windows of our imagination so that we can recover a beautiful view of marriage and gender.

One final note, experts insist that Folktales and Fairy Tales were primarily told by women. This might explain the special energy in the tales surrounding femininity. The stories that appreciate masculinity are the Chivalric Tales of Arthur, Roland, and Sir Guy of Warwick, but perhaps they should be dealt with in a different post.

Fairy Tales effectively awaken our understanding of gender in a way argument can't.  In short, they awaken it with a kiss. They remind us that our sex is not untangled from our personhood. We were created male and female, princes and princesses, woodcutter's sons and shepherdesses.

Zach Franzen
Zach Franzen is an illustrator who lives with his wife in Greenville SC. You can visit his website (atozach.com) or follow him on twitter @ZacharyFranzen



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