I have a storybook of fairy tales that I remember fondly from my childhood.
Published in 1921, “Once Upon a Time…A Book of Old-Time Fairy Tales” belonged first to my grandmother, then my mother, and now me.
The binding is in shreds and many of the pages are torn, but the hand-drawn illustrations and the stories are endearing.
Well at least I remember the stories being endearing.
I pulled out the book the other night and started reading the tales to my four-year-old daughter, who utterly adores princesses and tea parties and the like.
As I read, I was stunned by the messages and the subtext within — so much so that I started changing entire words and passages as I said them aloud.
I know women still have a long way to go as we fight the gender pay gap, for reproductive rights, and against sexual harassment/violence, among other key issues.
But this book is a shocking glimpse into just how far we have come.
“Once upon a time, there was a Princess whose hair was of pure gold. She was the most beautiful maiden on earth and as good as she was beautiful.”
Published one year after women’s suffrage, “Once Upon a Time” makes today’s Disney Princesses, most notably Moana, Mulan, Merida and Elsa, look like raging feminists.
Here are some “lessons” imparted to our mothers and grandmothers in the fairy tales of yore.
1. Women have exactly two characteristics that make them endearing.
In every single story they are noted for being beautiful and kind. Sometimes the vocabulary changes to “sweet” or “gentle” …but the underlying message is this: you are worthwhile if you look good, behave nicely and don’t cause any trouble.
Side note: All the princesses or female protagonists in this book are referred to as girls, maidens, “my sweet” or “child.” Apparently using the word woman would be assigning too much of an adult and independent moniker to the fairer sex.
On the plus side, it is occasionally noted that the ‘maiden’ is also a good cook. So there’s that.
2. The mothers are dead, evil – or simply not discussed.
Adult women (not the “girls” who are the subject of the actual fairytales) fall into two categories: the wicked step-mom, or a footnote. Maybe this is because no mother would actually tolerate her daughter being married off like a prized bovine at auction. Or maybe the authors thought women were so irrelevant that they simply didn’t matter once they got married and bore children. But in these stories, it’s mostly young women (excuse me, again.. GIRLS) who are at the mercy of their King/merchant dads who are eager to marry them off to the first man who comes along.
3. Men are allowed to be total jerks and women should just deal with it.
In Rumpel-stilt-skin, a father who likes to run his mouth tells the King that his (beautiful) daughter can spin straw into gold.
(This isn’t true, by the way.)
So the greedy king locks the young woman up for three straight nights in vast rooms full of straw and makes her stay awake during the wee hours of the morning, spinning gold for him.
If she fails, she dies.
Of course, the young woman doesn’t know how to spin straw into gold, so she makes a deal with a little-gnome-looking dude who somehow keeps slipping through the locked doors into her room.
On the first two nights, she gives this goblin-creature all her jewelry, in exchange for him spinning the straw – just so that she can stay alive.
On the third night, this pompous, mercenary King tells her if she completes her task, he’ll marry her.
Well now, there’s a prize. I am sure she was thrilled.
Anyway, she has no more jewelry for the little gnome, so he makes her promise him her first-born child. Seeing no other option, she does.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and the woman is now married and has a baby. Goblin-man returns and demands the child, saying he will only let the Queen keep the baby if she is able to guess his name.
At this point, beloved King/husband promptly disappears from the story.
Clearly, it’s not his job to either help his wife out of this predicament, nor should he be at all concerned about the fate of his child.
After all, the baby is just a girl, right?
4. Women who have opinions are punished.
Take the story King Hawksbeak, which I remember loving as a child. This, I kid you not, is the opening passage:
“Once upon a time there was an old king who had only one daughter. He was very anxious that his daughter should marry, but while she was more beautiful than words can tell, she was so proud and rude that no man who came to woo her was good enough for her.”
Think about that for a minute.
She just wants to pick a guy she likes.
I mean, its marriage. Presumably she’s gonna be with this guy for the rest of her life. Shouldn’t she at least tolerate him a little? Nope. She’s too proud to just marry any random dude that happens by the palace…so she must be put in her place.
And she promptly is.
Her dad – the King – orders her to marry the next beggar who comes to the house and then immediately kicks her out of her home, noting that she’s a beggar-woman and beggar-women don’t live in castles.
5. Verbal abuse is mainstreamed…and justified
This gem of a story continues with the new husband berating his new wife for not knowing how to cook him dinner and for not being able to weave baskets.
“You see what a good-for-nothing you are?”
Later he calls her “stupid” and notes that she is “no manner of use for any decent kind of work.”
At the end of the story, the beggar is revealed to be a much-admired and handsome King. He treated her poorly, he says, to improve upon her vast flaws (most notably not wanting to marry him in the first place.)
“For love of you I have done these things (so) that your beauty might be made perfect by sympathy and gentleness. Forgive me, my Queen, for all I have let you suffer.”
The Princess (who doesn’t even rate an actual name in the story) then responds with: “I was very wicked and was not worthy to be your wife.”
Umm. What the actual F*** is that??? That reads like a playbook for a marriage that’s headed toward domestic violence.
Thank those who came before us
As I said earlier, women still have a lot of challenges to overcome, and equity to fight for.
But the next time you talk to your mother or your grandmother or a family friend who came of age anytime between the 1920s and the 1980s, thank them for fighting back against the messaging above.
As for me, I am going out to buy a new book for my daughter. It’s called “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women.” Featured in the book? Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou and Malala Yousafzai.