'The Miniaturist's Jessie Burton On 7 Problematic Fairytales & Her Mission To Rewrite The Rules
Growing up, I loved the classic fairytales for their sense of magic, their drama and enchantment. But at the same time I absorbed, without thinking, the insidious messages between the words – be a good girl otherwise the wolf will get you; don’t get fat or ugly or no man will marry you; keep a clean house and a clean mind to ensure you don’t break the world in two. They were demands for perfection, and they were also threats if that perfection was not achieved. Girl characters were often nameless, lily-white virgins or evil witches, and independence of thought was eventually quashed by some outside agent, normally a king.
When it came to my own chance to tell a fairytale for a new generation, I wanted to right some of these wrongs, and I chose The Twelve Dancing Princesses, who I renamed The Restless Girls. They have names, they have dreams, and they learn how to rescue themselves, negotiating the thorns of a patriarchy that wants them to be mute. It was a joy to write, and along the way, I found so many other fairytales that could do with being smashed apart with a hammer, or maybe by a pen? Here’s a few.
While it’s lovely to have a pumpkin carriage and a pair of sparkling slippers made of that very practical material, glass – this is one hell of a dodgy story. Cinderella’s family is "non-traditional," in the sense that Cinderella’s mother is not her biological mother. Stepmothers in fairy tales get such a rough ride, and this one is no exception. She’s vicious and so are her own daughters, who force Cinderella into slave labour. The bottom line of Cinderella is that if you’re young and female you can’t rescue yourself without a fairy godmother, but as long as you’re slim, passive and beautiful, marriage to a dashing prince will save your day.
2Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White just loves to look after her house! She happily undertakes the role of looking after the dwarves, whose personalities sound less than ideal (Sneezy, Grumpy, Dopey, anyone?) and is little more than is a fantasy servant, who, in the Grimm original must "cook, make beds, sew, wash, and knit, and keep everything clean and orderly." Give me a break. Cue another nameless Evil Stepmother, who fears irrelevance as she ages and needs to remain the most beautiful — after all, you have to be beautiful otherwise you don’t count, but vanity in women is wickedness, so work that one out please, because I can’t. She does all she can to exterminate Snow White, who ends up comatose in a glass coffin for everyone to gawp at (more objectified passivity) — oh and of course there’s that non-consensual kiss from a prince she’s never met. Brilliant! In the original version, the Evil Stepmother is forced to dance in red-hot iron slippers until she drops dead. It all ends in a wedding. Obviously.
3Beauty and the Beast
It’s great when you don’t judge a book by its cover, but I’m going to judge a book by its cover. If Beauty were an ugly, powerful woman, demanding that a young man stay with her in her creepy-ass castle as punishment for his dad STEALING A FLOWER — well, let’s just say eyebrows would be raised, and the villagers would be calling her a perverted, mad witch. As it is, the Beast is a tragic figure. He’s feared, yes, but so misunderstood! Beauty must give up her life to remain with him, no objections raised, even though she begs to be let back to see her family. I’d say there’s a fair argument for Stockholm Syndrome at play here, and a horrible legacy of telling women that if a man is moody and complicated, it means he’s really special! And you can be the one to expend all your emotional labour to save him and make him better! Please, Beast: do the work yourself.
We’ve got a lot of virgin brides in fairy tales, but here’s one that has some allusions to pre-marital sex, and boy, does that go down like a lead balloon. Rapunzel is one of the only figures who seems to display some sexual agency of her own, craftily using her plaits as ladders for a passing prince (princes are always passing by, looking for glass coffins or plait-ladders) to shimmy into her tower. They start spending a lot of time together and eventually Rapunzel gets pregnant. Obviously, she’s punished for this by the hag that locked her in the tower in the first place, and the prince, who is trying to get up the ladder, falls back down into a bed of thorns, and is blinded. I didn’t know thorns could blind you? Maybe they can’t, because after stumbling through the forest, he finally comes across the banished Rapunzel with their pair of baby twins, and her magic touch restores his sight. Maybe he’d just had his eyes shut the whole time? Anyway. Don’t have sex, because it makes you blind and you’ll have your hair chopped off.
5The Little Mermaid
Ugh, this one is so depressing. The Little Mermaid literally gives away her voice to get the man she wants. I mean, it’s not even symbolic. She’s mute. Here we have the archetypal tale of a young woman making all the sacrifices, giving up everything, leaving her entire world to be with someone who really doesn’t make any concessions, but carries on his life as it always was. This might be one of the only tales where the original version is slightly more feminist — at least warning at the problem of giving away your identity for a man. In Hans Christian Andersen's original, however, the mermaid can only come on land to be with the prince if she drinks a potion that makes it feel like she is walking on knives at all times. She does this, and you would expect her selfless act to end with the two of them getting married? Nope! The prince MARRIES SOMEONE ELSE. He literally does that. So the Little Mermaid throws herself into the sea, where her body dissolves into sea foam. Like I said: ugh.
I feel we have been having too many heroines walking around on knives, or holing up in woods with their long plaits and babies, so let’s return to a favourite theme: sleeping, inert women. The original of Sleeping Beauty is very dark: it derives from a 17th century Italian tale called Sun, Moon and Talia by Giambattista Basile, which itself was based on 14th century legends. Sun, Moon and Talia actually sounds like a really good title for a novel (I’ve made a note) — but in this tale, the sleeping Talia is raped and impregnated by another passing king (there are so, so so many passing royal men: have they literally nothing to do) — but guess what! This rape is actually just a stepping stone to a happy ending. Because after Talia wakes up and recovers from the initial shock of the fact she’s carrying twins, the Passing King/Rapist™ decides to return and…marry her. I…I’m done here. Just put it in the bin.
7Little Red Riding Hood
Ok, one more. Forget Roald Dahl’s Red Riding Hood whipping a pistol from her knickers, the original, (versions of which have been around since the 10th century) was a classic early example of victim-blaming. The poor girl is effectively stalked through the woods by a wolf, who tricks her and hounds her, who eats her grandmother and dresses up as the old lady in order to eat Red Riding Hood, too. In some versions, this is the end of the story. In others, she doesn’t rescue herself, but has to rely on a Passing Woodcutter™ who cuts open the wolf’s belly so that Red can hop out with her granny. At heart, it’s a story of staying close to home, keeping within your boundaries. Know your place, don’t explore, don’t leave the path, never talk to wolves, however interesting they are. Because you will end up dead, and it will probably be your fault. Sigh.