Re-Casting Women as HeroinesIn classic fairy tales, there are step-mothers and there are princesses and, as everybody knows, the step-mothers always seem to be cast as the villains, the princesses as unlucky women waiting to be rescued by a Prince, usually of the charming type.
Kathleen Ragan, in her Fearless Girls, Wise Women, & Beloved Sisters collection of folktales, tries to undo that dichotomy, claiming that the timing of when many fairy tales were recorded—the Victorian Era—has much more to do with this than the actual fairy tales themselves. To prove this, she goes back into first-hand accounts and records to bring back to life the folktales that star female heroines, such as the Sudanese woman, Fatma, who outwits a king’s challenge by earning more money abroad than the Prince can; the beautiful Chinese woman who escapes a king’s lust, and ultimately becomes king by a prophetic sign, bringing happiness to her people; and the young Iroquois mother who is the only one to take a stand against an evil monster.
Because I’m of the pairing persuasion, I wanted to look at a modern novel that recast women as the hero(in)es and chose Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, a retelling of the classic fairy tale The Robber Bridegroom (in itself, a pretty good tale when it came to a female protagonist). Many of the same elements of female heroes that Ragan talks of are evident in Atwood’s book—the female traits of cooperation and community and women who use their different strengths to come together to solve problems. Like all of Atwood’s books, this one is carried by the rich descriptions of character, especially of the three main heroines: Tony, a military history professor, Roz, a fashion-savvy CEO, and Charis, a New-Age earth mama who have all been brought together through mutual deceptions by Zenia, the shadowy woman who has no time nor place and has effectively robbed them of their husbands at one time or another.
By the end, when Zenia is no more and the metaphorical dust has cleared from the battlefield, there is a strange shift that occurs. The bonds that have held the three women together for so long now extend to Zenia, the displaced woman, who as Tony thinks, “[A]lthough she was many other things, she was also courageous. What side she was on doesn’t matter; not to Tony, not any more. There may not even have been a side. She may have been alone.”
It’s unusual for any fairy tale to end in this way—in a mutual understanding between the hero(in)es and the villains. In this one, the resolution seems right, bringing the modern fairy tale into a better approximation of its more ancient forebearers, before a Victorian Era that, in a way, robbed stories of the types of heroism that are more closely related with being a woman.
What are your favorite fairy tale heroines? What modern novels have you read that re-cast women as the heroines?
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