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  • Amy MacKinnon

Women in Fairy Tales: Good or Bad?

Updated: Nov 1, 2019

Is it true that women in fairy tales are just passively waiting around for some man—usually a prince—to come and save them from their suffering?

Sometimes it seems that way, and that’s usually how Cinderella and Snow White are seen when people want to criticize those stories.

And in Beauty and the Beast, isn’t Belle just trying to placate her kidnapper as a victim of Stockholm Syndrome? And that by placating him, she'll be able to change him?

As though that’s an ideal that women were supposed to live up to: if I love him enough, then he’ll stop abusing me and we’ll just forget that he’s holding me captive, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

If that’s what were really happening in the story, then yes—that would be deeply disturbing, and completely wrong to encourage anyone—including young girls—to look to Belle as their ideal.

So it’s a good thing that this isn’t what’s actually happening in those stories.

In each of the stories, the point is that it’s the practice of virtue that makes a character a hero or heroine.

It’s so very easy to think of ourselves as good, and—as Dale Carnegie also pointed out—even the worst criminal offenders and mass murderers thought that they were good people, they were just misunderstood.

Most other people would disagree with them…

Am I a Good Person?

We say and do things all the time that we think are good, so doesn't that mean that we're good?

But are those things we say and do truly good? What does that even mean ?

We say that cake is good, or that someone looks good when they get dressed up, or that a comfy chair is good—but of course all of that is different from saying that a person is good.

When we say that someone is "a good person" we mean that they act in certain ways. The way they speak about and treat other people, the way they think about others, and the actions they take are good. It's more than just someone who doesn't lie, cheat, or steal.

They don't just avoid really bad behavior...

Those good behaviors are freely chosen because the person makes a conscious decision to pursue what is truly good, by practicing the virtues even when no one else would know.

Not just here and there, but they've practiced those behaviors and internalized those attitudes for so long that they've become second nature to them: they've made a habit of practicing the virtues.

How Do We Do That?

If being good means means that you're virtuous, how do you know if you're truly good and not just faking it so that others will think you're a good person?

How do you know that you’ve actually internalized the virtues and made them a habit?

You find out when you’re tested.

Grimm's Snow White by Arthur Rackham
Grimm's Snow White by Arthur Rackham

And where are the virtues tested?

In trial, suffering, and especially in facing death.

And this is what each of those women in these fairy tales experience.

Their parents and/or step parents:

  • Treat them like dirt (or ashes)

  • Try to kill them

  • Throw them before the Beast to save themselves

  • Try to kill them again

What is their response?

They embrace truth, goodness, and love in the face of every trial. They never condone the evil characters or actions, but they don't embrace them. You can only truly love another person if you see them as they are, not for what or how you want them to be.

Snow White recognizes that her stepmother is evil, but doesn't love the evil. She doesn't try to kill her, either. Many people would be tempted to get revenge on the evil queen for what she tried to do to her, but Snow White doesn't even think that she should do that.

She flees from death, and the reason she’s able to do that is because the one the queen sent to kill her was faced with her goodness, and he couldn’t bring himself to destroy that.

The dwarves recognize this in her, too, which is why they give her shelter and protection.

The prince sees this, and (after 3 days) she is resurrected because of his love for her goodness.

Cinderella refuses to give in to hate—even though she could have easily, and understandably, done so—and become vindictive or malicious. Her refusal to do so is the reason that she’s the heroine. She remains virtuous, and is truly good.

In Beauty and the Beast, Belle loves the Beast, even though he’s not yet good. She recognizes that he’s not all good and calls him on that.

Instead, it’s because she loves him—the good in him—that he’s able to become good and then the spell is broken.

List of "Fairy Tale Friday" Posts

Check out these previous posts in this series:

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