Some of the Russian fairy tales that I have read this week don’t really fit with the dominant fairy tale narrative described by Marcia Lieberman—a girl is rescued by a boy and they get married.
Q: How do fairy tales depict gender roles? What lessons regarding gender roles might be embedded in Sleeping Beauty?
Long a part of many cultures, fairy tales serve to ignite children's imaginations as well as provide them the wonderful experience of literature that encourages what Dr. Bettleheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, calls "the active play of the child's imagination."
Fairy tales often depict the Old World traditional gender roles, and some roles are unique to fairy tales.
- Innocent, pure, and lovely maidens
- Maiden in distress
- Beautiful, loving, happy wife
- Mother who feels fulfilled after childbirth
- Fairy godmother, kind fairies
- Revengeful fairy
- Wicked stepmother
- Evil queen
- Poor working girl or step-child
- Hunter, Woodsman, Shepherd
- Knight, King, Prince, prince disguised as a frog, the lover who dominates
- Wizard, magician
- Gnome that is sinister, or other evil character such as a goblin
- Beggar, beggar in disguise
- Troll, giant
In fairy tales, there is often an innocent who has something happen to him/her such as a spell cast upon him/her (enchantment frequently figures into the narrative). Most of the time, the vulnerable, innocent person is a young woman or a child; the rescuer is a handsome man who is usually a prince.
In "Sleeping Beauty" by the Brothers Grimm, the main character is the princess born to a king and queen who have longed for a child. Unfortunately, their joy is too quickly interrupted by a disgruntled old fairy who spitefully tells the king and queen that their child will prick her finger on a spindle and die. Fortunately, a kind fairy comes next with her prediction and mitigates the spell of the old fairy: the girl will sleep 100 years.
In this fairy tale, then, we see the good fairies, an evil one, a loving mother, and a beautiful maiden on whom a spell is cast. She does prick her finger and fall asleep for 100 years, but a handsome prince discovers her castle while he is on a hunting trip. He makes the treacherous journey through vines and trees that cover the castle; finally, he finds the princess in a chamber of gold and he kneels beside her in adoration of her beauty. He is the lover, then, and kisses her, an action that awakens her from the century of sleep. "And now the enchantment is broken." Submissively, she asks the prince where he has been, "I have waited for you long." The other members of the court who were put to the same 100-year rest awaken and the chief lady in waiting informs the princess that supper is prepared for her and the prince.
The next day the prince took his bride to his father's palace, and there they lived happily ever afterward.
Clearly, it is the male who rescues the female in this fairy tale. She is a maiden, whose pricking of her finger that draws blood symbolizes her entry into womanhood. Found by the fearless prince who fights his way through the cover of the castle in order to claim the princess, she is married and may become now a mother--all the traditional roles. The woman's role is passive; she waits for her prince to rescue her.