Is Female Villainy All That Bad: the Disappointing Heroines of the Fairy Tales Grimm

Written by Carolina Eleni Theodoropoulos

Looking for heroines in the fairy tales Grimm can get very discouraging. Those few women who do have agency still fail—to my contemporary standards, at least—to qualify as heroines. Women in these stories do not ask for what they want (they probably don’t even know what they want as they haven’t been taught to search for it); they do not claim or define their own identity; they never refuse marriage or children or any task assigned to them, no matter how unfair. To be succinct, they never say no. They politely nod (no smiling) and acquiesce. So it remarkably seems to me—at risk of being controversial—that the closest figure to resemble a powerful, assertive heroine in the Grimm tales is the female villain.

Granted, for this argument to work, I will have to provide a framework for what constitutes a contemporary heroine. In response to (her professor) Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,”  Maureen Murdoch published an article titled, “The Heroine’s Journey: A Woman’s Quest for Wholeness,” wherein she asserts that women also embark on journeys but theirs differ in being more psycho-spiritual. Using archetypal psychology, she designed a diagram chronicling the successive stages of heroines before their journey’s end. The journey, for both heroes and heroines, represents the search for one’s soul. For heroines this additionally “involves the healing of the wounding of the feminine that exists deep within her and the culture.” (If this claim intrigues and perhaps confuses you, I highly recommend reading Murdoch’s article.)

What Murdoch demands of heroines, the women of the fairy tales Grimm lack. That is, a spiritual dive inward into the depths of the female psyche, a separation from the patriarchal hegemony, an eventual reunion with the sacred feminine common to all women, renewal, and an achieved balance between the feminine and masculine aspects of her nature.

Model depicting the cyclical nature of the female experience from Murdoch’s “The Heroine’s Journey.”

But even on a less academic and archetypal treatment of women, and on a more common-sense expectation of what a heroine represents, the fairy tales Grimm still fail to deliver. Contemporary society—despite its faults—has bred a female culture that emphasizes equal treatment between the sexes; it encourages female representation, leadership, and solidarity. Inspiring women are intelligent, confident, and carve their own paths in life. They defend themselves from unfair treatment by speaking out. They trust their intuition and follow their curiosity to uncover new ideas and truths. Namely, they are three-dimensional people with full agency who can be soft and strong at the same time.

In contrast, the fairy tales Grimm present an oversimplification of femininity as defined by the narrow views of patriarchy. (The brothers did after all grow up in a traditional, religious environment where men and women occupied fixed gender roles.) Generally, there are three types of women who stand out in the Grimm tales. There is the silent heroine, the saintly figure, who saves her family by giving up her speech to restore their human form or (their or her) lost powers (e.g. “The Seven Ravens”; “The Six Swans”; “The Virgin Mary’s Child”). There is the heroine who uses her voice or her (limited) agency to beat the evil character and become an accomplished adult, but only as allowed within the patriarchal structure (e.g. “The Robber Bridegroom”; “The Glass Coffin”; “Hansel and Gretel”). Until now, it appears that not only are there no satisfying heroines in the Grimm tales but that women, as a construct, are severely lacking as well.

There is nonetheless a third category of women: a more formidable, sinister type of woman, and this…this is the most interesting kind. This woman is either a hag or witch, an ogre or an evil stepmother: she is villainous. Her chosen modes of oral expression are eating flesh and uttering curses. She lives to torture the other characters in the story, especially the females. For example, she takes away the Queen’s children and accuses her for eating them (e.g. “The Virgin Mary’s Child”), she forces them to work until they injure themselves or almost starve to death (e.g. “Mother Holle”; “Hansel and Gretel”), she curses them and turns them into animals (e.g. “Jorinda and Joringel”). In short, these villains lust for power; they are unafraid, dominant, cunning, manipulative, and unapologetic about their nature. It is ironic how close these qualities come to describing the beloved Odyssean hero, starring frequently in myth and folk tales. But these qualities, the brothers Grimm seem to be purporting, transform women into villains and men into heroes. Yet if we peel back the evil mask, these villains have strong personalities, firm beliefs.

Literature needs more female characters who are unashamed of demanding what they want, who can stand their ground, who can battle powerful men brandishing their own swords of power. For this reason, when I encounter these females, there is a part of me that roots for them. Obviously, they aren’t heroines in Murdoch’s sense of an introspective journey, or a representational model worthy of emulating. But nevertheless they embody a side of the female psyche, which despite its environment is not suppressed, but alive and teeming with fiery vision and drive. And yes, that drive is not laudable when used to abandon children and murder stepdaughters, but fairy tales aren’t meant to be taken literally anyway. The point is to isolate the latent content of the tales with regards to their treatment of women.

The Grimms took a firm stance: they punished the villain, they ridiculed and, quite literally, burned her—either at the stake (e.g. “Brother and Sister”), or by forcing her over hot coals until she dropped dead (e.g. “Snow White”). The choice to take the most powerful female figure and tear her down is a method for reinforcing the traditional place of women. It served as a warning for others not to be like her. In this way, the Grimms perpetuated the notion that when women had true, unlimited agency, and used their voices and their magical powers, they were dangerous—not only to men, but to society.

I maintain, however, that the Grimms overlooked the eternal appeal of the villain. There is an infinite passion that characterizes a good villain who will not cease in their efforts to vanquish the opponent. Most people want to be seen as heroes but this doesn’t prevent them from secretly harboring a tiny wish to break the rules, to rebel. (Even the pious, nerdy Grimms had a secret admiration for robbers.) A good hero is complicated. And what is more complicated than a villain who is convinced they’re the hero of their own story fighting for a legitimate cause? Besides—villains are extremely memorable. Who do you remember best from “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel”? The evil queens and witches are such powerful characters that they leap from the page directly into your nightmares. They live on, because there is something in them that startles us awake, that intrigues us. Maybe it’s that behind their ruthlessness lies what people crave the most: ultimate freedom.

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