Written by Carolina Eleni Theodoropoulos
Stories are made by their heroes and heroines. Children are inspired by these characters, they want to be like them, with all their freedom and bravery and wit and resilience. But for anyone looking for heroines in the fairy tales Grimm, I would warn: it can get very discouraging.
Those few women who do have agency still fall short of qualifying as heroines. Women in these stories do not ask for what they want—they probably don’t even know what they want, they’ve never been encouraged to search for it or ask themselves that simple question. They do not claim or determine their own identity; they are defined by their relationships and the glance of others. They never refuse marriage or children or any task assigned to them, no matter how unfair. In fewer words: they never say no. They politely nod and acquiesce. There is one heroine that stands out, the mighty Grettel from “Hansel and Grettel,” though beyond that none of the women in the Grimm tales ever impressed or intrigued me. Apart from the female villains that is. The villains were the best depiction, I thought, of a woman who is assertive and powerful, unapologetically demanding of what she wants and steadfast in attaining it (never mind fearless in the face of a restrictive patriarchal environment).
My re-acquaintance with the Grimms led to my asking: who qualifies as a heroine? There is an entire literary tradition on the hero (Odyssean, Iliadic etc.) explored thoroughly even, scholarly, by Joseph Campbell in “The Hero’s Journey.” Campbell was a professor who taught this as a subject, and he had a student who began to wonder whether this conversation was too one-sided. She began to wonder about the heroine; who is the Heroine, what qualities constitute as heroic for a woman and how are they different from a hero’s?
Moved to go beyond her musings Maureen Murdoch published an article that would purposely bounce off Campbell’s book. It was titled, “The Heroine’s Journey: A Woman’s Quest for Wholeness.” In it, she asserts that women also embark on journeys but theirs differ from the men’s 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: 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.
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. 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”; or even “Hansel and Gretel”). Then there is a third category of women, a more formidable, sinister type of woman, who seems to me like 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 of 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”). These villainesses lust for power; they are unafraid, dominant, cunning, manipulative, and unapologetic about their nature. Ironically, these are qualities that come very close to describing the Odyssean hero, so beloved by storytellers, including the brothers Grimm. In men, these qualities are wondrous, laudable, exciting; in women, according to the Grimms, they turn villainous. Men become heroes, women become villains by the same qualities.
When I peeled back the evil mask, I realized what I liked about these villainesses: they had 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. They, nevertheless, 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. In feminist analyses of fairy tales the point is to isolate the latent content of the stories 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, because she was a pariah. 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.
The Grimms overlooked the eternal appeal of the villain however. 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 who makes a more complicated villain than one who is convinced they’re the hero of their own story fighting for a legitimate cause?
Besides—villains are extremely memorable. Who stands out most in “Snow White” or “Hansel and Gretel”? The evil queens and witches are such powerful characters that they leap from the page directly into our nightmares. They live on because there is something in them that startles us, that intrigues us, that disgusts us even, but magnetizes us at the same time and we can’t look away. Maybe it’s something in their ruthlessness that excites us, because behind it lies something all people crave: freedom from restraints—that is—ultimate freedom with a touch of rebellion and an I-don’t-care-kind-of-attitude.