For reasons I have no clue about, unless it was related to waking up from a dream about doing lesson plans, my mind wandered into fairy-tale heroines and tropes. Oh, or it might have been snickering with a friend about taking a currently popular (and unhealthy) romance trope/reader cookie and subverting or flat inverting it. That was popular for a while in certain circles. You may recall the “self-rescuing princesses!” claims for some books, or last year’s “inverted re-telling of The Princess Bride.” (If you missed that, no great loss, I assure you.)
A while back I posted about a different writer’s frustration with the live-action and CG movie Maleficent, and how it collided with the ideas in Sleeping Beauty. These are both Disney productions, and thus Disney’s version of the Sleeping Beauty story. Those who have read the older versions know that Disney sweetened things a great deal, although the animated movie is a great story on its own. One of the blog commenters observed that she does not like the older fairy-tales and folk-tales, because they place too much emphasis on physical beauty as the only thing of value for a woman, with everything else coming a distant second at best.
I’ve been chewing on that for a while, and I’m not really sure that holds up, when you get away from Disney versions, the sweetened and domesticated editions of stories. I grew up with Andrew Lang, the original Grimm’s stories, and some Russian and Scandinavian stories, along with Greek mythology (unexpurgated). Some are certainly about beauty alone – The Little Goose Girl comes to mind, where it is her lovely hair and her attractiveness (and the talking head of her dead horse) that proves her nobility. Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” is another one. “The Princess and the Pea,” where physical sensitivity shows noble rank. But a lot of others . . . require the heroine to do a lot of work, or to atone for mistakes, in order to win her man or win her brother’s freedom.
The German Frau Pechta stories are about young women who help others, and who have strong domestic skills. That wins them supernatural aid. So too some of the Baba Yaga stories, where the girl (with the aid of her mother’s blessing) shows respect for Baba Yaga and completes tasks in order to get the wild spirit’s assistance. “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” is another where the girl must endure hardship and show bravery in order to win back her love. “The Swan Princes” requires the princess to make shirts out of nettles* for her brothers in order to break evil magic. Some other stories, where the prince rescues the heroine, require her to trick her captors in order to stay alive or unmolested.
Those are not about beauty. Yes, they are about following social norms and being a good woman/daughter/betrothed. Yes, the girl is often described as being pretty or beautiful, just like the man is always good looking. The idea that interior goodness or wickedness is reflected in outward appearance goes back a long ways. But looks are also deceiving, as other stories show. The beautiful princess may be the evil one, or the witch-queen uses her looks to seduce the king and take over. (There’s a strong undercurrent of that in Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, a book I do NOT recommend for young readers. Stick with The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword as teen reading.)
Andrew Lang toned down some of the stories in his collection. He was a Victorian, and had Victorian sensibilities about what was appropriate for young readers. However, a lot more death, mayhem, and misery are in those stories than people assume. The heroes and heroines have to pay for bad choices, for breaking the rules. There’s a reason for the trope of the evil step-parent, of the negligent blood-parent. If you read a lot of history, then read “The Children of Lir,” you sort of nod. Second wives demanding that their son inherit rather than the son of the first wife . . . The pattern shows up over and over in history. Heck, look at polygamous societies today. Hans Christian Anderson made up his fairy tales, for the most part, but they fit his society and time. The French stories, once you take off the pretty trimmings added to please the nobility, are darn grim and close to the bone, just like French peasant life. Balkan folk-lore is full of “don’t go with strangers, avoid strangers, stick close to home and stay with the group or else.” But often the girls have to be strong, and brave, and take risks to free themselves or their family members from supernatural ills. Or at least to preserve themselves until help can come.
So yes, the “beauty is what makes you successful/happy/loved” appears in some tales, and it’s probably not the best foundation for living your life. But dig a little farther and there’s a lot of self-preserving princesses, some who rescue their lovers, some who stand up to supernatural rulers on their own, and some who provide the critical key to help the prince defeat evil. Like so much, it depends on what you read and watch, and how widely you read and watch.
And I’m going to go right on messing with the current Paranormal Romance patterns in some of my stories. Because some Golden Calves need to be BBQed.
*You treat the stems of nettles the same way you do flax – let the outer coating soften in water by rotting a little, then hackle and rett the fibers, spin them, and weave or knit the thread into cloth. It was a fiber that was available to the very poor when even gleaned wool was too scarce. Sort of like bark-fibers (bast) in Slavic countries.