Tales for Willful Readers When Male Fairy Tale Archetypes Are Used to Promote Harmful Sexual Ideologies
The long and fluid history of fairy tales shows us that men who want to control, dehumanize, and violate women have always existed.
This is Tales for Willful Readers , a monthly column by Cate Fricke on the lasting power of folk and fairy tales, how they have influenced us individually and collectively, and the lessons they offer for modern life.
Finally, he came to the tower and opened the door to the small room in which Brier Rose was asleep. There she lay, and her beauty was so marvelous that he could not take his eyes off her. Then he leaned over and gave her a kiss, and when his lips touched hers, Brier Rose opened her eyes, woke up, and looked at him fondly. —Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, “Brier Rose” (1857)
Finally, he entered a chamber completely covered with gold and saw the most lovely sight he had ever looked upon—there on a bed with curtains open on each side was a princess who seemed to be about fifteen or sixteen and whose radiant charms gave her an appearance that was luminous and supernatural. He approached, trembling and admiring, and knelt down beside her. At that moment, the enchantment having ended, the princess awoke and bestowed upon him a look more tender than a first glance might seem to warrant. “Is it you, my prince?” she said. “You have been long awaited.”
—Charles Perrault, “Sleeping Beauty” (1697)
Finally he arrived at the room where Talia sat, as if enchanted, and when he saw her he thought she was asleep. He called to her, but no matter what he did and how loud he yelled she did not wake up, and since her beauty had enflamed him, he carried her in his arms to a bed and picked the fruits of love. Then he left her in the bed and returned to his kingdom, where he did not remember what had happened for a long time. After nine months Talia unloaded a pair of babies, one a boy and the other a girl, who looked like two bejeweled necklaces. They were cared for by two fairies that had appeared in the palace, who would place them at their mother’s teats; one day, when they were trying to suck but couldn’t find the nipple, they grabbed her finger and sucked so long that the piece of flax came out.” —Giambattista Basile, “Sun, Moon, and Talia” (1634)
Afterthought princes, foolish youngest sons, weak-willed fathers, monsters, kidnappers, and rapists—fairy tales are not especially kind in their depictions of men. The memetic figure of the heroic fairy tale prince, the one who enters at the eleventh hour to deliver the heroine from distress or enchantment, is somewhat of a minority. Yet he’s a powerful enough presence that he manages to outshine his less noble brethren, showing up in wedding industry rhetoric, romantic films, and, of course, passionate defenses of heteronormative social behavior.
Jordan Peterson—bestselling author, psychology professor, and decrier of political correctness and the “backlash against masculinity”—often points to “Sleeping Beauty” as a fairy tale that, in his words, “nails” the essence of male and female archetypes. “Sleeping Beauty” is, of course, a familiar tale type: a young woman is cursed to prick her finger on her sixteenth birthday and fall into a deep sleep for one hundred years; in most popular versions, she awakes when she is kissed by a prince. In a recent interview with Time magazine, Peterson claims that “Sleeping Beauty was raised out of her unconsciousness via a delivering male. Another way of reading the story is that unconsciousness requires active consciousness as an antidote.”
In other words, the sleeping princess is an unconscious, incomplete human mind, brought only into wholeness by contact with a man. In one YouTube video, Peterson expands on this interpretation: “Without a forward-going courageous consciousness, a woman herself will drift into unconsciousness and terror . . . She has to bring her own masculine consciousness into the forefront so she can survive in the world . . . Unless a woman is taken out of man, so to speak, she isn’t a human being, she’s just a creature.”
She isn’t a human being. If the notion that a woman needs a man’s “active consciousness” to be made whole isn’t troubling enough, it’s language like this that hints at Peterson’s more insidious views. She’s just a creature.
Henry Meynell Rheam, 1899 / via wikimedia
When, earlier this year, a young man who self-identified as an “incel”—involuntary celibate—killed ten people and injured sixteen others by driving a van through a crowd in Toronto, the tragedy raised awareness of this growing group of men who believe that women should have little to no rights, especially when it comes to sexual choice. In a subsequent interview with the New York Times , Peterson commented on this incident, and the movement behind it, in chilling terms: “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy.”
Peterson also believes that the defining element of the female archetype is chaos, while her male counterpart is stability and power. “Enforced monogamy,” on its face, would seem to be a direct contradiction of that theory, as it implies that a male who otherwise would turn to murder needs a woman’s calming services to keep him agreeable and nonviolent. But leaving such irony aside, let’s focus on the fact that enforced monogamy relies on a woman’s lack of agency, choice, or human rights. If you can believe in the plausibility of enforced monogamy as a positive social solution, then you have to be able to believe that women are not fully human.
Thanks to centuries of elasticity, fairy tales will make room for almost any interpretation—even one as horrific and offensive as Peterson’s. “Sleeping Beauty” is a particularly troubling tale. But when Peterson speaks of it in interviews and lectures, he’s speaking only of the Disney version; if he does not say so outright, it’s evident by his use of the character name “Maleficent” (the villain is nameless in all versions but Disney’s) and his mentions of the three good fairies who shelter the princess in the woods. While Peterson may keep his interpretive analogy zoomed in on Disney’s clean, technicolor romance, every fairy tale has an existence that lives outside of any one version of itself. It’s a fallacy to speak of archetypes and history while ignoring that one version’s lineage, and all that that lineage implies.
If we were to follow Peterson’s logic down through the ancestry of “Sleeping Beauty,” we would see his argument become something even uglier than his trollish insistence that women require a man’s “active consciousness” to become whole. We would have to face the theory that in order to be fully human, a woman must be violated into wakefulness.
Born in 1566, over two hundred years before the Brothers Grimm, the Neopolitan poet and fairy tale writer Giambattista Basile composed some of the earliest versions of the stories we now know as “Rapunzel,” “All-Fur,” “The Golden Goose,” and many more. His collection Lo cunto de il cunti or “The Tale of Tales,” later known as Il Pentamerone , is full of bawdy (and, occasionally, downright disgusting) humor contained within stories that did not shy away from sex, violence, or dark physical comedy.
It’s this collection that contains the tale “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” in which Talia, who falls “down dead on the ground” after a piece of spinning flax lodges in her finger, is awakened when one of the two children she has birthed during her unconscious ordeal sucks the flax from her finger. She wakes not knowing how she came to be a mother, or who looked after her. Like the tamer versions of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, “Sun, Moon, and Talia” eventually ends with a reunion and a marriage, though it’s complicated by the fact that the king who impregnated Talia was already married, and his wife orders that Talia be burned on a pyre and her two children killed and cooked for dinner. In the end, Talia and her rapist are wed, and no one seems troubled by the violation that’s occurred. Perhaps Talia’s rape would fit snugly into Peterson’s theory—the “active consciousness” of man has won the day, each act “justified” by how happy Talia and her king appear to be at story’s end.
Edward Frederick Brewtnall / via wikimedia
Sleeping Beauty , a recent film by French director Catherine Breillat, turns this pregnancy plot point on its head: The heroine wakes after a long, romantic dream, loses her virginity to a callous twenty-first-century beloved, and discovers that she is pregnant. In a rage, she confronts her lover for abandoning her, and while the tussle ends in a reunion like in “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” it is the subtle look on the princess’s face just before the film’s end that conveys what she’s learned: not that her male counterpart has made her whole, but that she cannot trust or idealize him. Breillat’s contemporary perspective is understandably feminist; though she does not always let her heroines triumph, they do emerge from their adventures with a complicated relationship with the world, with men, and with their own sexuality, a relationship with far more shades of gray than Peterson’s stark read of consciousness versus unconsciousness.
But just in case anyone were to argue that this layered perspective is only the result of modern thought, and that sexual violence was merely an accepted act of archetypal manliness long ago—an unfortunate but necessary metaphorical “awakening” for an unconscious heroine—we could point to the earliest known version of the Sleeping Beauty trope, an episode within the anonymous French epic poem Perceforest (translated into prose here by Susan McNeill Cox):
“Zellandine, my beautiful niece, how are you; speak to me.”
When Zellandine heard her aunt, she answered thus, “My dear aunt, I slept well yesterday, and now I feel that I am ill, and I do not know how this could have happened.”
“Not yesterday,” said the lady, “but a long time ago, because since then you have not given any sign of waking up. You have been carrying this beautiful child inside you for nine months, a child you delivered today. But I do not know who the father is.”
When the young lady heard her aunt and saw her beautiful son, she was very astounded because she doubted that what she saw was real. Then she began to cry because she did not believe that any man could have done something with her body.
Perceforest was composed, it is believed, between the 1330s and 1340s, and it remains the most graphic of the “Sleeping Beauty” examples. The hero, Troylus, knows when he takes the sleeping Zellandine’s virginity that what he’s doing is wrong. As for Zellandine, she is horrified when she wakes to find that her virtue has been stolen from her. Like the heroine of Breillat’s film, Zellandine is confused, angry, and devastated, a feeling that lasts throughout the story—she knows that this should not have happened to her.
Reading this brings to mind the insistence of certain fans of hyper-violent television shows, who claim that graphic depictions of rape are just true to a particular time period—that sexual violence used to be, if not altogether socially acceptable, then far more commonplace. The lineage of “Sleeping Beauty” would seem to be a direct counterargument to that excuse, as even the earliest medieval version shows rape to be real, but very wrong. Subsequent versions merely covered over or ignored the amoral behavior until we were left with Disney, and a culture that often sweeps controversy under the rug while keeping the convenient archetypes to pervert and use at will.
Peterson is entitled to his interpretation of this tale, even if I find it offensive, misogynistic, and flimsy. I believe in the generosity of fairy tales to lend themselves to various interpretations, even if some seem to represent a puerile and insulting stretch.
But in one lecture, Peterson does prove himself flat wrong about fairy tales themselves. Defending his interpretation of “Sleeping Beauty” as some kind of ancient absolute, he says, “There’s recent evidence that some of these fairy tales, the ones that the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen collected, are up to ten thousand years old. You can’t just come up with a counter-fairy tale. That’s not how it works.”
What a contradiction! By looking at the different versions of any fairy tale (not only “Sleeping Beauty”), one discovers not that fairy tales remained static and unchanged for thousands of years, but that they are “countered” and reformed with every iteration. What is the Grimm brothers’ chaste, wholesome kiss but a counter to the callous rape of Talia? What is Disney’s bright, sing-songy rhetoric of “true love” but a counter to centuries of bawdy poetry? Of course you can come up with a counter-fairy tale—and you don’t even need to invent an entirely new one in order to do it.
Frans Stracké, 1867
If nothing else, the long and fluid history of fairy tales shows us that men who desire to control and dehumanize women have always existed and always will. There is no stopping their half-formed ideas from being guzzled wholesale by young men who wish desperately to be seen as relevant and powerful. But there will also always exist those who will use a story not just to show a worldview, but to show true humanity. Zellandine and Troylus may end up together in the end, but any reader of Perceforest knows without a doubt that Zellandine is human and complicated—no mere creature to be possessed.
Just as there are a thousand fairy tales that “counter” the notion of a helpless damsel in distress—Maid Maleen breaking herself out of her tower, Kate Crackernuts sitting vigil by an enchanted sleeping prince, the little sister of “The Seven Ravens” slicing off her own finger to rescue her cursed brothers, to name just a few examples—there are a thousand fairy tales that, taken together, paint a wide and multi-faceted picture of manhood, and it isn’t always heroic. That’s the trouble with fairy tales, and also what makes them so subversive: They do not conform to any one vision of how people should behave, or how a perfect world should look. Instead, they represent the chaos and unpredictability of the human condition. By their very nature, fairy tales argue for a world in which nothing is absolute; where, if power belongs to any one group, it is only tenuous, and can easily be pierced.