Too much feminism for our times

What modern mother hasn’t cringed at the pink and passive fairy tale princesses served up to her impressionable girl? The Disney versions of Snow White and Cinderella, Belle and Rapunzel are heroines of such vapid foolishness one wonders how they survived into the 21st century. The answer is that they are rooted in a tenacious and remarkably unaltered cultural tradition, the fairy tales first published two centuries ago by the Brothers Grimm.

These are the first lines in a post published by The Economist´s literary an cultural blog, Prospero, titled Fairy tales: The Anti-Grimm. This is kind of old news (it is a month old already) but well, a month ago I hadn´t yet started blogging. OK, back to the quote, I am no mother yet, but I find myself a fairly modern woman I have not yet cringed at Snow White or Cinderella.

The news are interesting: “the discovery of a huge new trove of unedited German fairy tales”, collected by a certain Herr Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, containing stories about fragile men as allegedly idiotic as Grimm´s heroins supposedly are.

This take on feminism is not of my liking. The radical views of those particular depictions of femininity as gender-selective moral bullshit sounds as simplistic as affirming missiles are designed in the shape of dicks – and therefore war should be reduced to a basic matter of determining who has the largest penis. I agree with the author as he affirms that “far from being transcendent examples of universal values, as Bruno Bettelheim argued, these tales were edited and fixed at a specific historical moment.” That is precisely the point: the Grimms and their tales are products  of their time, and that should be duly noted, and not necessarily diminish their work in importance or greatness. Values are contingent agreements on ideal moral conducts. They are a collection of norms that legitimize acts in a political society and they emanate from intersubjective understandings regarding the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Grimm´s depictions of femininity are evidently old-fashioned, but not necessarily harmful to young girls. Their heroines are as romantic as the late 19th century required; most of the time, they are perfect in their disturbing beauty and graceful hearts, and it is due to their generosity that they fall into the perils of which they are later rescued by the princes. They are not stupid. They are innocent and kind. And although they do display fragility, they are not cowards. They fall victim of their kindness, go through harsh and challenging probation and stay true to their hearts — and yes, at the end, reward comes in the form of a rescuing prince. A man.

This reward is not just simply a man — the reward is love, love that is conquered by their gentle souls that remain unscathed no matter how terrible and unjust the situation that falls upon them. I cannot agree this is a bad value to share with my future siblings.

Having said that, it is just as interesting to see that as early as in the 19th century, boys were also being rescued by girls as the tales passed on through oral accounts. Yes, that does suggest a striking asymmetry between the values of the cultured German bourgeois and the people with their “uncooked” stories, confirming that the romantic depictions of the ideal feminine as fragile and innocent and the ideal masculine as strong and honored were rather confined to aristocratical or more generally elitist environments.

I believe modern times have not in fact called for a very different definition of feminine and masculine, but of how men and women should relate to masculinity and femininity. A key aspect of educating the children to come is to free them from having to fully embrace a gender and fully reject the other, nor in themselves and even least so in everyone else. This may perfectly include watching Cinderella — it is a beautiful story in my opinion, and it does not incite murder or anything I find particularly hideous — you just should expose your child to different other heroines and heroes too, and never point any of them as the right one.


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