One of the newest trends we’re seeing in speculative fiction is the revisiting of fairy tales, especially in a modern setting–they’re almost a unique sub-genre of the Urban Fantasy and Fantasy genres.
And, in many ways, this is very important to do as fairy tales are some of the very first stories many of us are exposed to as children. Unfortunately, they’re also very old stories–and contain a lot of very old and sadly prevalent tropes that have stayed with us over the years. Generations of children have grown up with stories of helpless princesses, passively waiting for a handsome (and anonymous–after all, any man will do if he’s in the right place at the right time) prince to save them from abject peril. There is no question that this iconic image–repeated over and over in fairy tales, has had a profound effect on our culture, our society, and our view of gender roles, and there have been numerous excellent posts deconstructing the damaging messages of fairy tales.
There is no fairy tale that can be considered more centre stage than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. An ancient tale, it rose to prominence when it became Disney’s first full-length animated movie and was forever cemented front and centre as not just a fairy tale–but the fairy tale. The ultimate tale of the protagonist–poor, helpless, sweet and oh-so-fair Snow White is attacked by her evil stepmother, while she helplessly sings to wildlife and eventually resides in a glass coffin to be rescued.
One of the things that we love most about Once Upon a Time is that, while Mary Margaret may be the soggiest lettuce in town, Snow White is a highwaywoman, a fighter, and a swashbuckler–every bit Prince James’s equal. Snow White is no longer a prize to be claimed, no longer an object to be won, and no longer a passive element in what is supposed to be her own story. And if she needs rescuing, she is quite capable of rescuing herself, thank you very much.
This is both so very needed and very empowering. It’s powerful to not only create new stories that empower marginalised bodies, but re-examine these old tropes and challenge them in a way that not only sets a new paradigm but highlights how wrong the old paradigm was.
The problem, of course, is that strong woman still means straight, able bodied, cisgender, and white. Snow White may not necessarily be waiting in her coffin for true love’s first kiss, but we do know that there will be a love interest and it will most certainly involve a man.
This is a problem that continually dogs fairy tales as a genre as a whole. While many are hailing the break from tradition that would require Snow White to be helpless and in need of rescue, those same voices scoff at the idea of tradition being “violated” to include marginalised bodies. There are few genres that are more erased than fairy tales. In fact, I’m tired of exclusion being assumed with fairy tales–if someone shows me a new fairy tale series or film or book I know it’s going to be totally straight and 99% white before I even look at it–often being excused through either a medieval setting and the fact that they’re aimed at children who are somehow unable to understand diversity.
But this latter, in particular, is why fairy tales need to be the most inclusive of genres. These are books consumed by children trying to discover the world, trying to absorb messages about the world and trying to see where they fit into the world. It seems silly to say, but marginalised people are children, too–and just as women in general are hurt and demeaned by endless representations of the pervasive passive princess, so, too, are marginalised bodies by being told that they don’t belong at all–whether an active force to participate in the story or even someone worthy of rescue and questing for.