I'm a day late for International Women's Day, but right on time for Folklore Thursday! I'm still quite busy with graduate school work, but I wanted to post something to celebrate IWD, so here is a quick list of my top five favourite female characters in fairytales, in no particular order.
Gerda, from "The Snow Queen"
Gerda is one of the few fairytale heroines who gets to be the knight in shining armour. She and Kay are children and it would be inaccurate to portray them romantically, but most fairytale heroines who save male characters are saving their brothers, and Kay isn't Gerda's brother, so she gets to be a bit of an anomaly. Gerda is brave, adventurous, relentless, and smart: all the characteristics heroes get all the time, now in a mighty little girl.
The eponymous Feslihanci Girl
I've written about her at length here. There are quite a few fairytale and folklore heroines like her: feisty, cunning, unyielding. She plays the long game but she fights back and does not put up with mistreatment. She gets the happy ending she wants, even if it's only a fraction of what she deserves.
It's become fashionable, to a degree, to hate on the classic fairytale princesses. Sure, we all loved Jasmine, Belle, and Ariel growing up, but Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora, though of a markedly different temperament, are still worthwhile. Heroines like them, and specifically Cinderella in every version of her story, have all the strength that you see in Belle or the feslihanci girl; they're just strong in a different way. And their kindness, their resilience, their patience, their mercy - it's part of the emotional labour you expect from women, and it's just as valid to eschew that as to embrace it. But my own personal philosophy stems more from these heroines: be kind whenever you can, even when people don't deserve it. My breaking point is a lot lower than Cinderella's, but it's the goal.
On the flip side of that, I've always been fascinated by the villainous character in Cinderella-type stories. She represents a common fact present in much of women's history - that women in societies that wouldn't allow them to work still had to provide for their children and secure their futures. If Cinderella got the inheritance, the stepmother's daughters wouldn't get that inheritance. It was a zero sum game. And that is, of course, cruel, sexist, and unfair, and her mistreatment of her stepdaughter is inexcusable. But the part this character plays is a fascinating relic of the way women's lives used to be, and remembering women's histories is one of the more interesting facets of folklore and fairytale study.
The sea witch, from "The Little Mermaid"
While the stepmother has truly earned her villain status, the sea witch from "The Little Mermaid" has rather gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop. In the actual fairytale text, she isn't really evil. She warns the mermaid what will happen, but when the mermaid insists, the witch gives her what she wants. I think that's pretty cool of her. You can warn people and tell them they're making a mistake, but in the end, you have to let people make their own choices, including their mistakes. It's perhaps largely Disney's fault the sea witch got such a bad reputation (Ursula is maliciously intentioned, that can't be argued), but really, she's just giving people what they ask for. She's not really so bad.