Rethinking women in fairytales

Dame Marina Warner (pictured) is part of a contentious debate at Yorkshire Festival of Story, writes its organiser Sarah Dean

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Is it time women were presented differently in fairy tales?

That is the question award-winning author and mythologist Dame Marina Warner, professor Jessica Tiffin from the University of Cape Town and celebrated storyteller, author and activist Laura Simms will be answering this Sunday at the Yorkshire Festival of Story.

As one of the festival organisers, I took to Facebook to promote this event. When I checked back on the comments section again later that day, I was astounded by the radical opinions this event was generating.

The general consensus was that this event was intended to change old fairy tales to make them more “woke”, with the comments bemoaning our upcoming event for attempting to take away women’s femininity, changing history through propaganda and – bizarrely enough – criticising us for shoehorning in sexual orientation and race, which didn’t factor into our original description of the event at all.

We received a loud and resounding message from these audiences – stories should not be altered. But stories have always changed to fit their audience.

Fellow story lovers were incensed by even the implication these stories could be changed

Charles Perrault took Cinderella from various older, much more graphic folktales and repackaged the story for the French elite of the 17th century. Aladdin was originally a Chinese boy with an Arabian name. The folk tale was set in China, before the setting gradually shifted to the Middle East. Hundreds of years later, it was turned into an animated film by an American company for a worldwide audience. There’s also BBC’s Merlin, a retelling of the popular Arthurian legends of the Middle Ages, that was well-received at the time for casting a black woman as Lady Guinevere.

So change is nothing new. The interesting aspect is that audiences – especially fellow story lovers who populated these groups – were so incensed by even the implication these stories could be changed. Which perhaps leads into the questions itself: is it time women were presented differently in fairy tales? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. It’s an open question and that is the essence of our event itself – it is a conversation.

We can’t overlook that old fairy tales are of their time and still carry important messages and warnings of our history. Women in the past often lived hard, brutal lives, being subjected to all kinds of violence, oppression and disenfranchisement. This can sometimes be seen in the way they are presented in fairy tales – as damsels with no autonomy or bearing the brunt of painful punishments for moral misdeeds. We cannot undermine the suffering of countless past generations of women, the ghosts of which often linger in these older stories.

On the other hand, we owe it to future generations of young women to think critically about the way they are represented in society – including in fairy tales. With fairy tales being so commonly used as an educational tool for children, shouldn’t we examine exactly what we are teaching our children? If we tell young women they can be scientists, artists, explorers, storytellers, doctors and so forth, and then feed them stories about women being tormented or subjugated, what kind of lessons are we teaching the next generation about independence and how they should be treated?

Whatever your opinion may be, we invite you to join the conversation this Sunday 28 November. It promises to be a thought-provoking discussion about the dynamics of gender roles in the fables and how they influence society, culture and patriarchy. There is no right or wrong answer in this discussion and we encourage a wide range of opinions and inquiry on the topic.

You can find out more about this event on our website:

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