Historically, fairy tales and other folklore have followed relatively strict gender role profiles. The heroes or heroines of the story all tend to be handsome or beautiful, compassionate and kind, which always wins out. Meanwhile the villains and antagonists are almost directly opposite in physicality, are ugly or brooding in nature, which shows a clear contrast between themselves and the hero or heroine, and an ever-impending conclusive loss at the end of the narrative. In the examination of folklore, one can see that common aspects of gender roles can be found in almost every fairy tale ever created. The Brothers Grimm are well known for their collection of fairy tales and folklore literature, many of which reflect these gender roles. An analysis of three of their more popular works; mainly Rapunzel, Rumplestiltskin, and The Old Woman in the Wood, show clear gender roles and allude to the perspective of the culture in which they were created.
The story of Rapunzel reflects a clear gender role stereotype commonly found in fairy tales and folklore. Rapunzel is the helpless maiden in need of saving, stolen from her family and confined to a high tower by the evil Enchantress. The Prince would be considered the hero of this story, finding Rapunzel trapped in the tower and conspiring to help her escape from her prison. However, the fable of Rapunzel is unique due to the fact that the Enchantress exiles Rapunzel to the desert to live in misery for the rest of her life and swindles the Prince into becoming trapped in the tower as well. The Prince jumps from the tower and ultimately reunites with Rapunzel, where they live happily ever after. The gender roles of this story clearly reflect the beautiful (but quite helpless) female in need of saving, as well as the handsome hero coming to the rescue. Although the story takes a turn and the evil D’Amico 2
Enchantress, who follows almost to the T a female fairy tale villain (Rapunzel can be quoted in the fable as saying, “Tell me, dame gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young king’s son?” the hero Prince and Rapunzel still find happiness.
Rumplestiltskin also shows clear contrast in gender roles, with similar gender stereotypes as the fable of Rapunzel. In this particular story the Miller’s Daughter could be considered the Heroine, in which she becomes the Queen and works against Rumplestiltskin to save her child. However, even though the Queen plays an influential role in the story and ultimately outsmarts Rumplestiltskin, she still falls into the gender stereotype of a helpless female in need of saving.
When her father brings her before the King and proclaims she can spin gold from straw, she is essentially helpless and awaiting the death sentence that failure would bring. Rumplstiltskin plays a unique role in the story however, playing both savior (at least temporarily) and ultimately the villain. As per the gender standard in the story Rumplestiltskin sweeps in and saves the Miller’s Daughter by helping her spin the straw to gold and keeps her from death. Rumplestiltskin transforms into the villain when he tries to take the Queen’s child, loses his bet, and destroys himself in frustration.
The story of The Old Woman in the Wood reverses the established gender roles and is relatively unique in that the helpless character in the particular story is one the reader wouldn’t necessarily expect. The poor servant girl plays the role of the Heroine in this story, where she becomes involved in the plight of a dove while wearily traveling through the forest. She unlocks several aspects of a great tree in assistance of a dove seeking her help, each time receiving items such as food, clothes, and a bed.
Ultimately the dove asks her to help one last time by acquiring a small plain ring from the house of an old woman with an extensive collection of rings in her home in the woods. The servant girl complies and is able to get the ring from the old woman, who puts up a rather big fight, before returning to the great tree. After leaning against the tree, it changes into a Prince who explains to her that he had been trapped by the old woman. “You have delivered me from the power of the old woman, who is a wicked D’Amico witch.” The gender roles are clearly defined here, although switched. The Prince in this story is the helpless individual in need of saving and the Heroine is the one who, although unknowingly, sweeps in to save the day from the evil witch. Once again, as with almost every tale in folklore, the couple lives happily every after and the witch is beaten.
Although gender roles in folklore and culture can potentially switch, with both males and females fulfilling the roles of Heroes and Heroines, almost every story tends to follow the same gender role guidelines. The (sometimes) handsome prince/ male saves the helpless female from the evil witch or enchantress, where they live happily ever after. Published in 1812, these stories by the Brother’s Grimm were influenced by the culture of the time period, which is what mostly defined the gender roles in each story.
It is important to remember that most folklore, although around for ages, was adapted to fit into societal roles in each culture. The stories published in the 1800’s reflected the cultural roles of women in that society as underprivileged homemakers (which is why most stories, at least by the Brother’s Grimm, tend to cast the female as subservient and helpless); as well as their hopes and aspirations for the future, which were prevalent in most stories involving Heroines or other similarly empowered women.
Carnegie Mellon School. “The Old Woman in The Wood.” N.p., Nov.n2004. Web. . Carnegie Mellon School. “Rumplestiltskin.” N.p., Nov. 2004. Web. . Carnegie Mellon School. “Rapunzel.” N.p., Nov. 2004. Web. .