• Heather D. Flowe, PhD

Mirror, Mirror: Reflections on rape and memory in fairy tales

Once upon a time (last December) I wrote an article for the Independent on how sexual violence is depicted on screen. I pointed to a new breed of storyteller challenging the norm, breaking away from the tired clichés we were given by the writers and directors that went before.

Problematic representations of rape and sexual violence, though, are not the creation of Hollywood and the smaller screen. We are exposed to them in the stories we grow up with.


Many male characters in fairy tales are flawless and behave in a manner we now consider to be toxic and often illegal. Female characters, if they are the heroines in the story, are idealised ‘good girls’ who need saving, by Prince Charming, not themselves. Granted, this is not an original perspective. People have drawn attention to how these stories are rooted in, and celebrate, abuse.


The most recognisable fairy tales, many of which have found themselves turned into a Disney film (or two, or three, where the heroine sings angelically among animal friends), are known to describe some troubling actions.


The titular Beast in Beauty and the Beast holds a woman’s father hostage in his castle until she agrees to take his place. Snow White may have fallen in love with the prince when she woke up, but she most definitely did not consent to being kissed by him.


The tropes of a knight in shining armour and a damsel in distress serve to diminish women’s autonomy in these stories, and valorise a breed of ‘alpha’ masculinity where kidnappings and stolen kisses are romanticised without question. There are numerous examples of such behaviour continuing to this day, for example with thousands of women in Central Asia kidnapped and forced into marriage each year.


Now, I am not calling for us to ‘cancel’ fairy tales. But these stories are primarily aimed at children. If we are going to keep sharing them through books or Disney Plus subscriptions then we do need to consider how we properly and appropriately frame these behaviours and revise these stories to better suit our times and to illuminate oppressions.


As examples, 20 countries still have “marry your rapist” laws, 30 countries restrict women’s freedom of movement, and in 57 countries, women have no say in matters of sexual consent, contraception, or healthcare.


There are those who may be against the idea of ever reworking or ‘modernising’ works of literature, I know the ‘woke’ label gets bandied around for such things. But fairy tales are, by their nature, not carved in stone. They are borne from centuries of adaptive retelling.

It is impossible to write about modern occidental fairy tales without discussing The Brothers Grimm. Their seminal collection of stories drew on folktales from across Europe and unified them into the versions that, broadly, endure to this day.


Before that point these stories existed as texts in many different languages, or were handed down by oral tradition. The Brothers Grimm were simply the collectors of these stories, who knowingly remoulded them into new versions.

They explain how they viewed their tales in the preface to their second edition, 1819, writing:


Where they still exist, they live, so that no one thinks about whether they are good or bad, if they are poetic or in poor taste for intelligent people. One knows them and loves them because that is the way they were learned, and one delights in them without any specific reason.”


Those are not the words of protectionism or pompousness. They collated and shared the stories because they thought they were worth sharing. One can imagine they would be furious if we stopped retelling them in whatever manner we thought best.


Indeed, it is worth noting at this point that the original renditions of some of these stories may well have served an altogether different, and more important, purpose. It would be erroneous to say that these are simply ‘stories for the sake of stories’ and that their patriarchal lens was merely a product of male authorship. The first rendition of Beauty and the Beast was most likely written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve as a novel, La Belle et la Bête, and many of The Brothers Grimm fairy tales were actually based on folktales told by women to address challenges faced specifically by women, as demonstrated so aptly by the artist Natalie Frank.


What I mean to say is that we can, and should, rework these stories however we see fit because it has always been the way. In 1989’s animation, The Little Mermaid, Ariel happily marries the Prince, instead of losing her life to suicide like she does in the original Hans Christian Andersen version. In the most recent live-action Cinderella, and in many versions before, which can be found in France, China, and India, among other countries, we have chosen to omit the part where Cinderalla’s stepsisters brutally maim their own feet to fit into her glass slipper and dupe the prince.


And nowhere is this evolution of storytelling more pronounced, and more needed, than in the most well-known story for problematic princes - Sleeping Beauty.


The version we now know is derived from “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” by 17th Century Italian poet, Giambattista Basile (Basile’s Il Pentamerone gave us early versions of Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and others). In his story a passing king repeatedly rapes Princess Talia while she sleeps. She only wakes from her sleep months later, while giving birth to his children, Sun and Moon, and agrees to marry him in what is presented as a happy ending (again reinforcing a dominant cultural expectation that happiness, for girls and women, amounts to a wedding ring).


This was sanitised somewhat by The Brothers Grimm in “Little Briar Rose”, whereby the rape became a non-consensual kiss, and that in turn became what we now know as Sleeping Beauty.


I am not suggesting that we all need take a leaf out of Keira Knightley’s book and prevent our children from experiencing certain stories. But careful consideration is needed to how we contextualise these stories when telling them or watching them, particularly with young people. Hollywood has already caught up with this to an extent and is presenting (some) more progressive lead females with greater agency and a self-referential awareness of the genre tropes.


What we can do, at very least, is have conversations about actions and consequences, about consent, and about the truth behind those happily ever afters.


On Memory in fairy tales

I have a personal interest, for obvious reasons, in how memory is depicted in fairy tales. Memory has always been central to these stories. The Brothers Grimm saw themselves less as authors, and rather as conservators of the public’s collective memory. ‘Once upon a time’ itself evokes the idea of a recalled memory, suggesting a passage of time and the first-person account of an event.


But within the tales themselves we find themes of memory and forgetting – particularly in the Sleeping Beauty variations.


This is true of Basile’s work, and in Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant. In the latter, forgetfulness is both the cause and effect of an evil fairy’s curse. Said fairy, not invited to the Christening of a princess, curses the girl to one hundred years of sleep in a castle. The princess is near forgotten by most people in the village, and the tales they tell of the great forest that surrounds the castle and her fate are wholly inaccurate. Only one old peasant can recall the true tale, which he relays to the young prince who goes on to find the Sleeping Beauty when she awakes. The story presents memory, for the most part, to be wholly unreliable.


Regular readers of my blog or my research will know how persistent this misconception of memory is. We see it play out in rape cases in our courtrooms to this day. We are also fighting deeply entrenched cultural understandings informed by the stories we have been told through the ages.