Everyone knows about terrible mothers in fairytales – and they were originally mothers. The Brothers Grimm spun them into stepmothers, feeling that multiple instances of mothers who envied, betrayed, and abandoned their daughters would be too grim for public consumption. (They may also have considered the likely negative impact on sales.) Happily, stepmothers were safe to hate, and their eventual defeat could be all the more celebrated.
As a child I was hazily aware of peculiar family dynamics in fairytales, but what with fiery lakes, magic mountains, and mean stepmothers, a disappeared dad was almost beyond my capacity to notice. I got to thinking about this because my friend Audrey recently told me she hadn’t allowed her sons to read fairytales when they were young. “Too many weak fathers,” she said. “I didn’t want my boys learning that women would compensate for their failings.” I thought of Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, and Rumpelstiltskin, well-known tales that come readily to mind. There are more such tales but I think I’ve made my point.
Cinderella and Snow White had tuned-out dads. After their starter wives died, they acquired new ones as easily as buying a new appliance. Household order now restored, these lords of their respective manors whisked themselves off to—somewhere. Perhaps these fathers were too dissociated–or just disinterested–to notice their daughters’ abuse, much less their collusion in it.
Other dads were surprisingly witless wimps. When Rapunzel’s old man got caught stealing the greens his pregnant wife craved – doubtless the start of the kale craze – he agreed to hand over their baby after birth as payment. In Hansel and Gretel’s even more food-deprived home, dad ditched his kids in the forest—twice—because even though he felt bad about it, his wife insisted, so what could he do?
The third group of failed fathers skipped any pretense of blamelessness and out-and-out sacrificed their daughters to save themselves. Beauty’s father allowed her (she insisted!) to live with the Beast so he wouldn’t have to. The father of the nameless maiden in Rumpelstiltskin set her up for life in a dungeon or decapitation (take your pick) by telling the king she could spin straw into gold. The father of The Girl Without Hands – a lesser-known tale for grisly reasons — chopped off her hands after making a deal with the devil.
Now I know that from a Jungian point of view, all the characters in a fairytale represent various aspects of an individual psyche: we all have an inner maiden, witch, prince and so on. From that point of view, each of the tales I’ve cited can be viewed as a depiction of the psychological development of the feminine. These heroines snap out of their innocence complex to overcome their negative father complex. Then the contra-sexual inner opposites unite, which means each she marries a princely he, and happily-ever-after wholeness is achieved.
No child—and few parents, for that matter–read fairytales this way. I had worked my way around the library corner from the syrupy Peter Rabbit, Raggedy Ann and Mother West Wind tales to the juice and justice of fairytales. Here, fish and frogs talked, mile-high beanstalks sprang up overnight, and forests were places of mystery and surprise. I was thrilled.
The heroines who inspired me were the ones who sacrificed themselves for others. I could–would!–love the Beast, or silently knit sweaters out of nettles to save my six swan brothers (and nobly ignore my bleeding fingers). I would take on the tasks required to rescue Tam Lin from the Queen of the Fairies, though having to hold hot coals gave me pause.
I can acknowledge the logic and merit of Audrey’s injunction against fairytales. If her sons might have learned that they wouldn’t be accountable for missing backbones, daughters like me learned that love was often defined as unstinting and selfless service. But I also absorbed a felt recognition of a truth that hadn’t risen to consciousness: feckless fathers and mean mothers are a reality. Heads up, kids —you’ve been told, this story is old, and you’re not alone.
If the heroines I loved were self-sacrificing, they were also radically persevering – and/or brave, clever, and incredibly good. If these girls (and they were girls) were overlooked, neglected or abused, neither had they been steeped in cultural gender norms. They didn’t learn what they were not supposed to do, so Cinderella took off for the ball, Rapunzel hopped into bed with the prince, and the miller’s daughter faced down Rumpelstiltskin. Harsh circumstances forced them to find individual solutions, which even today is not a bad idea.
We tend to idealize parental love and paint childhood in pastels despite what any therapist (or your next-door neighbor) can tell you about family shadow. Or trauma. Fairytales dive right into the dark side. Whether our situation then or now is merely unfair or unspeakably awful, fairytales tell us that given the givens, we’d better get real and get going. Even if we don’t live happily ever after (spoiler alert: we won’t) we can live authentically, learn a lot, and climb hand-over-hand into wholeness.
Deborah Stewart is a Jungian Analyst and Licensed Clinical Social Worker residing in Cape Cod, MA. She can be reached at www.DeborahCStewart.com She is a member of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts, where she co-chairs and teaches in the training seminar. She is an active member of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts and participates in other professional organizations. She is co-creator and contributor to This Jungian Life podcast at www.ThisJungianLife.com. She has a special interest in trauma and is the author of Encounters with Monsters: The Significance of Non-Human Images of Trauma in the Psyche.