“Where, oh where have the heroines gone?”

Today’s post is not so much about a specific story or stories as about a now 14 year old collection of stories about heroines from around the world collected by Kathleen Ragan, with a foreword by Jane Yolen.  The collection is entitled, Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters:  Heroines in Folktales from Around the World.  These folktales are not, however, so-called “chick lit,” and are opposed in every way to that concept.  They do not deal with women in reference to men, except as it is necessary not to leave out the other half of the human race:  the women are not gossipy gal pals seeking for husbands or passive ladies in castles waiting to be rescued, but are instead active instigators of their own future actions and constructors of their own fates.

As Jane Yolen points out in the “Foreword”:  “Hero is a masculine noun.  It means an illustrious warrior, a man admired for his achievements and qualities, the central male figure in a great epic or drama.  A heroine, on the other hand, is the female equivalent.  Or is she really his equal…?  We might as well have called her a hero-ess or a hero-ette, some kind of diminuitive subset of real heroes….Or so the Victorian folk tale anthologists would have had us believe.  They regularly subverted and subsumed the stories that starred strong and illustrious female heroes, promoting instead those stories that showed women as weak or witless or, at the very best, waiting prettily and with infinite patience to be rescued.  And the bowdlerizers did it for all the very best of reasons–for the edification and moral education of their presumed audiences.”  The enduring yet submissive model of womankind was of course the Victorian ideal, one which demanded that women leave to men all the decisive action.  These versions of womankind were passed down to women even as late as the 1950’s, when they appeared in some Disney cartoons in which the main drift of the heroine’s effort–and I use the word “drift” deliberately here– was to be rescued from a victimized status and fall into the arms of the rescuing prince.

In the “Introduction,” Kathleen Ragan tells how her search for books for her young daughter which featured true female heroes went (and in some quarters the term “heroine” has gone the way of “stewardess” and other words which are deemed antiquated).  They were reading a lot of Dr. Seuss at the time, but disturbingly in this great author’s works for children, Ragan began to find that there were almost no female role models, or at least none which were positive in nature.  She started by changing the pronouns when reading to her daughter, but this presented problems of its own, because with the astounding memory of children her daughter caught every mistake and slip-up.

Ragan then resorted to her local library, but had trouble there, too.  As she relates, “Although there were five to ten editions of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Snow White,’ and ‘Cinderella,’ each illustrated by a different person, there was a very limited depth to the stock of heroines in the library picture book collection….The current selection of fairy tales presented to children makes a sharp differentiation in the treatment of boys and girls.  The female role models are beautiful, passive, and helpless victims….Male role models include a range of active characteristics:  adventurous Jack the Giant Killer, resourceful Puss in Boots, the underestimated third son who makes the princess laugh, and the gallant knight who rides up the glass mountain.”  And when she did resort to anthologies of folktales, she found that “many of the women were negative characters:  a nagging mother-in-law who makes life intolerable even for the devil, a woman who personifies the misery in the world, or women who allow themselves to be mutilated by loved ones.”  There were also wicked witches and wicked stepmothers.  Ragan, taking her mission quite seriously, considered that it was time to fulfill a need, “the need for an anthology of folktales with positive women as the main characters.”

Ragan reviewed over 30,000 stories, and found positive heroines in tales from all over the world.  They had just become submerged.  “These forgotten heroines are courageous mothers, clever young girls, and warrior women; they rescue their villages from monsters, rule wisely over kingdoms, and outwit judges, thieves, and tigers….[A] female Prometheus brings navigation to Micronesia.  Seven Thai women, after severing the head of a monster, carry it for seven years to free their country of the monster’s curse.  A Cheyenne woman gallops into the thick of battle to rescue her brother.”  Ragan also mentions the original German edition of Grimms’ fairy tales (Kinder und Hausmärchen, published in 1812).  Among the tales in this collection, there is a Little Red Riding Hood who goes through the woods another time, encounters a second wolf, and “vanquishes this wolf herself.”

Ragan recounts how some people argue that gender doesn’t matter in a story, because the child reader will empathize with the hero or heroine.  But her anecdotal research suggested that the case was far otherwise:  regardless how gripping the story, both girls and boys identified with characters of their own sexes, no matter how miniscule a part that character or characters played in the action.  So, she kept up her search, assigning fairy tales a key role in her adult reading too, “because I felt that somehow they were meant to answer questions and fulfill a need.”  After reading through story after story, she finally concluded that characters didn’t have to be perfect in order the meet the readers’ empathetic needs:  “[I]t seemed to me that the heroines I chose no longer had to be perfect.  I found I could smile at a cantankerous character and admire her perseverance….I could even forgive myself for not becoming as patient or as beautiful as Cinderella.”

In choosing the tales, Ragan went for “source books” that were in English or had been translated into English.  This automatically meant that there were more stories available from countries that either still have or at some time in the past have had connections colonial or otherwise with England or North America.  She notes a certain “dearth” thus among the stories collected from “South American Indian” stories.  Nevertheless, the overall drive of the collection was to go for multiculturalism in the stories.  She has also tried to stick closely to the oral form the stories take, following the words and word choices of their tellers rather than tidying them up for a literary audience.  She followed several criteria relating to the choice of the stories themselves, one of which was quite interesting from a “victorious heroine” point of view:  her eldest daughter begged her not to include any stories in this collection in which the heroine dies at the end of the tale.  Though this may seem at first like an unfair limitation, ask yourself just how many heroes’ tales end with the hero dying without his subsequent being going on to grace the heavens, or figure as some important element in the biosphere, atmosphere, or other “heavenly” location, and chances are you won’t be able to think of many.

Ragan started out by observing heroines for a standard who were parallel in qualities to heroes, but soon at least some of her emphasis had changed.  “[A] whole new class of heroines emerged.  Some ‘heroines’ did things that resonated with my innermost feelings but that refused to be classified as heroic:  a woman who sensed the importance of an insignificant looking coin, a girl who loved to dance, or a woman who told a story.  A simple conversation between two women when taken at face value could elicit a shrug of the shoulders.  Yet underneath this ordinary conversation, the effort that women make to keep relationships alive in a family or community swells like the incoming tide.”

In quoting so extensively from this book’s “Foreword” and “Introduction,” I realize that I’ve done a lot for you of what you are perfectly capable of doing for yourself, assuming you have the book in hand.  Yet because it has been out since 1998 (published by W. W. Norton and Co.), and there is still sometimes a noticeable dearth of good collections of stories featuring strong women and girls as role models, I feel it’s important to let as wide an audience as possible know of this valuable effort in folklore research.  True, in the field of children’s books there has been a boom since 2000 in the more gender-free language and roles assigned characters in books, so that it’s easier for boys to admire girl characters as well as the tough-guy heroes they historically have admired; there are also more leading female and male role models which girls can imitate and still “feel like Mommy,” and thus not odd in any way (I’ve often thought that though children are credited usually with being highly creative and innovative, which they are, they are also nature’s conservatives in their views of which parent they want to imitate, and in a certain sense of individuals perhaps this is right, but in some ways it’s a shame.  A girl with an admirable, strong, outgoing father figure should be as free to imitate him as to imitate her shyer more reclusive mother; likewise, a boy who likes to tidy house or cook should be free to imitate whichever parent does this the most, without feeling peculiar).

You may wonder–or you may not, but I’m going to tell you anyway, I hope you won’t mind–which folktale was my favorite as I was growing up.  It was “Clever Gretel,” I think from the Grimms’ Brothers collection, though I’m not entirely sure.  It’s the story in which a servant girl manages not only to eat portions from the chicken her master, due to arrive any moment, is saving for a guest, but manages to persuade the guest due to the continuing of an initial misunderstanding that the host is going to chop off his limbs (she does this as she trims off each limb of the bird and eats it in the kitchen).  When the master comes home, she cleverly lets him think that the guest stole the bird, whereupon the master begins to pursue the already terrified and fleeing guest, and Gretel settles herself in the kitchen and finishes off the bird.  Another thing about children–their moral sense is still in development, so Gretel’s cleverness is far more appealing than her dishonesty is significant.  And another thing about me–I still consider the story my favorite!

Do you have a favorite folktale, about hero or heroine?  Feel free to mention it here, I’m not prejudiced!


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

10 responses to ““Where, oh where have the heroines gone?”

  1. I’m going to cheat a little bit here. It’s not a scene from a book but from a movie that I think of when I imagine a strong female fairy tale character. In the movie, Ever After, Danielle saves the prince by picking him up and carrying him so the Gypsies will let them go. Then again, at the end, she rescues herself from her captor by fighting him off with a sword. I like that version of Cinderella much better than the weak girl who waits for a man to save her.


    • Yes, though I haven’t seen “Ever After,” assuming it is as you say, I can see why it would have more appeal. Every now and then, movies get in ahead of writing by following attitudes which have popular political support or appeal, though usually there’s some precedent. For example, in a lot of old ballads, women die at the end, or the male heroes do all the “heavy lifting” (both literally and figuratively), but one precedent (possibly) for the carrying of the hero by the heroine is in the ballad “Jackaroe,” popularized in one version by the Grateful Dead, though I’m thinking mostly of the Joan Baez version. The merchant’s daughter, the female hero, whose man goes to war on a ship, ships herself off after him, finds him injured on the battlefield, and does the rest. “The war soon being over,/She hunted all around/And among the dead and dying/Her darling boy she found/Oh, her darling boy she found./She picked him up all in her arms and carried him to the town/And sent for a physician who quickly healed his wounds./ Oh, who quickly healed his wounds./This couple they got married,/So well did they agree,/This couple they got married,/So why not you and me?/Oh, so why not you and me?” Thus, everybody is happy, not only we female activists, but all true romantics at heart. And one of the nicest things about the enclosed proposal at the end is that it doesn’t matter whether a man or woman sings the ballad and hence makes the proposal, it works either way. Sorry, didn’t mean to bore on. But so many ballads end tragically or with women as sheer objects, yet here the couple marries because they “agree” (no insufferable ranting from the man after the fact because she carried him–he!he!).


  2. My sister loves ‘Ever After’. It was good to see a woman in a non-subservient role. Though, it seemed to focus on ladies, as her nemesis was the evil stepmother hell-bent on stopping Danielle reaching her deserved status as the Princess.

    I am still wokring my waythrough the ‘Wheel of Time’ series. There are so many strong female characters throughout the series. They start with the hero’s childhood friends Nynaeve and Egwene, expands to the Andor Royal Family (focusing on Elayne and her mother) and other peopels in the world. And that is not including the Aes Sedai, the all-women power-wielders.


    • Yes, there are far more good, strong women in both children’s literature and fantasy these days. I guess I was on about myth and fairytales in particular, where so much bad “normalizing” as it’s called went on in Victoria times. It brought all tales in line with a certain view of what it was to be a “normal” and acceptable woman, and deprived the tales not only of their good role models but of their vitality too, even for male readers.


      • The men must have been very insecure and power-hungry in those days to have thought women must be ‘kept in their place’ even in fiction.


      • Fiction has always been a part of the political superstructure; I think it holds a far more important place for most people than they are willing to admit, even people who don’t read much, because it’s various “fictions” that shape our lives and our demeanors. Just think of how many times notable figures in the world reference not only cultural fictions but also literary fictions in what they say to the public. I don’t think the Victorians actually said to themselves, “We have to keep women down, so let’s make them subservient in fiction, and that’ll take care of life.” It’s just a case in which certain writers became more popular at the time than others because they put forth this view of women. And there have always been dissent and dissenting texts, that’s true too.


  3. Very interesting post. I am a fan of folk fairy tales and, for some time now, have been interested in the differences between the heroines in Western and Eastern fairy tales. I notice that the Western heroines are compliant, dependent and never take the initiative. The only females to do magic are either old or evil. In Russian and some Middle-Eastern tales, however, the heroines are sorceresses, independent and full of wisdom (I wrote a piece about this.)


    • Ah, sorceresses hold a special place in my heart! How’s about a reference to the title of your piece, if it’s on this current website, or if I can figure out how to do a pingback I’ll do one, or you can do one, or something. I’d just like to read it, because I can see we have a common interest here.


  4. littletash

    If I ever have a little girl, I’ll be putting this on her bookshelf. Or a little boy for that matter. I think I used to identify with the male protagonists without much care for my own gender, but it’s so important to offer the full spectrum of role models. Well done on bringing an old but important book to our attention – great post 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.