All the best fairy tales are full of bloodshed and cruelty. My personal favorite was the version of Cinderella where the stepsisters cut pieces of their feet off, and the blood drips out of the glass slipper. Then there’s The Goose Girl, where the scheming maid not only steals the princess’s position and bridegroom, but also murders her magical talking horse, Falada, and hangs its severed head over a doorway through which the deposed princess has to walk every day; that one was a little too grim even for me. And of course, there’s a whole passel of evil queens exorcising various levels of baby-stealing, curse-inflicting pique.
Women don’t always come off very well in fairy tales.
They don’t particularly come off very well in most of the other stories I remember from my childhood, either, from the books I read under my desk in school to the vapid cartoons I watched on Saturday mornings while stuffing my face with Oreos. One of the most enduring lessons I learned was this: for every female protagonist, there will inevitably be a conniving female antagonist. Most of the time, this antagonist will be beautiful—although perhaps not as beautiful as she thinks she is—and very often, she’s rich. This trope echoed down through the ages—at least, through my ages. I carried Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsinger to school with me three days out five through all of late elementary school (on the other two, I brought Crystal Singer), fuming as the rich, snooty Briala tried to take Menolly’s one coin at the Gather. I loathed the evil Galanna and her flippy ankle tassels in Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, and my heart ached for poor Aerin with her mouth full of surka. My mother had a stack of Archie comics from the early sixties in her closet, and I found the dynamic there, too: Betty and Veronica, at each other’s throats in the most sanitized, socially acceptable way. Clearly, life—and girls—had always been this way.
My brother and I ended up with two identical Cloud City Leia action figures, so one automatically became “Bad Leia.” We had multiple Han Solo figures, as well, but I don’t remember them being evil twins. And, because we are in essence monkeys who do what we see, my entire cohort of proto-women thought this was how we were supposed to treat each other. Which led to moments like the one when my ex’s new girlfriend came upon me in an empty high school hallway and shouted, “I hate you!” at me, and, wounded and confused, I thought: why? What did I do, except get dumped by your boyfriend?
That boy was completely forgettable, as it happened, but the epiphany wasn’t. It was like a bell that kept ringing in the corner of my mind, quiet but discordant, every time I saw two women pitted against each other, by fear or jealousy or circumstance. It rankled, even as I fell into the same trap. To my eventual shame, I spent hours actively detesting the woman my college boyfriend (probably) cheated on me with, and yet stayed with the idiot who did the cheating. This dynamic had been reinforced so many times from so many directions that it felt familiar, if not comfortable.
I am happy to say that the girl-hates-girl dynamic is beginning to feel less and less familiar. Part of this is that, as I approach the middle of my fourth decade, I’ve begun to realize how much work all that drama is; but part of it is that the world is actually getting—well, I won’t go so far as to say kinder, but occasionally more expansive in its portrayal of women. The Betty and Veronica we met in the CW television series and delightful broodfest Riverdale are a far cry from the glib, bouncy blonde-vs.-brunette line drawings in my mom’s closet. Forget pep rallies; these girls join forces to handcuff a local evil jock in a hot tub and turn up the heat until he confesses on video to impugning Veronica’s reputation.
Probably the violence is a bad idea, but it’s always refreshing to see two female characters join forces instead of muster them against each other. In 2002, Rosalind Wiseman published her brilliant Queen Bees and Wannabes, the inspiration for the equally brilliant Tina Fey-penned film Mean Girls. The book explores the way that girls attack each other because it’s the only way they have of expressing aggression; all the more direct conduits have been socialized out of them. Whereas the girl-on-girl aggression films of my youth went for body counts (I’m looking at you, Heathers, Ginger Snaps and Jawbreaker), Mean Girls ends with the groundbreaking notion that maybe we could just… not? Maybe we could skip the drama and the backbiting and just treat each other like people: scared people, wounded people, uncertain people.
Because even the evil queens and stepsisters and conniving maids aren’t in it for the cruelty as much as the security. Obviously it would have been better if the serving girl in The Goose Girl hadn’t cut off Falada’s head or forced the princess into servitude, but better for who? How many other routes did she have for escaping servitude herself? Maybe the reason Cinderella’s stepmother found it so easy to loathe her stepdaughter was that the stepdaughter in question posed a direct threat to her own daughters’ future. That house Cinderella cleaned was somebody’s dowry, after all. And speaking of the stepsisters, how terrified and desperate must they have been to cut off pieces of their own feet? Being married to a prince—even in the vaguely apolitical fairy-tale usage of the word, which probably meant something closer to “lord of the manor”—would mean a lifetime of security, plenty, and ease, as opposed to marrying one of the many millers who populate fairy-tale land, which would mean a lifetime spent covered in flour and donkey hair, haggling over prices. Marrying that prince would be like winning the lottery. I’m sure lots of people I know would happily cut off a toe if it meant their credit card debt or student loans would vanish. The sisters have little or no power over their own lives, but they have power over Cinderella’s. That power is limited, at best, and illusory at worst.
But the fairy tale doesn’t give us their perspective, because the story is about the motherless girl picking lentils out of the ashes. The story is meant to give hope to that motherless girl, and any other downtrodden, hopeless girls who might be listening. Your world might change, the story says—and our world has. When looking for recent examples of the illusory-powerful girl trope for this essay, I struggled to find any. In our fiction, at least, we seem to have moved beyond it. My child has grown up with shows like Steven Universe and Gravity Falls; with films like Inside Out and Frozen (say what you will about the omnipresent marketing, that movie is about two women supporting and taking care of each other and I was happy to shell out my $12 for the sequel); and with books like Noelle Stevenson’s Lumberjanes. When the kid gets older, I’ll pass along my copy of Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, in which two female characters begin as bitter rivals and, wonder of wonders, grow past their unpleasant history to love each other, like actual people occasionally do; or perhaps Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, in which the stepmother does, in fact, do evil things, but is presented as the terrified and misled human being she actually is instead of as a capriciously cruel sociopath.
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As I was writing the scene in my latest novel, The Unwilling, where my protagonist is introduced to the lovely girl who is intended to be her foster brother’s future wife, she thinks: “Some prescient part of her realized that she was supposed to hate this girl. They had been set against each other like rats in a cage.” I didn’t write that to make a statement. I wrote it because it was the more interesting option, and I didn’t even think twice about it until I was sitting in the audience of the Mean Girls musical at the Benedum Theater in Pittsburgh with my mother. In all the years that I’d been incubating The Unwilling, it never once occurred to me to put those two women into conflict: even though they are opposites in most ways, even though my protagonist Judah is the slightly scruffy outsider and the other girl, Elly, is illusory-powerful if ever the term fit. Even though they are both, in their own way, in desperate and insecure positions, and the man who stands between them is handsome and confident and the heir of the empire, they never fight over him. For one thing, like Cinderella’s stepsisters, that wasn’t what the story was about (and in fact the story isn’t about him at all; the heroes are, and were always intended to be, the women).
But mostly, when I tell a story, I am telling it first and foremost to myself, and I already knew the two women fighting over a man story. I’d seen it in movies, I’d watched it play out in reality, I’d read about it in yellowed comics on the floor of my mom’s closet. The stepsisters in the Disney film version of Cinderella tear at her clothes with their hands the way my childhood bully tore at mine with words; that storyline doesn’t interest me. Two women in dire enough straits to cut off pieces of their own feet? I’m there for that. It’s interesting; it’s a better story. Which, of course, is the most minor of the reasons I’m glad our view of fictional women is expanding. Women in the real world are clinging precariously to the advances of the last 100 years as the current political regime tries to tear them out of our fingers. Fictional concepts are sometimes the crack in the dam society needs to open up a little, and maybe after people get used to seeing three-dimensional women in their movies and television and books and graphic novels, they’ll see us a little more clearly in the world around them.
But the biggest reason is downstairs as I write this, watching a new Disney show called Star vs. The Forces of Evil. About as far away from the old Cinderella film as it could possibly be, Star has a wicked catchy theme song, an adorable-but-indomitable female protagonist, and—wonder of wonders—two male characters who both love the same girl, and who have decided to shrug and be friends and wait respectfully for her decision. And, as the title says, all three of them are fighting the forces of evil, but the forces of evil have complex and interesting motivations. The world looks bleak, these last few years. I’ll take my hope wherever I can get it.
Kelly Braffet is the author of three novels, and her writing has been published in The Fairy Tale Review, Post Road, as well as several anthologies. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives in upstate New York with her family. Her new novel, THE UNWILLING, will be out February 11th from Mira Books.