How women are portrayed in fairy tales


When I was a little girl, I liked to read fairy tales as most of the girls did. Three of my favorite fairy tales are Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. I dreamed of marrying a handsome “prince” when I grew up. But as time goes by, I changed my mind. Why do I have to marry a “prince”? Why do I have to rely on my husband? Why don’t I live my lifetime alone? Why can’t I choose any kind of life as long as I like? With those questions keeping running through my head, I have made a research of the three fairy tales.

Brother Grimm’s fairy tales are very popular around the world. They are the bedtime stories of children and were adapted to movies or TV plays. However, the characters’ relationships, which were mystified especially the female roles, impact children’s mind. They might have a thinking that girls should rely on their husband and listen to his words.

How women are portrayed in the fairy tales

Female roles in fairy tales are polarized. The heroine is always perfect. She is beautiful, kind, helpful and compassionate. She is also helpless, naive, lacks any sort of intelligence and submissive. She has no ambitious as well. Another types of female characters that show signs of intelligence or ambition are evil and ugly. I will talk about how women are portrayed in three fairy tales, the reasons of their portrayal and the changes of female roles as time goes by. As far as I am concerned, women portrayed as submissive and weak in the ancient version of fairy tales because of the women’s social status at that time. But now, I believe that something has changed. The social status of women has improved.

There some common points of the three fairy tales. They were recreated by Brothers Grimm in 20th century or so in Europe. At that time, women were regard as accessories of men. I will describe it in detail in “reasons of the phenomenon”.


Cinderella is a fairy tale story published in 1982 written by Grimm. Actually, the first written European version of the story was published in Napoli (Naples) by Giambattista Basile in Italian. In Basile’s story, the heroine, called Zezolla, is persuaded to kill her stepmother by her embroidery teacher, breaking her neck by slamming a large chest on her head. Zezolla’s father then marries the embroidery teacher, who proves even worse than the first stepmother, relegating Zezolla to the role of servant and giving her the nickname Cinderella cat (Bazzi, J, 2015).


It was later retold by Charles Perrault and by the Brothers Grimm in their folk tale collection Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Cinderella in this version often complained about her circumatances, cries and made demands. The first film version was produced in France by Georges Melies as “Cendrillon”. On March 13th in 2015, a live-action film of Cinderella remade the 1950 animated film.

The female characters in this fairy tale are two extremes. One type of women is beautiful, kind, obedient and listening. This is shown through Cinderella who listens to her mother’s instructions, prays to Gods every day and obeys her stepmother and stepsisters. Another type of female is the stepmother and two stepsisters of Cinderella. They are evil, ugly and jealous of Cinderella’s beauty. However, in the recent version of Cinderella, the live-action in 2015, the stepmother is pretty as well. In addition, she is not blind at the end of the story as she is in Grimm’s version. As Branagh, the director of Cinderella, said, “the film features an evolution that affects all the characters, reminding us that existence can’t just be seen in black and white.” (Bazzi J, 2015)

Snow White

Snow White is a famous German fairy tale that is known worldwide. The brothers Grimm published it in 1812 in the first edition of their collection Grimms’ Fairy Tales. In 1854, they completed their final version of the story. There is the contrast between the active woman and passive in the original story. The queen and Snow White might be equally beautiful, but they are different in the gap between their levels of purity. In 1933, Max Fleischer’s studio produced an animated short version of Snow White featuring Betty Boop, who is of course the fairest in the land. Betty is not just a great beauty. She also possesses provocative sexuality, an attribute that undermines the purity and passivity of the original character (Wilson, M).


In 1937, Disney made the Snow White as Animated film. The ideal beauty remains pure and passive, and this brings her substantial rewards: the cheerful help of woodland creatures, the agreeability and protection of the dwarfs, and finally a handsome and devoted suitor (Wilson, M). The TV movie Snow White: the Fairest of Them All ran in 2001. Snow White was born from a drop of blood in a flurry of apple blossoms. A natural progression from the empathy with nature is exhibited in earlier productions, but it also effectively nullifies the story’s central theme of beauty deriving from purity and resulting in reward, by making her beauty supernatural instead. In the previous film Snow White had nothing to do but look scared, and here, she is required to manage merely demureness (Wilson, M). A new live-action is produced in 2012. In this story, the Snow White is already in possession of the throne rather than fated to receive it as a reward for her virtue. In Mirror Mirror, a movie ran in 2012 as well, the Snow White is smart. She saves the prince when he is under the queen’ spell. She kills the monster and saves her father. At the wedding of Snow White and the prince, an old lady, who’s the queen, gives the snow white an apple, but she does not eat it. Another live-action is Snow White and Huntsman. The huntsman, who should have killed the Snow White in the forest, plays a major role in the movie. He trains the Snow White to become a fighter. With the help of the huntsman, the dwarfs and the prince, Snow White fights with the queen.

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty is a classic fairy tale written by Charles Perrault. The vision collected by Brother Grimm was an orally transmitted version of the originally literacy tale published by Charles Perrault in 1697. The earliest known version of the story is Perceforest first printed in 1528, but it became famous since Brother Grimm rewrote the fairy tale. In the ancient tale, the queen Leah had no lines in Sleeping Beauty. In the story, the author demonstrated that the princess is the daughter of the king rather than the daughter of the king and queen. When the princess was a little kid, three fairies wish her beauty, voice and saving her life. The prince fell in love with Aurora at the first sight. The witch was evil. She cursed Aurora. The prince and the princess lived together happily. In the animated movie: the dawn of Aurora, the portrayal of the princess does not change comparing with the ancient tale. In 2014, a new live action movie called Maleficent adapted from the Sleeping Beauty. The plots of this movie are deeply changed.


The reason why Maleficent is “evil” in the movie is explained: Stephan, the king of human kingdom hurts her in order to gain power. Maleficent decides to avenged knowing Stephan and her queen give birth to a daughter, Aurora Princess. However, Maleficent takes after Aurora and protect her secretly. As time goes by, Maleficent finds that she loves Aurora so much and she regrets for cursing Aurora. She tries anything she can do to remove the curse, but fails. When Aurora goes into sleep, the prince’s kiss loses efficacy. Only Maleficent’s kiss can awake Aurora. At the end of the story, Maleficent cleans the brambles between human kingdom and Moors, and Aurora becomes the queen of human kingdom. In this new story, Maleficent is not evil as she is in the ancient tale at all.

Reasons of the Phenomenon

In the ancient version of the three fairy tale, the natural mothers have no sense of presence; princes are always right and wins in the end; ambitious women are portrayed as evil and ugly, and good women are beautiful, submissive, eager to marry and without ambition. Karen Rowe (1986) argues, “Fairy tales prescribe restrictive social roles for women and perpetuate ‘alluring fantasies’ of punishment and reward: passivity, beauty, and helplessness lead to marriage, conferring wealth and status, whereas self-aware, ‘aggressive’, and powerful women experience social censure and are either ostracized or killed.” Feminists thought the truth that women should be beautiful and submissive in the fairy tales are the story of women’s suppression and disempowerment under patriarchy.

However, in the recent live action movies, their roles are changed. I will illustrate the reasons why women are beautiful and submissive in the ancient tales and why their roles are changed.
The first reason is the women’s social status at that time. The original version of these fairy tales were born before 20th century. During the time, women’s social status was low. They have been usually confined to domestic chores. Men, on the other hand, “move in the public domain where they are in possession of economic resources to fund the domestic expenses” (Siddiqui, S, 2014).


The second reason is the pursuit of beauty during the time. “The social importance of the feminine beauty ideal lies in its ability to sustain and to reproduce gender inequality” (Baker-Sperry, L. Grauerholz, L, 2003). Normative control guarantees to those women who comply with its demands safe passage in the world and that women who do not comply are somewhat punished. “In the case of the beauty ideal, women who achieve a high degree of attractiveness are psychologically and socially rewarded” (Dellinger and Williams, 1997).


Fairy tales are beginning to recognize the change in societal values, being evolved and morphed to mirror the current society and their present day values. The roles of women are already changing in today’s culture.

Gender inequality still exists in today’s society. Nevertheless, women get higher social status comparing with it in the last century. According to the recent adaption of the fairy tales, the directors and the scenarists change the female role in their movies. The “good” girls no longer possess beauty or voices only. They are more independent and smart. The “evil” women are no longer ugly at all. They are more emotional and breathing.

Society must make an effort to accept the change of societal values and reflect these changes in its modern works of art (Nanda, S, 2014). In doing so the traditional presentation of the female gender as exhibited in Fairy tales may be interpreted from new angles, and feminists may be more accept them.


Baker-Sperry, L. Grauerholz, L. “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales.” Gender and Society, 1 October 2003, Vol.17(5), pp.711-726

Bazzi, J. “The many versions of Cinderella: One of the most ancient fairy tales.” Swide. 21 February 2015. Web

Dellinger, Kristen, and Christine L. Williams. 1997. “Makeup at work: Negotiating appearance rules in the workplace. Gender & Society 11:151-77

Dundes, Alan. “Cinderella, a Casebook.” Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Nanda, S. “The Portrayal of Women in the Fairy Tales.” The International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities Invention. Volume 1 issue 4 2014 page no.246-250

Rowe, K. “Feminism and Fairy Tales.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 1979, Vol.6, pp.237-57

Siddiqui, S. “Presentation of Women in Fairy Tales.” Journal of Gender and Social Issues, June 30, 2010, Vol.9(1)

Wilson, M. “Different Shades of Snow White.” About Enertainment. Web

Zannoni, V, “Sleeping Beauty a fairy tale 700 years in the making.” Swide, 28 May 2014


2 thoughts on “How women are portrayed in fairy tales

  1. My pleasure to be the first person to comment your post. I have to say that this is an interesting topic and different from others.

    My point of view is the target of fairy tales. Those stories are meant for children and base on the mythology of a certain culture and community. Back in the time, where there is no such thing as gender equality. As you have mentioned, women is usually obey their husband and eager to marry. Still in the modern world, some families still teach their daughter to find a good man to marry and they will take care of you till the rest of your life. But when the revolution comes to reality. Now we have women majoring in business and jobs are meant for man. Woman with ambition is more about a city girl and somehow, that’s standard is not accepted by the society. For example, they will harder to find a man to marry because of their own standard. When you talk about women portrait in fairy tales, you also have to look at the aspect of “define a prince”. For instance, female celebrities will decrease their income if they married.

    • Hi Nguyendt2901,
      Thank you for your information. I know there is still gender inequality in today’s society. But as a female, I do hope that the “gap” between male and female will disappear one day.

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