Essays · Fairy Tales

Essay: Horrific Parenting in Fairy Tales

There are virtually no good parents in the world of fairy tales. At best, there are saintly mothers who die immediately after giving birth, only to be replaced by an Evil Stepmother. I’ve read some brilliant analyses that point out that the Perfect Mother and the Evil Stepmother may, in fact, be one and the same, only symbolically changed as the daughter ages from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. But today, I’m not going to be talking about Evil Stepmothers—or any parents who serve as antagonists in their stories. I want to talk about the other sort of horrible parent: the one who makes one significant decision that moves the plot before disappearing from the story. These parents are not villains in the stories they inhabit: in fact, they are frequently deeply beloved by the very protagonist whose life they ruin.

I feel that we as a society have become largely oblivious to the horrifying decisions made by parents in fairy tales. Especially in today’s world, filled with Disney movies—animated and live action alike—and adaptations of every fairy tale left and right, this is incredibly pronounced as characters begin to be sorted into a black and white system of Good and Evil. There are any number of attempts to humanize the Evil Stepmother archetype or the Villain of a story, creating a grayer morality spectrum; there are discussions of women’s roles and a movement to make women in fairy tales more self-sufficient; there are even discussions of the flat Prince Charming archetype. But for the most part, these horrific parenting decisions get ignored or written out, lest we have to deal with the conundrum of the Beloved Parents who are, in fact, the root cause of their child’s misery.

It’s everywhere in folklore and the pre-Disney fairy tales; even some of the Disney versions have not entirely eliminated them. It’s the merchant who agrees to hand over his youngest and supposedly favorite daughter to a horrific Beast in exchange for his life. It’s the husbandman who agrees to turn his youngest daughter over to a talking white bear for a vague promise of prosperity. It’s the miller who lies through his teeth to the king and forfeits his daughter’s life and freedom. It’s the oblivious fathers who blindly marry women who then proceed to abuse or murder their children. It’s the parents making trades and giving up their unborn children and only regretting their decisions after the birth.

I emphasize these, because these are what tend to get written out or white-washed in versions we become familiar with, especially Disney versions. Instead of the father exchanging his daughter for his freedom, the horse somehow gets free and somehow leads Belle straight back to the Beast’s castle, where Belle exchanges herself for her father. Great, now we have a sympathetic father character. The only problem is this: now we’ve been left with a plot hole in the shape of “Why did the Beast imprison Belle’s father in the first place?” In the original story, the Beast knew that he needed someone to fall in love with him, so the exchange makes sense from the Beast’s perspective, horrifying though the father’s agreement may be. In the Disney version, the Beast’s decision to hold Maurice captive has neither motive nor any sort of end goal. Maurice doesn’t even pluck a rose, making the extent of the Beast’s fury yet another plot hole.

In Rumpelstiltskin, the fairy tale itself attempts to skirt around how horrifying the parenting decisions made by the miller and his daughter truly were. The miller is never mentioned again after his daughter is sent to the palace, and this tends to hold true in adaptations as well. Meanwhile, the daughter simply goes along with her father’s lies (though to be fair, the king has threatened her with the execution of herself and her father if he finds that he was lied to), and makes exchange after exchange with Rumpelstiltskin to get the straw spun into gold. In this case, I can’t condemn her for the exchange she made with the same vehemence as I condemn other parents: she is caught between a rock and a hard place in the form the king’s threat to kill her if she doesn’t do as he demands and his threat to marry her if she does. She doesn’t really have much of a choice one way or the other. Yet she also never asks Rumpelstiltskin, who appears in her locked room night after night, if he might help her escape instead of spinning the straw into gold for her. Perhaps, in a world where a woman could only make a living through marriage, she believed that marriage to a contemptible king was better than wandering the streets alone, trying to make her own way. Perhaps she believed herself so trapped, and hated the king so much that she didn’t believe she would love any child of his. Yet it doesn’t even occur to her to ask why he wants her child: not when she made the exchange, and not even later, when she has discovered that she loves her baby after all and doesn’t want to give it up. This, in fact, is my point of contention, because this baby was born into a marriage that was born out of threats and I have to wonder if he or she will truly grow up happy. Rumpelstiltskin has been the only person to show the miller’s daughter any kindness throughout the story, so I have to wonder at the fact that it doesn’t even occur to her to wonder if her baby might not be happier in his care, if all he wanted was a child to love.

The parents of Rapunzel are a far more contemptible sort in their exchange of their unborn baby. Their idiocy is three-fold. Firstly, that they don’t think to ask the witch for the greens in her garden and decide that the path of least resistance is theft. Secondly, that they make a habit of this. And thirdly, that they agree to essentially exchange their unborn baby for some lettuce. Oh, yes, in some versions, they beg the witch to choose another form of exchange. But eventually, though the witch makes no threats, they give up their baby. Again, all of this is white-washed in the Disney version, Tangled, to create the dynamic of Good Parents and an Evil Witch. Instead of lettuce, we’re talking about a flower, which Mother Gothel uses but does not own; the parents need this because it can cure the wife; and while arguably it could be construed that it was selfish of them to take away this magical flower that seemed perfectly serviceable to anyone without taking it away, Mother Gothel never confronts them about this and opts instead to kidnap their baby in the middle of the night. Once again, the subject of uncomfortable parenting is entirely averted, though once again, this also forms a strangeness in the dynamic between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel. Mother Gothel’s parenting is more overly protective than overtly abusive, which is in keeping with the fairy tale; however, in this version, she has not obtained the child on purpose through an exchange, but rather through abduction for the magical power in Rapunzel’s hair. Thus there are far too many holes in the relationship between Rapunzel and her mother. For instance, how does Rapunzel know what a birthday is or when hers is if Mother Gothel doesn’t know? If Mother Gothel only wants to use Rapunzel for her hair, why does she go out of her way to make trips that last days to get paint for Rapunzel (because though it is Rapunzel’s request at the beginning of the movie, surely she could only know to ask because Mother Gothel brought her some of her own volition in the past)? Why does she go out of her way to make Rapunzel happy, when surely it would have been easier to chain her up from the start, if that was all she wanted? It is never addressed why Mother Gothel has opted to raise her with love and provide her with books and paint and hazelnut soup; and then again this is turned on its head at the end, when she is treated like an evil villainess and outright murdered and we barely even see Rapunzel grieve for her, though she is the only mother she has ever known. Instead, Rapunzel returns to the bosom of her perfect parents and all is right with the world.

Similarly, every version of Cinderella and Snow White emphasizes the father’s love for his daughter without ever making it clear how he could be so entirely oblivious to his new wife’s hatred for his daughter. Versions such as Ever After and Disney’s live action Cinderella give us scraps of an explanation in the form of the stepmothers’ reactions to the realization that their husband doesn’t love them nearly as much as he loves his daughter and dead former wife. This implies to us that the stepmothers were different women in front of the fathers while being courted, but this is left entirely to our imagination. For all we know, there were signs that the fathers should have been able to see. In the Wild Swans, this is explicitly dealt with, giving the explanation that Eliza’s father has been put under a spell by his new wife. Yet because he still seems to be fully functional in all ways but his regard for his children, I can’t help but read the “spell” as a metaphor: he’s become so infatuated with his beautiful new wife that he takes her word over that of his children. When he overcomes his infatuation (or the “spell breaks”) at the end and he sees his wife for what she is and remembers his love for his children, his behavior up to that point is shrugged off and forgiven.

It seems to me that this has simply become the accepted Way of the Fairy Tale. Cinderella loves her father and dead mother. Eliza’s father was under a spell and therefore innocent of any fault. Beauty’s sisters were jealous (when the sisters are brought into the tale), but her father’s love was genuine. Rapunzel’s parents’ follies are forgotten next to the witch’s decision to lock her up in a tower.

Because we have accepted this as the Way of the Fairy Tale, our adaptation increasingly seek to paint these moral ambiguities either more sympathetically, or write them out entirely. Which is why I want to compliment any adaptation that avoids this, and addresses that yes, that was a stupid choice. Occasionally, it is addressed. Alex Flinn is particularly good at addressing these points, though she is more likely to make these characters entirely dislikable rather than put them in the grayer portion of the morality spectrum. In Beastly, she in fact makes Beauty’s father an entirely contemptible character, who drunkenly turns his daughter over to the cursed protagonist. In Bewitched, Flinn completely upends the usual morality of Cinderella by making the step-sister the protagonist and making it clear to us readers that the dead father was far from perfect, though he did try.

But the adaptation that opened my eyes to this was East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Carole Bellacera. I published a full review of that book on Thursday, but it equates the husbandman’s decision to turn his daughter over to the white bear with the decision of a woman in a loveless, abusive marriage to engage in an affair with a man who loves her. As I was contemplating that on a scale, the husbandman’s decision is still a lot worse, it occurred to me that Bellacera had masterfully created an entirely new sort of adaptation by changing every single detail of the story but leaving the storyline intact, complete with the points of moral ambiguity that usually get washed out of these adaptations.

So why do we cling to the whitewashed Disney-influenced understanding of fairy tales? Fairy tales at their core are neither romantic nor innocent, but you wouldn’t know that if you started combing through the hundreds of adaptations that have saturated our market. Next time you tell a fairy tale to your child, think about how you tell it for a moment. It isn’t just about good vs. evil. There is a lot of gray. Let’s try not to normalize the grayer actions by disregarding them.

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