Gavin, Helen (2012) The damsel in distress: not as sweet as she is painted? In: 4th Global Conference on Evil, Women and the Feminine, 6-8 May 2012, Prague, Czech Republic. (Unpublished)

Once upon a time (the 1960’s), in a land far, far away (Yorkshire), a little girl with measles missed two weeks of school. When she returned, all the children were changed; they had been introduced to fairy stories. Absent while her class-mates listened to amazing tales, the precocious little brat never quite fell under the spell.
Even to a child, the way the characters behaved was odd. Five-year olds can believe in magic; they can even believe in monsters. What was unpalatable was the sweet, passive nature of the heroines, and their unquestioning response to dreadful evil visited upon them by stepmothers or magical creatures. For example, Little Red Riding Hood is told to go straight to Grandma’s house, with no dallying or talking to strangers when walking through the woods. Why? Because she might be kidnapped, or worse, by a wolf who can, somewhat bizarrely, talk. Snow White is told by her diminutive hosts to never answer the door, an instruction she disobeys with calamitous consequences. Cinderella is subjected to abuse and exploitation, yet makes no appeal to her father. Feminist despair of the portrayal of women in the modern retellings of the stories is well documented. However, the original folk tales from which they are drawn are different; they are purposefully horrific in nature, possibly acting as cautionary narratives, or to explain things mysterious to the pre-industrial world, where psychiatry consisted of trepanation or spell casting. In this paper, we present an analysis of three tales and show how the portrayal of sex, violence and evil in European fairy tales, and characters such as the damsel in distress and wicked stepmothers, are motifs designed to caution against unconventional behaviour.

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