Fairy tales and domestic abuse

[November 18, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]

At the blog Moved By Faith, Emma recently wrote a post called Fairy Tale Malarkey.

And a while ago I wrote a post called Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.

I think there may be a lot we can understand about domestic abuse from fairy tales. Some of this learning may come from debunking the false view of reality that fairy tales can give us, as Emma pointed out in her post. But some of the learning may come from us thinking about how the imagery or plots of fairy tales depict aspects of domestic abuse. For example, I was reading The Sleeping Beauty the other night and thought about how all those courtiers asleep in the palace are like the church being asleep to the spell that abusers have cast.

I’d like to invite you all to ponder this, and see if you can come up with any de-bunkings, re-tellings or applied interpretations of fairy tales that will help us chew the cud about the dynamics of domestic abuse.  Over to you:

[November 18, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to November 18, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to November 18, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to November 18, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (November 18, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]

22 thoughts on “Fairy tales and domestic abuse”

  1. The one that bothers me the most is “Beauty and the Beast”. I still love the songs on the Disney version, but I detest the misleading message.

    The fairy tales with the Prince-Charming-rescues-beautiful-mistreated-princess storyline contributed greatly to my implicit assumptions about love, marriage and gender roles. As Bancroft claims, you don’t need to grow up in an abusive home to end up in an abusive marriage. Hollywood is enough to give justifications for the perpetration of domestic abuse.

    1. Yes, “Beauty and the Beast” bothers me, too.

      I know many people see it as a beautiful, romantic love story.

      BUT, I really don’t want my daughters to hold the perception that if they find themselves the captives of an abusive, angry, selfish beast, they need only continue displaying love long enough, and he will eventually become the handsome, loving, charming prince they have always dreamed of.

      1. An interesting counterpoint to “Beauty and the Beast” is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” (I say this version because the book is different, but I can’t remember in what ways). The set up is very similar to “Beauty and the Beast”, however the abuse is more overt (he repeatedly claims she “belongs” to him, he controls her to the point of forcing her into doll’s clothing), she consistently opposes him even though at times she is drawn to him, and in the end she makes the point that it is not his scarred face she despises but what is inside. In the end she also offers herself in trade, but when he releases her (and “repents”) she does not join him but rather flees.

    2. I’d only say about “Beauty and the Beast” (the Disney version, at least) that the “Beast” is more representative of a repentant sinner whereas “Gaston” is the true unrepentant abuser. In a sense both characters start off with a sense of self-centered entitlement, but the “Beast” yields his own interest for the sake of “Belle” (when he releases her).

      It should also be noted that “Belle” does not submit to imprisonment for the sake of transforming the relationship, but as a ransom for her father.

      Finally, she does not find her agreement completely binding as she DOES leave when the “Beast” goes too far. When he rebukes her for this she rebukes him right back and does not allow him to control her.

      I agree that it does send the “you can change him with your love” message – this is the sad problem of Hollywood in general. Music, movies, and all forms of popular media send this horrible message.

  2. How about “Cinderella”? The damsel who is held in bondage by a wicked stepmother and stepsisters in an abusive environment is then ultimately only to find happiness when the prince discovers whose foot the glass slipper fits. In reality, young women in abusive home environments become ripe targets for a sociopath posing as a prince. And they don’t live happily ever after.

    1. Yes! My thoughts exactly Jeff!!! The sociopath sweeps in and knows the fairy tale garbage that she somehow believes to be reality. I think so many of the Disney movies show us how men ought to behave and what we as women should be looking for. Nothing authentic about it. “Snow White”. “Ariel” in “The Little Mermaid”. I am sure there is more.

      1. If a lot of these stories were told as they were originally written, there wouldn’t be so much of an opportunity for sociopaths. Disney’s version of “The Little Mermaid” sends all kinds of wrong signals. She makes a pact with evil that threatens her entire civilization, but ultimately gets what she wants.

        Interestingly enough, in the original story she does NOT marry the prince and dies, though she does gain an immortal soul.

        My guess is a lot of fairy tales have been altered to give us happy endings for all of these co-dependent princesses. It makes for more enjoyable bedtime reading, but more unrealistic heroines that would be folly to imitate.

  3. Hopefully you will not mind if I extend this a little away from fairy tales and into the “Twilight” books (modern fairy tales, perhaps?).

    Before I comment on them specifically, let me first say that while I read a lot of different fiction, watch movies, and play computer games, many with examples of supernatural evil in them, I’ve always shied away from media that seems to make apologetics for evil. That is, creating the image of a vampire that sucks blood and feeds on people for its survival can create and interesting story when it is opposed. The problem I have is stories sympathetic to vampires – ones with heroic vampires who struggle against their nature and seek redemption. While these stories can often be powerful metaphors, there is something in me that becomes very uncomfortable with vampires as symbols of humans in need of redemption rather than personifications of evil. I think these can be very dangerous stories and might encourage us to deny the existence of real, unrepentant evil in the world. I’m not going to say I never enjoy such stories, but it’s something I’m very wary of. Real evil is not nuanced, and that it is, is one of the major lies of this age.

    So I really couldn’t get beyond watching the first “Twilight” movie and I said I’d never watch any of the others. I’m not judging those who have, but it’s just where I’m at. So I never saw the second movie, but as I understand it the lover of the main character leaves in order to protect her, and she responds by throwing herself off a cliff. In essence she chooses suicide over a life without her lover. Of course, he returns to her after this display of undying love. This is profoundly disturbing to me for several reasons:

    —It teaches that true love means someone we might as well not live without.
    —It teaches that suicide is an acceptable (perhaps even noble) response to life’s disappointments.
    —It teaches self-directed violence as a means of controlling those we love.

    All of the above set up relational expectations that will tolerate or promote abuse. Abuse both by controlling others with self-directed violence and a type of adoration that accepts abuse because we cannot live without those we truly love. In fact I see “Bella” as both setting herself up to be abused with her co-dependency and also striking out abusively at her lover with her suicide attempt.

    1. Well put. I hate how insidious some of these concepts are. I love being able to discuss them with my kids, to break apart stories, why people are drawn to them and what it’s actually implying.

  4. Thanks, Barb! I love how you mentioned:

    For example, I was reading The Sleeping Beauty the other night and thought about how all those courtiers asleep in the palace are like the church being asleep to the spell that abusers have cast.

    So dead on, I did not even make that connection! Love it!

  5. One other fairy tale that comes to mind is Disney’s retelling of “Rapunzel” in “Tangled” – I have no qualms with the story and think the final showdown is handled quite brilliantly. The thing that strikes me is the image of child abuse portrayed between “Rapunzel” and her “mother”. Her “mother” consistently tells her that she needs to submit for her own good, makes little “silly” jabs that deflate “Rapunzel”, controls what she is and is not allowed to do, pays almost no attention to “Rapunzel’s” desires and needs, and finally belittles anything “Rapunzel” asks for (“oh great, now I’m the bad guy”). The entire relationship is based on “Rapunzel’s” “mother’s” needs being met – she is entitled and in control of “Rapunzel’s” every move, “Rapunzel” has no rights, but it is all justified as being for her gown good.

    1. The struggle for freedom within is aptly portrayed in “Rapunzel’s” ambiguous responses to being out of the tower….so been there….so done that!

      1. Yes, I think that scene is more powerful than it intended to be. It perfectly depicts how I felt the day I signed the final divorce papers.

        “I can’t believe I did this” can say a lot depending on what emotions we are pouring behind it.

        I wonder how many people calling women to remain in abusive situations would criticize “Rapunzel” for fleeing her own oppressive situation.

    2. Oh yes, “Tangled”!

      And then there was the back-and-forth she did with herself when she finally got out for the first time. She was so happy to be out but then the guilt phase hit and she cried and said how awful she was for leaving. She struggled because of what she had been programmed to think.

      I got the sense they were trying to do something educational with that whole thing because it was more realistic than other Disney movies. I got the sense they were trying to send the message “if you are being treated this way, you are being treated wrong.”

    3. A Google search related quite a few articles about “Tangled” and emotional abuse. I guess I hadn’t thought about it too hard before, just assuming they accidentally hit on some themes that were important, but reading a few articles convinced me a good case can be made that they were intentionally addressing emotional abuse head on.

      I thought this write up was interesting (no idea who this is or anything beyond the article – it’s just where Google pointed me).

      Disney’s ‘Tangled’ Takes On the Serious Issue of Emotional Child Abuse [Internet Archive link]

      1. Thanks for the link. I don’t know who that is either but I think his take is good.

  6. I was a firm believer in the “Cinderella” story. She was kind and loving no matter how she was treated and she was rewarded with the handsome prince. I was confident if I just responded kindly enough, loved enough, “a kind word turns away anger” [Paraphrase of Proverbs 15:1.] (I think that is a verse from the Bible), he would change to my handsome, loving prince. It didn’t happen. He chose to continue being evil. I still enjoy a good fairy tale, but now know they are just fiction.

  7. Really enjoying this dialogue! One thing that amazes me is how ignorant I am of the Disney versions of these tales. I was brought up on the old written versions: Brothers Grimm, etc. I was raised in a family where my parents deliberately did not own a TV, and I didn’t watch many of the Disney fairy tales when I was raising my own daughter. I wonder how many variations there are between the traditional versions and the Disney versions. I heard that Walt Disney was a Freemason and I often feel that his studio emphasises and glamourises the dark side, the occult, etc.

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