Disney’s new movie Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, starring Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, puts fairy tales back in the spotlight—and makes us question what we know about villains and the tales we tell our children. And while Maleficent shows there can be two sides to every story, it also reminds viewers to question what they’ve been told to believe.
And for too long, fairy tales have told women to stay in line. These stories are supposed to be about happily ever after, but many readers fail to pick up on the subtle cues that have enabled generations to normalize sexual harassment.
In Sleeping Beauty, it’s romantic to kiss a girl who can’t give consent.
Or, take Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. He tries to force himself on Belle despite her saying “no.” True, he’s a villain in the story, but he’s considered a hero in his town. No one tells him to stop. Gaston is charismatic, entertaining, and well-admired. It’s Belle who is the outcast for not being attracted to him, and she’s left to handle his advances. She deflects, as so many women do, in such a way so as to not incite violence, while Gaston ultimately keeps his power over the situation.
That’s not too far from where we find ourselves today, as we learn how people have supported powerful men who have been accused of sexual assault, from Jeffrey Epstein to Matt Lauer to Brett Kavanaugh. They look past the allegations because they like something else about them—their celebrity status or political stance. They’re allowed to rise through the ranks because our culture considers sexual assault victims to be the outcasts—the ones not listened to or believed because it might mean facing something people would rather not.
Yet, the Gaston example is just one of many found in the fantasy universe that predisposes young girls to a life full of victim blaming. If Little Red Riding Hood had just stayed on the path, she would have been fine. Snow White would never have attracted the Queen’s envy were she not so pretty. Aurora would not have pricked her finger on a spinning wheel if only she had not gone out into the forest and talked to strangers. Goldilocks would have avoided the bears if she’d never ventured into the woods. And Ariel would’ve been safe if she’d just heeded her father’s advice and stayed away from Ursula.
Disguised behind a veneer of magic and palaces and happy endings, these messages creep into our culture. But they’re outdated in a world where the #MeToo movement continues to sweep the nation. As more women come forward to tell their stories and fight back against harassment and assault, young readers need to see the same types of brave heroines reflected in the books they read and movies they watch.
We need female characters whose value doesn’t depend on their beauty or whether or not they find a husband, but instead examples of women who are told to stay on the path but step off anyway. If we want girls and women to no longer be the damsels in distress, then we need to create fierce females who can go toe-to-toe with the strongest men and both overpower and outwit them.
“We need to create fierce females who can go toe-to-toe with the strongest men and both overpower and outwit them.”
That’s why I wrote my novel A Touch of Gold. The main character, Kora, is the 17-year-old cursed daughter of King Midas who faces pirates, betrayers, and mythological creatures on her quest to retrieve her father’s stolen gold. What sets Kora apart is that she has golden skin—one of the side effects of being turned to gold by her father as a child. She’s seen as an outcast, and rumors fly about her. She has to step out of her protected castle, step off the path laid out for her by the male figures in her life, and face her fears to save her kingdom—and she’s the only woman for the job.
There’s one scene where she and her female cousin save the day when none of the men can. I wrote this this scene to show how princesses can be powerful. They can be the ones out there slaying dragons, breaking curses, and ruling kingdoms. They can return from their adventures victorious and beloved. They are allowed the space to discover their inner strength and demand their rightful place in the world. While Disney has been moving in that direction with characters like Moana and Elsa, we need more women like to combat the centuries of stereotypes.
These stories are not enough, of course. But they are a beginning. We need to do more because the days of victim blaming, of saying someone was “asking for it,” must end. It doesn’t matter what clothes they were wearing, how much makeup they put on, if they were drinking, if they chose not to report it right away, or that they shouldn’t have “been out at that place/time/insert some other excuse here.” These excuses only detract from the real problems here—the villains. In order to change our culture, we need to change the narrative.
We need the #MeToo movement to stay strong because we need a cultural shift in our thinking. It’s not that girls shouldn’t be out at late hours or walking alone or drinking. It’s that rapists need to stop raping people. Yet, until our culture and behaviors catch up with that ideal, one thing we can do is make sure girls are told stories of women regaled in armor so they’re better prepared to face the wolves.
Annie Sullivan is the author of A Touch of Gold and Tiger Queen. She lives in Indianapolis and received her master’s degree in creative writing from Butler University.