Feminism and Fairy Tales

Disney Female Villains
Disney Female Villains


This morning I slept in until about 11:30 and feel greatly improved.  Enough so that I found myself looking over old blog entries and making them better.  I often am amazed at the mistakes I make after having reviewed my writing several times before posting.  Sigh…

Anyway, I found myself reading an old post I had done on the children’s author Roald Dahl.  In the post I wrote about rereading Roald Dahl books and how the depiction of women was kind of disturbing.  Whether it be the aunts in James and the Giant Peach or the Trunchbill in Matilda most of his books have a beastly villainous women at the center.

As I was thinking about the post I started to ponder about other stories.  Snow White? Evil Queen.  Cinderella?  Wicked Stepmother. Sleeping Beauty? Maleficent.  Little Mermaid?  Ursula.  Wizard of Oz? Wicked Witch.  Rapunzel? Gothel.  I could go on…

Isn’t that strange?  Why do you think that is?  It’s especially weird when you think that men have been the more dominating force over the years.  The devil is almost always thought of as a man and yet his minions are sultry temptresses or women.   A man would seem the more natural choice for a villain in previous eras because they had all the power and control.  Strange?

I was talking about this with my sister and she suggested that these characters are almost always middle aged childless women. “Supposedly it is because childress women past their child rearing age were considered a societal threat”.   Lonely figures have always been viewed as isolated by choice, scary, and backward especially by children.   When I first lived alone you wouldn’t believe the number of people who were horrified by the idea, even today.  They expressed concern and amazement that I could do such a thing and be happy.

You look at the idea of the old maid or the crazy lady with all the cats that still persist today.  I’ve known girls who have refused to get a cat because they don’t want to be that kind of single woman.  One dating advice column I read recently said to girls “Owning More Than One Cat Does Not Mean You Will Die An Old Maid”  .  Perhaps the refusal (or bad luck) of these middle-aged childless women to conform to social norms made them scary and ripe for fairy tale lore?  What do you think?

My other theory is since we all start life in a female, and hopefully being loved by a mother, there is nothing scarier than a woman gone wrong.   Its like it takes the maternal instinct and twists it to its evil side.  Almost all of the fairy tales with female villains have a female heroine as well.  These innocents are young, hopeful and beautiful (fairest in the land…).   Ever since I took feminist classes in college I’ve struggled with the whole princess ideology because I loved it so much growing up but I see how it can be harmful to young girls.

I don’t know what I would do if I had a daughter.  I certainly didn’t see something like the Little Mermaid as anything but empowering as a girl.  I wanted to get out and try my own ways just like Ariel.  I wanted to read and be bold like Belle.  It never occurred to me that there was these more negative subtle social influences.  If they didn’t occur to me until I was in my 20s do they matter?

You look at something like Dorothy who fights evil and saves Oz from the wicked witch and it seems super empowering.  Never did I think that all of the people surrounding Dorothy are men except for the wicked witch. What do you guys think?  Do these negative female characters affect the way girls grow up (or boys for that matter)?  Are they harmful?  Are they harmful to adults and male/female interaction (as in the old maid example)?

What are stories that have a male villain?  I thought of Tolkien but all the characters in his books are male for the most part so it doesn’t count.  Don’t you find that odd that the women is always the villain?  Maybe this is part of the reason I didn’t really like fantasy growing up.  I didn’t relate to the perfect ingenue and I certainly didn’t get the villainesses.



15 thoughts on “Feminism and Fairy Tales

  1. Here is a list of some Disney animated classics where the villains are male.

    Pinocchio – puppet master & whale
    Bambi – hunters (probably male)
    Ichabod Crane – headless horseman
    Robin Hood – Prince John & Sheriff of Nottingham
    Peter Pan – Captain Hook
    Lady and the Tramp – Dog Catcher
    Jungle Book – Sheer Kahn & Ka the snake
    The Black Cauldron – The big scary warlock (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    Oliver and Company – The loan shark (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    The Rescuers Down Under – Poacher (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    Duck Tales: The Movie – big warlock (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    Beauty and the Beast – Gaston
    Aladdin – Jafar
    Nightmare Before Christmas – Sandman
    The Lion King – Scar
    Toy Story – Sid
    Pocahontas – Governor Ratcliffe
    The Hunchback of Notre Dame – The priest (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    Hercules – Hades
    A Bugs Life – Hopper
    Toy Story 2 – The Chicken Man who stole Woody (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    Tarzan – the leopard (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    Monsters, Inc – The boss monster and the lizard monster (I don’t know the names but definitely male)
    Atlantis – The leader of the expedition (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    Treasure Planet – Long John Silver
    The Incredibles – Syndrome
    Mulan – the Mongolian leader (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    Cars 2 – The lemon car that pretended to be electric (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    Wall E – The space ship (gender free)
    Up – the guy with all the dogs hunting the bird (I don’t know the name but definitely male)
    Toy Story 3 – Lotso the bear
    Brave – Morgul the Bear
    Planes – The famous American racing plane (I don’t know the name but definitely male)

    Sorry I don’t know all the names but I don’t want anyone thinking that women are more often villains than men. It is just not true. If you want to see an interesting statistic try comparing the animated Disney male heroes to female heroines, especially in recent years

    1. Interesting. Thanks for commenting. Although only a few of those would be considered fairy tales. If you look at folklore I still say that a majority of the villains are women. Robin Hood, Aladdin, Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast are traditional stories with male villains. Many of the rest of your choices are fairly modern in their origination (black cauldron on are 1985+); therefore, accounting for a more modern villain.

  2. but I think you are right that I overstated the problem when I said women are ‘always’ the villains. Clearly from your list there are some with male villains.

  3. In terms of folklore and traditional fairly tales, I think you have a good point about childless middle aged women certainly being different, and perhaps feared because of it. Also, I agree that when a woman goes evil she it is more terrifying, because yes…it’s somewhat unexpected because it goes against what should be her natural nurturing instinct. That is not to say that it’s natural for men to be evil, but I think we do assume that it’s more likely for a man to be a villain because of his physical strength…and we are thus less surprised by the male villain.

    1. Thanks. It’s an interesting topic. Something to ponder. hmmm… Do you think it’s at all damaging to little girls to see these female villains? How do you judge whether something is good for a child? Do you look at it as you would have seen it as a child or through your adult eyes? For me the 2 are very different.

  4. I think its important for there to be villians of both sexes. Lets face it there are bad people out there. Both Men and Women and are capable of harming our children. By having villians of both sexes we don’t condition our children to always think that women are safe while men are always bad. There needs to be bad guys and gals as well as men and women heros so that our kids can see that we all have the choice to be bad or good and it isn’t determined by sex.

  5. Great post! It’s left me with a lot to think about. Mulan is my favorite Disney princess because she wasn’t just known for being beautiful or royal– she worked hard and followed her dreams. I guess that’s another movie where the villan is male, but like you said it’s a more modern story. Hmm…interesting food for thought. Thanks!

    1. I like Mulan as well for those reasons. She’s definitely the toughest Disney heroine.

      Just to clarify I love Tangled, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Mermaid etc. Its just a broader societal influence I’m pondering. I still like them.

      I think the princess influence is inevitable for little girls and that fairy tales have long been a source of moral teaching and dreaming but they just have to be managed in the right way.

  6. Reblogged this on Reviewing All 54 Disney Animated Films and commented:

    I thought some of you might be interested in this piece I did on my other blog last year about how many women are villains in traditional fairy tales. It does frustrate me when women are only love interests or only silly characters and men do all the growing. I’d rather have a villainess with some personality than a bland puppet for men to oogle.
    Anyway, was an interesting piece and so sharing it with all of you. Let me know what you think.

  7. Yeah, it never bothered me. If the villain was a woman, she was a woman. If the villain was a man, he was a man. If the hero was a man, he was a man. If the hero was a woman, she was a woman.

    I don’t really see it as anything more than what it is.

    1. Fair enough. I do think trends in storytelling actually can have an impact but I do tend to overthink on things. It’s how I was raised. My Mother would talk with us after going to a movie and we would discuss social issues raised, themes, religion, women, love. All of it. And it wasn’t in an investigative or inquisitive way. It was just us talking about what we had seen.

      But others simply watch and absorb and nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I drive my friends nuts always wanting to talk about the deeper implications of the movies. 😉

  8. You raise so many interesting points!

    >What do you think?

    I wish I knew more about fairy tales and their context so I could properly tackle that answer. Alas, I’ve not read up enough on the topic, but it’s definitely fascinating.

    Your sister raised a good point and I’m also wondering if the middle-aged women that served as a basis for the villains in fairy tales were feared because they were smart. Or had money/property/influence that others feared. Or were meant as a way to oppress women and dictate that they should always marry and have children lest they turn evil. No doubt there are multiple factors at work.

    And I think it’s great that we question and explore the why of these tales rather than simply take them at face value. I routinely discuss topics like this with my daughter (keeping things at an age-appropriate level, of course–the meatier analyses will have to wait till she’s older!). By discussing and becoming aware of all the elements, positive and negative, we do a lot towards minimizing harm as well as encouraging critical thinking. That’s my two cents, anyway!

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