I’ve always been fascinated with folklore. I couldn’t settle for Disney; I wanted to see different versions of every fairytale. In my teens, my brother complained about me reading the Brothers Grimm despite the gore between the pages. In college, I studied Russian Fairytales and learned that every folktale had a hidden meaning for children to understand later in life.
Reflecting further, I can see common themes in domestic violence in these ancient tales. It shows how old these problems are. Everyone wants to live happily ever after but, that’s not always the case. Most fairytales have female protagonists, so it’s easy for women to identify. Here are three tales and how they parallel to difficult situations.
A woman is isolated in a castle, living with a beast who lashes out at her. He screams whenever he doesn’t get his way, and breaks things. He treats people like objects, just like the form those servants took in the Disney rendition. The beast holds the woman prisoner. When and if this hairy monster lets her go, something makes her return. In Disney, the Beast has the heart to let Belle leave to aide her father. She returned because she promised. In another version, “Beauty” had two stepsisters who pressured her to never return; they even used onions to make themselves cry. In the end, the heroine is destined to transform her beast into a decent man… an expectation society has placed on women for as long as this tale has been told.
Some men stay beasts. Gaston was a beast in human form. He preyed on Belle, assuming her consent in his first marriage attempt, and later tried to force marriage. He even tried to forcefully kiss her. “No one says no to Gaston!” was the obvious message that he was a sexual predator. Some beasts are more obvious than others, whether the monstrous traits are on theinside or outside. Both Gaston and the Beast were abusive, and there was societal pressure in both environs for Belle to marry.
A princess has been trapped in a tower longer than she can remember. There is a world outside her single window, but it’s out of reach. Out there, princesses these days are able to save themselves, but this one feels inadequate. She feels she can’t save herself. Looking down, it’s a long jump.
Her long tresses are used as a rope to allow entry for her captor. If she denies entry, she will go hungry. Sometimes that captor is the financial benefactor allowing to her eat. The captor threatens her if she dares to find a man. With her hair, the princess could allow anyone inside the tower, so jealousy is an issue. In the Faerytale Theatre version, Rapunzel said she felt lonely, so the enchantress gave her a macaw parrot. The captor gives her everything – everything materialistic; no love. Yet, Rapunzel is presumed to be spoiled.
What keeps her from making her own rope and scaling down that tower? It could be anticipating an injurious fall. Maybe she doesn’t want to leave all her possessions behind. Maybe she has children and carrying them down would be too dangerous. Escaping isn’t easy emotionally either. In Disney’s “Tangled,” she has mood swings of joy and guilt in leaving. In the original Broadway version of “Into the Woods,” Rapunzel suffers from depression even after she is freed. Leaving doesn’t solve everything. The memories don’t leave your mind.
In the end, the parrot betrays Rapunzel, spilling all her secrets. The enchantress cuts her hair and casts her out of the tower. Women sometimes lose something valuable to them in leaving.
Every day a king would buy his daughters new dancing shoes only to find them completely worn the next morning. The princesses would sneak out at night to go dancing at a ball. In real life, this ball could be a night club or a party. The princesses transcend into a fantastical world, whether through the bedroom window (Faerytale Theatre) or chanting magic words to reveal a portal under the rug (Nickelodeon). They cross three forests with gold, silver, or diamond branches. Princes in rowboats await them in a moat. There is a giant gazebo hosting a ball every night.
The king hires a special guard who stalks the princesses to their magical place. The guard in Faerytale Theatre wears an invisibility cloak (this was before Harry Potter), and in the Nickelodeon rendition, the man just hides.
Toward the end of the Nickelodeon version, the princes turn into monsters. The princesses flee the monsters that pursue them all the way home. (Looking back, I muse, “They’re just like half my ex-boyfriends!”) The girls are screaming, trying to distance themselves, and the creepy monsters are determined to keep the girls. The guard assists in saving them.
In both cases, the “hero” chooses which princess to marry in the end, usually the eldest. The Faerytale Theatre guy didn’t rescue anyone – he stalked them and ate banquette food. In reality, no one should marry either hero. Both were stalkers, just better looking than the monsters.