Willful Women in Fairy Tales

Willful Women in Fairy Tales


In her book Living a Feminist Life, Sarah Ahmed relays the Brothers Grimm tale of “The Willful Child,” where a girl is so willful against her parents that she dies and won’t even go into her grave properly (Location 1328 of the Kindle Edition). Ahmed uses this figure of the willful girl to illustrate a common sexist identity ascribed onto women; that of being “willful” and being punished accordingly. The little girl in the story refuses to place her will on the back burner; she refuses to be meek and silent and voices her opinions to her parents whether they like it or not. So naturally she grows terribly ill and dies. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she also has the gall to keep sticking her arm up when her family tries to lower her into her grave. The audacity. It’s okay though, because her mother beats her arm back down with a rod. Phew, that was close.

Ahmed makes many valid and illuminating points amidst her discussion of willfulness, including the observation that this story is meant as a caveat for “willing girls” to continue to be so: “The willing girl does not appear [in the story], but she is the one to whom the story is addressed: the story is a warning of the consequences of not being willing to obey,” (Location 1328 of the Kindle Edition). Ahmed also discusses the ubiquity of the “willful girl” trope, not only in Fairy Tales, but in women’s’ lives in general and how it functions as a means of regulating women’s behavior so that female desires, needs, and agency are not in danger of becoming a priority (Location 1328 of the Kindle Edition).

Unsurprisingly, the Grimms’ “Willful Child” Fairy Tale is not alone in its anti-feminist agenda. A Fairy Tale by Hans Christian Anderson called “The Fisherman and His Wife,” and another tale by The Brothers Grimm called “The Wild Swans” are both lesser-known tales that really drive home the criteria for the “ideal” woman. What both of these stories have in common, and what Ahmed is trying to get us to see through her example of the “Willful Girl,” is how the stories we read to our children (and have read to them for centuries) contribute to the sweet/bitch, generous/willful, pious/evil binaries women have forced upon us in our daily lives. The myths and Fairy Tales we are exposed to/expose others to greatly inform our lives and the ideals we believe our lives have to live up to. By continuing to read such stories unironically to our children, we continue to propagate these problematic ways of thinking about women. Conversely, by taking a closer look into these tales and pushing back on the lessons they’re telling, and have told our predecessors, we can take back ownership over negatively used terms such as “willful.”

In “The Fisherman and His Wife,”, the main female character shows a trajectory that, although less fatal, mirrors that of the “Willful Girl.” The tale goes like this: One day a Fisherman is fishing at a nearby seashore. He catches a huge fish that claims it is a Prince under a spell and begs the Fisherman to let it go. The Fisherman obeys. Later, he tells his wife, Ilsabill, what has happened. “‘Did you not ask it for anything?’ said the wife, ‘We live very wretchedly here, in this nasty, dirty pigsty; do go back and tell the fish we want a snug little cottage,’” (Grimm 30). So what happens? The fisherman goes and asks the fish and they get a nice new cottage. But Ilsabill isn’t satisfied: now she wants a castle. The fisherman goes to the fish and they get one. Then Ilsabill wishes to be “King,” “Emperor,” and “Pope.” Back and forth the fisherman goes and soon Ilsabill’s sitting on a throne that’s “two miles high” (Grimm 34). But that’s still not enough for Ilsabill, who now wants to “be lord of the sun and moon,” (Grimm 34). The fisherman goes, afraid, chanting his usual phrase to the fish:

‘O man of the sea!

Harken to me!

My wife Ilsabill

Will have her own will,

And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee! (Grimm 34).


As punishment for Ilsabill’s perceived greed, she and the fisherman lose everything they have gained. The fisherman is told to go home back to his pigsty, where “they live to this very day,” (Grimm 35).


So what’s the moral of the story? Essentially that women shouldn’t boss their husbands around. That women shouldn’t exceed their roles and reach for the “sun and the moon.” Ilsabill tries to move from a passive, objectified role into an active one and is treated by her husband and the fish as having “her own will,” as never being satisfied, and as being consumed by greed. What happens as she’s moving on her upward trajectory? The seaside her husband keeps visiting gets darker, murkier, and less healthy every time he goes to ask the fish for something else. Why? Well because Ilsabill was upsetting the “natural order” of things, of course. Not only does she want to be “King,” but she wants to be “Emperor” and “Pope” too! The horror!


It is meaningful that Ilsabill wants to be “King” and not “Queen,” “Emperor” and not “Empress,” and well, there’s no female equivalent for “Pope.” But clearly, the positions of power afforded by “Queen” and “Empress” are not even remotely equal to those of King and Emperor, and as an ambitious, willful woman, Ilsabill wants real power. The story quells this fearful idea by having other characters treat Ilsabill as if she’s not capable of handling true power. The story reaches a comfortable equilibrium at the end by preventing her from becoming God (being in charge of the sun and moon? Yeah, I think they were referring to God), putting her back in her “place” (the pigsty) and reinscribing sexist roles and barriers. A woman couldn’t be God, after all; it was bad enough she was allowed to be Pope.


Now, telling scary stories about what happened to women who soared too high (a sort of retelling of Icarus, if you will) was not the only way to reinscribe gender roles and barriers in Fairy Tales. Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Wild Swans” is a story about a King’s daughter, Eliza, who is good, “pious,” and “beautiful,” (Location 2323 of the Kindle Edition). The story begins with Eliza’s eleven brothers being turned into swans by their Evil Stepmother (why are all stepmothers always evil?). The brothers then fly off and Eliza is sent away. She follows her swan brothers and is eventually reunited with them. They fly her away to an island, she prays to God to find a way to help them, and is told what to do in a dream. In this dream, Eliza discovers that she must gather stinging nettle, crush it with her hands and feet, and weave it into jackets for her brothers to break their spell. Oh, and she can’t talk at all until she’s made eleven of these jackets or her brothers will die.


Not to mention that nettles have thorns and blister up her hands and feet excruciatingly. So as she is making the jackets, a King and his troupe come upon her and the King thinks she’s so beautiful that she must become his wife. It doesn’t bother him that she can’t talk, or that she never actually agrees to be his wife, but alas: he takes her, her nettles, and her jackets back to his castle. He marries her, she keeps trying to weave the jackets for her brothers. She has to gather more nettle growing on top of graves at the nearby cemetery. There’s a nasty archbishop who’s got it out for her, sees her going into the graveyard, and tells the King, claiming she’s a witch. The King believes him and sends her to be burnt alive, and just as she’s being grabbed by the executioner, her brothers show up, she throws the finished jackets onto them, and can once again talk and defend herself. “I am innocent,” she exclaims before fainting, only to have one of her brothers reaffirm her innocence (Location 2523 of the Kindle Edition).


Phew! So many questions. For one, why did Eliza have to lose her voice? The only significant role it played in the story was that it made her totally helpless in refusing to marry the King, standing up for herself, or describing her own wants and needs in any way. Also, why does Eliza have to break up the nettle with her bare hands and feet? I mean, couldn’t she have just smashed it with a rock?


The moral of this story is that Eliza is the “perfect” woman: silent, submissive, loyal, pious, beautiful, and willing to suffer endless agonies so that her male companions and relatives don’t have to suffer at all. That seems like a pretty reasonable image to live up to if you’re a woman.


So because figures like Eliza are the alternative, let’s stop using words like “willful” to describe women negatively. Especially when we use them to describe strong, ambitious women. And let’s stop lauding quiet, submissive forms of womanhood as the only positive modes of being. After all, I’d much rather be sitting on a two mile high throne than passing out on my way to the executioner. Just saying.  

(Title Image courtesy of Stefan Keller from Pixabay.)