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Fairy tale princesses get feisty

A representation of the foundation Snow White story “Schneewittchen” by The Brothers Grimm. flickr/Ela2007

Snow White’s star is on the rise in 2012.

She’s a lead character in the television show Once Upon a Time, and the subject of two major films, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman.

Not since Walt Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has she had this much Hollywood star power.

Back to the future

Hollywood’s Snow White is descended from the classic 19th century Grimms’ tale, “Schneewittchen”.

In the original version, she’s the perfect, appealing starlet; hated for being beautiful, not particularly bright when it comes to poisoned apples, and rescued by a prince who falls in love at first death.

Things happen to this Snow, she doesn’t make them happen. Today’s Snow Whites are another matter. They don’t just sing to bluebirds and clean the house. They’re feisty if not always feminist, gifted in witty banter and they wield pointy weapons like swords and daggers. In fact, they look like raven-haired cousins of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The evil stepmother

The 21st century retellings also offer the scene-chewing malfeasance of the stepmother. Part of the appeal of the tale today is that it is driven by female rivals. The stepmother is a potent, seductive combination of beauty and power; even in the twenty-first century, there is still mistrust of women in power - take Hilary Clinton or Julia Gillard as examples.

In Once Upon a Time - set across parallel universes - the stepmother is a mayor accused (more than once) of corruption, while in the fairy tale realm she is a woman hell bent on revenge for the loss of her lover. In Mirror Mirror she indulges in a lavish lifestyle that reduces her subjects to poverty, her reign of terror ending in a dramatic ageing.

In Snow White and the Huntsman she asserts that beauty is power. Older, powerful women in these tales, like their real life counterparts, are usually punished. Yet all seems well, because the 21st century Snow Whites are at least independent, empowered young women. The reinvention of Snow White as an “ass-kicking” heroine seems like a happily-ever-after to a fairy tale that began when the Grimms gave birth to a passive Snow White more capable with a broom than a sword, more likely to fall unconscious than speak up on her own behalf. But it is a fairy tale.

The forgotten princesses

Before the Grimms, princesses took charge of their destiny and confronted the world of men with cunning and violence. Even the term “fairy tale” comes to us through Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, a French noblewoman who led the fairy tale vogue under Louis XIV. She and her female peers wrote alongside the better known Charles Perrault, but their tales and strong, forceful heroines are largely forgotten today. Here are just a few of the stars we wish Hollywood would rediscover: Finette Cendron by Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy

Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d'Aulnoy (1650/1651–4 January 1705), also known as Countess d'Aulnoy. Wikicommons

A kingdom goes bankrupt and the king and queen abandon their three princesses. The youngest, Finette, spies a rich chateau and dispatches its current occupants, roasting an ogre in his own oven and lopping off his wife’s head. Her sisters bully her and make her their servant, but she sneaks out to attend a ball and loses one of her red shoes. Finding the shoe, the Prince falls in love with it. Finette comes to the palace to reclaim her footwear and wins the kingdom. She doesn’t simply wait for a Prince Charming to come along.

Then there’s The Discreet Princess by Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier.

A king goes to fight in the Crusades, leaving behind his three daughters. Concerned about their virtue, he has them locked in a tower. A lecherous prince tricks his way into the tower and seduces the two older sisters, but the youngest, Finette (yes, another Finette), threatens to break his head with a hammer. She then fools him into falling down the drain - literally.

When she later confronts the prince with her sisters’ illegitimate babies, he dies in a rage, but not before making his good brother promise to wreak revenge upon Finette. Finette foils the brother’s plan and, convinced of his love, marries him. She has weapons and a choice about whether she gets married.

Time to rediscover the feisty princesses

These princesses were well known long before the two German Grimm brothers were even a twinkle in their mother’s eye.

It’s time the feisty princesses of the French court joined today’s Snow Whites.

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