Fairy Tales and Female Sexuality

Sarah Seltzer

Ever since there have been fairy tales, there has been feminist re-appropriation of fairy tales. And, the moral of the story often shifts with the mores of the time. 

Don’t go out into the woods. Beware ugly older women bearing strange gifts. Only a princely kiss can resurrect you.

The anti-feminist messages in fairy tales, both in their classic forms from the tales of Grimm, Anderson and Perrault, and their sanitized Disneyfied versions, abound. Heroines are frequently passive, resisting even Disney’s “spunkification” and lose their voices or fall into slumbers. They are rescued by princes or kindly huntsmen. Evil befalls them during puberty. Many fairy tales that have permeated the collective unconsciousness are known for these misogynist tropes and particularly for their warnings about female sexuality and its existence as both a threat and as threatened.

Red Riding Hood, which has just been remade into a (by all accounts mediocre) Twilight-esque tale of a dangerous teen love triangle by Catherine Hardwicke, draws on one of the more symbolically rich of these stories. As Hardwicke herself said “When you have problems when you’re five years old, it’s just like ‘Red Riding Hood.’ ‘I’m scared to go in the woods’…Later on, when you’re 12 or 13, you really notice the sexual implications. The wolf is in bed, inviting her into bed. You start reading it on a different level, once you hit that sexual awakening.”

Charles Perrault, who popularized the “Little Red Riding Hood” story, made it pretty clear from the outset that the “wolf” is a seducer, and the story a metaphor for women staying away from sex.

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From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition — neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!

It’s quite explicit, isn’t it?

Susan Brownmiller goes even further in her seminal book “Against Our Will,” writing that “little Red Riding Hood is a parable of rape,” with the main character an utterly passive victim. The story serves as a warning to girls about the menace in the woods and is an early indicator of “rape culture.”

Indeed, as Paul Harris of the Guardian wrote in an article about Hollywood’s resurgent interest in fairy-stories, “Beneath the magical surface of a fairytale, with its castles and princesses, often lurk ideas around sexuality, the dangers of growing up and leaving home, relationships between children and parents, and the threat that adult strangers can pose.” And in particular, he notes, there’s a “conservative” streak about female sexuality in these stories which is one of the reasons they continue to get resurrected, retold and deconstructed.

Along with “Red Riding Hood,” archetypical tales like “Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard’s caste all share concerns about female sexuality. In “Beauty and the Beast,” the chaste beauty can tame the male beast–even when she’s imprisoned against her will. In “Sleeping Beauty” a bitter  old fairy punishes the heroine with slumber when she pricks her finger, a symbol for menstruation (as is Red Riding Hood’s cloak). In “Snow White” the lovely young queen also pricks her finger, becomes sexual and has a child. Then suddenly she “dies” and is replaced by a wicked queen, a witch. Every day this queen gets a talk from her mirror who feeds on her jealousy and her obsession with her youth and beauty until she feels compelled to kill the younger, more beautiful and more sexually alluring young woman. Both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty require resurrection by a man.

Similar symbolism is at work in “The Little Mermaid,” in which a young woman, besotted by a handsome prince, goes to an older witch and exchanges her soul for a pair of legs that hurt her to use and even make her bleed.

Still, ever since there have been fairy tales, there has been feminist re-appropriation of fairy tales. As with the myths around creatures like vampires and werewolves which sometimes intersect with fairy tales, the moral of the story often shifts with the mores of the time. From Anne Sexton’s twisted fairy tale poems to Angela Carter’s brilliant stories to the new tumblr meme which turns Disney heroines into glasses-wearing, irony-spouting hipsters, fairy tales have been fertile ground for re-imaginings and inversions.

As Catherine Orenstein wrote in Ms. magazine about the re-appropriation of Red Riding Hood:

Storytellers from the women’s movement and beyond also reclaimed the heroine from male-dominated literary tradition, recasting her as the physical or sexual aggressor and questioning the machismo of the wolf. In the 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, inspired by playwright Angela Carter, the heroine claims a libido equal to that of her lascivious stalker and becomes a wolf herself. In the Internet tale “Red Riding Hood Redux,” the heroine unloads a 9mm Beretta into the wolf and, as tufts of wolf fur waft down, sends the hunter off to a self-help group, White Male Oppressors Anonymous.

Orenstein went to the origins of the “Riding Hood” myth and discovered that in its original incarnations, the heroine is much less passive and more of a trickster who ends up outwitting the wolf without the aid of any huntsman. She is just one of many writers who devote an entire book to analyzing Red Riding Hood from a gendered lens, while Carter is one of many artists to re-write the story with an entirely new agenda.

Fairy tales will always be with us, whether being sugarcoated and Disneyfied or fed to us Feminists should continue embrace the retelling and transformation of these tales as part of our ritual for contending with the myths and tropes of patriarchy. Even if Catherine Hardwicke sexualizes the story in a muddled way, she’s taking part in a proud tradition.

Analysis Human Rights

Activists Seek Justice as Verdict Looms for Officer Involved in Freddie Gray’s Death

Michelle D. Anderson

Freddie Gray, 25, died from spinal cord injuries in April 2015, a week after police arrested and took him into custody. Last year, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought criminal charges against six of the officers involved with his arrest. Since then, three officers' trials have been completed without convictions.

The bench trial of Lt. Brian Rice, the highest-ranking Baltimore Police Department officer involved in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, began on Thursday, July 7. Rice faces involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment; the state dropped a misconduct charge after acknowledging Rice was not directly involved in Gray’s arrest. The closing arguments in his trial are scheduled for this Thursday; the judge is expected to share his verdict Monday.

The Rice trial started just as the public began grappling with the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—and the subsequent murder of five police officers at a Dallas protest.

Castile and Sterling, both Black men, died during encounters with police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, triggering nationwide protests against police brutality and implicit racial bias that have continued into this week.

And just like the days following Gray’s death, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were flooded with images, videos, and hashtags demanding justice.

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Gray, 25, died from spinal cord injuries in April 2015, a week after police arrested and took him into custody. Activists and some Maryland legislators accused police of giving Gray an intentional “rough ride,” when inmates or persons in custody are transported in police vans without a seat belt and subjected to frantic driving, ultimately causing them injury. Last year, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought criminal charges against six of the officers involved with his arrest. Since then, three officers’ trials have been completed without convictions—and as activists on the ground in Baltimore wait for more verdicts, they are pushing for reforms and justice beyond the courtroom.

The first police trial, which involved charges against Officer William Porter of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office, ended in a mistrial in December 2015 after jurors failed to reach a verdict.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Glenn Williams acquitted Officer Edward M. Nero of all charges in May. Mosby had charged Nero with misconduct, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment for putting Gray into the police van without a seat belt.

But many viewed the trial of Caesar R. Goodson Jr., who drove the van, as the most critical of the six. Last month, Judge Williams announced that Goodson, too, had been acquitted of all charges—including second-degree depraved-heart murder, the most serious of those brought against the officers.

Kwame Rose, a Baltimore activist, told Rewire he was not surprised.

“The judicial system of America shows that police are never held accountable when it comes to the death of Black people,” said Rose, who was arrested in September and December during peaceful protests related to Gray’s death.

During Goodson’s trial, Williams said there were several “equally plausible scenarios,” that could have transpired during Gray’s arrest. He also rejected the state’s argument that police intentionally gave Gray a “rough ride,”according to a New York Times account.

Ray Kelly, community relations director for the No Boundaries Coalition of West Baltimore grassroots group and a community interviewer for the West Baltimore Community Commission on Police Misconduct, said he was disappointed by the Goodson verdict. However, he noted that he was heartened by Mosby’s decision to bring criminal charges against the officers in the first place. “It’s a small change, but it is a change nonetheless,” Kelly said in a recent interview with Rewire.

In addition to the charges, Gray’s death eventually sparked a major “pattern or practice” investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Local activists, including the No Boundaries Coalition, which issued in March a 32-page report that detailed police misconduct in Baltimore and helped to trigger the DOJ, expected the findings of the DOJ investigation in late June.

However, the document has yet to be released, said Kelly, who is a native of the same West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray was detained.

Kelly is expecting a consent decree—similar to the ones in Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio—and a continued partnership with federal officials in the near future.

For Kelly, the trials—and the lack of convictions—have proved what leaders in groups like the No Boundaries Coalition have been saying in their advocacy. One of those messages, Kelly said, is that the community should continue to focus less on the judicial process for theoretically punishing officers who have committed wrongdoing and more on initiating policy changes that combat over-policing.

Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots group, seemed to echo Kelly’s sentiment in a statement last month. Two days after the Goodson verdict, Baltimore Bloc activists said it was a reminder that the judicial system was not broken and was simply doing exactly what it is designed to do.

“To understand our lack of faith in the justice system, you must first recognize certain truths: the justice system works for police who both live in and out of the city; it works against Black people who come from disinvested, redlined Black communities; and it systematically ruins the lives of people like Keith Davis Jr., Tyrone West and Freddie Gray,” Baltimore Bloc leadership said, referencing two other Baltimore residents shot by police.

The American Civil Liberties Union, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Illinois v. Wardlow, said in a May blog post that police had legal case for stopping and arresting Gray, but also said the action constituted racially biased policing and diminished rights for Black and Latino citizens.

“The result is standards of police conduct that are different in some places than other places. It is a powerful example of institutionalized and structural racism in which ostensibly race-neutral policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups,” ACLU leaders said.

Right before issuing its statement in May, ACLU released a briefing paper that said at least 21 individuals had been killed in police encounters across Maryland in 2015. Of those fatal encounters, which included Gray, 81 percent were Black and about half were unarmed.

The ACLU said it was impossible for the agency to determine whether any officers were disciplined for misconduct in most cases because the police refused to release crucial information to the public.

The ACLU began compiling information about police custody deaths after learning that Maryland officials were not tracking those cases. In 2015, state politicians passed a law mandating law enforcement agencies to report such data. The first set of statistics on police custody deaths is expected in October, according to the ACLU. It is unclear whether those will include reports of officer discipline.

In line with those efforts, activists across Maryland are working to bring forth more systemic changes that will eliminate over-policing and the lack of accountability that exist among police agencies.

Elizabeth Alex, the regional director for CASA Baltimore, a grassroots group that advocates on behalf of local, low-income immigrant communities, told Rewire many activists are spending less energy on reforming the judicial process to achieve police accountability.

“I think people are looking at alternative ways to hold officers and others accountable other than the court system,” Alex said.

Like the No Boundaries Coalition, CASA Baltimore is part of the Campaign for Justice, Safety & Jobs (CJSJ), a collective of more than 30 local community, policy, labor, faith, and civil rights groups that convened after Gray’s death. CJSJ members include groups like the local ACLU affiliate, Baltimore United for Change, and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

CJSJ leaders said the Goodson verdict underlined the critical need for “deep behavioral change” in the Baltimore Police Department’s culture. For the past year, the group has pushed heavily for citizen representation on police trial boards that review police brutality cases. Those boards make decisions about disciplining officers. For example, the city’s police commissioner might decide to discipline or fire an officer; that officer could go to the trial board to appeal the decision.

This spring, recent Baltimore City mayoral candidate and Maryland Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-Baltimore), helped pass an omnibus police accountability law, HB 1016. Part of that bill includes a change to Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR) giving local jurisdictions permission to allow voting citizens on police trial boards. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan signed the changes into law in May.

That change can only happen in Baltimore, however, if the Baltimore Fraternal Order of the Police union agrees to revise its contract with the city, according to WBAL TV. The agreement, which expired on June 30, currently does not allow citizen inclusion.

In light of the current stalled negotiations, Baltimore Bloc on July 5 demanded Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young instead introduce an amendment to the city charter to allow civilian participation on trial boards. If Young introduced the amendment before an August deadline, the question would make it onto the November ballot.

Kelly, in an interview with Rewire, cited some CJSJ members’ recent meeting with Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis as a win for Baltimore citizens. During that meeting, held on June 29, Davis outlined some of his plans for implementing change on the police force and said he supported local citizens participating on police trial boards, Kelly said.

This year, the Baltimore Police Department has also implemented a new use-of-force policy. The policy emphasizes de-escalation and accountability and is the first rewrite of the policy since 2003, according to the Sun.

The ACLU has welcomed the policy as a step in the right direction, but said the new rules need significant improvements, according to the Sun.

For example, the policy requires reporting to the department when an officer flashes or points a weapon at a suspect without shooting; the data will be reviewed by the police commissioner and other city officials. However, it doesn’t require the same from officers who use deadly force.

Notably, the policy requires officers to call a medic if a person in custody requests medical assistance or shows signs that they need professional help. Gray had requested a medic, but officers were skeptical and didn’t call for help until he became unresponsive, according to various news reports.

Rose, who recently received legal assistance from the ACLU to fight criminal charges related to his arrests last year, said citizens should continue to demand accountability and “true transparency” from law enforcement.

In the meantime, with four trials—including Rice’s case—remaining and no convictions, many are looking to see if Mosby will change her prosecution strategy in the upcoming weeks. Roya Hanna, a former Baltimore prosecutor, has suggested Mosby showed poor judgment for charging the six officers without “adequate evidence,” according to the Sun.

Meanwhile, Baltimore City’s police union has urged Mosby to drop the remaining charges against officers.

The trial of Officer Garrett E. Miller is slated to begin July 27; Officer William Porter, Sept. 6, and Sgt. Alicia D. White, Oct. 13. All officers charged pleaded not guilty.

Baltimore Bloc, citing its dissatisfaction with her performance thus far, demanded Mosby’s removal from office last month.

Kelly, who counts Baltimore Bloc among his allies, has a different outlook. Calling’s Mosby’s swift decision to charge the six officers last year  “groundbreaking,” the Baltimore activist said the ongoing police trials are justified and help give attention to police misconduct.

“She should follow through on the charges ….We need that exposure,” Kelly said. “It keeps the debate open and sparks the conversation.”

Analysis Violence

Missing and Murdered: No One Knows How Many Native Women Have Disappeared

Mary Annette Pember

“When Native women go missing, they are very likely to be dead," said Carmen O’Leary, coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains in South Dakota.

This piece, the second installment, was cross-posted from Indian Country Today with permission as part of a ​joint series​ about the missing and murdered Native women in the United States and Canada. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

Although Trudi Lee was only 7 when her big sister went missing back in 1971, she wept when she talked about that traumatic event 45 years later. “Sometimes I would catch our mom crying alone,” Lee said. “She would never tell me why, but I knew it was over Janice.”

Janice was 15 when she went missing near the Yakama reservation in Washington. Although her parents reported her missing to tribal law enforcement, there was never any news of the lively, pretty girl. “Mom died in 2001 without ever knowing what happened,” Lee said. “We still think of Janice and would at least like to put her to rest in the family burial plot.”

“It happens all the time in Indian country,” said Carmen O’Leary, coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains in South Dakota, a coalition of Native programs that provide services to women who experience violence. “When Native women go missing, they are very likely to be dead.”

Indeed, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average, according to U.S. Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, who presented that gruesome statistic while addressing the Committee on Indian Affairs on Violence Against Women in 2011.

Unlike Canada, where Indigenous leaders and advocates have pressured the government to begin to confirm the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, the United States has done little to address the issue.

Although the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) have helped bring attention to this high rate of violence and have begun to address gaps in law enforcement for tribes and federal authorities, there is no comprehensive data collection system regarding the number of missing and murdered women in Indian country.

Under VAWA 2005, a national study authorized by Congress found that between 1979 and 1992 homicide was the third leading cause of death among Native women ages 15 to 34, and that 75 percent were killed by family members or acquaintances.

And that horrific toll might actually be higher. “The number of missing Native women was not addressed in the study,” noted Jacqueline Agtuca, lawyer and policy consultant for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. “Currently, we do not have adequate information on the numbers of missing Native women in the U.S.”

The high rates of sexual violence against Native women are inextricably tied to the likelihood of them going missing; violence, disappearance, and murder are closely interconnected. “Tribal leaders, police officers, and prosecutors tell us of an all-too-familiar pattern of escalating violence that goes unaddressed, with beating after beating, each more severe than the last, ultimately leading to death or severe physical injury,” Perrelli said in his 2011 speech.

According to advocates like O’Leary, there is little hard data about missing and murdered women, only anecdotes that tell of the pain, loss, and anger of loved ones. “Missing and murdered Native women are a non-story in this country. You really don’t hear about them unless you happen to know the family. Officially, these cases seem to get brushed under the rug. No one wants to talk about them,” she said.

Indeed, law enforcement officials questioned for this article seemed reluctant to discuss the issue.

According to NamUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, there are approximately 40,000 unidentified human remains either in the offices of the nation’s medical examiners and coroners or that were buried or cremated before being identified. NamUs, operated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is a national repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records. It offers a free online search system.

Troy Eid, former U.S. attorney for the State of Colorado, notes that protocols for taking missing person’s reports and sharing with other agencies vary widely among tribal law enforcement. “Some offices may simply write down the information or may not record it at all,” Eid said.

Eid served on the Indian Law and Order Commission created under TLOA. After two years of field research, he and fellow commissioner released the report, A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer, in 2013. The report describes law enforcement jurisdiction in Indian country as “an indefensible morass of complex, conflicting and illogical commands,” and blames the U.S. government for creating the situation.

Of the 12 tribal law enforcement agencies contacted for this article about procedures for taking missing person’s reports, just three responded: The Navajo Nation of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah; the Barona Band of Mission Indians in California; and Red Lake Band of Chippewa in Minnesota. All reported that they have designated protocols for taking reports as well as computer terminals that can access the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.

As far as tribal law enforcement working with other agencies, federal and local, Eid noted that those relationships also vary widely: “The relationships swing from good to almost nothing, and even to outright hostility.”

To help address such issues under the direction of the 2010 TLOA, the DOJ announced the launch of the initial phase of the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information in 2015, in which tribes would be able to both report and access crime information in the federal NCIC database. Ten tribes were selected to participate in the pilot program and were to receive NCIC terminals. DOJ officials did not respond to questions about the number of tribes that currently have access to the NCIC terminals nor to questions regarding funding for future tribal access.

Although the Tulalip Tribe is among the ten participating in the project, it has yet to receive a NCIC terminal despite offering to pay for it, according to tribal attorney Michelle Demmert. “We need full access now to this database. I doubt that any other municipality or state would need to work so hard to justify meeting the needs of the community,” she said.

Native peoples are not the only ones who are underserved by America’s approach to helping to find and identify missing persons. Reveal, a project with the Center for Investigative Reporting, published an extensive investigation in 2015, “Left for Dead: How America Fails the Missing and Unidentified,” which lays out how U.S. authorities mishandle these reports. According to the article, the FBI refused to provide access to its data on unidentified remains despite requests from Reveal under the Freedom of Information Act.

Clearly, missing persons and unidentified remains are not a top priority for law enforcement. But for Native women, whose numbers may be greater and whose loss may go unreported, the issue reflects a wider systemic failure of the United States to meet its trust agreement with tribal nations.

“There is so much fear and distrust of law enforcement among our people that they are often reluctant to report loved ones as missing or to report sexual assault,” noted O’Leary.

This fear adds to the lack of accurate data not only about missing and murdered women but also about those who have been raped. Contacting law enforcement can bring unwanted scrutiny to women who are victims of violent crime.

As an example of that, O’Leary pointed to the 2015 abduction of Edith Chavez from Minnesota, in which Chavez suspects she was drugged and taken to Williston, North Dakota. She managed to escape and reported the incident to Williston police who refused to take her statement and instead checked her record. The result? They detained and charged her for an unpaid traffic ticket from 2011.

According to the Guardian, the Williston police department did not respond to requests for comment but instead issued a press release claiming Chavez had smelled of alcohol and had been to a casino. Police later dropped charges against Chavez.

“Native women are not often seen as worthy victims. We have to first prove our innocence, that we weren’t drunk or out partying,“ said O’Leary.

According to Laura Madison, who along with Lauren Chief Elk helped launch the Save Wiyabi Project, “Indigenous women go missing twice: Once in real life and a second time in the news.”