Saturday, March 3, 2012

Shh, It's a Baby

Your classic fairy tale ends with marriage. The villain's defeated, and nothing stands in the way of conjugal bliss for our hero and heroine. What Disney doesn't let on is that sometimes, the bliss happens before the wedding. There's a small but notable section of fairy tales whose heroines are pregnant well before the prince puts a ring on it.

Heroic, 2013
The most famous of these stories is the one you don't actually hear told that way. Rapunzel and the prince were not just making a rope ladder all that time. Dressing this story up for kids does enormous damage to Rapunzel's image; the version I heard growing up required her to ask, idiotically, why the witch is harder to pull up than the prince. What she originally asked (of her surrogate mother, let's not forget) was why she feels so tired and why her belly's getting bigger. All of a sudden Rapunzel's no longer a loose-tongued bimbo; she's a pregnant teen with important questions. (For extra points, the whole story started with the pregnancy of Rapunzel's mother. Pregnancy is the single greatest plot mover in this fairy tale.)

It also makes the witch's reaction doubly cruel. Instead of deserting her stolen daughter because she feels betrayed, the witch sends a frightened girl with literally nowhere to turn out into the world to deal with an unexpected pregnancy and the death of her beloved. She doesn't even answer Rapunzel's question, apparently thinking that if Rapunzel doesn't know she's pregnant, the baby might just go away. She just dumps the girl in the desert and wreaks blinding vengeance on the prince. This is serious evil here, all the more so because it's so determinedly one-sided. It doesn't matter to the witch whether Rapunzel is safe or scared; all that matters is getting what she wants.

The scariest part? It could be worse.

For all the horror she goes through, at least Rapunzel fell in love and gave her consent. The pre-Disney Sleeping Beauty (who is fifteen, not sixteen), wakes up not when the prince kisses her, but when her newborn infant mistakes her finger for a nipple and sucks the splinter out. "Infant?" you say. "But she wasn't pregnant when she went to sleep..."

Sleeping Beauty, Gustaf Tenggren
No. No, she wasn't. The prince was so moved by her beauty when he found her that he just couldn't resist raping an unconscious girl. That doesn't wake her up. Pregnancy doesn't wake her up. Delivering her twins doesn't wake her up. The thirteenth fairy really knew how to make a curse stick.

Let's recap. Sleeping Beauty is a fifteen-year-old girl who, the last she knew, just learned about this nifty thing called spinning. When she next opens her eyes, it's a century later and she's the sex slave of a necrophiliac. It's not even a surprise to learn that the prince's mother is an ogress who wants to eat Sleeping Beauty and her kids; at least Mom's up front about her evil. This is one that I'm grateful to Disney for bowdlerizing. True Love's Kiss is a much nicer thing to grow up with than date rape.

Janet and the Transformation, Dan Dutton

Both Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty are rather passive about all this. Rapunzel has her child and wanders around looking for her prince; Sleeping Beauty doesn't even get the luxury of consent. Luckily, pregnant heroines aren't all noncombatants. Janet, the spunky Scottish heroine of "Tam Lin," is in every way active and involved in her own fate. Aware of the rules of civilization (unlike Rapunzel), she still chooses to sleep with Tam Lin; even better, when her father and his knights try to shame her into marrying to cover up her pregnancy, she loudly declares that they're all wusses and she'd never deny her child its true father and heritage. Upon finding out that Tam Lin's due to be sacrificed to hell, Janet performs one of the most impressive physical displays of devotion and guts in any story ever: she faces down the enraged Fairy Queen and grimly hangs on to Tam Lin in whatever form he's magicked into taking. This includes a lion, a snake, and fire. The girl wrestles a lion and holds fire still. While pregnant enough to show. She goes the Greeks one better: Thetis put Peleus through the same mess, but he didn't have to deal with an outside foe trying to kill him.

But Janet's the exception. Pregnant heroines are rare as it is. For the most part, that pregnancy renders them instantly passive. There's a Cinderella variant where the two older sisters try to kill their youngest sister as she recovers from giving birth; it's extra easy because the poor girl can't physically fight back. Sometimes the heroine of "The Seven Swans" is pregnant at the climax, but her story is a strange combination of agency and passivity: if she defends herself, she dooms her brothers.

And there's a level of discomfort with acknowledging premarital sex in fairy tales. How old were you when you first heard Rapunzel? And how old were you when you heard the pregnancy variant? Those aren't the versions we tell to children. Fairy tales in their oldest form are meant to scare people into good behavior, in which context a disastrous premarital pregnancy makes perfect narrative sense. But nowadays they're supposed to be light and fluffy stories for kids, with some common sense nestled at the heart of the happily-ever-after. "Mother, why is my belly so large?" was practically a punch line for adult audiences who already knew the answer; if you tell a five-year-old that Rapunzel was pregnant, you're jump-starting "the talk." Even "Tam Lin" gets censored on occasion; the first time I read the story was in a folklore anthology that had Janet visiting Tam Lin to hang out and chat. I'm certainly not averse to fairy tales that prioritize the intellectual and personal bond, but Janet is far more powerful when she takes complete control of a potentially disastrous scenario like out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Disney Princesses as Mothers, sheerisan
I'm not advocating putting children to bed with tales of rape and abandonment. The purpose of fairy tales has changed drastically from Grimm to Disney; you can't make the train run backward now. But it's important to remember where things started. It tells us something about life then, and the changes tell us something about life now. And once in a while, we get a trend-bucker like Janet who makes it all worthwhile.


  1. SO that means that Anne Rice's The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty is closer to the original than Disney's Sleeping Beauty... Yeah, I think we really don't want to encourage our young girls in that especially since most of the Disney Princess' are so passive.

    1. Scary thought. And no, there's nothing about Sleeping Beauty that I'd encourage girls to emulate. (Except the curiosity. Curiosity is a good thing.)