Feminist Readings


Feminist readings of a story try to highlight the portrayal of women or girls and how this reinforces stereotypes of female behaviour.


In fairytales women tend to be portrayed in one of four fairly standard ways which automatically limits the freedom of female characters:

  • The beautiful and obedient daughter
  • The mother / wife / caregiver
  • The mad / bad / wicked woman
  • The passionate / sexual / unchaste woman


Additional common traits that can be applied to female characters are:

  • Their passivity and helplessness – they need to be rescued
  • They are punished if they break the rules
  • Success is portrayed as achieving a marriage with the richest / most important man available



Some examples:


  • She is patient and obedient despite suffering horrible mistreatment by the Ugly Sisters. She does not rebel when anyone with half a backbone would have and is rewarded for this by marriage to the Prince
  • Cinderella’s role is the typical female role of home-maker and cleaner
  • She has to leave the Ball before midnight otherwise her dress will return to rags – a clear example that good girls shouldn’t stay out too late!
  • She has no choice in her marriage – the prince declares he will marry whomsoever the shoe fits. She has no say!
  • Cinders simply cannot go to the ball in her rags. She has to have an elegant ballgown.
  • The shoe is slender – because being thin is just as important as being pretty
  • She cannot rescue herself – she needs the fairy godmother
  • The fairy godmother doesn’t actually do anything herself – she needs magic
  • Women – the wicked stepmother and ugly sisters – are the source of evil
  • Ugliness / unfemininity is equated with evil – which is why the stepsisters are often played by men in pantomime versions of the fairytales


Snow White:

  • Snow is the perfect passive woman who is asleep for half the tale until the prince kisses her and wakes her up
  • The prince does not have to ask to kiss her. This would result in a nasty court case in today’s society but Snow is grateful for his presumption
  • Snow is the ‘fairest of them all’ signaling that simply being beautiful is not enough but that you have to be the most beautiful
  • Snow’s role in the dwarves home is again home-maker and cleaner
  • The source of evil is female in two ways. The queen who is jealous of Snow’s beauty and Snow White’s own foolishness for opening the door


Little Red Riding Hood:

  • Red is fulfilling a dutiful daughter role by taking food to her sick grandmother
  • She is punished with near death for taking a shortcut through the woods despite being told explicitly not to
  • The exploratory nature of Red’s journey through the woods and the fact that the wolf asks her over towards the bed in the cottage are often interpreted as Red exploring her developing sexuality. However, we all know that good girls are chaste and essentially sex less – in no fairy tale ever do we see the characters indulge in more than a closed mouth kiss on the lips – so Red’s near death experience is another lesson in chastity for young girls: avoid wolves in bed!