The sad tragedy of storytelling is that many of our old myths, legends, and fables are built off sexist tropes and ideologies. The sexy vixen, the wicked witch, and the damsel in distress are all classic tropes in storytelling that have been ingrained so heavily in our culture that the everyday person can easily pick them out and identify them. These narratives that so often portray women as weak or evil are especially harmful when we continue to indoctrinate future generations with these sexist tales.
Can we ever undo what these past stories have done to women? Sadly, probably not, but perhaps we can lessen the effects by re-telling and re-interpreting these same stories from a feminist perspective. The advantage here is that writers can take tried and true narratives and characters that people already like, and then make them more complex. The characters and plots of the original stories are often stereotypes or flat, archetypal characters. Reinterpreting these stories with more complexity has the benefit of causing people to like them more than the original by updating them for a modern audience.
There are many stories that have been reinterpreted over the years through a feminist lens, like Cinderella (Ever After), many of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Once Upon a Time, Fables, etc.) and many more, but there are so many other stories that need a feminist revamp. So here are five stories that I would love to see get a feminist makeover for a contemporary audience.
Persephone and Hades:
The myth of how Persephone becomes queen of the Underworld often paints Persephone as stupid, naïve, and utterly passive.
For those of you who don’t know, the myth goes something like this: Hades, the god of the Underworld, sees Persephone, the goddess of flowers, picking flowers in a garden one day. He falls madly in love (or lust—you can never tell with Greek gods) with her, leaves the underworld, kidnaps her, and takes her back to the Underworld to be his queen. Zeus sees this, but decides not to do anything about it, because Hades doesn’t really have any nice things and Zeus feels that Persephone will essentially be good for Hades.
Enter the strongest female character in this myth, Persephone’s mother Demeter, the goddess of the earth. When she realizes both what happened to her daughter and that Zeus won’t help her, she handles things in a way that is typical for Greek gods. She passive-aggressively destroys the earth until Zeus is forced to make Hades give up Persephone or the whole world will die. Hades, meanwhile has been failing to woo Persephone, who just keeps refusing Hades’ gifts and crying. However, when Zeus and Demeter come to release Persephone, they discover that she ate three pomegranate seeds from the Underworld, which means she is forced to stay in the Underworld for at least three months of the year.
This story mostly paints Persephone as a weak-willed, stupid damsel in distress. I would love to see more development of this story mainly because of the many inconsistencies with the myth itself. Despite Persephone and Hades’ rocky start as a couple in the actual mythology, they seem to be the only married couple In Greek mythology that gets along and stays faithful to each other. Hades is said to be a calmer, better person in the presence of his wife and neither of them ever cheat on each other. Furthermore, Persephone goes from being a nothing goddess of flowers to being queen of the Underworld—seriously advancing her position in the pantheon. There is a lot to work with her to create a more well-rounded, active character out of Persephone, and I would love to see it.
Beowulf, while it’s a classic, epic story, is a very male-heavy tale which mostly features dudes going on epic quests and fighting monsters to show what strong, powerful, manly men they are. There are few women of note in Beowulf, but perhaps the woman who is most developed and discussed is Grendel’s mother. And no, I don’t mean the crappy Angelina Jolie version. Grendel is a hideous troll-like monster who is terrorizing Hrothgar’s kingdom. The Anglo-Saxon culture of this time had strong ties to ideas of fealty and kinship. To betray someone, especially a family member, is one of the greatest crimes a person can commit, especially if one were to kill a member of their family. Grendel is said to be from a long line of kin-slayers going all the way to the Biblical Cain that killed his brother Abel. Grendel is shown to have these ties to Cain in order to make him an even more detestable character, but Grendel’s mother seems to be not as horrible.
She is still shown to be monstrous and lives in a lake that is described to be like the opening to Hell, but despite that she is actually pretty honorable by the standards of her time. Codes of fealty also dictated acceptable ways to seek revenge. If someone were to kill your first-born son then you could, by rights, kill theirs as payment. Grendel is killed by Beowulf, but Grendel’s mother doesn’t know this and kills Hrothgar’s second-in-command and most loved general. Since Hrothgar has no son Grendel’s mother takes the life of his most beloved General, viewing his life as of equal worth to her son’s. She is never shown as killing anyone else. There are bones and weapons in her lake from other warriors, but it’s implied that those warriors came to kill her. Grendel’s mother actually seems to follow these codes of fealty, and she doesn’t seem to be a kin-slayer like her family is.
Grendel’s mother having some complexity was probably not the intention of the original bards and authors of the Beowulf story. After all, she is still a hideous monster who is killed by our awesome male hero at the end. But it would be great to see a retelling of this narrative from the perspective of Grendel’s mother repainting her as a more conflicted and developed character.
Lilith and the Succubi:
Almost everyone in the western world knows the story of Adam and Eve. God created the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden until their tragic fall from grace. What many people don’t know is that Adam had another girlfriend before Eve—Lilith. Lilith was actually the first woman created. She was created not from Adam’s rib, but from the dust on the ground; however, Lilith wasn’t too happy with her and Adam’s arrangement. She was eventually kicked out of Eden by God for wanting to be equal to Adam and for wanting to be on top when having sex… yep.
This was enough to banish Lilith from Eden and condemn her for eternity. Enter Satan, who in this legend seems actually seems kind of nice—he hooks up with Lilith (in some version it’s not Satan, but a different fallen angel, but it’s all the same plot) and makes her a demon. Together their union creates the succubi, a group of female demons that haunt the dreams of men, seducing them, and then having sex with them until the men are drained of energy and die. Lilith, furthermore, swears vengeance on Adam and, jealous of Eve, becomes a demon of abortion. She attempts to kill all of Adam’s offspring. The death of any unborn or newborn baby was said to be attributed to Lilith.
This is one of the early stories of the evil seductress and I would love to see a feminist retelling of it. However, unlike the first two, Lilith, while sympathetic, is hard to portray as anything but straight-up evil without also condemning the Judeo-Christian God and making Satan a more heroic figure. And while that could actually be a really interesting story, it’s not likely one that current, largely Christian audiences would get behind. My suggestion here would be to not necessarily re-imagine Lilith, but to re-imagine the succubi instead. The new succubi could be a group of female demons who are actually good and take the lessons of Lilith (wanting equality) to heart. That might have more potential than attempting to rewrite the whole Bible.
Robin Hood is another one of those stories that is basically a big bro-story with Maid Marion as our only female character. She plays no role other than to be the love interest for Robin Hood and his rival, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Maid Marion is also the glorified reward at the end of the story. Robin Hood is stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, foiling the plots of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham who is attempting a power grab by both giving money to rival nobles and hopefully marrying Marion, who is the King’s cousin. Of course, the Sheriff loses, and Robin marries Marion, so he not only gets the girl, but also increases his status in society.
I’m rather tired of seeing Marion as both the damsel in distress and the “prize” at the end of the conflict. Marion is a noble, hell, she’s basically royalty, and I for one would love to see these female rulers actually, you know, rule, instead of simply waiting to get married so that then men can take care of the whole running the country thing. I furthermore don’t want Marion to simply be the strong woman who fights alongside with Robin’s noble plans. No, it would be nice to see Marion coming up with these plans on her own to protect her subjects. Maybe she pays Robin Hood and the Woodsmen to help thwart the Sheriff’s plot. Whatever the case, it would be nice to, for once, see a female leader actually actively lead her people and run her country (or serfdom, as the case may be) and do it well.
Of all the classic tales I’ve discussed today, Peter Pan has the most female characters, but some of the worst female representation. Peter Pan is about a flying boy from a magical place called Neverland who convinces Wendy and her two brothers to travel with him to Neverland so that Wendy can be their… mother… um yeah… and tell them all stories. Along the way they deal with the murderous pirate Captain Hook, who wants to kill Peter for feeding his hand to a crocodile that is now obsessed with eating him. That actually seems pretty justified, to tell you the truth.
Wendy, aside from being this weird mother-thing type to the male characters, is mostly just besotted with Peter and gets kidnapped a lot. Tinker Bell, our other main female character, seems to be an adult pixie who is in love with Peter Pan… a boy. I never noticed before how weird this story was until I really thought about it. Tinker Bell hates Wendy for stealing Peter from her and sells Peter out to Captain Hook. She later regrets this, especially since Hook tricks her and kidnaps her, but she is still shown as the typical spiteful, jealous, and over-emotional female character (the mermaids are portrayed the same way). As a child, I hated Wendy and Tinker Bell for these reasons. The female character I loved was Tiger Lily, the young Native American girl, who only had one line in the Disney version, a gargled “help.” Despite that she stands up to Hook, is willing to die for her friends, and is even the leader of her people.
I would love to see a re-telling of Peter Pan from the perspective of Tiger Lily, a young female ruler caught in the middle of a brawl between the Pirates and Peter Pan. I would love to see her maybe even mentoring those new to Neverland. A more complex Wendy would be great and some development of Tinker Bell’s character would be nice to help explain why she hangs around Peter Pan all the time. Surely faeries have other things to do.
Are there any classic stories you would like to see revamped into an awesome feminist tale? Let me know in the comments.
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I know this post is a couple of years old, but have you read Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson? That’s a retelling of Peter Pan about Tiger Lily 🙂
You might want to check out The Silver Codex series. The second book has a very different idea about Genesis, and who Lilith was in that universe.
I saw a wonderful video called “Hades and Persephone: What Really Happened” that portrays Demeter as the archetypal overprotective, overbearing mother. Hades doesn’t kidnap Persephone. Instead, he invites her to come with him. In the Underworld, Persephone has the most fun and the most freedom she has ever had in her life. But topside, Demeter is freaking out and turning the Earth into a barren wasteland. Persephone is conflicted because she and Hades have fallen in love. But she doesn’t want her mother to destroy the Earth on account of her. So Hades takes Persephone to a grove of pomegranate trees and tells her that the number of seeds that she eats will be the number of months she will stay with him each year. There are 12 months in a year, so Persephone eats six seeds. In this version of the story, Persephone isn’t Hades’ helpless victim, but instead is his willing–and very clever–accomplice.
I saw another video story with Christopher Eccleston as Hades and Billie Piper as Persephone. In this version of the story, Hades gives Persephone an all’s fair, heads up due warning about what she’s getting herself into if she consents to be his bride. (The images/dialogue were culled from “I am Diana”, “The Seeker”, “Mansfield Park”, and “The Raven”.)
“I don’t forget those who stand with me. Nor do I forget those who stand against me.” She will always be treated with all due deference and respect, because no on wants to get him angry. “I am the end of everything you see and now. I am the darkness that walks the Earth.” However, people will always look at her askance, and be uncomfortable around her. “But I can help you. Or I can make things very much worse. ” He can either be a staunch ally, or a formidable enemy.
So Persephone makes her choice. When Hades comes to fetch her, it starts to snow.
In this version of the story, Persephone does not go blindly skipping into the situation. Instead, Hades tells her upfront both the perks and the downsides of being with him On the plus side, she will always be treated with dignity and respect. On the downside, people will always be afraid of her, or at the very least uncomfortable. But then again, so is he. They’ll both be in the same boat. Like the couple who runs the funeral parlor.
The idea of Marian as a damsel in distress is a more recent one. Most people don’t know that in the old ballads, she was a warrior. In this story, she misses him so badly so disguises herself to find him. They battle it out (he is disguised too) but they both win when they find out their true identities. The modern feminist version of Robin Hood are simply going back to their roots. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch150.htm