Grim Fairy Tales: A Feminist Analysis on Rape and Abuse in Popular Fairy Tales

2 years ago, I wrote a 10 page long senior thesis. It was an idea I had in my mind for some time and I had finally put to paper. I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner, but I’m glad I did.


Fairy tales are meant to entertain children. Little girls are especially drawn to stories about a damsel in distress or a prince rescuing and later marrying the heroine in the story. The idea of the underdog overcoming adversity appeals to general audiences; but how often do parents think of rape or other forms of abuse when reading “Sleeping Beauty” to their children? In some of the most popular fairy tales, the themes of rape and abuse—physical, sexual, emotional and psychological—are prevalent. As most fans of Grimms’ Fairy Tales may know, some of our favorite stories have dark origins, unlike the sweet and syrupy stories retold by the Disney franchise. If the readers were to pick apart the following stories piece by piece, they may find that there is more to these fairy tales than what is presented to them.

The story of “Sleeping Beauty” is a favorite among young girls because of the prince waking the titular character with a kiss. However, an alternate version of this story—Giambattista Basile’s “Sun, Moon, and Talia”—has a much darker tone. His is not a tale of romance between a maiden and a besotted prince, but rather of a King raping and impregnating an unconscious girl. After many trials and tribulations—including the young girl’s rape and involuntary pregnancy—Talia marries her rapist. As outrageous as it sounds, this tale includes a condescending proverb:

Those whom fortune favors
Find good luck even in their sleep. (Basile, “Sun, Moon, and Talia”)

It can be assumed that a rape victim’s good fortune comes in the form of wedding the rapist, particularly if said rapist is of noble blood. The story presents an attitude about rape victims that may be cultural, if not biblical or personal. According to Deuteronomy 22:28-29, “if a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives” (New International Version Bible, Deu. 22.28-29). This biblical passage makes reference to a rapist marrying his victim. Such is the case in “Sun, Moon, and Talia.” In the end, the victim marries her rapist and raises her children with him. Other cultures adhere to this practice. Often, a woman will be coerced into marrying her attacker because her honor has been destroyed, as well as the honor of her family. This is also grants the rapist a chance to escape punishment. The king in “Sun, Moon, and Talia” does not receive any punishment for his actions toward the titular character; rather, she receives the punishment by being made to marry the man who raped her. The story has her befriending her rapist once he tells her what has taken place and telling his wife what he did to her in her sleep. Although the story gives the impression that Talia and her children found their “happily ever after,” a woman being forced to wed her rapist does not find happiness. The ending proverb is patronizing to women and in general all rape and abuse victims. On top of being raped and impregnated by this king, his wife does not believe her when she tells of her plight. “Sun, Moon, and Talia” shows that not only can a man take sexual advantage of a young girl, but that she will never be believed.  Talia knows what happened to her is not her fault and tells the queen that “the king her (the queen’s) husband had taken possession of her territory when she was drowned in sleep” (Basile, “Sun, Moon, and Talia”).

Rape is not the only issue a fairy tale fan will take notice of. Although elements of rape ­­are visible in Basile’s version of “King Thrushbeard,” in general, the primary theme involves emotional and psychological abuse. However, in the case of the princess of the story, two men in her life exert control over her, leaving her to be treated as a second-class citizen. The Brothers’ Grimm portrays the protagonist in “King Thrushbeard” as a woman who is “so proud and haughty that no man who came to woo her was good enough for her.” (26) In the process of insulting each man her father has invited to their home, she comes across an un named king. The Brothers Grimm describe the king as possessing a chin which is “a little hooked” and “like the beak of a thrush”; hence the new moniker, “King Thrushbeard.” (26) This prompts her father to decide to give her in marriage to the next beggar that passes their window. The following day, a beggar passes by while playing his lute and singing for the royal family. Against the wishes of the princess, the king gives her to the beggar. Here is where the abuse makes an appearance. Forced marriage is a form of abuse, not only sexually—any sexual contact that occurs within such a marriage is tantamount to rape—but emotionally, psychologically and physically. The goal of the story is to break down a woman so that she is a shell of her former self in order to accept a man who was not of her liking. The king may view forcibly marrying his daughter off to a beggar as a punishment for her previous behavior; in truth, this is a way of regaining the control he may have lost the evening his daughter insulted each of the guests. The “beggar”—King Thrushbeard in disguise—is using his ruse in order to further punish this proud princess for ridiculing him. What each man considers his own “punishment” is more of an attack on the woman’s psyche.

Emotional abuse is defined as “any behavior that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, and verbal or physical assaults.” (“Emotional Abuse”) Aggression is a form of emotional abuse, as well as criticizing, blaming, threatening and ordering. Such abusive experiences are outlined in both the Brothers Grimms’ version of “King Thrushbeard” and the Italian version, titled “The Crumb in the Beard.” Grimms’ version of the story has the princess being forced to sell earthenware at the market, only to have her wares destroyed by a passing Hussar, and later admonished by her husband. It appears as though he expects the impossible and shows anger when she cannot produce results. In a similar situation, the princess on “The Crumb in the Beard”—now named Stella—also weds a man she scorned. This man has also taken on a disguise; the difference is that she chooses to marry this man. However, in addition to having been subjected to emotional abuse, she is threatened with physical abuse. Her faux husband demands she steal two shirts from the palace where he intends for her to work. When she refuses to commit theft, he threatens “do what I say or I shall beat you.” (“The Crumb in the Beard”) The fear Stella experiences prompts her to follow the orders of her seemingly brutish husband. Throughout the story, her “husband” insists on her committing theft for their survival while seemingly not lifting a finger to contribute to their household. Each time she is discovered and threatened with imprisonment by the prince—her false husband’s true identity—only to be released; the routine is repeated daily until he reveals himself to her. Threats of violence are enough for her to do as he demands. Although neither the Brothers Grimm nor the author of “The Crumb in the Beard” will openly admit this, but the story of “King Thrushbeard” appears to promote domestic violence. According to contributor Lauren Romano, domestic violence causes low self esteem, in which “the abusers often try to make their victims feel as though they are ugly and worthless. The victim can feel like he (or she) is nothing.” (Romano, “Effects of Domestic Violence”) In both versions of “King Thrushbeard,” the protagonists are made to feel as if they are indeed worthless and placed in precarious situations that put them in a fearful state. The princess is afraid to return home when her pottery is destroyed because of the potential reaction from her husband. He does, in fact, express his anger in a most frightening manner when his wife weeps over the destruction of her wares. “Who would ever think of sitting at the corner of the market with crockery? Stop that crying. I see you are no manner of use for any decent kind of work.” (30) The emotional abuse the beggar heaps upon the downtrodden princess could easily lead to physical abuse, as he is minimizing her emotions by demanding she cease her crying.

Although this is the king in disguise, it appears as though his behavior as the beggar is his way of alerting the princess to his true nature without removing his mask. Even after revealing his true identity as the king she spurned, the princess still falls in love with him. It is almost as if she has forgotten the emotional and psychological abuse she has suffered in such a short time. Emotional abuse has a way of breaking one’s spirit and leaving them with very little of themselves. The princess in “King Thrushbeard” and Stella in “The Crumb in the Beard” have learned that they are not valued in the eyes of the men in their lives and are not worthy of love and respect. If these stories teach nothing else, it’s that women can be “tamed” as an animal or broken down. The men in the story take on the “because I can” attitude towards these women. The father of the princess marries her off against her will “because he can,” and the false beggar husband abuses her “because he can.”

In his book “Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk & Fairy Tales,” author Jack Zipes observes that there is “an increase of human emancipation in the fairy tale” and that “one marvels at the tightly-knit aesthetic composition and clear purpose of folk tales which allow for “happy” and “beautiful” resolutions.”  (69) While many stories do involve the protagonist or deuteragonist seeking and receiving redemption and emancipation, many stories do not. Grimms’ tale “Rumpelstiltskin” involves a woman seeking assistance from a supernatural being. The young woman is the daughter of a boastful miller, who claims his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king takes interest and forces the girl, on pain of death, to spin an entire room of straw into gold. Three times he makes this demand; the third time he tells the girl “this must you spin tonight into gold, but if you succeed, you shall become my Queen.” (125) The miller’s daughter is never consulted on her feelings on the matter; rather, she is threatened into compliance based on her father’s fabrication. In order to make himself out to be more than just the average miller, the man lies to the king and puts his daughter in jeopardy.

Once again, consider the definition of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is “any behavior that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, and verbal or physical assaults.” (“Emotional Abuse”) The king’s atrocious behavior towards the miller’s daughter is his way of exercising his authority over his victim. In order to satisfy his greed, he threatens a poor, unsuspecting woman with death, causing her to resort to practically selling her soul. Just as in King Thrushbeard, the two primary men in the girl’s life have let her down; her father, who boosts his own ego by lying about his daughter’s abilities; and the king, whose gold lust prompts him to threaten the girl “if between tonight and tomorrow at dawn you have not spun this straw into gold, you must die.” (124) This emotional and psychological attack has the girl thinking in survival mode. A secondary character, Rumpelstiltskin, also poses a threat to the woman. As payment for his assistance, she is forced to give a piece of herself, until all she has left is her undetermined future. The necklace and the ring could represent her innocence, which she finds she has to relinquish if she wants to escape death from another man who wants to possess her. She too is the victim of abuse on all sides and finds that there really isn’t anyone who can help her. Even the titular character is less than helpful.

However, there is a flip side to the situation. Suppose the readers were to look at the story of “Rumpelstiltskin” in an alternate reality. The miller’s daughter is being forced to spin straw into gold with the threat of death looming over her head. Author Rosemarie Kunzler contributes a feminist take on how “Rumpelstiltskin” should have concluded. After having spun two rooms of straw into gold, now with the threat of a forced marriage hanging over her, the girl is visited by Rumpelstiltskin. This time, he demands she hand over her first born. Instead of agreeing to the terms, the reality of the situation “made her open her eyes;” she now comes to the conclusion that could “never marry this horrible king. I’d never give my child away.” (203) The miller’s daughter escapes the castle and goes on with her life. That would certainly be considered a happily ever after. The heroine is not forced to marry a brutish king, she does not return to a father who would place his daughter in a precarious situation in order to boost his ego in front of the king, and a demon does not gain possession of her first born. Unfortunately, the Grimm brothers were not so kind to the maiden in their tale.

The miller’s daughter faces emotional, psychological—with the threat of physical—abuse on all sides. However, there is one other way of viewing the situation. Author Richard Tchen explores the story of “Rumpelstiltskin” from a psychological point of view. The miller’s daughter is actually the daughter is actually the offspring of the demon Rumpelstiltskin, who was transformed into the evil being after stealing a magic spinning wheel from an old woman. The woman he was to marry is already pregnant with his child and she refuses to marry him, choosing to wed a tailor instead. After dying in childbirth, the daughter is raised by her now abusive, drunken step-father. According to the original story, he boasts of her ability to spin straw into gold, and Rumpelstiltskin comes to help his daughter. Of course, he demands his daughter’s first born as the ultimate payment; this demand is his way of seeking revenge on the girl’s family for turning their back on him. The girl guesses his name and she keeps her child, but “lives in a sado-masochistic marriage with the king,” which can be true, since the king threatened the girl with death early on. (223-4) The story of Rumpelstiltskin is, as Zipes describes, sado-masochistic in nature, as the girl is forced into an impossible situation but marries the same king who threatened her life on two occasions. In each telling of the story, the girl is a damsel in distress who never is rescued, but left to fend for herself in the company of an emotionally and psychologically abusive king; a demon who demands a piece of herself three times; and a father who is willing to send his daughter into the wilderness unprotected.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s versions of “King Thrushbeard,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and

Giambattista Basile’s telling of “Sun, Moon, and Talia” involves women who are victims of circumstances forced upon them. The women in each story are broken down slowly and methodically until there is hardly anything left of their original selves. The princess in “King Thrushbeard” may have been “proud and haughty,” but she was confident in herself and self-assured of her abilities; (26) Talia was a happy and well-adjusted woman until she was rendered unconscious by the splinter of flax and raped; and the miller’s daughter was presumably content with an everyday life—with the exception of Tchen’s retelling—until she was thrown into an abusive situation with no way out of it. Unfortunately, stories which are meant to entertain children are not necessarily the sweet, Disney stories parents envision for their little girls. The only lessons a young girl will take from these three stories is that the only thing they are expected to accomplish in this life is to find a rich man to marry; they may also be expected to put up with a man’s abuse if only to maintain the status quo. The kings and fathers in these stories are not above striking—or making the threat to do so—in order to gain control over the women they claim to love and honor. These kings and fathers are presented to the readers as men of honor, good moral standing and dignity; men that young boys ought to aspire to be. However, the men are far from that; they are no better than the rapist on the street. The nameless king in “Sun, Moon, and Talia” takes advantage of an unconscious girl and impregnates her. The story later has the pair becoming friends and later husband and wife. The fathers in “King Thrushbeard” and “Rumpelstiltskin” sell their daughters out for their own self-serving purposes. The king in the former seeks to punish his daughter by forcing her to marry a man she does not want; the father in “Rumpelstiltskin” wants to be seen as something greater than he really is. In the process, each father has proven himself to be less of a man and poor excuses of fathers to their daughters. The kings in all of the stories are abusive men who take advantage of the women they claim to desire simply because of their station. Since the rapist in “Sun, Moon, and Talia” is a king, he believes he can rape a woman who cannot fight back and get away with it. Ultimately, he does get away with it, and does not face punishment of any kind. Sadly, there is no redemption for the women in the three stories. None of them are rescued by kindly saviors; they are pulled away from safety or thrown into danger by brutish men in their own households. The point in this research is to take a deeper look into these stories and see what the tale is really about, and to see the story from the point of view of the authors. On the surface, the readers see a romantic tale of a prince awaking a princess with a kiss; a king who wins over a rude princess with trickery; or a miller’s daughter who wins out in the end after marrying a king and outsmarting a demon. As entertaining as these stories are, there is always more to the story than meets the eye. If one were to pick apart each story piece by piece, one might see that the authors did not hold women in the highest regard. Basile gives the readers the impression that he advocates rape and that instead of seeking justice, rape victims ought to marry their rapists; the brothers Grimm encourage their male readers to behave boorishly towards their female counterparts under the misconception that the women will accept their behavior.