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Prarthana Somaiah

Dr. Linda Haas


Writing 39B
16 February 2016
Perception of Women in 17th 19th Century Fairytales Compared to 21st Century
Fairytales
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman published in 2014 is a mash-up of the two
well-known fairy tales, Little Snow White (1812) and The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood
(1697), that portrays a very independent Snow White setting out on a quest to rescue Sleeping
Beauty and relieving the kingdom from the sleeping curse put upon the kingdom and Sleeping
Beauty. This curse was placed on the kingdom by an evil sorceress, however, it was broken when
Snow White kisses Sleeping Beauty, awakening her from the sleep. The Sleeper and the Spindle
illustrates the change in perspective of fairytales and the change in the portrayal of women
through time. In her book The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in Seventeenth-century England,
British historian Antonia Fraser states how in the 17th 19th century, A woman was regarded as
the weaker vessel (a phrase taken from the New Testament)a creature physically,
intellectually, morally and even spiritually inferior to a man; therefore, the man had a right to
dominate her (Fraser 1). Since literature reflects the ideas/beliefs of the time period, therefore
appealing to the general audience, female figures in fairy tales were portrayed as being clueless
and incapable of doing anything in 17th 19th century stories. For example, in Little Snow
White, Snow White is illustrated as a clueless princess since she constantly falls for the evil

stepmothers tricks and continuously takes the poisonous objects from the old woman. On the
other hand, In a study of extremely successful women in the United Kingdom [..] a majority of
the women [] displayed high-career centrality, worked continuously and either accommodated
their family responsibilities to their work lives or remained childless in order to succeed in their
organizations. (Womens Careers) This study depicts how women in the 21st century are more
independent and successful on their own terms. This portrayal of independent women can be
seen in The Sleeper and the Spindle due to the transition of time and the perception of women in
the 21st century. In order to depict this portrayal of women, Gaiman challenges the paradigms of
fairy tales and gender roles by writing within the expectations of the genre while simultaneously
deviating from its tenets. (Prescott 136) Neil Gaiman changed the use of the conventional male
hero archetype by using a female figure hero and the response to the function of trickery by the
villain expressed in The Sleeper and the Spindle to reflect the change in the perception of
women; how they were portrayed as submissive in earlier fairytales, to now empowered
individuals.
In The Sleeper and the Spindle, the hero of the story is not your typical prince, but instead
a queen who abandons her own wedding to go rescue a princess, representing modern portray of
the independence of women. The hero in a fairytale is the prominent character who comes to the
rescue when someone is in need, most of the time a princess or damsel in distress. The hero can
be aided by some magical force that will allow them to complete their quest and eventually
return home to claim their prize or return to the non-stop praise and glorification. A hero figure in
older fairy tales was predominantly men who came just in time to save the princess or damsel in
distress right after everything bad happened to them. In other words, after the victim has already
been struck down by the villain or has already been faced with the obstacle, the hero (male

figure) shows up. For example, in Little Snow White, after Snow White encounters and is hurt
by her evil stepmother and then eventually falls into a deep sleep, the Prince comes out from the
forest as she rests in a glass coffin and in the end wakes up after hitting her head. In this case, the
hero, the Prince, shows up after the villain has already done the damage and then comes to save
the day. Another example would be in the original version of Sleeping Beauty, the prince, the
hero, comes and sees Sleeping Beauty laying there and ends up sleeping with her before he
leaves back home to his wife. Once Sleeping Beauty wakes up with her two kids, she goes to the
kingdom only to be threatened by the wife, who tries to kill her and the children and feed it to the
prince. Later after Sleeping Beauty and the children and not harmed, the prince comes to know
and gets rid of the wife, therefore becoming the hero who saves Sleeping Beauty and his
children. The overall aspect of the hero in earlier fairytales is flawed in the sense that the male
hero doesnt really do anything that saves those in need, other than showing up in the end and
claiming their prize. The archetypal hero character in The Sleeper and the Spindle has quite a
different role that reflects how fairy tales have changed over time to illustrate current values and
attitudes. In this case, the hero of the story is a woman figure, portrayed as the queen Snow
White after she is rescued by the prince and is about the get married. When the queen hears about
how a kingdom is under distress and put under a sleeping spell, She called for a map of the
kingdom, identified the villages closest to the mountains, sent messengers to tell the inhabitants
to evacuate to the coast or risk royal displeasure. (Gaiman 171-172) This quote shows how
Snow White sets out on her quest to go save not only the princess, but also her kingdom. This act
demonstrates the initiative of the female figure, which was lacked in older fairy tales; therefore,
now portraying the idea of woman being able to stand up and go out to fight battles and
overcome obstacles. This illustrates the capability of women being able to take care of

themselves and are not clueless as depicted in older fairy tales. Another act that portrays the
independence of women in this story is when Snow White comes across a large thorn barrier in
front of the castle, so she has enough sense to burn down the bush in order to make her way up to
the castle. The old thorns burned so hot and so fast. In fifteen minutes orange flames snaked
upwards: [] then they were gone, leaving just blackened stone. The remaining thorns, those
strong enough to have withstood the heat, were easily cut through by the queens sword...
(Gaiman 366-369) This quote shows how Snow White was mindful enough to think of burning
down the bushes and thorns rather than trying to climb/cut through it like other princes did,
which she noticed by seeing all the skeletons in the thorns. Through this seen, one can observe
how now the hero in fairy tales portray a female figure, in this case a queen, going on a quest and
must overcome barriers along the way to rescue the victim, which is contrary to the hero figure
in the 17th 19th century fairy tales, which were mainly men, more specifically princes. This
gives an edge to females, showing their capabilities and how they do not need a male figure to be
submissive to. This sudden change in the portrayal of princesses in fairytales was because Neil
Gaiman stated I dont have a lot of patience for stories in which women are rescued by men.
Gaiman wants to empower women and especially because in modern day society, women are in
fact much more independent and just as smart as men. Their lives do not need to be dictated by
men because they have their own power and wit which allows them to act and think in the way
they feel they should. The message Gaiman was trying to portray to 21st century audience was
well received and understood. This comprehension can be seen in a review done on Childrens
Books in The Guardian where a reviewer states that, ... we can't forget the one thing which
made me adore this book the most! THE GIRL POWER. Who needs a Prince to wake you up
with a kiss whilst he parades around in his clinking armour, riding on his mighty pale steed?

Why can't a Queen, a beautiful and incredibly courageous young woman (one you might have
seen somewhere else before!) save the day? (Review)
Trickery is illustrated in The Sleeper and the Spindle, which is similar to 17th - 19th
century fairy tales, but the victims response to the trickery in this modern fairytale reiterates the
difference in the perception of women in 21st century fairy tales. The function of trickery occurs
when the villain tricks the hero or victim. The reason for trickery in a fairy tale is to show how at
a moment in time the villain has the upper hand and only can obtain that upper hand powerful
notion is by tricking someone. In other words, they arent capable of attaining power through
rightful and moral way, they can only attain it through deceitful ways. In the 17th 19th century,
trickery was used by the villain to trick the victim or hero in order to obtain something that they
had, in most cases beauty. For example, in Snow White, the villain character, the evil stepmother,
disguised herself as a poor old woman to trick Snow White into buying the poisonous objects
and ultimately the apple that put her in a deep sleep. The stepmother was able to trick Snow
White with precious yet poisonous objects, and Snow White constantly fell for it. You surely
may take a look, said the old woman, pulling out the poisoned comb and holding it up. The child
liked it so much that she let herself be deceived, and opened the door (Grimm). Through this
trickery, the stepmother was able to attain her sense of power by being the most beautiful of all
in the kingdom. The idea of trickery to attain beauty hasnt changed through time, because even
in 21st century fairy tales, female women still trick the princess because of their jealousy of their
beauty. In The Sleeper and the Spindle, the big plot twist and trickery that occurred was the evil
sorceress pretended to be Sleeping Beauty and she laid in the bed taking the dreams of the people
in the kingdom and year after year, sucking the beauty out of the real Sleeping Beauty. The real
Sleeping Beauty was forced to stay in the castle and grow into an old hag and watch as sorceress

slept, stealing the only things her people had left. The queen said, Its always the same with
your kind. You need youth and you need beauty. [] And you always want power. (Gaiman
438-440) The queen realizes that all the witch wanted was beauty for with beauty come power.
This idea has remained the same throughout time; the villain always wants the beauty of the
princesses because they feel as though has ultimate power if they are queen and beautiful. This
trickery as always remained apparent in older fairy tales, but the difference in the 21st century
fairy tales is how the victim responds to this trickery. In Little Snow White, after Snow White I
revived from the poisonous apple, she simply goes off to marry the prince without responding to
her evil stepmothers tricks. However, in Sleeper and the Spindle, Sleeping Beauty gets her
revenge by stabbing the witch with the spindle and taking away her magic as she dies. The tip
of the spindle was still sharp after so many decades. [] she thrust the point of the spindle into
the golden-haired girls breast. (Gaiman 466-467) The fact that that Sleeping Beauty got her
revenge for this trickery and lifetime of misery shows that modern day women are not
defenseless and can/willing to fight back. They are not only sweet innocent little girls, but they
do have another side to them that they can trigger when they need to. Another 21st century
example is seen in Maleficent when the fairy Maleficent is tricked by a poor farmer boy and his
true love; therefore, taking her revenge when the opportunity presented itself. Gaiman
incorporated this different response of the princess to the trickery to portray the difference
between the perspective of women in earlier centuries compared to the image of modern day
women. Therefore, in 21st century fairy tales, it illustrates how the female princess victims of
trickery done by the villain, actually have a backbone and will respond to the trickery instead of
standing aside and be submissive. Because of this, Gaiman portrays Sleeping Beauty as a fighter
who wouldnt put up with such trickery and evil; she was able to fight back and finally free her

people. All in all, the idea of trickery used hasnt changed much throughout time (craving
beauty), but the function has changed in the sense of the response to that trickery; which changed
so the conventions used reflect current audience and society.
To conclude, literature has allowed its readers a glimpse of what societal expectations,
including towards gender was like during the time of the literary work. (Females in 16th and
21th Century) Fairy tales have changed throughout time to fit the audience in which it was
written, and in The Sleeper and the Spindle, the changes occurred within the genre conventions
such as hero archetype and the victims response to the function of trickery in the story. Through
these conventions, Gaiman depicted how the perception of women in fairy tales has changed
over time and how in 21st century fairy tales, women are seen as being more empowered and
determined rather than innocent and submissive.

Works Cited
Fraser, Antonia. The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in Seventeenth-century England. London:
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984. Print.
Gaiman, Neil. The Sleeper and the Spindle. Kindle ed. N.p.: HarperCollins, 2014. Print.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. "Little Snow-White." Grimm 053:. N.p., 1812. Web.
24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm053.html>.
Hannah. "The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman - Review." The Guardian. Guardian
News and Media, 24 Dec. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.

<http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/dec/24/review-neil-gaiman-thesleeper-and-the-spindle>.
Harris, Anita. Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-first Century. New York: Routledge,
2004. Print.
Ilim. "Females in the 16th and 21st Century: Gender Perception in Literature." Females in the
16th and 21st Century: Gender Perception in Literature. Evolution and Literature, 20
Apr. 2007. Web. 16 Feb. 2016. <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/392>.
O'Neil, Deborah A., Margaret M. Hopkins, and Diana Bilimoria. "Womens Careers at the Start
of the 21st Century: Patterns and Paradoxes." Journal of Business Ethics 80.4 (2008):
727-43. Web. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10551-007-9465-6#/page-5>.
Prescott, Tara, and Aaron Ducker. "Feminism in the Worlds of Neil Gaiman." Google Books.
N.p., 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://books.google.com/books?
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