Published on September 22nd, 2016 | by Anita Manderfield5
A Brothers Grimm Consent Training: ANITA MANDERFIELD on Raising a Feminist on Fairy Tales
I’ve been feeding our preschooler’s morbid tendencies by reading her more-or-less original versions of Brothers Grimm tales. Despite the gory details, I prefer them to sanitized contemporary rewrites. Little kids (at least mine) get violence. And providing only candy-coated images of life, love, and justice may confuse or alienate. (I worry more about how often heroes revive from death. That and all the child brides.)
Either way, our daughter avidly “loves the scary,” and she seems to lose no sleep over the grotesqueries that survive my light edits.
Because, yes, sometimes I do filter (and not just by adding a decade to the heroines’ ages and giving them a say about their bridegrooms). I mean, ok: Cinderella’s step-sisters sliced off heel and toe to fit into the glass slipper. I’ll let that through. But does the girl also have to hear about Cinderella’s birdie-friends plucking her sisters’ eyes out at her actual wedding? What kind of a party is this?
But there’s one change I’ve changed my mind about. It has to do with “The Frog King” (a.k.a. “The Princess and the Frog.”)
A young princess drops her golden ball down a well, then she makes a deal with a frog/enchanted prince in return for his recovery of the ball. Know the one? Pop quiz:
How does the princess turn the frog back into a prince?
- She kisses him.
- She shares her bed with him.
- She hurls him against a wall in fury to avoid sharing her bed with him.
You’d be forgiven for choosing option a., after all, “you have to kiss a lot of frogs,” right? Wrong. You have to attempt literal murder through arm-propelled mural collision.
Here’s the thing: the frog explicitly outlines in his terms for retrieving the princess’s golden ball that he be allowed to sleep in her bed, along with being “loved,” taken as “companion and playmate,” and allowed to dine beside her, eat from her plate, and drink from her cup.
And here’s the other thing: the princess is a deceitful, spoiled punk. She agrees to the frog’s terms disingenuously, ditches him once she gets hers, and spends the rest of the story whining about how icky he is.
When the frog shows up at the palace, her father the King commands his daughter to keep her word and share her grub, because, in addition to the value of a promise, “you shouldn’t despise someone who has helped you when you were in trouble.”
But, once the frog tries to redeem his access to the mattress, the princess gets fed up and goes the way of Big Dan Teague in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.” To her great surprise, when he falls, her disgusting amphibian is transformed into a prince with “beautiful, smiling eyes,” long under a wicked enchantment, which only she could break. They fall in love and hop in bed (really), then get married, too (even though she’s like nine years old, whatever).
We want kids to follow through on their promises, right? If they say they are going to clean their room if they get that ice cream cone, they better put out. The first time I read this version to my daughter, so ill-disposed was I toward the petulant princess that I changed the ending to: “so the princess threw the frog in disgust, with all her might — but at that very moment, a goodly maidservant entered her bed chamber, caught the frog, and kissed him in sympathy. This caused the frog to transform into a prince with beautiful, smiling eyes. He then proposed marriage to the maidservant, who accepted and thus became queen in place of the princess.” The end.
My daughter was irate. Having identified thoroughly with the princess’ childlike duplicity, possessiveness over her bed, and brutal little fit, she couldn’t abide the goody-two-shoes usurpation by some anonymous serf.
And, you know? The more I think about it, the more I completely agree. Because the importance of consent—its temporality, flexibility, and sacred nature—must always trump the ethics of simply “abiding” by commitments.
I mean, I still think the girl behaved badly: accepting terms she had no intention of fulfilling and then treating her helper like dirt once she got what she wanted. But does that mean he has sovereign right to her affections and her bed?
I will never teach my daughter that, having promised to “love” or “sleep with” someone, she’s not allowed to change her mind.
Such intimate agreements can be given and later withdrawn. Suffice to say that nothing — neither her golden vow, nor some “king’s” paternal command, nor even a genuine lack of virtue or integrity on her part — merits any slimy suiter’s violation of her, or anyone’s, bed.
I’ve come to see that this princess, despite her faults, behaves in exemplary fashion when she forcibly expels the intruder from her bed, and so deserves her reward. I’ve even come to appreciate the princess’ moral failings. Because my daughter knows it’s wrong to lie, break promises, and scorn helpfulness, but she should also know that such shortcomings never forfeit her consent. She always has the right to say “no.”
In fact, in a situation like this, she even has the right to throw the rascal out, screaming (as does the Grimm princess): “Now you will have your peace, you disgusting frog!”
In so doing, I hope either she’ll free herself from a distasteful creature with entitlement issues, or, just maybe, she’ll find that rare prince willing to transform. After all, it took rejection for Grimm’s disgraced frog to find his princely nature. Maybe he’ll come to respect her limits and evolve more honorable intentions. You know, like not trying to buy her love and access to her bed by simply returning her own property to her.
Of course, even then, she owes him exactly zero ni-night-time love, “beautiful, smiling eyes” or not. Because, when it comes to her heart and her bed, every girl deserves her peace.