In classic fairy tales, the main character is, more often than not, a female figure. She is usually innocent, sweet, and beautiful, and the tale revolves around her. Beneath this surface, however, one can see many different depictions of female figures in fairy tales. Fairy tales evolve over time through different versions told by different authors, and “Rapunzel” is no exception. One of the very first renditions of the tale appeared as a short story by the Italian writer Giambattista Basile, published in 1637. However, the story did not gain popularity until after 1857, the year it was published by The Brothers Grimm. This later version differed from its predecessor because of its depiction of females as weak and helpless, reflecting society’s concrete view of gender roles at the time in which it written. The story essentially evolved from Basile’s neutral standpoint to a misogynistic tale that is the most common version of “Rapunzel” today. The Grimms’ version of “Rapunzel” was also the first to be targeted to children. Therefore, their rendition continued to gain popularity as it was passed from one generation’s children to the next, which contributed to how it became the most well-known version of the story. Attempts at eliminating the gender bias present in the Grimms’ version and restoring the original tale through modern retellings of the story have been made, and one of these attempts is the Disney film Tangled. However, these efforts ultimately fail since society is most comfortable with the version they know so well, which includes the use of heroic male characters and weak females. In the version of “Rapunzel” by The Brothers Grimm, the reader is ultimately taught that women are nothing without men. This is not an accurate or appropriate representation of females, but this version’s success suggests that it is a concept that society continues to support today.
Giambattista Basile’s early version of “Rapunzel” is almost completely neutral in the way it depicts both genders equally. Even though the prince is a crucial part of the story in leading Parsley [Rapunzel] to happiness, Parsley is at least given power through traits of wit and skill, as Basile displays in a scene where Parsley fights the evil ogress herself: “But Parsley, recollecting the gallnuts, quickly threw one on the ground, and lo! instantly a Corsican bulldog started up, -- a terrible beast! -- which with open jaws and barking loud flew at the ogress as if to swallow her at a mouthful” (Basile). This fearless ambition and sense of self in the main character is something that is not replicated in later versions of “Rapunzel.” This is truly one of the only versions of the tale in which gender stereotypes are not a noticeable part of the story, and in that sense, it can be considered the most progressive version despite being one of the oldest. This irony is also noticed by critic Terry Windling, who writes, “The emphasis on love and romance in their stories can seem quaint and saccharine today, but such stories were progressive, even subversive, in the context of the time” (2). However, one can see that all neutrality completely disappears as ideas of stereotypical gender roles were implemented into The Grimm Brothers’ publication of “Rapunzel” in 1857.
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