The Princesses’ Emancipation – Jeanette Winterson’s Rewriting of The Twelve Dancing Princesses in Sexing the Cherry

Term Paper, 2007

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 The story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses
2.1 An (unsuccessful) attempt at emancipation from patriarchy
2.2 The original and Winterson’s rewriting

3 The princesses’ emancipation inSexing the Cherry
3.1 The role of violence
3.2 From heterosexuality to lesbian love

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

“[A]s it says [we] lived happily ever after. We did, but not with our husbands” (SC[1]48). By this surprising statement, the twelve dancing princesses introduce themselves in Jeanette Winterson’s novelSexing the Cherry. The main character Jordon, willing to discover the mysterious world of women, gets to know the individual story of every princess and is confronted with their different destinies. Unlike traditional fairy tales, these princesses have decided against life with their royal husbands, but freed themselves from patriarchal restrictions.

In this term paper I want to discuss the rewriting ofThe Twelve Dancing PrincessesinSexing the Cherry. Special attention will be paid on the princesses’ individual development after marriage. I am going to support my thesis that the rewriting of the fairy tale describes a process of emancipation from stereotypical passive female roles towards female self-determination. This process includes the use of violence and a questioning of heterosexuality as well as an explicit turn towards different types of sexuality, e.g. homosexuality/lesbianism.

I will not only focus on Winterson’s novel, but also on the original Grimm’s tale, that will be looked at from a feminist point of view. A comparison of the fairy tale and Winterson’s version prefaces the analysis of the rewriting from the two important aspects of violence and homosexuality.

2 The story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses

The Twelve Dancing Princessesis the 113. fairy the tale in the Grimm collectionKinder- und Hausmärchen. An alternative title according to the German original isThe Worn-out Dancing Shoes. The fairy tale tells the story of a king and his twelve daughters. Although the father locks the room carefully, the princesses escape from their bedroom every night and return in the morning with worn-out shoes. Innumerable suitors try to disclose the secret, but they fail and lose their lives as punishment. Only an old wounded soldier manages, with magic help, to follow the princesses to an underground castle where they dance with twelve princes. In return for his success, the king allows the soldier to marry on of his daughters and because of his own age, he takes the oldest.

2.1 An (unsuccessful) attempt at emancipation from patriarchy

Fairy tales have been an effective instrument to maintain and strengthen patriarchal ideology (cf. Gonzáles 289). Nevertheless, Gonzáles points out, that “the tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses can easily be read from a feminist point of view” (Gonzáles 289). The mindful reader of the fairy tale might recognise an attempt at emancipation from patriarchy, which is in the end – to comply the patriarchal rules finally – unsuccessful.

At the beginning we are faced with stereotypical role models that can be found in almost every fairy tale. On the one hand there is the king as superior of his empire and his daughters. The princesses, on the other hand, are described as very beautiful (What else..?), but experience no individual attention at all: “They slept together in a large room, where their beds stood side by side” (WDS[2]432). As Wehse describes “handelt es sich bei der Prinzessin nicht um einen individuell gezeichneten Charakter…sondern um eine stark typisierte Person” (Wehse 9). The king tries to keep his daughters under his patriarchal control by locking their room in the evening, as if they were prisoners. But what does he fear them to do? Often, keeping young girls away from society until they are marriageable was a kind of indication ritual that can be found in many fairytales (cf. Wehse 15). Possibly, the king wants to avoid that the princesses come in any kind of unmeant (sexual) contact with men. Loosing their virginity before marriage would bring social exclusion about. The king has to prevent this, if he wants to marry his daughters to adequate suitors. Discovering the princesses’ worn-out shoes in the morning is so much the worse for the king: Obviously, the girls defy the patriarch and escape their confinement.

What happens in the girls’ chamber at night? They climb down to an underground castle and dance with twelve princes until their shoes are worn-out in the morning. These circumstances allow different interpretations. An interesting aspect is that the girls gounderground. This could stand for the examination of their subconscious minds, maybe their wish for (sexual) self-determination that is oppressed by the patriarch[3]. Before their descent, they bedizen, dress up with “splendid clothes” (WDS433) and “[groom] themselves in front of their mirrors” (WDS433). The princesses want to be extraordinary attractive as they meet twelve princes of their own choice in the underground castle. They are having extramarital affairs that are of course not authorised by their father. This is palpably an attempt at emancipation. The excessive dancing with the men until the shoes are worn-out could stand for something even more “outrageous”: The princesses are having passionate sexual intercourse to (multiple?) orgasm with the twelve princes.

Doubtlessly, the king can not tolerate this and has to put them under patriarchal control again. The old soldier reveals the scenes at the underground castle and betrays the princesses to the king. “When they saw that they had been exposed and that denying would not help, they had to confess everything” (WDS434). The princesses are resigning immediately, accepting their fate, which is disappointing, as they seemed so emancipated and smart. At the end the twelve princesses are again under the rule of their father and the oldest is married to the soldier, who is now replacing her father. “Die Tochter ist dann ihres eigenen Willens beraubt, Spielball anderer” (Wehse 14). We do not get to know what happens to the eleven sisters – are they going to be married as well, or are they socially ruined after their nocturnal faux pas? The moral of the fairy tale is clear: Female contumaciousness will be discovered and cut off by the patriarch sooner or later and might have serious consequences for the woman’s life. The story “portrays a male spy outwitting and foiling women’s attempt to free themselves from patriarchal control and lead their own lives” (Palmer 185). A warning is given to young girls: Always obey your father and the male in general – and of course avoid sexual contact before marriage!

2.2 The original and Winterson’s rewriting

Apart from the fact that Winterson endows every of the twelve princesses an individual post-marital life, which is discussed in the next chapter, some other differences between the original fairy tale and the rewriting can be found. The most striking feature is, that the story is told by the princesses themselves, which would not be possibly in traditional fairy tales, which were (at least officially) told and written by males. Whereas in the Grimm’s version the princesses go downstairs to an underground castle, Winterson’s princesses choose another route: “Every night, we flew to a silver city where no one ate or drank. The occupation of the people was to dance” (SC48). The flying out of the window stands as metaphor for escaping the moralities and rules of the patriarchal society. Flying away means freedom for the night, when the princesses can enjoy themselves. In the novel they are not meeting twelve specified princes. “We joined in the dancing and the merriment until dawn” (SC110). Fun und fulfilment are not bound to male company in Winterson’s rewriting. Finally, the princesses’ happiness is not destroyed by an old soldier, but by “the youngest prince, a cunning fellow” (SC111) who discloses their secret. In doing so, he does not need magical help like the soldier in the fairy tale, but only his cleverness. And it comes even worse for the sisters: The prince has eleven brothers and all twelve princesses have to marry one of them. This resembles a kind of “mass processing”. The king trifles with his daughters as if they were just cattle that is given to a new possessor. Here, the humiliation that women experience within patriarchy, is made clear.


[1]Quotations fromSexing the Cherryare marked with brackets containing the abbreviationSC.

[2]Quotations fromThe Worn-out Dancing Shoesare marked with brackets containing the abbreviationWDS.

[3]According to Freud’s theory, the father could stand for the “super-ego” of the princesses, whereas the wish for going underground represents the “it”.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Princesses’ Emancipation – Jeanette Winterson’s Rewriting of The Twelve Dancing Princesses in Sexing the Cherry
University of Erfurt
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ISBN (eBook)
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382 KB
Princesses’, Emancipation, Jeanette, Winterson’s, Rewriting, Twelve, Dancing, Princesses, Sexing, Cherry
Quote paper
Mandy Busse (Author), 2007, The Princesses’ Emancipation – Jeanette Winterson’s Rewriting of The Twelve Dancing Princesses in Sexing the Cherry, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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