Reading Grimm: It’s Always a Woman’s Fault

"Twelve Brothers" | Art by gentlemandeerlord. Used with permission.
You’d think if you learned your father wanted to kill you, you’d be a little upset with him.

But in the Grimms’ fairy tale, “The Twelve Brothers,” the boys aren’t mad at their dad when he builds twelve coffins in preparation for slaughtering his sons. For some reason, that’s what he decides to do if his thirteenth child is a girl, so that “her riches may be the greater, and the kingdom fall to her alone.”

Since their mom isn’t completely behind this plan, she warns them of their sister’s birth and they flee to an enchanted house in the woods and live there for ten years. The misogyny is clear—since they love their father, they’d rather blame the sister for being born. In fact, they’d rather blame all women, saying, “Shall we suffer death because of a girl! We swear to be revenged; wherever we find a girl we will shed her blood.”

The inequality doesn’t end there, though. After they meet her and let her live, her goodness is demonstrated through housekeeping and her ability to keep everything “beautifully white and clean” (if you remember from my last post on “The Maiden Without Hands,” cleanliness equals goodness). Then she decides to pick twelve lovely lilies to give to her brothers as presents, but upon plucking them her brothers are turned into ravens. Thus, their horrifying fate is her fault. Again.

You’d think if you learned your father wanted to kill you, you’d be a little upset with him.

In order to transform them back, she has to stay silent for seven years. In fairy tales, it’s always the women who have to stay silent and still (e.g. “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty”). And it’s always the men who are turned into animals (e.g. “The Princess and the Frog” and “Beauty and the Beast“). This can be considered a commentary on the attitudes towards male and female sexuality—women are idealized for their beauty, cleanliness or whiteness, and industriousness, while men are portrayed as animal-like in their sexuality. I can’t help but think of Diana in the recent Wonder Woman film, speaking up in the War Council to the incredulity of the male characters. Even one hundred years ago, women’s silence is the norm, and Diana smashing social expectations is beautiful.

The princess retreats up a tree and spins (don’t ask me how she gets a spinning wheel up there), wiling away years of exile doing a domestic activity. At some point, a king wanders by and decides to marry her. Because she’s beautiful. But she can’t defend herself against her mother-in-law’s accusation’s that she’s evil, so the king condemns her to death by fire.

As the flames are licking her dress, the brothers flock around her and transform. The seven years are up. She’s able to explain herself to the king and they live happily ever after. Oh, and the mother-in-law “was very unhappy, and died miserably,” because the queen almost burning to death was entirely her fault and the king was not to be blamed about believing lies with no proof. It’s always a woman’s fault, after all.

Allison Barron

Allison Barron

Commander at Geekdom House
Allison is like Galadriel, offering wisdom where needed but turning treacherous as the sea when competitive games are involved. She is the executive editor of Area of Effect magazine, co-host of the Infinity +1 podcast, and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. When she’s not writing, designing, or editing, she is often preoccupied in Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.
Allison Barron