Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fairy Tale Sisterhood

In Why sisters can't escape the Cinderella curse, columnist Leah McLaren discusses sister relationships, pulling material from Cinderella, Deborah Tannen's You Were Always Mom's Favourite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives and well-known sister pairs in pop culture. There isn't much about Cinderella, but the article reminded me of my own searches for strong sibling pairs in fairy tales over the years. My searches have been mostly unfruitful.

In many fairy tales, folklore and myths, the most successful pairings are of siblings of opposite genders, think Hansel and Gretel, Brother and Sister and others. There has even been a collection, The Barefoot Book of Brother and Sister Tales by Mary Hoffman, of positive brother and sister pairing tales which is now out-of-print.

On the other hand, when siblings of the same gender are presented, they are most often rivals. One of the few exceptions is Snow White and Rose Red which is more of literary origin than oral with very few variants. Most often we are given the good and bad girls like in Diamonds and Toads or the plucky third child (male or female) who triumphs--sometimes saving the lives of the other siblings--despite lack of support or esteem from the family. There aren't collections of positive sisters tales or brothers tales, by the way. Not that I've ever discovered. If I ever find enough to warrant a collection, I just compile one myself!

I credit some of Snow White and Rose Red's popularity to its rare celebration of sisterhood. Sisters embrace it. Mothers embrace it. I'm still surprised at the picture book version, Rose Red and the Bear Prince, which eliminates one of the most endearing elements of the tale--the sister! It tried to be feminist but for me failed in neglecting the power of sisterhood that is inherent in the tale.

Of course, there is also Twelve Dancing Princesses, but they are even less developed and are operating under a curse in some versions. A true sisterhood isn't really visible. Their limited interaction can even be rather hostile, such as when the youngest sister is ridiculed for sensing something isn't right.

Some of this stereotyping and story development comes from the demands of abbreviated storytelling, quick constructs are necessary to bring about opposition and conflict. However, it doesn't promote family harmony very well. And why are opposite gender pairs still portrayed so well overall while same genders are almost always rivals? How well do these constructs mirror reality?

I'm eight years older than my only sister and we've become friends as adults, but the age gap didn't lend itself towards too much outright rivalry over the years. Still, we share a bond that does not include our brother, one that is important to me.

And here's some modern thoughts on sister relationships from the article that inspired the post in the first place. From the article:

In her new book You Were Always Mom's Favourite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives, U.S. linguist Deborah Tannen looks at all aspects of sisterly communication, from the reverent to the rivalrous, and the effect it has on female sibs throughout their lives. Sisterhood is one of the closest human relations, she writes, but also one of the most fraught – marred as it so often is by the trap of Cinderella-style competition.

“Women's closeness often has to do with confidences, where as for men it's more often about doing things together,” she told me over the phone from her office in Washington, D.C. “Because many sisters tend to talk more often and for longer periods of time and about more personal topics than most brothers, you've got more opportunity to connect but also to say the wrong thing and step on toes. It's possible that, because sister relations are more complicated and fraught, it may make it harder to work together.”

So that's food for today's thoughts...


  1. Let us not forget Kate Crackernuts. They aren't even blood sisters!

    With brothers, it tends to be best if they are twins. Identical twins. Like The Two Brothers.

  2. I love those last 2 quoted paragraphs. The sentiments written there are very poignant, very telling.