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The Feminine in Fairy Tales: A Synthesis of Marie-Louise von Franz’s seminal Book

The Feminine in Fairy Tales Author: Marie-Louise von Franz

“The Feminine in Fairy Tales” by Marie-Louise von Franz is a comprehensive exploration of the role of women and the feminine archetype in fairy tales. The book delves into the origins, symbolism, and hidden meanings of these timeless stories, providing a fresh perspective on the representation of women and the feminine in the genre. By dissecting the cultural, historical, and psychological aspects of these tales, von Franz illustrates how they have shaped societal perceptions of femininity.

  1. Origins and Evolution of Fairy Tales

Von Franz discusses the historical context of fairy tales and their development over time. She notes that these stories were initially oral traditions, passed down through generations and adapted to reflect cultural and social changes (Warner, 2016). As women were often the primary storytellers in these oral traditions, they played a significant role in the evolution and dissemination of fairy tales. Von Franz emphasizes that although fairy tales evolved and transformed, the portrayal of women in these narratives remained deeply ingrained in societal expectations of femininity (Tatar, 1999).

  1. The Feminine Archetypes

Von Franz identifies various feminine archetypes prevalent in fairy tales, which have been deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious (Jung, 1959). These archetypes include:

a. The Maiden: Young, innocent, and often passive, the maiden is a symbol of purity and potential. She is frequently the protagonist in fairy tales, such as Cinderella or Snow White.

b. The Mother: This nurturing figure represents fertility, warmth, and wisdom. She is often portrayed as a loving and selfless caregiver, as seen in the character of the Fairy Godmother.

c. The Crone: The crone represents wisdom, transformation, and the cycle of life. She is typically portrayed as an elderly woman with supernatural powers, such as the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

d. The Enchantress: A mysterious and seductive figure, the enchantress represents the darker aspects of femininity, such as manipulation and deceit. Examples include the evil queen in Snow White and the stepmother in Cinderella.

  1. The Passive Female Protagonist

Von Franz critiques the passive portrayal of female protagonists in many fairy tales. She argues that this depiction perpetuates the stereotype of women as submissive and dependent, awaiting rescue or validation from male figures (Lieberman, 1972). In stories such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the female protagonist is often portrayed as a victim who must be saved by a prince. Von Francke suggests that these portrayals reinforce the idea that women’s primary roles are to be beautiful, passive, and in need of protection.

  1. The Duality of Femininity

Von Franz explores the concept of duality in the portrayal of women in fairy tales. She highlights how female characters are often depicted as either pure and virtuous or evil and cunning, with little room for complexity or nuance. This binary categorization, von Franz argues, perpetuates harmful stereotypes about women and limits the potential for more complex representations of femininity (Stone, 1975).

  1. The Power of Transformation

Despite the limitations imposed on female characters in fairy tales, von Franz acknowledges the power of transformation as a recurring theme in these stories. She notes that many fairy tales feature women who undergo significant personal growth and development, often through the process of overcoming adversity. This transformation can be physical, emotional, or spiritual, and von Franz suggests that it symbolizes the innate resilience and adaptability of women (Bettelheim, 1989).

  1. Women as Agents of Change

Marie-Louise von Franz explores the ways in which women in fairy tales can act as agents of change, even within the constraints of the genre. She points to characters like Cinderella, who, despite her passive demeanor, ultimately escapes her oppressive circumstances through her inner strength and resourcefulness. Von Franz argues that these stories can serve as empowering narratives for women, demonstrating their ability to overcome adversity and effect positive change in their lives (Zipes, 2006).

  1. The Role of Sisterhood and Female Alliances

In her analysis, von Franz highlights the importance of sisterhood and female alliances in fairy tales. She notes that while these relationships can sometimes be portrayed as competitive or antagonistic, they also often provide crucial support and strength for female characters. Examples include the bond between Cinderella and her fairy godmother or the sisterly love in “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Von Franz contends that these narratives emphasize the power of female solidarity and the importance of women supporting one another (Gilbert & Gubar, 1979).

  1. Reimagining Fairy Tales for a Modern Audience

Von Franz discusses the modern reinterpretation of fairy tales and the ways in which contemporary authors and filmmakers are challenging traditional portrayals of women in these narratives. She cites examples such as Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” and Disney’s “Frozen,” which subvert the passive female protagonist trope and offer more complex, nuanced representations of women (Carter, 1979; Lee, 2013). Von Francke asserts that these reinterpretations serve as an essential step in dismantling the restrictive gender norms perpetuated by traditional fairy tales.


In “The Feminine in Fairy Tales,” Marie-Louise von Franz offers a comprehensive and thought-provoking analysis of the role of women and the feminine in these timeless stories. By examining the historical, cultural, and psychological aspects of fairy tales, von Franz sheds new light on the ways in which these narratives have shaped and reflected societal perceptions of femininity. Ultimately, her work serves as a call to action for readers, writers, and storytellers alike to challenge and subvert traditional portrayals of women in order to create more complex and empowering narratives for future generations.



Bettelheim, B. (1989). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage Books.

Carter, A. (1979). The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Harper & Row.

Gilbert, S. M., & Gubar, S. (1979). The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press.

Jung, C. G. (1959). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton University Press.

Lee, J. (Director). (2013). Frozen [Film]. Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Lieberman, M. K. (1972). “Some Day My Prince Will Come”: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale. College English, 34(3), 383-395.

Stone, K. (1975). Things Walt Disney Never Told Us. The Journal of American Folklore, 88(347), 42-50.

Tatar, M. (1999). The Classic Fairy Tales. W. W. Norton & Company.

Warner, M. (2016). Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. Oxford University Press.

Zipes, J. (2006). Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Routledge.

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