As both a scholar of folklore and a scholar of gender and sexuality, I love to combine these two areas, which is what I’m doing in my dissertation right now. I’m researching gender and the body in European fairy tales, and since we’re devoting time to breasts this week on MSP, I thought I would discuss some of my current research that relates to female breasts.
Right now, I’m reading the entirety of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales as translated by American fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes, and I’m noting every time a body or body part is mentioned, along with the context: is there positive or negative value attached? is it a man’s or woman’s body part? is it considered beautiful, or ugly, or monstrous; is the body part in question adored or abused, kissed or mutilated? I’ve noticed a lot of synecdoche–a heart standing in for the person’s intentions–and a lot of extremities, such that we see more mentions of hands and feet and heads than stomachs or organs.
And then we come to breasts. I’m one-quarter of the way through cataloguing the tales, and breasts are only mentioned in two tales. Why is that?
Part of the reason has to do with the cultural context in which the Grimms were publishing their tales. The tales of the “Brothers Grimm” were not, in fact, named because the tales are so grim and gory; Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, two brothers and scholars in 19th-century Germany, were genuinely interested in the Germanic heritage of the stories they collected from the mouths of peasants and middle-class citizens. Sometimes their commitment to scholarship meant acknowledging rather than suppressing the violence that pervades folktales from oral tradition. Eroticism, however, was entirely a different story. Because Jacob and Wilhelm lived in Germany before it was a unified nation, while it was occupied by Napoleon, they were keenly interested in the political agenda behind gathering folktales: they wanted to prove that the German people shared a unified folk identity. Aware that the tales they published would then reflect on German people as a whole, the Grimms edited out certain “inappropriate” tidbits, such as sexuality, and made other changes to clean up the tales, like changing a wicked mother into a stepmother (because it wouldn’t do for people to think German mothers were unduly cruel).
The other factor in tidying up the tales was that the Grimms realized that their tales were interesting to scholars like themselves because at the time, folklore was a burgeoning international discipline–but the tales were even more interesting to the growing market for children’s literature. As book sales increased, the Grimms felt more pressure to ensure that their tales were suitable for children’s consumption, which meant reducing mentions of sexuality (but violence was okay, as many of the tales had a moral function, and ruthlessly killing a villainous figure helped drive the point home). The Grimms published 7 editions of their tales between 1812 and 1857, and by the final publication, they had significantly revised many of their tales, in a move that foreshadowed what Walt Disney would go on to do for the fairy tale genre in film.
So–back to breasts. The first mention of breasts in the Grimms’ tales is in Faithful Johannes, a story about a servant who helps his king attain a fabled beauty for a bride–but at the cost of his own life. By listening in on some ravens, the servant learns about three obstacles standing in the way of the king’s happily ever after, but if he reveals what he has learned, he’ll be turned to stone. First, the servant has to destroy two objects that the king desires, but which would kill him. Finally, when the princess and king are married, the princess will fall down as though dead, only to be saved if someone sucks three drops of blood from her right breast and spits them out. Events happen as the ravens predict, and the servant saves the princess’s life by sucking the drops of blood from her breast. The king cannot forgive this perceived violation, however, and has the servant imprisoned. When the servant reveals all he has done for the king, he is turned into stone. Later, he is disenchanted when the king agrees to slaughter his children and sprinkle blood on the stone figure. The children are restored to life, and everybody lives happily ever after.
The second example of breasts in the Grimms’ tales comes from The Girl without Hands, a chilling tale of betrayal. A poor man inadvertently promises his daughter to the devil. When the devil comes to claim her, she purifies herself and cannot be touched, so the devil instructs her father to chop off her hands. He does, but her incessant weeping cleanses her wounds, and the devil has to give up. The girl wanders, and an angel helps her survive by bending the king’s pear trees down so that she may eat from them. The king is struck by her beauty and marries her. He is called away to war, and the devil deceives the mother-in-law, telling her to kill the handless girl on the king’s orders. Instead, the girl, who has just given birth, is sent away to the forest. She finds a house with an angel inside, and the angel removes her baby–who has been strapped to her back–so that the child can nurse at her breast. The woman’s hands are regrown by the grace of God, and the family is reunited.
In the first tale, we see the female breast representing the ultimate taboo: precisely the body part a man should not see or touch on another man’s wife. The servant in that tale has done other things to protect his master, such as killing a fine horse and destroying a beautiful bridal shirt meant for the king (since both would have killed him), but when the servant sucks the three drops of blood from the wife’s chest, that’s the last straw. The king no longer forgives his servant’s eccentric actions, and has him imprisoned.
In contrast, in the second tale, the female breast represents nourishment. The handless maiden, while impotent to save herself from exile, is still capable of feeding her infant son. The milk that flows from her breasts symbolizes her femininity and her capacity to care for others, which is interesting because lacking hands, she cannot do other traditionally feminine care-taking tasks such as cooking or sewing (and these tasks pervade the Grimms’ fairy tales, with their agenda of representing a proper femininity to young readers).
The Grimms are not the only fairy-tale scholars who have been squeamish about breasts and other body parts; as Martin Sutton demonstrates in his book The Sin-Complex, English translators of the Grimms have frequently omitted or softened body references in an effort to make the tales more suitable for widespread notions of Victorian English decency. In some English translations of “Faithful Johannes,” for instance, the servant was depicted surgically removing the three drops of blood from the princess’s breast rather than sucking them out; or the breast was not mentioned, and the servant had to remove three drops of poisoned blood from her body.
My preliminary impression, since I haven’t finished reading all of the tales and taking notes yet, is that the Grimms went out of their way to avoid improper (read: sexualized) bodily references. There are few if any references to genitals, for instance. And the sexual act is only ever obliquely mentioned, or obscured entirely and we simply see that offspring result from a union. So for the Grimms to include mentions of breasts–a female body part that it was considered indecent to display–is significant. Thus in the places where breasts are mentioned, as in the two tales above, breasts symbolize important plot points: taboo intimacy in the first tale and essential nurturing femininity in the second. These references convey cultural information about the values in the tales and of the taletellers, and thus are interesting from a historical as well as from a sexual perspective.
I encourage you to look up Jack Zipes’ thorough translation of the Grimms’ fairy tales, or peruse folklorist D. L. Ashliman’s online translation of some of the tales, if you’d like to read more!
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