The Sexed-Up Fairy Tales Of The Past

With all the fairy tale retellings that are popular today, ranging from dark like Grimm and Snow White and the Huntsman to light-hearted like Mirror Mirror and Brave, now’s a great time to look at sex in fairy tales. As I discuss over at my personal blog, fairy tales have always been flexible in form and function. Since they tend to address humanity’s big questions – what is a family, what is the role of the individual in society, what is love – it makes sense that sex would figure in there somewhere.

I’ve already written on sex in Little Red Riding Hood, so today I’ll talk about two beloved Grimms’ tales: Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. Both have a much sexier history than most people know.

Before the Grimms recorded their version of Sleeping Beauty, which they titled “Briar Rose,” it was a much darker tale. In the Italian version written by Giambattista Basile, “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” the king doesn’t wake up Sleeping Beauty with a kiss – he has sex with her. And it’s not even that which wakes her up, but rather when she gives birth to twins, and they suck a splinter out of her finger while looking for something to suckle. And the story doesn’t even end there, as the king’s mother has a cannibalistic desire to eat the heroine and her two young kids. Everything works out in the end (except for the wicked mother-in-law), but you gotta think, the Grimms’ and Disney Sleeping Beauties had things a lot easier: just wake up and get married!

Rapunzel is another fascinating example of a tale that started out pretty sexy, but got tamer over time. In the 1812 edition of the Grimm brothers’ “Rapunzel,” the wicked sorceress doesn’t discover that she’s met a man until this event:

The fairy did not discover what was happening until one day Rapunzel said to her, “Frau Gothel, tell me why it is that my clothes are all too tight. They no longer fit me.”

So, the tale pretty clearly implies that they’d had sex and Rapunzel was pregnant. In the 1857 version, the Grimm brothers toned down the sexy times and still had Rapunzel get pregnant and bear the prince twins while they were separated, but rather than contain an allusion to Rapunzel’s pregnant body, the witch finds out about the prince because Rapunzel is a ditz and spills the beans by accident. This website shows both tales side by side, revealing just what got changed over time.

What these two tales have in common was that they both explicitly detailed the consequences of having sex – pregnancy – but then, over time, those features were minimized or outright erased. This is partly because fairy tales were once told by and for adults as well as children, but the growth of the genre of children’s literature starting in the 1800s, with fairy tales as a part of that canon, meant that the tales had to be made “appropriate” for children. Condemning premarital sex was also most likely part of this impulse, as the Western world edged into the uptight Victorian era.

Sex, being an integral part of human life, plays a role in fairy tales even when it’s not explicitly mentioned: children who grow up to be cursed have to come from somewhere, after all. It reveals a lot about our society, however, that the sex in fairy tales that was foregrounded in the past has been pushed to the background. In the contemporary tales mentioned above (and many others), sex is starting to peek out again, as though the people consuming fairy tales know that there’s a place for it in these stories after all. Maybe they’re not kids’ stories anymore at that point (at least, not by some people’s standards), but I’d say that this is a reflection of how important sex is to life in general. What do you think?

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About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.