Fantasy and Femininity

File:The Two Brothers by Elenore Abbott.jpg
Illustration of the Grimm fairy tale “The Two Brothers” by Elenore Abbott. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)

By Tony Juarez

I have just read the short story my 6th grade son was assigned to read for school- Young Ladies Don’t Slay Dragons by Joyce Holvelsrud . On the surface, it is a humorous but deliberate attempt to invert the traditional trope of a helpless princess needing to be rescued from a fire-breathing dragon by a valiant knight or prince. Instead, I read of the trials of Princess Penelope, a lively and industrious princess who eschews the traditional duties of a princess such as sewing or playing the lute, in favor of what I can only assume the author considers non-ladylike activities such as fixing the drawbridge or a squeaky suit of armor. However, when a fire-breathing dragon begins terrorizing her palace, her father, the king, is incapable of finding anyone to slay the beast.

So Penelope decides she wants to do it herself, but is rebuffed by everyone from the king to the cook who tell her that “young ladies don’t slay dragons.” Fed up with being dismissed, she eventually dons a suit of armor and using an explosive potion she swiped from the royal wizard when it was his nap time, she kills the dragon. A prince suddenly appears after the dragon is killed and after bragging about how handsome and rich he is and agreeing to let her do all things she likes to do, Penelope agrees to marry him and they live happily ever after.

Complimentarity of the sexes

As I mentioned at the start, on the surface the story is not without its charm, but ultimately we find it is yet another attempt to proffer a contemporary strain of feminism that is at its core at odds with the Catholic view of the complementarity of the sexes in God’s plan of creation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that,

Man and woman were made “for each other” – not that God left them half-made and incomplete: he created them to be a communion of persons, in which each can be “helpmate” to the other, for they are equal as persons (“bone of my bones…”) and complimentary as masculine and feminine. (#372).

Thus the Church is saying that in creating humans as male and female, God has fashioned us as equal parts of a matched set and only in coming into communion with one another do we find our ultimate fulfillment as humans.

This is a concept that certain strains of feminism today utterly rejects and instead views the complementarity of the sexes as implying that being incomplete without men somehow makes women less equal or valuable than men. (Oddly, they never admit that the same would be true from the man’s point of view.) This has lead to relations between the sexes that are replete with suspicion and recrimination in the most self-centered sort of way, as the Young Lady story vividly portrays. All the men in the story are portrayed as incompetent, petty, and indifferent to Penelope’s desires. The notion that it would be dangerous to allow an untrained princess who apparently is the king’s only child to confront a dragon is not even considered. Instead, stodgy and arrogant men just try to keep her in her place.

Made for each other

This leads to the second problem with this story, which is the inability of certain feminists to distinguish between the character of a person and the characteristics he or she possesses. In St. John Paul II’s 1988 Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem he uses the words “dignity” and “vocation” to explain,

 The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her “fulfillment” as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the “image and likeness of God” that is specifically hers.” (10)

Thus, to be “made for each other” should never be interpreted as meaning that women are inferior to men in any way, but only that they have been given a different set of resources to act out their vocation- diversity is not deficiency. The story Young Ladies, like much of the cultural feminism that runs amok in contemporary society, seems completely incapable of recognizing this truth, as the author cannot imagine the possibility of a capable and strong feminine character without putting down all the male characters. Apparently in her mind there is only so much dignity to go around, so any increase on the Penelope’s status must come at the expense of all the other characters.

Hero or a handsome face?

My last issue  with the story is more an issue is more literary than theological: the prince who shows up at the end. Hovelsrud has spent the entire story turning the traditional damsel-in-distress narrative on its head in order to show young girls how empowered they can be. However, in place of a knight’s act of self-sacrifice and a princess’s sense of gratitude, we see the offering of a conditional acceptance of marriage that is based not on anything the prince has done, but on his looks, riches, and vague assent to meet her demands. Apparently the author forgot her own first principles, and ended up coming right back to the place she was trying to leave. Here is another well-worn trope (albeit a more modern version of it), but perhaps she doesn’t object to that particular situation.

Despite this story’s short comings, I would certainly not shun it. Parents can use it to talk about why what the Church’s view of  femininity is more fulfilling than the contentious social interactions that the modern world has to offer.

The challenge for Catholic authors

More important, however, is the opening for Catholic authors, especially those who are writing fantasy. The notion that the fantasy genre is the purview of adolescent boys has long been put to rest. The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy has shown that the  fan base is about half female.

We cannot be afraid to take on the virulent cultural feminism that wants to revise and reform the arts. When it comes to writing fantasy, we should counteract it with a view of femininity that highlights what St. John Paul II called in Mulieris Dignitatem the “feminine genius.” Our female characters can offer a “sincere gift of the self” in a heroic manner. Of course therein lies the challenge. Today’s girls may associate the idea of giving of oneself with  romance or teen drama novels, not with the rough and tumble adventures of swords and magic. It is up to us to create compelling female characters that maintain their genius and have the strength, perfected by grace,  to keep the (physical, mental, or spiritual) monsters at bay.

J. R. R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, set the standard by which almost all fantasy is ranked. Those of us who desire to write fantasy stories must hand on that standard to a new generation that can outshine all the rest.


Tony JuarezTony Juarez is a Catholic writer and Catholic theologian from St. Paul.


3 thoughts on “Fantasy and Femininity”

  1. What stands out for me is that the princess uses her brain and knowledge of the people around her to gain the tool that will kill the dragon. She recognizes she hasn’t the strength of a mighty warrior and uses a different method. It’s a feminine way of acting.

    Men may say, “Young ladies don’t slay dragons.” They would also say, “You’re the heir to the throne. You know we can’t risk you being killed.” But they might also listen to her ideas, which it seems she doesn’t share, and thank her and then send a warrior who can be risked. The story seems to be filled with people who don’t really talk and share and work together.

    And Holvelsrud might have omitted the prince. He’s not necessary to the story. Catholic authors must first of all be good writers and create consistent worlds within their stories.


    1. Thank you Drusilla for your comments. I agree, the princess did in fact use some “feminine genius” by taking on the dragon in her own way- I liked that. But the put downs and negative male-stereotyping turned me off, as did the Prince showing up. I like your comments about people in the story not communicating with each other. What’s funny is my son who asked “How’d she find a suit of armor that fit her? And what good is it against dragon fire?” Apparently my kids have watched too many CineSins videos. But my 15 yo daughter mentioned when I said that having “strong” female characters is hard in fantasy because biologically speaking, woman can’t physically fight on equal terms as men, said, “Well that’s why its called ‘Fantasy’, because in those worlds they can.” I told her I would keep that in mind. Take care.


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