I spent all weekend ‘researching’ and though I did not find much on the representation of women in Yoruba/Nigerian/African folklore (however I did find an great article on morphology in Igbo folklore), I believe I have found the answer I was searching for. As a child I was exposed to both Western fairy tales such as Cinderella and Nigerian fairy tales such as those about the tortoise. (As an adolescent I was well-versed in the Greek myths.) I must mention that I was never satisfied with fairy tales, perhaps I also ‘thought too much’ as a child but I just could not accept the happily ever-after endings. When I discovered that fairy tales were originally meant for adults my first reaction was; ‘Yes! I just knew it!’
I’d be lying though if I said that fairy tales did not affect me in some way. I was (and still am) willful and ambitious which meant that I was constantly at odds with the so-called heroines of fairy tales who are in most cases depicted as passive. Even when there are bursts of activity, the truth is most heroines remain passive as I shall explain further. I guess it was even more disturbing for me as the ambitious, scheming girl/woman in fairy tales hardly ever meet happy endings as opposed to ambitious, scheming boy/man. In my experience the good female characters of fairy tales were supposed to be role models of good behaviour…like in real life. Older family members (never my mother) would tell me things like; ‘Why can’t you try to be more like *insert name of a meek fairy tale heroine*’ or ‘If you are too stubborn, *insert otherworldly creature* will not reward you’ etc. It is probably due to this background that I reacted so strongly to Revolutionary Girl Utena and that I developed what I call ‘Sympathy for the Witch’ Syndrome.
First, I am going to paint a general portrait of the witch/women/heroine in fairy tales after which I am going to attempt to incorporate everything I have read into Yoruba fairy tales and the similarities are a bit surprising (and made me laugh). Before I continue, I will like to add that the psychiatrist Eric Berne felt that fairy tales are actual programs for behaviour and that myths and fairy tales are complex reflectors of the conscious and unconscious concerns of their readers. With that in mind;
A witch is a witch as she was born that way, in other words she was born with her powers and her witchcraft is innate. Apparently the reason why the evil witch’s power is innate is because of men’s supposed fear/loathing/hatred of the vagina, I will not be going into that here. The witch stands in opposition to the sorcerer who has to learn his craft. In several fairy tales, witches are always antisocial and evil while on the other hand sorcerers can sometimes be nefarious and are other times good. The sorcerer’s power is not as strong as the witch’s (because the witch’s power is innate) thus he can only injure and vex while the witch can kill. Witches are either partially or thoroughly evil, they are also active, ambitious, strong-willed and often ugly. I can only come up with a few fairy tales that feature wizards/sorcerers (does the legend of King Arthur count?) however, I will say that today sorcerers are also depicted as being evil (Nollywood anyone?) and this leads me to another observation; that of the good priest battling the demon woman which is an image I have seen several times in Nigerian movies.
David D. Gilmore claims that the identification of women as witches is nearly universal. I find that interesting, the witch is supposed to be the model of ‘the bad woman’ and what is interesting is the characteristics witches possess as opposed to the ‘good’ heroines. It is quite amazing how misogyny shows its ugly head even in fairy tales which are today geared towards children and, really to not believe that this stuff affects children will be a serious underestimation.
Apart from being witches, the ‘bad’ women in fairy tales may also be the ‘bad wife’. The ‘bad’ wife stereotype involves women who cuckold and nag their husbands. The third will be the evil stepmother, who is is either an outright murderess or a sexual predator (in some fairy tales step-mothers are known for trying to seduce their step-sons and trying to kill their step-daughters). The evil stepmother like the witch is intrinsically evil and spreads chaos wherever she goes. I will say that in Yoruba fairy tales, these ‘bad’ women i.e. the ‘bad’ wife and the evil stepmother are more vivid as opposed to the witch. In my earlier post, I placed emphasis on certain words one of which was ‘iyale‘.
Iyale was the head-wife in ancient Yoruba societies. Though I was led to believe that Yorubas have always preferred to be monogamous (*laugh*), men who had the economic means married several women. The iyale was the very first wife, iyale literally means ‘mother of the house’ and that was essentially her duty and the role she played. In Yoruba fairy tales, the iyale shows symptoms of the ‘bad’ wife and the evil stepmother stereotype. She is more of the evil stepmother though with her penchant for either leading her own children unto death due to her greed or killing the children of her co-wives.
The ‘bad’ women of fairy tales generally exhibit qualities that our dear Aristotle thought of as been quintessentially feminine. These include jealousy, treacherousness, shamelessness, lack of self-control and sexual avarice. On the other hand, the ‘good’ women and girls of fairy tales are patriarchy’s ideal women; they are passive. And we see that just like her Western counterparts, iyale is always jealous and treacherous. The type of woman that is always scheming with her lack of self-control. The iyale from my point of view must have been painted in this manner as an attempt to ‘warn’ women not to be like her. When you look at it honestly, which woman will be happy when her husband brings another wife into the house? I believe the iyale in fairy tales exists as an attempt to force guilt onto women. The appearance of this motif in myths, legends, fairy and folk tales apparently attests to the misogyny present in the society with the stepmother’s character being a ‘misogynistic fantasy’ (Gilmore, p. 73).
Fairy tales are supposedly meant not only to amuse children but also to teach them society’s morals. One has to wonder what sort of morals some of these fairy tales are trying to teach especially in regards to their portrayal of women, even as a child I could not accept some of the ‘morals’ these fairy tales were trying to sell. Children absorb a lot from these stories, through fairy tales children they learn behavioural patterns, value systems, how to predict the consequences of specific acts or circumstances and they form sexual role concepts.
While beauty seems to play a significant role in Western fairy tales, it doesn’t seem as important in Yoruba fairy tales, or at least not as widespread. In Western fairy tales, beauty is viewed as the heroine’s most valuable asset and beautiful girls are never ignored. However, in Yoruba tales the beauty of the heroine is not always explicitly mentioned however one should remember that attributes such as good-temper and meekness are regularly associated with beauty and ill-temper with ugliness.
A similarity arises as in both cultures, the youngest child has a special destiny. In the story I posted previously, it is not the iyale‘s daughter that gains the reward but the daughter of a younger wife. Furthermore, fairy tales are frequently about contests in which only one person can claim the only one prize. Heroines gain the prize if they are the fairest/meekest/good-tempered of them all while heroes win if they are bold/active/lucky. In most well-known fairy tales, active resourceful girls are very rare with most of the heroines being passive, submissive, and helpless. Now if you read the previous Yoruba fairy tale, you may think what I am saying is nonsense as that story featured an active heroine and the moral of the story was that it does not pay to be greedy. However if you look closer at that tale, you will see that things are not what they seem to be.
The little palm-oil seller is not an active heroine. I say this because the girl has no agency, if the goblin did not have enough cowrie shells for her or if her mother was not going to beat her, she would not have done anything. Not to mention the girl walked all the way to the land of the dead in tears (‘weeping bitterly’). In stories such as that of the Goose-girl and Cinderella, victimized heroines are always rescued and rewarded. The little palm-oil girl of our Yoruba fairy tale is also victimized as the goblin did not pay all that he owed and if she went home short of cowries, her mother would have beaten her. She is not only passive but also meek and obedient in a weird way. I personally do not get those trick questions the goblin asked her when it came to the palm-nuts and the banana.
Such fairy tales show that the girl who suffers bad treatment and who submits to her lot, weeping but never running away (the little palm-oil seller says; ‘Whereever you go I will follow, until you pay me my cowry.’) has a special compensatory destiny waiting for her. Yes indeed, our little palm-oil seller shows a sort of strength in her ability to endure however she never actively sought to change her lot. Those who actively sought rewards were killed. This suggests that when little girls are submissive, meek and passive, they will be rewarded.
The reason the iyale‘s daughter was punished with death is simply because the iyale actively went searching for wealth (the reward). Thus the morals are not so much about greed or lying or cheating otherworldly beings than about ‘advising’ women to sit still and wait for the chance that will bring them wealth. As if such things ever happen in real life. This reminds me of this book I read about the socialisation of girls entitled ‘Just Like a Girl: How Girls Learn to Become Women’ that mentioned that when little girls are exposed to passive heroines who do nothing but reap rewards, they are also being exposed to bad role models because in this capitalist world, being passive does not reap rewards. I personally view such fairy tales as trying to warn women from being active. That these fairy tales are traditional, historical and possess cross-cultural similarities is just mind-boggling.
If you still believe that the tale was really about greed being a huge sin and one that deserves the punishment of death, I have got something else for you. Most Nigerians will know the tortoise, that cunning, mischievous, wise little creature who is often viewed fondly and regarded as a symbol of knowledge. However, how many Nigerians know that the tortoise is also a rapist? I am not being silly, at all. There is indeed another Yoruba fairy tale about a beauty called Buje, the slender who rejected all male attentions (even the King’s, oh imagine that!) towards her and guess what the tortoise did? The tortoise first announced to the men that he would be the one to ‘win’ Adun and proceeded to trick her into carrying him on her back and when she did, he ‘violated her…from behind’. If you do not believe me, please go here to read the story, you will have to scroll down or simply just search the page for ‘Buje’. In the end, the tortoise publicly humiliated Buje, calling an assembly in order to broadcast his crime and Buje in her shame covered her head with a piece of cloth and ran away into the bushes before turning into a herb.
Now if the iyale could be killed for being ‘greedy’ and trying to incite competition (she is symbolically killed through the death of her daughter) why is the tortoise not punished for what he did to Buje? I always thought the tortoise was supposed to be asexual but tales such as those of Buje, the slender tell a different story. In all the stories I have read that feature the iyale, she is ALWAYS killed in the end for being simply being jealous, greedy and active. I do not understand the morals of Buje, the slender’s story. I mean what is that tale supposed to be teaching? My issue is that if the tortoise could do something bad and get away with it, why can’t the iyale do the same? The obvious answer is misogyny.
Heroines who suffer somewhat similar fates as Buje are also present in Western fairy tales. Usually, Western fairy tales are not as explicit however, the heroines/princesses are portrayed as reprehensible because they refuse to marry. The idea that these women wish to express their identities differently or perhaps prserve their freedom is denied. An example is the story of Bellissima in ‘The Yellow Dwarf’ who says to her mother when her mother tries to persuade her to marry; ‘I am so happy, do leave me in peace madam.’ Bellissima is a ‘spoiled’ princess who doesn’t want to marry and is finally forced to marry a deformed creature, the Yellow Dwarf. Upon hearing she is to marry a dwarf, she immediately tries to find another man to marry among her former suitors, a man with whom she eventually falls in love, but it turns out to be too late. Lots of ‘morals’ indeed, the most disturbing part to me is that there seems to be a twisted sense of triumph when a willful heroine submits or is forced to submit to a husband.
In conclusion, all I have written above explains why I am not buying any of the ‘morals’ that fairy tales are trying to sell and why you should keep your children away from certain fairy tales. Furthermore, my exposition is essentially what disturbed me about these stories while I read them as a child even though I did not understand it then. I am not saying that all fairy tales are evil, bad and misogynistic however that does not change the fact that I have heard disturbing things from the mouths of babes such as ‘girls are not SUPPOSED to do that!’.
What I read
Barzilai Shuli, ‘Reading “Snow White”: The Mother’s Story’, Signs, Vol. 15, No. 3, The Ideology of Mothering: Disruption and Reproduction of Patriarchy (Spring, 1990), pp. 515-534
Gilmore D. David (2001), ‘Misogyny: The Male Malady’, University of Pennslyvania Press
Lieberman R. Marcia, ‘”Some Day My Prince Will Come”: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale’, College English, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Dec., 1972), pp. 383-395
Sharpe Sue (1976), ‘Just Like a Girl’: How Girls Learn to be Women, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England
Stone Kay, ‘Things Walt Disney Never Told Us’, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 88, No. 347, Women and Folklore (Jan. – Mar., 1975), pp. 42-50