Feminism is ubiquitous in fairy tale studies. Donald Haase edited a book about it: Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches. Nancy Canepa, in Teaching Fairy Tales, called it “groundbreaking” and responsible for “stimulating” conversations within the field. Jack Zipes declared Laura Gonzenbach more important than the Brothers Grimm in his introduction to Beautiful Angiola, because her collection “more genuinely and more candidly” represented “the female if not feminist perspective on life.”
Men’s rights activists should be concerned about this political appropriation of folklore since the genre is globally popular (e.g., Disney) and has been used for “consciousness-raising and consensus-building in a wide range of social movements,” according to Ohio State University’s Center for Folklore Studies. This means worldwide pop culture and humanitarianism are being shaped by anti-male prejudices.
The best recourse is to reclaim folktales. Good candidates include “The Cow-Tail Switch,” which affirms male life and fatherhood; “Strike but Hear,” which champions due process; and “Ara the Fair and Shamiram,” which acknowledges male rape victims, as these tales examine men’s gendered experiences, and are underdiscussed among folklorists, giving MRAs the opportunity to popularize them and set the standard for how they’re interpreted. Text-to-world analysis, which compares real and fictional scenarios, helps the process by allowing MRAs to blend male issues discussion with textual study.
The Cow-Tail Switch
Found in The Cow-Tail Switch and Other West African Stories, this Liberian tale subverts common attitudes about men and their social roles. Ogaloussa goes hunting and disappears. Afterwards, his wife births a son, Puli, who asks where his father is, prompting his brothers to search the forest until they find their father’s corpse, and magically reanimate it. Ogaloussa returns home and crafts a cow-tail switch, saying it’s for the son most responsible for his rescue. His children argue over who deserves it, with other villagers arguing too, but he gives it to Puli and everyone agrees it’s the right choice.
The primary theme is the value of male wellness. Initially, nobody attempted to find Ogaloussa after he disappears, not even his family. This reflects male disposability. Manifestations of the phenomenon include the Canadian government’s exclusion of men and boys from its Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, lesser assistance given to homeless men in the U.S., and the abandonment of military-aged men during warzone evacuations. However, this tale critiques such attitudes. Puli, unfamiliar with his father, and unaccustomed to the man endangering himself for others’ benefit, is rewarded for caring about him by being gifted the titular object. A subtler critique comes from Ogaloussa and Puli being the sole characters with forenames which are generally reserved for important characters. The implication is that men who suffer are important and only those willing to help them deserve recognition.
The secondary theme is the importance of fathers. Puli’s older brothers are competent individuals, implied to know combat, navigation, teamwork and tracking, along with their magic. While the text doesn’t confirm it, it’s reasonable to assume Ogaloussa taught them their survivalist skills given his occupation. Combined with the brothers’ willingness to locate their father when Puli asks for him (a loving gesture), the story affirms what clinical research proves: father involvement positively effects educational success and prosocial behavior.
A men’s rights perspective also answers to the story’s final question: Does Puli, who remembered Ogaloussa and prompted his rescue, deserve more recognition than his brothers, who found and resurrected their father? As a “dilemma tale,” the story’s outcome is meant to be debatable. But the ending is inevitable considering Puli did the most and thus of anyone: he set a precedent that benefits all men in his community (i.e., valuing male life).
Strike but Hear
A story from Folk-Tales of Bengal that promotes due process rights. Three princes are tasked with patrolling their kingdom and on their first night the youngest son meets a guardian deity who warns him of his father’s impending death. The prince beheads the cobra that was going to bite his father, but during the cleanup, he drops blood on his stepmother’s breast. He wipes it off as his stepmother (who hates him) awakens, and she tells his father that he tried to rape her. Believing the accusation, the father summons his sons and asks them how he should punish the crime. They tell him to kill the perpetrator but warn him to prove guilt, citing three instances of people being harmed due to unsubstantiated claims. The youngest son then explains what happened and his father believes him.
The rajah’s belief in his son’s testimony is significant because a feature of real false allegations is that people ignore counterevidence. For instance, Reverend George Burroughs was executed on accusations of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials, despite reciting the Lord’s Prayer perfectly, which was believed impossible for witches to do. Furthermore, civil rights activist Ida B. Wells noted that “No colored man, no matter what his reputation, is safe from lynching if a white woman, no matter what her standing or motive, cares to charge him with insult or assault.” Even when the targets survive their lives are devastated. Consider the three lacrosse players from Duke University, whom were threatened with castration by angry protesters. While they were unharmed, their reputations were ruined and they faced intense hostility and scrutiny from the media and school faculty.
When read from a men’s rights perspective, this tale exposes false accusations as timeless and international; prevalent enough to warrant documentation in oral narrative. It also joins a body of narratives that explore the topic: the Greco-Roman myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra and the Egyptian story of Anpu and Bata.
Ara the Fair and Shamiram
Taken from The Heritage of Armenian Literature, this legend highlights male sexual victimization. Queen Semiramis (Shamiram) hears of Ara’s beauty and becomes obsessed with him, proposing either marriage or copulation, but the king declines both. The queen retaliates by invading Armenia with the intention of subduing and ravishing Ara. However, during the attack, he’s killed and Semiramis fails to magically resurrect him. Armenian troops prepare a counterstrike, intent on avenging their king, but Semiramis convinces them that he’s been revived by disguising another man as him, ending the war in her favor.
Ara’s rejection of an eager woman is significant. His chastity contradicts perceptions of men as hypersexual – a stereotypes so pervasive it’s influenced policies. One example was airlines barring men – but not women – from sitting beside unaccompanied minors; the assumption being that men are potential molesters. Inversely, Semiramis is defined by her predation. Her lasciviousness corresponds with data showing women commit 13% of rapes and 79% of “made to penetrates” against men. Moreover, the queen’s use of military power to try to rape Ara reflects cultural and institutional acceptance of sexual violence against men throughout the world. Boys in Afghanistan are sometimes sold by their families as sex slaves to warlords. Israel has a legal definition of rape that excludes male victims. And the U.S. government once forced a survivor of statutory rape to pay child support to the woman who assaulted him.
Looked at from a men’s rights angle, this story disrupts contemporary Western attitudes of gender and morality that frame females more positively than men, resulting in preferential treatment of women in various sectors of life. This older narrative shows that the ancients had a nuanced concept of good and evil with relation to the sexes.
In Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales, Jan M. Ziolkowski writes, “Being incorrigibly optimistic (if only when it comes to stories), I have faith that people will be inquisitive about ancient and medieval literatures if those literatures can be shown to relate somehow to their present.” These literatures do relate to our present since they capture men’s gendered experiences. They also belong to a financially lucrative and socially relevant genre that spans the world. Why not utilize that potential to bring attention to the issues and needs of men and boys? Doing so would further human rights progress while adding intellectual diversity to an academic discipline.