This morning I came across Elizabeth Blair’s piece “Why Are Old Women Often the Face of Evil in Fairy Tales and Folklore?” It’s a valid question and one I’ve often contemplated (see Deb Waterhouse-Watson and my chapter here, for instance).
The problem is, we’re often saying the mean, old woman is a negative stereotype – or even evil. Actually, sometimes the mean, old woman just doesn’t care and gets on with what has to be done. Granny Weatherwax taught me that being liked shouldn’t be an object in life.
Nanny Ogg: “No one would come up here this time of night.”
Magrat Garlick: “What’s to be afraid of ?”
Granny: “I’ve never claimed to be nice, just to be sensible.”
Yes, Terry Pratchett! It was a little rough this semester. I was teaching The Wee Free Men just after his death and it was difficult to deliver the lecture without tearing up. I definitely read a good portion of his last novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, through a watery haze. I’m just incredibly grateful that he gave us a last novel with Granny (by the way, it’s worth reading Neil Gaiman’s comments when you finish the book) and the novel, while not Pratchett at his most brilliant – it wasn’t, after all, completely polished – is an amazing farewell and leaves Pratchett’s readers with just a little more Granny-style wisdom to keep us going.
Social media trains us to seek more and more ‘likes’ and to keep clicking ‘like’ even if we just give something a cursory glance and don’t hate it. In fairy tales, life is too difficult, decisions too momentous, to tackle with a click of a ‘like’ button. The old women of fairy tale know that not everyone will love them or protect them and they act accordingly. Granny Weatherwax is not always loved or even liked, but when the going gets tough, you need Granny in your corner, even if Granny herself worries that she’ll turn a corner and follow in Black Aliss’s wicked footsteps.
Not all old women in fairy tale are evil, though. Disney gave us Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, three incredibly loveable old women.
One of the reasons I disliked Maleficent (2014) was that the film turned the old women into bumbling fools. In Sleeping Beauty (1959), they are a little silly, but there is no underestimating their power. They take charge when the baby princess is cursed with death. They can wield their wands to bake a cake or send a sword swift and true to defeat a dragon. Their magic and their generosity saves the kingdom.
And when old women are evil, they can be rather wonderful. One of my all time favourite, bad, old women is Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). While we may be wary of the negative stereotypes attached to the old woman in fairy tale, I don’t think it hurts to occasionally celebrate her in all her snarky, reckless, insouciant glory. She reminds us we don’t always have to be liked to be incredible women. Indeed, sometimes it’s a lot more fun to be wicked.