Rumpelstiltskin: The Anti-Misogyny Version

Rumpelstiltskin: The Anti-Misogyny Version


Sometimes when my partner, Amy, is triggered, we sit and read stories to get grounded again. The other day, we decided to read one of the picture books she had kept since childhood: Rumpelstiltskin. 

I’m no stranger to the fact that many fairy tales are incredibly problematic, but the story of Rumpelstiltskin is insidiously unimaginative when it comes to women. In the story, a young girl is given to the awful King by her lying father, instructed to accomplish the impossible, coerced into bargaining away her own child, and consequently forced into becoming a broodmare for the King. She must depend on the evils of monsters and the virtues of men in order to survive. I understand that the world has always taken the lives and aspirations of women for granted, but surely not every iteration of Rumpelstiltskin, shaped first in oral tradition before it was written down by the Brothers Grimm, is so steeped in misogyny. 1

Needless to say, we didn’t make it too far into the story. It turns out, one way to feel better about the world is probably not to be reminded that adults are still telling bedtime stories to children that treat women like shit. Instead, Amy and I lay awake that night, re-telling the story of Rumpelstiltskin to one another, refining the narrative, until we found something that resonated with us both. The following re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin, scribed by myself, is what we came up with.


Rumpelstiltskin

Once upon a time, in one of the King’s ivory towers,
there was a girl who was crying. She sat on the floor
in a small room full of straw and a spinning wheel.

Suddenly, out of thin air, a tiny imp appeared in the
middle of the room, spinning around in circles. He
stumbled for a moment, and then smiled at the girl.

The girl was startled. “Where did you come from?” she
asked, wiping her tears away with her tattered dress.

“I come from a magical land far, far away. As fate would
have it, I could hear your sobs from over there,” answered
the imp.

“I’m terribly embarrassed,” said the girl, standing up,
composing herself.

“Don’t be,” said the imp. “I just wanted you to know that
I heard you. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No, it’s fine,” she sighed.

“Okay, then,” said the imp, who began to spin in circles
again.

“Wait,” the girl’s eyes widened. “Did you say you were
magical?”

“Of course. I can do anything,” the imp answered. “What do
you need, and how can I help you?”

The girl breathed a sigh of relief. “Can you spin this
pile of straw into a heap of gold?”

“Of course!” the imp exclaimed.

With that, the imp jumped to the spinning wheel and began
to move his feet.

Spin! Spin! Spin!

Three times he spun the wheel and had finished. And now
that pile of straw was a heap of gold.

The young girl was so excited she let out a cry of joy and
begin jumping up and down. She stopped once she saw the
imp staring at her, a puzzled expression on his face.

“Oh,” she said. “Of course. I can give you my necklace.”

“No, thank you,” said the imp.

“My ring,” said the girl, pleading with her eyes. “What
about my ring?”

“No, I’m fine,” said the imp.

The girl’s face dropped. She reached for the tie around
her waist and began to undo it.

“Stop. Please don’t do that,” said the imp. “I said I
don’t want anything.”

“Then why are you looking at me like that?” said the girl.

“Well,” said the imp. “After I spun the straw into gold,
it occured to me that this was a really bizarre request. I
mean, why would a wealthy princess cry over gold? Don’t
you have more important things to worry about?”

“Oh, I’m not a princess,” said the girl. “I’m just a
miller’s daughter.”

“I see,” said the imp, squinting his eyes. “I’m still
confused.”

“Well,” continued the girl. “The King expects me to spin
this straw into gold by morning.”

“And if you don’t?” asked the imp.

“If I don’t, the King said I would be put to death. But If
I do, then, well, thanks to you,” said the girl, looking
at the gold, forcing a smile, “I’ll be his Queen.”

The imp stood, his forehead furrowed in concern, and
waited out the girl’s smile before letting out a deep
sigh. “First of all, that’s some serious pressure you’ve
had on your shoulders, and I’m sorry you’ve had to deal
with that.”

“Thank you,” said the girl.

“Second of all, you are blowing my mind,” said the imp.
“Why on earth would the King make such a ridiculous demand
of you?”

“It was my father’s idea,” answered the girl. “He promised
the king that I could spin straw into gold.”

“But that’s impossible,” stated the imp.

“I know,” said the girl. “But if my father says I have to
do it, then I have to do it. Even though I don’t have one
clue about how to work a spinning wheel. He always puts me
in these situations.”

“B-b-But – ” stuttered the imp. “I mean,” he started
again. “How could he – UGH!”

The imp rolled his eyes, gritted his teeth, balled his
fists, and marched straight over to the girl. She,
anticipating his tiny punches, held onto her arms tightly.

Instead, the imp put his arms around the girl’s legs and
hugged them. As he closed his eyes, one tear moved down his
cheek. Moved at the display of affection, she knelt down
in front of him. He placed his tiny hands on her
shoulders.

“Can I ask you a question?” the imp asked.

“Please,” said the girl.

“Do you want to be the queen?” he said, staring deeply
into the girl’s eyes.

“May I speak freely?” the girl asked, lowering her voice
to a whisper.

“Please,” nodded the imp.

“Of course I don’t want to be the queen,” the girl
responded. “But I also don’t want to die. And honestly, it
feels like these have always been my options: please a man
or risk his anger. For some reason they always assume that
just because I’m doing things to make them happy, that I
am, too.” She shook her head. “I’m not.”

“You poor thing,” said the imp, visibly shaken. “I may be
the one who can spin gold, but it’s you who has had to do
the impossible.”

The girl shrugged, and stood up. “Well, that’s nice of
you. Thanks. And thank you, again, for everything. I don’t
know how I would have figured this one out without you. So
now begins my figuring out the rest.”

The girl walked over to the window and stared outside. The
imp glanced at the gold, and then back over to the girl.

“Hold on,” said the imp. “I’m just curious. Let’s say you
did have some alternatives. What about you? What would
make you happy?”

“Me?” asked the girl. Her held her hands up to the bars on
the window and gripped them, tightly, staring out into the
land beyond. “Nobody’s ever asked me that before. So I
don’t know how to answer that question.”

“Nobodys ever asked you before?” the imp shouted,
ecstatic. He paced around the room for a moment, collected
himself, and continued. “Nobody’s ever asked you what
would make you happy before?”

One foot after the other, the imp furiously kicked the
heap of gold. He moved his legs so quickly his entire body
lifted off the ground. He collapsed onto the gold,
sobbing.

“What’s wrong?” muttered the girl, curiously drawing near
the imp.

“I’m upset,” mumbled the imp. “What about your needs? What
about your wants? What about your dreams? What about you?”

“Listen,” the girl said, who kneeled by the gold heap and
stroked the imp’s hair. “I understand that you’re
surprised, but this isn’t anything new to me. I’m used to
it – really. And I’ve known plenty of other girls who’d
tell you the same thing.”

“You mean to say, there are others?” the imp asked with
his cracking voice. Slowly, the imp turned over and stared
into the girl’s eyes. “And that this is a normal, everyday
occurence?”

The girl nodded her head. For a moment, the two stared
deeply into each others eyes. The imp took a deep breath,
and wiped his tears away with his tiny hands.

“I’m terribly embarrassed,” said the imp. “This isn’t
about me. This is about you. And my feeling bad about your
situation doesn’t really help you, does it?”

“Don’t be embarrassed,” said the girl. “But, yeah, it
doesn’t actually help my situation. As is, I’ve already
got a lifetime of soothing other people’s gross emotional
problems to look forward to. But thank you for caring.”

“That does it,” said the imp, standing up on top of the
gold. “You know what? You’re right. I’ve heard enough.
This isn’t right. We’re leaving. Give me one sec and I’ll
just weave this gold into a key.”

“You can do that?” yelped the girl, increduously.

The imp nodded. “Of course I can. I can do anything,
remember? Our magic use shouldn’t be limited by the wants
and needs of selfish men. You deserve so much better.”

With that, the imp jumped to the spinning wheel and began
to move his feet.

Spin! Spin! Spin!

Three times he spun the wheel and had finished. And now
that pile of straw was a tiny, golden key.

“Here you go,” the imp said, panting, as he handed the
heavy key up to the girl.

“Wow,” said the girl. “Thank you so much. But what comes
next?”

“Next,” said the imp. “We’re going to get ourselves far
away from here and we’re going to figure out what you
want.”

“How are we going to do that?” asked the girl, puzzled.

“I don’t know,” said the imp. “But if I listen to you for
a while, maybe it will give you some ideas.”

“That sounds impossible,” said the girl. “But then again,
so are a lot of things I’ve done.”

“That’s the attitude,” said the imp, beaming.

The girl put the key into the keyhole and paused. “Hey,”
she said. “What’s your name?”

“Wow, thank you so much for asking,” said the imp. “My
name is Rumpelstiltskin. What’s yours?”

“My name is Elise,” answered the girl.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Elise,” said Rumpelstiltskin.

“And it’s very nice to meet you, Rumpel…” Elise trailed
off.

“You can call me Rumpy. It’s what all my friends call me,”
he smiled.

With that, Elise unlocked the door, and the two exited the
room together, in search of a place where Elise could sit
and talk.

Show 1 footnote

  1. The story, much abridged, has it that a young girl is locked in a small room and told, under threat of death by the King himself, that she must spin straw into gold (her father said she could do it). As this isn’t actually possible, a magical imp appears and offers to do it himself in exchange for her firstborn child. The King is so delighted with the gold he marries her. When they have their first child together, the imp shows up and asks the girl, now the Queen, to make good on the bargain. She refuses. The imp offers a new deal: she has to give up the baby unless she can guess his name after three nights.  A friend of the King spies on the imp in the woods and hears him singing his own name out loud. On the third night, the Queen successfully says his name, “Rumpelstiltskin!” The imp is so upset he kicks a hole into the floor and disappears inside, but in other versions he rips his own body in half.

    The Queen, presumably, lives happily ever after.

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