Stephen Sondheim’s 1988 musical, Into the Woods, was based on fairy tales (mostly Grimm, with the exception of Jack and the Beanstalk [English] and an original story about a baker and his wife, designed to tie together the disparate plot threads). And like many fairy tales, at least in the retellings we recognize today, a very strong theme of the musical is morality—actions that are right and actions that are wrong; rewards for the former and punishment for the latter. What’s interesting, though, and what I want to look at today, is what kinds of actions are punished and, in particular, how. List time. Please note there will be spoilers for the musical throughout the rest of this post.
The Baker’s Father:
Transgression: Stealing beans from the Witch’s garden.
Punishment: Sterility for himself and his son the Baker; removal of his daughter into the custody of the Witch; death of his wife (all of which happens before the show actually begins).
Transgression: Allowing the beans to be stolen.
Punishment: Old age and loss of beauty.
Transgression: Disobedience; interaction with the outside world.
Punishment: Exile to the desert with the twins she has borne. Insanity.
Transgression: Entering Rapunzel’s tower.
Transgression: Cruelty; wanting to marry the prince.
Punishment: Blindness and mobility impairment (they each cut off a portion of one foot. They walk with canes for the remainder of the show).
Transgression: Protecting her son from the Giantess.
Punishment: Death at the hands of the Prince’s Stewart.
The Baker’s Wife:
Transgression: Deceit, infidelity.
Punishment: Death at the hand (well, foot) of the Giantess.
Transgression: Repeated theft, murder.
Punishment: Just kidding, Jack gets away scot-free.
This is, as you can see, an extensive list. What I’m interested in is looking at it and seeing what patterns can be extracted. And the patterns that exist are, well, troubling from a social-justice perspective.
Firstly, notice the disproportionate number of women who receive narrative retribution. By my count, there are six (two presented as something of a unit), as opposed to two men. In general in popular culture, women seem to have a lower threshold for what constitutes an “unacceptable act.” Notice how the Witch is punished for letting someone steal her beans, or the Baker’s Wife for infidelity—while her partner in the act, Cinderella’s Prince, escapes unscathed. And Jack, who arguably commits more heinous acts than anyone in the show (he, the Wolf, and the Steward are the only characters* seen to kill people) receives no retribution for anything he has done at all, where his Mother is killed just for protecting him.
Secondly, and possibly even more obviously, there is the recurring theme of disability—and, in particular, blindness—as punishment for wrongdoing. There is a long cultural history of blinding as punishment, and its uncritical reproduction always raises red flags for me. The sisters’ blindness is even explicitly tied to blindness-as-a-metaphor, another harmful trope, with the lines “we were blind/then we went into the woods and now we’re really blind.” Beyond blindness (which also is inflicted on Rapunzel’s Prince, though later cured, presumably because he is not “really” “immoral”), Rapunzel develops a cartoonish sort of hysterical insanity as direct fallout from her disobeying her “mother,” and the Witch’s return to youth and beauty midway through the narrative comes with a corresponding loss of her magical power, an event that can certainly be viewed as disabling.
I see nothing wrong with narratives where characters’ actions have repercussions. In fact, I’d argue that it’s become an essential element of fairy tales as we now understand them—the genre as presented today always seems to have very strong moralistic framing. The problem is with who is punished, and why. Where conventionally immoral actions are frequently praised in male characters such as Jack, they are punished in women. And punishments very frequently seem to involve consigning the offender to becoming part of a marginalized group, whether by giving them a disability, aging them, or (in one of the most memorable and strangest elements of a different show, Finian’s Rainbow) turning them into someone of a different race. And I think that, even as we enjoy these narratives, it’s important to interrogate why they are structured the way they are.
*The Giantess is also responsible for several deaths, but her character status is a little more dubious. She is never seen on stage, only heard as a disembodied voice.