Sexist Morals in Andrew Lang’s The Grey Fairy Book

© Copyright 2017 Andrea Lackowicz Student, Ryerson University


H. J. Ford. “The Lizard Takes Charge of Renzolla.” The Grey Fairy Book, 1900. Public Domain.

The Grey Fairy Book  by Andrew Lang was originally published in 1900.  It consists of a compilation of 35 different fairy tales.  None of these fairy tales are related in any particular way save for the fact that they all contain some sort of fantastical aspect such as fairies and, like most fairy tales, teach a moral lesson.  The story “The Goat-faced Girl” is one of the stories Lang includes in The Grey Fairy Book that teaches a clear moral lesson.  It is about a girl named Renzolla who is given to a lizard lady after asking her father for his youngest daughter in exchange for a reward.  Since he was poor and had twelve daughters, he and his wife decided that they would agree to the exchange.   They were given enough money to marry off their other daughters and still have enough left over for themselves to live a comfortable life.  The lizard lady creates a palace for her and Renzolla to live in and she treats Renzolla like a princess.  When Renzolla grows older, the king gets lost in the forest and is invited to stay the night in the palace.  While there he falls in love with Renzolla and marries her.  The lizard lady reveals herself as a fairy and gives them money as a wedding gift.  Renzolla leaves to live in the king’s palace without thanking the fairy for all that she has done for her and as a punishment the fairy turns Renzolla’s beautiful face into a goat’s face.  Due to this she loses the king’s love and is forced to work.  Renzolla has to beg for the fairy’s forgiveness.  Upon accepting Renzolla’s apology the fairy not only turns her face back to its original beauty but also dresses her in a dazzling dress and the king helplessly falls in love with her again.  This story is clearly grounded in the moral teaching of always being thankful but it does so at the expense of sexist means.  This exhibit will be analyzing Andrew Lang’s story “The Goat-faced Girl” as a representative example to demonstrate how fairy tales use sexist means to teach moral lessons.

Female Heroines in Fairy tales

                Female heroines are extremely common in fairy tales but they are all presented in a similar stereotypical way.  The nineteenth century view of women was that they were born to serve men, which is reflected in women being stereotyped as domestic breeders in fairy tales.  Female heroines are generally described as beautiful, innocent maidens who are completely helpless.  This means that they have no real say in their own lives, and are totally reliant on men to dictate what should happen and make decisions for them.  Their value lies in their physical attractiveness, and their obedience.(Zipes)  In fact, the ultimate goal in many fairy tales is marriageability and send the message that if you imitate the behavior of the female heroines then you, as the reader, will achieve that goal.  All of this is present in “The Goat-faced Girl.”

Close Reading of Sexism in “The Goat-faced Girl”

H. J. Ford. “Renzolla Sees Her Face In the Mirror. The Grey Fairy Book, 1900. Public Domain.

Renzolla is a perfect example a female heroine who embodies patriarchal stereotypes of women.  Right from the beginning Renzolla’s life is decided for her by her father as he gives her to the lizard lady in exchange for money so that he can marry off his other daughters.  Not only does this show that Renzolla had no say in her life but it enforces the importance of marriage and the idea that marriage is the ultimate goal.  This goal is again enforced when Renzolla’s face is turned into a goat’s and the king locks her up and forces her to work.  This is shown in the image on the left.  Despite him doing this Renzolla is desperate to get back in his good graces.  When the king sees that her beauty has been granted back to her he accepts her as his wife once more and Renzolla does not hesitate in deciding to go back with him.  This instance not only shows Renzolla doing whatever she can to achieve marriageability but it also reveals the weight put on female physical attractiveness.  The king falls in love with Renzolla because of her beauty but once her beauty is taken away he completely dismisses her.  He only values her once more when she is again beautiful.  Therefore, showing that Renzolla embodies many of the female stereotypes present in fairy tales.

Moral Implications

                Through being exposed to stories like “The Goat-faced Girl” children develop ideas of what is socially and morally right and wrong.(Lester)  Although “The Goat-faced Girl” might teach children that they should be thankful for what they are given, it also teaches them that women should be valued for their beauty, women should be completely dependent on men, and that a woman’s ultimate goal is marriage.  Stories written in the 19th century were specifically designed to teach girls to conform to a specific set of gender norms.(Harries)  Since The Grey Fairy Book was published in 1900, right at the end of the 19th century these gender norms are very present.  Despite it no longer being 1900 the patriarchal morals, like the ones in “The Goat-faced Girl,” remain in the fairy tales children are exposed to in the 21st century.(DePalma)  Children do not yet have the critical skills to question or challenge what such stories present as to what it is to be female and what is to be male.(Lester)  This result is the sexist values presented in these fairy tales shaping the way children think and act.  Moreover, the patriarchal morals manifested in the fairy tales carry on with the children who read them into adulthood.(DePalma)  So, although stories like “The Goat-faced Girl” might teach a little girl who is reading it to be thankful and that lesson might stay with her for the rest of their life, so might the message that as a female she must be dependent on men to make decisions for her.


                Through the story of “The Goat-faced Girl” as a representative example, the sexist ways in which fairy tales convey a moral message is established.  The patriarchal female stereotypes of the 19th century are presented through the female heroine.  These values are then absorbed by the children who read the fairy tales and are carried with them into adulthood.  So, although fairy tales, like the ones in Andrew Lang’s The Grey Fairy Book teach moral lessons like always being thankful, they do this in sexist ways that instill patriarchal values in the children who read them.


Works Cited

  • DePalma, Renée. “Gay penguins, sissy ducklings… and beyond? Exploring gender and sexuality diversity through children’s literature” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 37:6, 828-¬‐845, 2016.
  • Ford, H. J. (Illustrator), The Grey Fairy Book, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967, Children’s Literature Archive, accessed December 14, 2017,
  • Harries, Elizabeth W. The Invention of the Fairy Tale in Britain
  • Heatwole, Alexandra. “Disney Girlhood: Princess Generations and Once upon a Time.” Studies in the Humanities, vol. 43, no. 1/2, 2016, pp. 1.
  • Lester, Neal A. “(Un)Happily Ever After: Fairy Tale Morals, Moralities, and Heterosexism in Children’s Texts.” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Issues in Education, vol. 4, no. 2, 2007, pp. 55-74.
  • Zipes, Jack. The Irresistible Fairy Tale : The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, PrincetonUniversity Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.