In our collective minds, fairies crystallise as romantic, dainty, delicate beings. They are soft, shiny, and magical, and we often envision them as women. This image derives from the modern storybook construction of these magnetic creatures. The narration of the fairy in this context, has given us some of the most iconic childhood fiction figures of all time, think of the fairy godmothers of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, or perhaps, the ballet core, Y2K goddesses that are the Winx fairies, however, in my mind, one fairy stands above all, Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell.
The character of Tinker Bell is very much a product of the time she was created in. In Edwardian London, the place and time where this character was imagined into being, women were fighting for recognition in the workplace and general public life. It was the time of the suffragettes, however, it was also the time of the subservient angel of the house. Gender roles continued to be extremely strict and defined, and so, women were expected to be charming, poised, and giving.
With this in mind, the writer J.M. Barrie creates Tinker Bell, a tiny glamourous adult woman (despite being in love with Peter Pan, a 12-year-old child) who can only hold one feeling at a time, predominantly jealousy towards the other feminine-coded protagonist in the tale, and is described as “exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage”. The sexualisation of this character is further highlighted in Disney’s 1953 animated movie adaptation of Peter Pan, in which Tinker Bell has a fully developed adult figure and wears a tiny bodycon strapless dress.
Tinker Bell’s character has shaped the way we view the image of the fairy today, however, this image has little to do with the ancient folklore figure that inspired her creation. Fairy is an umbrella term for many diverse mythical creatures. Fairies can be beautiful and dainty, or haunting and hideous. They can be whimsical, mischievous, sinister, or malicious. Although the term fairy is of European origin, fairy-like analogues can be found in most cultures throughout the world. Most importantly, in all of these narrations, fairies can be of any gender and are not portrayed through effeminate language.
A very important literary figure who dabbled in the world of fairies is William Shakespeare. Fairies play an important part in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, it is the character of Ariel from the play The Tempest that has raised the most curiosity. Ariel, the fairy that serves Prospero, the protagonist of the tale, is described as a shapeshifter whose gender is never defined in writing. Within the play, Ariel takes feminine and masculine forms and roles depending on the task assigned to them, and throughout the decades, the character has been played on stage and on the screen by men and women performers alike.
Outside of the world of myths, stories and plays, the term fairy is used in reference to gender and sexuality. Fairy has been applied as a homophobic slur to ridicule non-heteronormative men. As mentioned earlier, in recent history, the figure of the fairy has been related to hyper-femininity, so, a man who does not display masculinity in an adequate manner could be derogatorily referred to as a fairy. This term has now been reclaimed by the queer community and is even being used to name a queer pagan countercultural movement which began during the 1970s, The Radical Faeries. Further, Genderfae, in reference to the alternative spelling of fairy, faerie, is a type of gender fluid identity that does not encompass masculine gender expressions.
This short narration of the figure of the fairy hints at the ways that our knowledge, in this case, our knowledge of fairies, is shaped and shifted by the space and time we tackle that knowledge from. So, gendered interpretations of the figure of the fairy are, of course, reliant on the way gender is perceived at any particular moment in time.
Now, just in case any of you fairies are reading this right now, “I do believe in fairies! I do! I do!”.