To Take a Woman’s Voice

Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.


The silencing of women to suit the patriarchal desires of men has long been a staple trope of our communal mythology. The Greek Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, and then subsequently cursed that no one would ever believe her—why? Because she had refused to sleep with him. The Trojan War, the fall of Troy, the death of Agamemnon all could have been prevented, if not for a woman unable to be heard.


In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel trades her voice to Ursula in exchange for a chance to impress the prince of her dreams. Many of us grew up singing along with the tune that carries our heroine’s voice away and locks it in a magic shell. All but forgotten is the original Hans Christian Anderson tale, in which the sea witch actually cuts out the little mermaid’s tongue, muting her forever. Because she cannot speak, the prince views her as a favorite pet; in the end, she watches him marry someone else, knowing that when dawn breaks, she will die.


Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus also sees a woman with her tongue cut out. After raping Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, brothers Chiron and Demetrius cut off her hands and out her tongue so she cannot tell her father who ravished and mutilated her. “And so let's leave her to her silent walks,” Demetrius laughs as they abandon her in the forest. I lost my virginity while watching the 1999 film Titus (co-executive producer: Steve Bannon…yes, that Steve Bannon)—in fact, we paused the DVD and went upstairs after this very scene—the irony of which is no longer lost on me.

Nevertheless, she persisted.