Skip to main content

Maid Marian Walked So Modern Women Could Run

A dramaturg's thoughts on the Maid Marian character

Robin Hood is a classic tale filled with adventure, excitement, and even romance. However, what would happen if we were to look at it as a feminist? One doesn’t typically take such a male-focused story and use it to support a feminist point of view. But when we once lived in a world in which women were pushed to the side; a world where women were merely the sexual entertainment for the evening; a world where women were the ones who take care of the house and the children while the men go out and protect them and get the food; one can wonder how we could take this story and make a point by changing it up. Cathryn Pisarski is a playwright who decided to take the story of Robin Hood and take the first steps of introducing feminism into it. This was a very new way of aiding feminism and introducing it in a non-aggressive way that was easily enjoyed and helpful to a greater audience. By analyzing Cathryn Pisarski’s Robin Hood and comparing it to previous, successive, and future adaptations we are able to see the beginnings of feminist progress in a timeless story that had yet to be done before. This can be seen through characters being newly portrayed as female, seeing the true importance of Maid Marian as she frequently saves Robin’s life, and finally through Pisarski inspiring future feminist adaptations such as a new Robin Hood Ballet.

A typical Robin Hood storyline has our hero, Robin, who is an outlaw and a nuisance to Prince John, but more often to the sheriff of Nottingham. He lives with his merry men in Sherwood Forest near the village. He would often stop travelers, particularly people of wealth, and steal their money from them. This in turn he would give to the poor and working class. This basic story of Robin Hood has many different versions, even a 1973 animated film by Disney, none of which up to that point had any sort of feminist agenda.

To further prove the problems we find within most of the previous adaptations we can look at Pat Hale’s 1964 version which completely left out Maid Marian. It has been said that omitting important women from stories can quickly lead to a cycle of increased omission. Dolan spoke about how the typical spectator of theatre and media in general, is a white heterosexual man. McDonnell went further to talk about how because of the audiences people are catering to, they often focus on those groups, “‘It is well known that boys will watch a male lead and not a female lead. But girls are willing to watch a male lead.’ [. . .] This, in a nutshell, is the major obstacle to female-centered narrative” (McDonnell). Essentially when women are left out of important roles in media, you increase the male viewership, further incentivizing and catering to this audience to continue leaving women out of the narrative. This is no help at all to any form of feminist agenda, so luckily not long later Pisarski came along and changed all of this in her story of Robin Hood.

To better understand just how impactful Pisarski’s play was to feminism, one should acknowledge that there are several types of feminism being; liberal feminism, cultural feminism, and materialist feminism (Dolan). All of these focus on the different qualities of women and what they bring to the table. Liberal feminism says that women should have equal representation, cultural feminism desires for women to be the only dominating power, and you have the material feminists that believe that men and women have their own pros and bring their own benefits to the table; they can both do a lot, but shouldn’t lose part of their female identity as women by doing what men want.

In Pisarski’s adaptation of Robin Hood, she makes a clear feminist statement by increasing the number of female roles, each of which highlights the aforementioned types of feminism. Robin is still the little pompous protagonist who pushes his luck in trying to irritate the sheriff of Nottingham, but there are more female characters than in the classic story. Instead of Alan-a-dale, you have Alana Dale, who is a representation of liberal feminism as one of the “merry people” who assists Robin in all of his adventures. She is just as respected as any of the other men in the group of thieves. Maid Marian, though obviously still a woman in this story, is honestly a lot more of a feisty character and has lots of quick quips and sass to throw back at Robin, showing that she is just as quick on her feet as our classic protagonist Robin appears to be as a cultural feminist would want. You also have Clarrissa who is the classic or traditional perspective of a woman which adds some comedic relief showing that it is not just the men who can be entertaining or loveable characters in a piece. As such, we can see that she is her own person, but takes on the materialist feminist point of view who desires men in her life, but brings her own strengths into a relationship. Through these examples one can see several types of women, demonstrating a spectrum of female characters each representing the different views of feminism. So now there is something for every type of feminist, which greatly strengthens the overall feminist agenda within this particular adaptation

Perry spoke about another version that takes an unfortunate and somewhat sexist view in which Marian tried to join Robin in the archery competition so she disguised herself as a man to be able to do so. “Quite literally, Marian’s disguise puts her on a level playing field necessary to prove inherent skills regardless of sex and gender” (Perry). It’s a similar concept throughout time, such as in Disney’s Mulan, or in Shakespearian plays such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night, these are all cases in which women had to dress up as men to try and even the playing field and be considered an equal, even if it was unbeknownst to their compatriots. This is something Pisarski felt no need to do, by simply including women in the story as equals.

Pisarski’s adaptation goes on to put women in places of greater power as well. With the changing of characters to be women and the merry “men” becoming merry “persons” it becomes a more modern look at the classic story. With the inclusion of Alana Dale, we can assume there very well could be other women just as capable of taking a lead role within Robin’s band of thieves. With Maid Marian, there is a new and improved personality there. There is still the cocky Robin who is the best archer in the town, and unfortunately, Marian is used as a sort of lure to get him to the competition, but she is so much more than that. She has the sass to talk back to him, she has the gall to push his buttons. Maid Marian also spoke up against the sheriff, not only teasing him but also speaking out against him publicly in a way no woman would ever have been seen doing at that time. She is later able to be welcomed into the merry persons of the forest and learns their language and signs. In the end, it was her who ended up saving Robin’s life when she prevented the Sherrif from stabbing Robin in the back after breaking his word to not fight anymore. It’s also her that Friar Tuck believes would keep saving Robin’s life from all the irresponsible situations he gets himself into. Marian is finally able to be seen as a pivotal character in the story that keeps the whole thing afloat, and without her, Robin, as everyone knows him, would’ve been hanged at the gallows but she keeps him grounded and safe when his arrogance leads him to make poor decisions. Through this more modern adaptation, there is a new perspective on what Marian could do for Robin, she wasn’t just going to lure him to the competition and have her kiss be the prize at the end, she wasn’t going to swoon at his looks and his flattery. She is the modern woman, and honestly the woman that has always been inside this story but history has held her back.

As time has moved forward one sees more feminist twists on the Robin Hood tale which could very well be thanks to Pisarski’s innovative take on the story, especially with the character of Maid Marian. For example when Evelyn M. Perry wrote an article on Esther Friesner’s The Sherwood Game. In this book there is a man who programs a Robin Hood game but the game has no Maid Marian in it, presumably due to his own challenges with women in his life. Eventually in the story, the video game creator has to create a Maid Marian specifically to lure Robin Hood back under control and solve some of the issues he has created. In her article, Perry points out that using this later reversal in the book as well as another lead female role who helps the main character solve his dilemma, “Friesner’s text demands that we chart the experiences of two female heroes” (Perry) and therefore proves the importance of including women in the equation. These two varying examples of the game and the outside story show the contrast and growth the literary world has seen in the last forty years, which we can thank Pisarski for helping start.

So what if all the roles were entirely reversed and we pushed feminism to the edge? What if women held the power, or held all the positions? What if instead Robin was a woman, and perhaps all the characters were women? Well with a future adaptation of Robin Hood, we can see even greater inspiration from Pisarski in a new ballet that does just this with an all-female cast. The director, Hilary Wolfley, has stated her vision as this:

A serious, moody take, centered around women's empowerment. Historically, storybook ballets have been bright fantasy with the women portrayed as delicate, light, easily persuaded, and decorative. I'm hoping to create something that portrays a strong woman leading strong women (both in movement and in character), to make change for good in their communities (Wolfley).

Traditionally men have written ballets with women being the weak, easily swayed ones. This is a new adaptation of the story, being put on by women, with women, for women, showing that women are the ones in power and being seen, so a deeper story can be told. The questions raised about what Robin Hood would be with a feminist focus are no longer hypothetical but are now in the works of becoming something to talk about, something Pisarski would very likely have done if she had perhaps written her play a few decades later.

A great strength of this new ballet that can also be seen in Pisarski’s adaptation is that in no way is it a hateful or negative view of men. By having an all-female cast it includes the antagonists as women as well. The ballet is not trying to say that men are evil and women are good, rather it shows that an all-female cast can still have just as strong a story as a near-all-men cast. When Pisarski wrote her adaptation of Robin Hood, she too wanted to simply show the strength of women as equals. She nearly had Maid Marian be the true hero but instead made her Robin’s equal. He was still the amazing archer and swordsman, but she made up the difference when he failed. This inspiration is just yet another way that Pisarski set the new standard of how women should have always been portrayed in the tale of Robin Hood without taking away any of the wonder and adventure.

Through this new ballet and Pisarski’s adaptation, it’s possible to take from feminism, and the strengths that come from it, and see how strong women are and the representation they deserve in the world. While the world is still very phallocentric, Perry spoke about how one can best progress forward; “[o]ur mindful attention to, and presentation of, new and forward-thinking retellings is a non-interferential and positive way to counter consistent literary limitations to a developing readers’ gendered, social development” (Perry). So with the social development and growth the world has continued to see even within the last thirty-four years since Pisarski’s book was written, Robin Hood can continue to grow and become a valuable source and example of feminism in the world since the actual time of Robin Hood. Hilary Wolfley would like to follow in Pisarski’s footsteps and demonstrate just that. While women have been portrayed as weak, fragile, easily persuaded, or just decorative, through the words of men, they now are taking control and being able to make a better tomorrow for future women.

Many great women have pushed for a greater tomorrow for women all around the world. Regardless of the specific view of feminism, anyone may have, as we improve our literature and show that the classic stories we have read for centuries can still be just as impactful when we include more women, the world will become a more equal place for men and women. Pisarski took a classic story with a stereotypical hero who formerly had his own damsel in distress and instead showed how strong men and women together conquer evil and create the world in which we all wish to live. So no, this is not and will not be a world in which women are simply pushed to the side. Maid Marian was the real reason Robin was able to live when he did dangerous things and was caught, she was the one who kept him level-headed. In the classic story, she never receives much credit. However, through more modern endeavors including Pisarski’s adaptation of Robin hood, Friesner’s book The Sherwood Game, and the up and coming ballet by Hilary Wolfley, the world has begun to see that Maid Marian and some new female characters have been able to gain more traction and praise for their own work that for centuries has gone unvalued. These great steps are helping equalize the playing field and to create a world where women can in fact be the heroine they always could have been, and we have Pisarski’s adaptation of Robin Hood to thank for that.

Works Cited

Dolan, Jill. “The Discourse of Feminisms: The Spectator and Representation.” The Feminist Spectator As Critic, University of Michigan Press, 2012, pp. 46–63, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/byu/detail.action?docID=3415102. Accessed 29 May 2022.

Hale, Pat. The Ballad of Robin Hood: A Play in Two Acts. New Plays for Children, 1964.

Jones, Robet St. Clair. Robin Hood : an Original Play in Five Acts. C. Harris, 1848.

McDonnell, Kathleen. Kid Culture: Children &Adults &Popular Culture . Toronto: Second Story Press. 1994.

O'Connor, Kate. “Feminist Approaches to Literature.” Great Writers Inspire, University of Oxford, 3 Aug. 2012, http://writersinspire.org/content/feminist-approaches-literature.

Perry, Evelyn. “Alan V31N1 - Maid Marian Made Possible: Feminist Advances in Late Twentieth-Century Retellings of the Robin Hood Legend for Young Adults.” Virginia Tech Scholarly Communication University Libraries, Digital Library and Archives of the Virginia Tech University Libraries, 1 Jan. 1970, https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v31n1/perry.html?fbclid=IwAR33cwKX86F8C0cdf_Jc22D7Ot3_xn1S66QLQEDQ2cIdxoJOFpeyPrNHj4Y.

Pisarski, Cathryn, and Phil Smith. Robin Hood: A Play with Music. I.E. Clark, 1988.

Reitherman, Wolfgang, director. Robin Hood, Walt Disney Studios, 1973, disneyplus.com. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Rodriguez, Judith. “Nuyorican Feminist Performance: From the Café to Hip Hop Theater. By Patricia Herrera. University of Michigan Press, 2020, Pp. 246.” Theatre Topics, vol. 31, no. 3, Nov. 2021, pp. 271–271., https://doi.org/10.1353/tt.2021.0052.

Wolfley, Hilary. Received by Emma Rollins, Ballet Project?, 13 Jan. 2022.

Related Articles

data-content-type="article"

Presents and Presence

December 03, 2022 08:05 AM
One of the first things many people think of when they hear the word Christmas is gifts. Gifts and Christmas have been interchangeable for a very long time in our world’s history. But over time, what people think of as gifts has shifted. Each new era or generation defines it differently. There were monetary gifts such as gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the days of Christ, when all things were handcrafted and only the wealthiest of people could have precious ore or spices from distant lands. Or perhaps, during the great wars of the twentieth century, a gift of war bonds was precious when patriotism and the survival of the world made things like toys seem trivial to many. Now, everyone wants the latest iPhone or the newest technology. Throughout our lives, what we want also changes. Gifts shift from toys, games, and candy to technology or clothes–all inconsequential things that provide short-term entertainment. However, all of these things fade and have less impact on our true joy. Joy can really be found in the simple things of life.
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection= overrideCardHideByline= overrideCardHideDescription= overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=
data-content-type="article"

Cultural Exchanges

December 03, 2022 07:15 AM
During planning for Christmas Around the World, Jeanette reached out to people who had the opportunity to tour and represent the United States this summer. I had the opportunity to go to tour in Spain with American Rhythm and the opportunities we had to meet people and learn about their cultures and their experiences, were truly incredible. We were asked about our experiences with meeting other people and what it was like to share cultural gifts with them. These questions were used to get answers from dancers and their answers were in the videos and audio you will see and hear throughout the show. These are the more detailed versions of my personal answers.
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection= overrideCardHideByline= overrideCardHideDescription= overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=
data-content-type="article"

Gifts of Music and Cultures: Poland

December 02, 2022 10:02 PM
Throughout our time in Spain we had the opportunity to meet so many people from all around the world. From Mexico, Poland, Bulgaria, and of course Spain, we were able to meet so many amazing people and make so many amazing connections. We didn’t all speak the same language, many of them didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak many of their languages. So relying on the power of song and dance, we were able to connect through different aspects.
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection= overrideCardHideByline= overrideCardHideDescription= overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=