We all have grown up reading fairy tales and weaving our dreams around them. Be it Cinderella’s rags to riches story or Belle turning a beast into a handsome prince. Fairy tales often make us cling to hope for a little longer. However, the older you grow and the more you read, you realize how a lot of these magical tales are actually problematic and flawed. Many of them have background stories that are scary and downright gruesome.
No piece of literature is ever neutral; it displays one’s viewpoints about various aspects of the social context. Fairy tales are no exception. These stories have passed on from generation to generation and, in some way or the other, have reinforced the stereotypes that have been already present in societies. In most of these fairy tales, you will see fair-skinned, beautiful, and passive females being rescued by the “knights in shining armor”. The notion of men being the ultimate rescuers while women are entities to be protected and rescued is prevalent in a lot of fairy tales that the kids grew up fantasizing about. Let’s look at various ways in which adult discourses and ideology play a key role in shaping the world of children’s literature.
The Moral Policing
Many consider fairy tales to be a necessary part of one’s childhood as they supposedly boost the optimism and imagination of a child while teaching them morals for differentiating the good from the bad. Sadly, these tales come with hidden messages that may do more harm than good to the tiny tots. These tales may negatively impact their way of thinking and self-esteem in more ways than one.
If we go through various works of children’s literature, we realize that they often represent an array of ideas regarding who children are and what they can be, along with morals to teach them the right way of living. These works attempt to fixate on how a child must live their life. However, when it comes to fairy tales, we encounter certain common stereotypes in many of these stories- an evil stepmother, a crying-for-help pretty girl, and a strong, ‘macho’ man saving her from the clutches of an evil figure (mostly, the step-mom).
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In her book Kiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbye, Madonna Kolbenschlag writes, “Fairy tales are the bedtime stories of the collective consciousness.” If we look closely, the bedtime stories that have been narrated for centuries are the inspiration behind hundreds of blockbuster movies indoctrinating our childhood and are, sadly, also stories laced with archaic and prejudicial stereotypes. These tales are so deeply ingrained in popular culture that we often overlook the blasphemous ideology that is perpetuated through them by using racial uniformity, degrading storylines, and misogynistic characters as the vehicle.
We really need to look at how women are depicted in these stories. This is a reflection of how society wanted women to be. The tales never show the females as the heroes of their own stories (exception: Beauty and the Beast). She is just waiting for her hero to come and save her. Shockingly, the only active females you encounter are actually villains. Women desperately wanting to change the situation are often vilified. Through this, are the adults trying to tell us that active women, women with a voice, and women with ambition are “bad” women?
The Unrealistic Beauty Standards
The way these tales overtly emphasize physical beauty is highly problematic. While the heroine is time and again called pretty, delicate, and beautiful, the villainous women are shown as unattractive and “ugly”. In fact, a 2003 survey states that out of 168 Grimm Brothers’ stories, 94% of them acknowledged physical appearance. Also, the average reference to beauty made per tale was 13.6. In one of the stories, the beauty of the heroine was mentioned a whopping 114 times!
Through these fairytales, it has been fed into our brains that women are the weaker sex, seeking rescue from strong men. Have you wondered what is common in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White? Besides being these porcelain skinned-women, all of them are saved from their misery and painful lives by a handsome, heroic figure. Typically, the character would be a glorified caricature reflecting defunct masculinity that boosts his ego through his life-threatening endeavors to save his “true love”. Dr. Victoria Sowunmi sees this as a very offensive aspect for both genders. She says, “This places a large amount of unnecessary stress onto both sexes and, in particular, women as they believe that they should take up the western traditional role of being a woman”.
The Problematic Aspirations
Another discourse that I feel is injected in us through the fairy tales is seeing marriage as the final goal, an ultimate reward. At a time when we all are tying the knot so late and are even choosing never to marry at all, this unnecessary stress on finding the Mr. Right and getting married for a “happily ever after” does not go down well with a lot of us. This medieval narrative focuses on various fairytales such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Mermaid, and Cinderella.
When children read these, they often culminate the idea of matrimony being the ultimate happy ending. If we look at the so-called modern fairy tales like Stardust and Shrek, we see romantic union, again, being the ultimate ingredient in the recipe for a happy life. All this encourages marriage as the only aspiration for both the male and female protagonists and completely negates the value of social, financial, and professional success. These aspects rarely become a part of such narratives.
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This subtly hints that an unmarried person would be a failure and apparently have no place in society. Also, the way love is projected in these tales makes me feel uncomfortable. As per these narratives, love is all about falling for a good-looking person, love at first sight, as they call it. We don’t see a bond getting created. It just always rushes to marriage. They just see each other, and voila! The wedding bells start to ring. These stories emphasize that if two people are in love, they just have to get married immediately.
Through their pictures in the books and even in the movie adaptations, we all know that these fairy tale princesses are all slim, beautiful, and, of course, white. The lack of physical, racial as well as sexual diversity in these tales baffles me. Apart from the exceptions like Princess Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan, the more famous princesses like Snow White and Cinderella are all white-skinned women. Moreover, have you ever thought of the unrealistic, unhealthy body standards that these stories fix in young readers’ minds?
You have to have long locks of hair, doe-shaped eyes, and thin waists like Belle and Ariel in order to attract your Prince Charming. Just imagine what sort of detrimental ideas we have been ingraining in a child’s brain by feeding them with such restrictive standards of beauty. I strongly believe that more conversations need to be started on how these fairy tales distort the definition of happiness, beauty, and love for us since our childhood.
We grow up equating beauty with particular skin color and body type. No wonder, so many of us turn out to be sad people with body image issues, hate the face we see in the mirror, and go under the knife to look a certain way. On rare occasions where we come across a “plus-size” figure starring in a Disney remake of a Grimms tale, these characters are maternal figures like Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast or villainous characters like Ursula from The Little Mermaid.
Lack of Inclusivity
Another point that needs to be highlighted here is that there is hardly any character that is not heterosexual. Thankfully, the recent film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast features LeFou, a homosexual character. Still, it saddens me that what could have been a plot-driving, definitive characteristic was reduced to just a mere allusion. This was indeed a puny attempt at showcasing sexual diversity.
Another aspect that these tales lack is female solidarity or sisterhood. The lessons of unity and togetherness can be best taught to the young and fresh minds of children. Sadly, they end up becoming the ones who are served with tales of evil moms poisoning sweet girls, siblings torturing their step-sisters, and women turning vindictive towards one another. In the words of Ruth Bottigheimer, these characters are shown in such a way with an “inner drive to incriminate females”.
It is high time that we do away with such outdated, hopeless ideologies imparted to innocent children by society’s “sensible” adults. Fairy tales can actually be a great way to inspire imaginative discussions and views among children. So, let’s focus on reworking them and giving them an ending that makes more sense to the young kids.
Undoubtedly, there are tales like Beauty and the Beast where there is a role reversal, and a man is saved by a woman, but honestly, how often do we come across such stories? Rarely. While Cinderella must be appreciated for her compassion, care, and love for every creature, this doesn’t really change that the text imparts some messed-up notions regarding love and beauty.
Not only that, these fairy tales are way too positive to the brink of being unrealistic. Such tales are responsible for setting unrealistic expectations from life that induces kids to sheer disappointments in the future that lies ahead. The false worlds created by these stories make children ignorant and oblivious to real-world problems while signing them up for a life filled with dissatisfaction.
Time to Change Things
For ages, fairy tales have been powerful transmitters of social and cultural ideas. They play a major role when it comes to advocating the stereotypical gender roles assigned by society. Every time a kid is exposed to fairy tales, it shapes the way s/he views men and women, definitions of various aspects, and so on. This is something that should not be overlooked. Thank God, with the advent of new fairy tales, we can see these old classics reworked with independent female figures from different races.
Tales like Moana, Mulan, and Frozen mirror a feminist society where the women are not pulling each other down, are not obsessed with the male figures in their lives, and do not even need a prince to save them. Before handing out fairy tales to our future generations, we must make an effort to alter them and then present the revamped, reworked version of these to young minds. It is our duty to save them from the venomous ideology that these tales pass onto the children. Kids need to know they are their own knights and saviors. They don’t need a man, woman, or non-binary person to complete their stories.
They can write their own happy endings. These stories need to be injected with career-related goals and aspirations. You have better goals than getting married to the first person you come across! From a very young age, kids need to know that every skin color and every type is beautiful. You don’t need to look all plastic and flawless to be gorgeous. You need to be comfortable in your skin and work towards making it healthier. We must make sure that our kids and grandkids don’t use these tales as a guide for an ideal kind of love, happiness, and relationships.
A minimalist traveler who derives peace from art, books, journals, handwritten letters, and the simple joys of life.