“Then she took him to her kingdom where she was received with great joy, and there they lived happily ever-”
In a world where unassertive and weak are the adjectives used to define women, are fairy tales really leading to a happily ever after? As optimistic and joyous these fairy tales appear to be, they subtly propagate misogynistic beliefs of unilateral dependence of female figures on their knights in shining armor. Stereotyping character traits, disposition, and mentality of a certain gender, has been normalised. Children’s first educational instrument that helps in developing and nurturing their psyche are fairy tales and so the messages they carry are of profound significance. Hence, a fairytale which subliminally promotes patriarchal norms would have as much effect as fairy tales meant to teach values and morals.
Traditional fairy tales portray the female figure as a damsel in distress who needs rescuing from her plight by an exceedingly rich, smart, and handsome ‘Prince Charming.’ Snow White in her story is depicted as a courageous female figure and yet she needs to be saved by a man who epitomises all stereotypical values traditionally prescribed to the male gender. Similarly, Rapunzel in her story needs a prince to liberate her from her abusive household. Such pattern can be seen throughout all the generations of fairy tales, from the Grimm Brothers’ version to the Hans Christian Anderson’s, and represents the pervasive gender bias wherein it is a necessity for female figures to be saved by chivalrous knights and princes.
The other mould females conform to in fairy tales is that of a villain. If not compliant and in distress, female figures are almost always depicted as the vain, evil sorceress, witch, stepmother or stepsister. Cinderella had a wicked stepmother and two equally foul step sisters while Ursula was the cunning, nefarious entity in the Little Mermaid. This sequence continues throughout the Grimm Brothers’ series and eventually these characterisations transcend into daily life scenarios through which words and gestures that are demeaning towards women, have become a more integral and acceptable part of our culture.Thus, fairy tales in a veiled fashion seek to categorise women as either a submissive or a dominant.
However, why is such a characterisation significant or adverse? Fairy tales, after all, are fictional work of art that do not represent or depict real life dispositions of people. This reasoning is not only unsound, but also fallible. The trivialisation of fairy tales as simply fictional work at best shifts focus from the values (positive and negative) which they inculcate and at worst, promotes patriarchal notions. This example classically illustrates Professor Catherine MacKinnon‘s views on patriarchal notions and objectivity. Equating them to a hall of mirrors, she says that it reflects the same patriarchal biases which prevail in the society. Opinions which fail to consider the notions which fairy tales purport suffer from the same fallacy. Being conditioned by a patriarchal perspective, they fail to see the propagation of these norms. The biggest market for mainstream fairy tales is children. Children read fairy tales at an impressionable age, when it is highly probable for them to be influenced by the notions and beliefs disseminated by them. Since childhood, they have been subjected to plot lines which assert females to either be helpless victims or selfish, malicious villains. This belief is carried by them into adolescence and adulthood, and becomes an integral part of their thinking process. In this manner, certain preconceived notions and opinions are imposed and propagated in the future generations. Hence, successive generations are born carrying these socially crafted notions that were never concluded through experience but rather from people’s obtrusion.
Furthermore, these predetermined perspectives condition the evolution of gender roles. Through this prejudged lens the role of a submissive is equated with the nature of a ‘woman’ irrespective of whether her disposition is consistent with such a role. Similarly, these outlooks have an adverse effect on the male gender as well. “Aggressive, alpha, macho, breadwinners” are few of the several adjectives that are associated with the male figure regardless of their temperament. Such impositions are harmful for the simple reason that one is forced to conform to these ‘ideals’ that one does not identify with, which can lead to several problems ranging from low self- esteem, lack of confidence, depression to a major identity crisis, affecting the choices they make about their future. Moreover, the imposition of these roles allows for the permeation of the belief that the ‘woman’ is a secondary character meant for advancing the needs and purposes of the protagonist i.e, the ‘male.’
While the extensive practice of negative gender stereotyping still exists, efforts have been taken to counter the adverse effects. Recently, Disney broke the commonly followed gender roles in fairy tales by launching two home movies- Frozen, and Brave– which had a strong, independent female heroine central to its plot, and male figures as the secondary characters. Societal changes whereby men are taking to the kitchens while women are slowly being encouraged to be career-oriented are also indicative of a shift in outlook towards a more gender equal society. However, though these changes are developing and growing, will they ever be enough to minimise gender stereotyping while the traditional fairy tales are still being read to the suggestive psyche of children?
Photo Credit : Kevin Dooley (Flickr)