Revisiting Fairy Tales – An Attempt at Unlearning Stereotypes

As children fairy tales were our world of imagination and pleasure. Fairy tales, with an extravagant world of fairies, princes, goblins, elves, giants, trolls and witches, are dreams personified for children. These are referred to as wonder or magic tales having originated from a wide variety of tiny tales, perhaps thousands of years ago. They were related to beliefs, rites, values and experiences of pagan people. Settings placed in the past, the inclusion of fantasy, supernatural or make-believe aspects, the incorporation of clearly defined good and evil characters, magic elements, focus on a problem or conflict in need of resolution, and a happy ending are qualities that make fairy tales continue throughout time. They provide a source of inspiration for children and role models to look up to. Fairy tales are therefore important pieces of children’s literature.

However, the mystified adult relationships and portrayal of female protagonists in fairy tales, with subtle stereotypical nuances and gender roles reverberates a child’s mind and get entrenched in the social psyche of a generation. In fairy tales, we meet a variety of female characters. If we recall Grimm’s fairy tales, we think of figures such as Snow White, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and countless evil stepmothers and witches. If on one hand, the women in the fairy tales are evil like the witches or stepmothers who usually die in the end; on the other there are innocent, beautiful and virtuous characters. The good maiden rides off with a prince, who saves her from misery and she marries him to become the princess in his castle. Fairy tales embody the ways in which societies attempted to silence and oppress women making them passive. Much of the fairy tale literature reinforces the idea that women should be wives and mothers, submissive, self-sacrificing, without ambition, beautiful and eager to marry.

In Snow White, the dwarfs make sure that Snow White can cook, wash and clean the house. Snow White is so innocent that she is deprived of developing an independent self. The dwarfs who are men are clear about the conditions under which Snow White is allowed to stay with them. She fulfills all the duties like a good housewife and has only one flaw. Her naiveté and curiosity compels her to open the door and let the evil witch in, despite the fact that wise dwarfs have warned her to be careful. Besides Snow White there are many other examples like Cinderella who strictly fulfills the female duties around the house, even though she is abused by her stepmother and sisters. She does not choose to stand against them; instead she endures her situation until a prince rescues her. Cinderella possesses all the admirable qualities to be wooed by the princes; works for the house and bears everything in silence. Red Riding Hood is the best example of an innocent young girl becoming the victim of a wolf once she leaves her familiar home. She is confident, fearless and travels in the forest alone to reach her grandmother’s place. She has absolutely no idea of ‘evil’ associated with the wolf and her learning experience is a painful one. Embedded in these tales are warnings to little girls of what will befall upon them should they choose to exhibit “non-female traits”.

In the fairy tales, passivity is the most valued and honored attribute a woman can possess in life. It is not the female who can save herself from harm or an undesirable situation; it is the male that must save her. The Sleeping Beauty sleeps for nearly hundred years only to be awakened to life by the restoring kiss of the Prince charming. Cinderella is saved from her miserable existence through the help of the prince. Beauty is highly revered in fairy tales being associated with intelligence, ability, kindness, worthiness and morality and this can be well perceived from the Grimm’s fairy tales. Ambitious women in the fairy tales are always portrayed as evil from within, ugly and scheming, wielding over other women and men. As for example, the stepmother in Snow White, the evil stepmother in Cinderella, and the stepmother of Hansel and Gretel who left the children in the forest. The stepmothers in fairy tales bear negative and repulsive traits, such as vanity, jealousy and pride. Combined with these traits are their knowledge of magic and sorcery. Despite her knowledge of the supernatural, her beauty is a fading one. These stories successfully manage to imprint some serious messages on tender minds in a subtle manner by perpetuating some serious gendered stereotypes in an indirect manner. The stories promote some stereotypical physical and mental attributes of male and female. The young readers are made to believe that there is a link between beauty and goodness and evil is always linked with ugliness. The ideal girls/women in stories are supposed to be pretty, tall, fair in complexion, shy, meek, submissive, and compliant. These initial impressions about gender remain with them for a long time.

However, with the passage of time, the fairy tales have undergone great changes and have become diffused in their nature and spirit. Although there are many female characters in fairy tales who are passive figures, there are others who challenge the passivity by their transformative power of speech. There are examples of women in fairy tales who are brave and witty, such as Gretel, who exhibits common sense and kills the evil witches. In ‘Rapunzel’, ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ and ‘Scheherazade’, the female protagonists are not passive or silent. They are women who begin as objects of desire, but who strive to find their voice and through means of speech transform their social ambitions. Disney has recently developed tales such as Mulan, where there is a female protagonist challenging the prejudices her country currently has. In her Chinese culture women are not permitted to join the army and fight alongside the men. Nevertheless, she does, and in the end is given many accolades for her accomplishments. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is a children’s book packed with 100 bedtime stories about the life of 100 extraordinary women from the past and the present, illustrated by 60 female artists from all over the world. This book inspires girls with the stories of great women, from Elizabeth I to Serena Williams.

Such drastic changes in the structure of fairy tales shows how culture can change for the better. Hence, society must make an effort to accept the change of societal values and reflect these changes in its modern works of art. In doing so the traditional presentation of the female gender as exhibited in Fairy tales may be interpreted from new angles. As Hans Christian Anderson once said, “Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale of all.” That quote is true; we have this chance to live out our lives and every day can be truly beautiful.

-Saptaparni Majumdar (Winner of the Second Prize in Article Writing Competition 2020 in 13-24 Years Age Group)


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