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The Problem With Fairy Tales

Something has never felt right for me with fairy tales. Even before I knew what feminism was, I knew there were aspects of fairy tales that made me uncomfortable. By fairy tales, I mean stories that originated in oral tradition and were written down by folk collectors such as Charles Perrault. As I have grown older, I have realised what was making me uncomfortable; I felt that fairy tales were sexist. Or as Marina Warner put it in her Daily Telegraph article, fairy tales “aren’t... always on the side of women.” So what are the issues with fairy tales and feminism?

Let’s examine the way fairy tales emphasize feminine physical beauty. Notice how many times the heroine is described as being beautiful, whilst the (usually female) villain’s lack of attractiveness is highlighted. The Ugly Sisters in Cinderella are a case in point. Ok sure, you may argue, the heroines are always beautiful, but they also succeed because they are good hearted, caring, etc. But can you name a fairy tale with an unattractive heroine? Many fairy tales tend to place a woman’s value on her beauty and servitude. In 2003, researchers at Purdue University examined 168 Grimm Brothers’ tales and found that 94% of the Grimms' tales acknowledged physical appearance, and the average references per story were 13.6. They also found and that in one story, female beauty was referenced 114 times. In comparison, the number of references to male beauty did not exceed 35 per story.

Age also crops up many times in fairytales. In most versions of Little Red Riding Hood, the aged grandmother gets eaten. But the child, Little Red Riding Hood survives. Another example of youth triumphing where age falters is in Snow White, because as soon as Snow White is born, her mother dies and the daughter takes her place. Throughout traditional fairy tales, older women are depicted as hags, witches and evil step- mothers, such as the Step- Mother in Snow White. However, one point that can be made is that there are a few positive depictions of older women in fairy tales, an example being the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella who aides the heroine.

Moving on. I think we have all heard the term “damsel in distress,” a term synonymous with fairy tales. “Sleeping Beauty” or Briar-Rose, as she known in the Grimm version, is an example of one such “damsel" who needs a man to save her. In this fairytale, a woman is socialised into a passive role, waiting for a man to come to her rescue. Briar-Rose also doesn’t appear to be surprised when she wakes up from a long sleep, with a strange man kissing her. Instead, according to Grimm’s version of the tale, she “looked at him quite sweetly.” Angela Carter, in her anthology The Bloody Chamber, inverts these passive depictions of women. Her take on the Little Red Riding Hood tale, “Company of Wolves”, does not depict the female protagonist as a submissive victim. When she is faced with the werewolf, instead of being scared, the girl “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.” It could be argued that she is almost complicit with the werewolf’s actions.

So is there an issue with fairy tales and their depiction of women? Fairy tales can be viewed as powerful transmitters of cultural ideas and could be regarded as playing a key role in advocating traditional gender roles. It could definitely be said that fairy tales put forth the idea of women being beautiful, young and weak. However, how many children have really been influenced by fairy tales? Aren't they just stories? I do think it's unlikely that fairy tales will affect someone’s perception of women and gender roles to a huge extent -- by which I mean I don't think fairy tales will make somebody sexist. But I think that every time we hear these stories, there is an impact on the way we view women, and that should not be underestimated.



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