Once upon a time in the 17th century, Fairy Tales originated and many of these were born from French
literature which often includes magical creatures such as fairies. Three personalities who need to be credited for the existence of this genre are Charles Perrault who authored the original versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood etc. and the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm) who collected, edited and published these tales.
For years, fairy tales are the first set of books that are recommended to every child. But do you know that the original fairy tales had gruesome plots, and explicit sexual references and were originally intended for adults? Did you know that in the original version of Sleeping Beauty she was not kissed by the prince but in fact raped by the prince and in Cinderella, the step sisters mutilate their feet so that the glass slippers fit? Are you now second-guessing your decision of reading a fairy tale to your child?
Worry not, because as these tales got passed down from generation to generation, the storylines were altered to make them suit a younger audience.
Since the popularity of fairy tales among children cannot be overlooked, it is important for us to question the relevance of these tales in today’s age. What if, even after altering and sanitising it, the stories that reach our children are problematic?
Stepmothers drenched in evilness
Pick any fairy tale which has a stepmother and you will find that this character is always portrayed as the villain. In Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs – the stepmother wants Snow White dead, In Cinderella – the stepmother is cruel and harasses Cinderella and in Hansel & Gretel – the stepmother abandons the children in the forest. It is natural for a story to have evil characters but the problem arises when one particular character is always chosen to be evil. These tales can easily influence young minds and leave an impression that stepmothers will always be bad. This preconceived notion may lead them to adversely judging every second marriage they encounter in their life.
Damsels in Distress & their heroes
In almost all popular fairy tales, the female lead characters are portrayed as defenceless and powerless. Whether it is Rapunzel who is locked up in a tower, Cinderella who runs around doing all the chores for her stepmother and stepsisters, or Snow White who cooks and cleans for the dwarfs – there is no female character who is not suffering.
If damsels in distress exist, then there ought to be a hero who comes in the cliched white horse to save her. Rapunzel makes a plan to escape the tower only because she fell in love with the prince, Cinderella gets freedom from her abusive stepmother because of the prince and Snow White is kissed awake by her respective Prince Charming.
Fairy tales seem to follow the age-old prescribed gender roles – weak females who suffer meekly and glorified males who save them. What happened to woman’s empowerment? Why can’t Rapunzel strangle the sorceress with her long golden hair and escape? Why can’t Cinderella or Snow White live independently and earn their own livelihood? Okay, maybe all these scenarios were too far-fetched to even imagine in the 17th century but is it right to still recite these tales of helpless female leads to the children of the 21st century? Do we still want our children to imagine that females are weak and not capable of having a voice or stand of their own?
Mirror, Mirror on the wall, how does the heroine look?
In addition to all the above-mentioned damsels, Beauty (from Beauty & the Beast) and the mermaid (from The Little Mermaid) are all female leads and they follow the conventional standard of being slim, trim, fair and heterosexual. And with that, the chapter on inclusion goes in the trash. Also, the
villains in these tales usually do not look as beautiful as the female leads and are often called out for their ugliness or for their craving to look as pretty as the lead.
Such depictions, when fed into young minds, can create self-esteem issues. These fairy tales can be used as a counter-example to teach them to accept all body shapes/sizes, skin tones and sexuality.
Happily ever after = ring on the finger
There is no fairy tale where the female lead is pursuing an education, career or even a passion. All they are expected to do is do household chores and/or look beautiful so that a prince falls for them. The ultimate ‘happily ever after’ for all of them is to get married.
The story of ‘The Little Mermaid’ goes overboard. The mermaid who fell in love with a prince decides
to live on land and marry him. To come to land, she drinks a potion which renders her mute and gives
her legs but every time she walked, it would feel like walking on knives. She makes all these sacrifices
and leaves behind her home for the prince but he marries someone else and she commits suicide. The moral of the story is – Try your maximum to get married and if you fail, give up on yourself since you have just lost to achieve the ultimate goal of your life.
When society is slowly accepting the fact that marriage is optional and not an essentiality, such fairy tales can be counterproductive in building this mindset among children. Highlighting that marriage is the only so-called ‘happily ever after’ in a female’s life is definitely not a healthy moral.
Consent? What’s that?
In the 17th century dictionary, the word ‘consent’ may not have existed, why else would some random prince kiss Sleeping Beauty and Snow White when they were in a coma? Please note that in the original version of Sleeping Beauty, she was raped. So definitely the term consent was not coined in that era.
A prince kissing someone to wake them up from a coma is not something that should be told to children as a romantic storyline. Rather they should be taught to question the permission aspect and the punishment given for such audacity shown by the prince.
Normalisation of Stockholm syndrome
Stockholm syndrome is a condition in which a captive develops emotional connection/feelings for her kidnapper. Beauty and the Beast is a popular fairy tale which romanticises this psychological condition. If you read this story with a clear mind, you will find that Belle (the female lead) is forcefully imprisoned by the Beast because her father stole a flower from his garden. The Beast is portrayed as a moody, irritated and complicated person but Belle patiently and calmly cajoles him to show his vulnerabilities/good side and eventually, she falls in love with him.
Isn’t the character of the Beast equivalent to a Kalipan? And yet again such stories are forcing the future generation to think that however bad a man’s character is, a girl/marriage can help rectify his defects.
Maybe the ‘Once upon a time’ in every fairytale is a trigger warning that the content is from the stone age and should be not completely accepted by today’s generation. Thanks to Disney, fairy tales are ever more popular and here to stay for quite a long time, so saying ‘No’ to them is definitely not a viable solution.
Rather if a person reads a fairy tale to a child, they can apply their creativity and alter the problematic areas of the story while reciting it. Or, if a child happens to read a fairy tale on their own, the parent/teacher can call out the portions of the story which are incorrect. One can even ask the children to point out the issues portrayed and this can help enhance their analytic skills too. So do give fairy tales a fair chance but with the benefit of the doubt.