At an early soft age when we are naïve, trusting, uncritical and nonjudgmental of the told stories (almost all with a similar plot) of a far faraway land where lived, the most beautiful princess, who after much hardship, devotion, sacrifice and staying in confinement is set free by the brave and handsome “Prince Charming”. Upon her rescue, they get married and live happily ever after.
Here is my take on why Classic Fairytales by Grimm’s Brothers and Disney should be avoided. They should be avoided for gender gap to reduce and gender equality to become a natural habit in our babies.
1. Instill false dreams of “Happily Ever After”: Life is a journey of constant ups and downs and the notion of “Happily ever after” leaves a sense of hope which is a subject of worry when it lingers on from childhood to youth. Girls and young women grow up believing that only their Prince will get them their “Happily ever after”. It’s very common to hear a girl in her 20s something, wishing for her “Happily Ever After” say “Oh! I hope for a prince charming who sweeps me off my feet?” Or “I hope to get my Prince Charming sooner than later”
In several instances, the beauty of princesses is over emphasized leaving young girls convinced that “happily ever after” happens after they are married to their prince charming who is attracted to only the ultimate form of beauty. And since beauty is the way to get that prince to marry, young girls make beauty an ultimate goal forgoing any other idea of self-belief, self-development and empowerment. It’s an extreme distortion of reality that defines our young ladies reality.
I remember many of my classmates on being asked what would they want to be when they grow up, replied with answers like: I’d like to be married with a happy family or I would not work after marriage or why do I need to work after marriage or I just want to settle down in a good family with a nice husband. It was as much of a shocker for me then as it is now.
2. Predefine gender roles and promotes gender hierarchy where princess is nothing but beautiful with meek demeanor (remember the fairest princess in captivity who is always a victim?) and prince is masculine, brave and handsome, the ultimate “Rescuer”. Fairytales instill a concept that a good girl is someone who is patient, obedient and willing to take all the bad that life has to offer while waiting obediently for her prince to appear and take her away for a better life. Fairytales dictates a clear distinction of roles where girls are not taught to utilize their potential for their own good. Further, it leads society to believe “good” women are week and powerless and depend on man for every right.
Fairytales promote patriarchal form of society. Men are shown adventurers and women as care givers. In fairytales boys are strong, girls are dainty. Man is often a leader and women are either weak or evil. In either of the two cases of women portrayal, it’s men’s onus to either rescue or destroy women. In short, women are subjugated to male domination and superiority.
In a patriarchal structure, a young, pretty girl, when seen with short, stout, middle aged and balding man is never frowned upon as it’s not man’s but woman’s foremost duty to appear attractive. Hence, a handsome man with not so attractive female is often questioned for his choice. Achievements or intellect of the women are not even a consideration and are often discounted just because she doesn’t fit in the idea of perfect beauty.
3. Tell Girls to be unambitious without any real goals in life except getting hitched. They must wait and rely on men for freedom, riches and to do right by them. And if at all they get ambitious, independent and self-achieving, they must still possess their attractiveness and youthful beauty to cater to men’s fancy. No wonder young girls influenced by fairy tales, choose Barbie Princess over Legos or Barbie with a profession.
The idea of being special and deserve everything extraordinary is instilled in girls from early on. Parents address their daughters as Princesses and Dolls. This idea of is carried forward from their childhood to teenage years and later to their twenties. They constantly hope and wish for their prince charming to arrive, if not on a horse or huge chariot then in a white Bentley or black Cadillac; an assurance of all the riches and comforts they have always wished for, from their Prince Charming.
Twisted concepts of society and hyped expectations from future, often lead young girls to not dream about careers, let alone build one. In order to appear feminine and dainty, most girls refrain from participating in sports and other physical activities. They seek beauty at the expense of other pursuits. Later in their lives these are the girls who miss out on a possibility of a great career. And even if they do manage to work well for their career, they often wait for someone (boss or a colleague) to recognize their work and do right by them. No wonder, we are struggling to create more and more women leaders to fight for freedom, power and equality for rest of the members of the dainty gender.
‘Beauty and brains’ is such a novelty. When we meet successful attractive women, we fail to understand how to react to them, how to treat them. As a defense mechanism, men and also women often label and stereotype them as evil, bossy or dominating and downplay them without giving them much credit for their talent or hard work. After all, Fairytales told us that only men are the leaders and women fighting for power, aiming for beauty or magical powers are evil who will destroy the entire kingdom.
I agree, the more the women wishing to be in power, to change and aim for a better career and treatment for them, the sooner the patriarchal system of subjugation and domination will be destroyed. The only thing I shall agree to disagree with is that they are evil.
4. Instill the belief that “Beauty is supreme” and is symbolic of good character that leads to ultimate success.
It’s a powerful message that ‘beauty’ is the ultimate ‘power’. For females, beauty is shown an easy access to all the riches and luxuries in life. No wonder attractive people are rewarded manifolds when compared to unattractive people. An intelligent, pretty girl is called ‘Beauty with Brains’ where “beauty” take precedence. However, an adventurous man would be called ‘brave and handsome’ where ‘brave’ takes precedence’. Beauty is given importance by both the genders, but for women “beauty” must be the first adjective defeating everything else.
Concepts like “Fairest maiden gets the prince”, “Beauty takes you places”, berates everything except beauty. It has resulted in many socio economic issues like anorexia, depression among young adults. It’s a perfectly common site where an average sized young women is labeled fat by her classmates just because she doesn’t fit in the “Fairytale” norm of beauty.
In the process of promoting beauty, we are sabotaging intelligence and everything that lies in its realm. The only reason why “Beauty with Brains” is so highly sought after in today’s age is because we have not let the brains of our young baby girls nurture beyond the concept of fair and pretty maiden. In the beauty race, brains somewhere took a backseat. Beauty contests are a mirror reflection of how the ideal beauty is molded in men’s heads. A clear and loud message is sent across that in women the most important asset is her youthful appearance, bright smile under unrealistic pressure combined with meek demeanor.
Closer home, plethora of anti-aging and fairness treatments that help retain or extended youthful appearance to stay appealing to the opposite sex are doing their bit in reinforcing the idea of ‘Youthful Beauty’.
5. Say that everything in life is absolute: People are either just good or just bad. They are just giving or evil. There is absolute absolutism without any scope of dilution. It’s distorting children’s perspective of reality. Perception might be a few people’s reality, but is never the entire truth. Fairytales crush the concept of “benefit of doubt” as trusting protagonists are always betrayed and harmed by the evil characters.
I remember once, at the age of 8, my friend took away my pencil box. Since she was my best friend, as a child I never forgave her as she meant harm to me. I was so in sync with the concept of good and evil that I never gave her a second chance to even talk to me. A damage that could have been fixed, was left untouched, scarring a friendship for life.
Shades in which fairytales evil characters are painted, are so deep that the reader, including adults don’t connect or feel any empathy towards them. Children, especially girls learn to never trust other girls as evil characters narrated in the stories are mostly power greedy and beauty hungry ugly women who are jealous of the princess’s beauty and would go to any lengths to destroy it. Fairytales often convey that, two girls can never be friends and the unattractive one of the two, will always be jealous of the attractive one.
6. Set unrealistic expectation of our partners. Everybody wants:
- The most beautiful bride who waits endlessly in a most obedient and polite manner. She looks like a dream princess even on her worst days.
- Mr. Prince Charming with the lightning sword to provide her all the things she has ever wished for, needs and demands.
Things are changing but not at the same pace for girls as they are for boys. A metrosexual man is acceptable but a tomboy in a leading position is not an acceptable thought.
I want a daughter not to dress and doll her up to look all pretty to attract boys. I want a son not to take beauty as the main criteria for his partner selection. I would want my girl to have dreams apart from getting hitched and I would want my son to choose an equal partner to thread a balanced way of life.
How do we ignite a change in the thought process? We re-evaluate the tales that we tell our children.
- Remove ‘Happily ever after’. It’s ok to have a realistic ending once in a while which can either be happy or sad.
- Swap the roles while telling stories e.g. in Cinderella, swap the beautiful helpless maiden by a man. It’s ok for men to be helpless sometimes and play victim to their cousins and step fathers. It might add a bit of humor too to the story instead of making it all romantic and mature.
- Tales about Friendship: Tales about women and men being more than just a husband and wife. Both the genders need to blend as intelligent, strong and equal individuals with capability to deal with life and its circumstances with an equal zeal. Beauty needs a major downplay in our narratives.
- Reinvent Classics with newer themes as shown in Shrek where goodness of heart and love of one another takes precedence over conventional forms of beauty. Self-acceptance was biggest value that popped out for me and Disney can very well make some good movies with few reshuffled elements.
- Alternates: Explore stories around travel and adventure like Gulliver’s travel. Stories from our religion and culture that instills morals and ethics can serve good in fueling the imagination in young brains.
My list of stories for my kids will include tales of my travels, adventures, family reunions, animal love, fun anecdotes and escapades.
The fabric on which our Fairytales are built, needs to be dyed or torn apart for us to get to a point where despite different genders, there is no hierarchy and no predefined choices for our children. My kids will believe in their dreams which would be much more than just looking beautiful or getting hitched to someone with riches. I’d like them to believe in themselves and their hard work. The false and superficial ideas of Fairest Maiden, Supreme Power and Prince Charming shall not even chart in their bucket list.
Are you an expecting parent or raising a child? Please share your thoughts about how would you like to raise your kids in today’s society where everything is led by brands, beauty and pressure to look impeccable.
References: “…Happily Ever After (or What Fairytales Teach Girls About Being Women) http://hilo.hawaii.edu/academics/hohonu/documents/Vol07x07HappilyEverAfter.pdf