You may think that some of your favourite child hood fairy tales, such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, are a harmless and fun story to read children, but have you ever considered the messages about girls and boys, women and men that they are presenting to you?
More and more people are recognising the unhealthy sexist and hetero normative stereotypes and messages that traditional fairy tales contain. Reportedly both Keira Knightley and Kristen Bell have criticised key storylines in classic fairy tales. Keira Knightley commented on the Ellen Show (17th Oct 2018) that her daughter was not allowed to watch several Disney movies with sexist portrayal of female leads, including 1950s Cinderella “because she waits around for a rich guy to rescue her.” The Little Mermaid is also banned in Knightley’s household because the character gives her voice up for a man.
Gender Stereotyping prevails in Fairy Tales and the most common themes are as follow:
Body Norms and Beauty
Princesses are portrayed as beautiful in every way, facially, with white skin, long hair and small feet. You’ve never seen a plus size Disney princess have you?
Evil Women are Ugly
Evil characters, commonly step mothers and step sisters, are female and are physically unattractive by societal norms.
Rescued By a Man
The lead, good female character is always portrayed as being saved by a Prince, or a man, and this is a romantic (positive) thing. The good female is generally submissive, accepting her lot in life, typically bound to the home.
Home Bound Women
Another disheartening commonality that Snow White, Belle and Cinderella share is their heightened domesticity. The only way Belle can save her poor father from the Beast’s entrapment is by becoming his house maid and Cinderella is bound to a life of floor-scrubbing while poor Snow White has to cater for seven male dwarves [https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/fairy-tales-children-stop-reading-parents-body-image-gender-roles-women-girls-sexism-a8067641.html] whilst passively waiting for her prince to appear and save her.
Marriage is the Ultimate
Marriage is the ultimate goal, giving negative role models for both women and men.
Sexual aggressiveness or assault is acceptable and not a negative thing, for example in Sleeping Beauty the prince kissing princess in her sleep, in original version princess has baby in her sleep Giambattista Basile's "Sun, Moon, and Talia," the predecessor of "Sleeping Beauty," the princess actually wakes up when she gives birth to the children of the prince, who has raped her in her sleep [https://www.bustle.com/articles/149098-5-fairy-tale-tropes-that-perpetuate-sexism]
Polarization of Women – As Good or Bad
Polarization of the appearance of women according to their character, they are good, young, slim and beautiful or evil - old, fat (or usually not slim) and ugly by societal norms.
Women are Not Supportive of Each Other
Women do not help each other in life and are vindictive and competitive with each other, men ‘help’ (rescue) women who are young, slim and attractive, by marrying them. The theme is often that other girls or women are not to be trusted and are your competition. E.g. Cinderellas’ ugly sisters trying to stop her from going to the ball. In Snow White the Evil Queen doesn’t want Snow White to be more beautiful than her.
Lack of Sexual and Racial Diversity
Fairy tales typically display an absolute lack of sexual and racial diversity. Characters portrayed are almost inevitably white and straight.
Fairy tales are a common thread throughout the fabric of childhood in modern society. Most fairy tales have distinct trends that focus on validating women through their beauty, submissive and feminine behaviour while men are portrayed as strong, heroic and at times, violent. Rather than being a mere reflection of societal ideals, these fairy tales perpetuate Christian, patriarchal concepts as a means of maintaining the gender hierarchy. [Anthropology 324 Essay, Happily Ever After (or What Fairytales Teach Girls) pp.38-42, Alice Neikirk, accessed 31st January 2020, https://hilo.hawaii.edu/campuscenter/hohonu/volumes/documents/Vol07x07HappilyEverAfter.pdf]
The typical female lead character is submissive, accepting of her lot in life while waiting for the prince to appear and take control of her destiny.
In many ways, some of the more popular stories can be interpreted as an elaborate ‘beauty contest’, emphasising the message that a woman’s youthful appearance, especially when paired with her appropriately meek demeanour, is her most important asset (Lieberman, 1972)
Conversely, women that are not beautiful are a source of suspicion. The evil stepsisters in Cinderella are at least in the author’s mind, unattractive women compared to their attractive counterparts. In this respect, a character’s beauty makes them dangerous; their unappealing physical form sets them up for another form of victimization. Here again, one can assume that the authors have shifted the treacherous behaviour of men to the actions of other females (Deszcz, 2002).
The mutilation of the stepsisters’ feet in Cinderella also presents the notion that women will go to great lengths in order to undermine each other. This common theme sends a message to girls that they cannot trust one another, a message in approximately 17% of the tales (Baker, 2003). [Anthropology 324 Essay, Happily Ever After (or What Fairytales Teach Girls) pp.38-42, Alice Neikirk, accessed 31st January 2020, https://hilo.hawaii.edu/campuscenter/hohonu/volumes/documents/Vol07x07HappilyEverAfter.pdf]
Sadly things haven’t changed that much in modern media productions, typically women in films are portrayed in a sexist way and it is well documented they need a certain level of attractiveness to win the role in the first place.
Picture credit https://testkitchen.huffingtonpost.com/grimm/#