Fairy tales and their mythical worlds are first introduced to us in childhood. They give our minds a place to wander and an opportunity for our imaginations to run wild. In our most formative years, these stories introduce us to arguably some of the most important lessons in life: don’t talk to strangers, be kind to everyone no matter their social status, and if your love is strong enough, it has the power to overcome anything. Fairy tales, however, also deliver a number of stereotypes, especially surrounding women, that the modern world might want to take a closer look at.
We all know them. The evil stepmother, the ugly old witch, the beautiful princess who must be rescued from a far away castle. In her thesis essay at Rutgers University, Henal Patel explains the dichotomy of the female role in fairy tales, “As good as the heroine is, the villain is just as evil. These characters suggest if a woman shows agency and takes action, she is automatically evil. To be good, one must be docile.”
Picture Cinderella. A magical transformation turns a poor girl into someone beautiful enough to gain a prince’s love at first sight. This shows girls that beauty is of the utmost importance when it comes to finding love. It also shows us that finding a partner is the key to happiness. After all, the girls in the kingdom make it their life’s mission to be paired off with the prince.
It’s fairy tales like these that have been central to recent debate on how traditional stories are presented to children. Last year, it was reported that the state of Victoria, Australia, with help of its Respectful Relationships program, had taken an interest in teaching children to look further into certain fairy tales reinforcing gender stereotypes.
“The training encourages early childhood professionals to consider telling stories with a range of different characters in various professions and roles,” states the Victoria State Government website. “In fact, as educators reflect on whether there is balance in how genders and professions are represented in toys and books, it is likely that more books and resources will be added to provide balance and diversity in representation.”
In that sense, fairy tales can be used to build a repertoire of stereotypes to stray away from. They can also show us the existing misconceptions about gender that children should be aware of.
Kathy Jessup, an Edmonton storyteller and writer who has been telling stories to children around Canada for 25 years, explains that she approaches these certain aspects of stories as ways to build conversation. She refers to a particular story that she taught to children in Canada’s Northwest Territories about a drum set in India where female characters played a significant role.
“There’s a homeless woman and she’s cooking her dinner by the side of the road. And the other woman in the story is a widow. So I explain to the kids and say ‘In India, widows are lower on the social scale, you were the poorest of the poor. In India, your husband was your status and if you don’t have your husband, and if you don’t have your family, you can be really low rung,” says Jessup.
Instead of simply presenting the concept to children, Jessup says that she tries to use it “as a teachable moment and not a negative, rocking their little universe to realize there are parts of the world that have it worse than we have. Or explaining ‘this is why they do the things the way they do.’ I think there’s a lot we can do as storytellers to sort of bridge those gaps, to open up the world to a child.”
Jessup also states that when choosing certain stories to tell to children, there can be modifications made to certain parts, but only to an extent that it doesn’t rob the story of its meaning.
“Stories change over the years. They go around the world and there’s different settings for them, there’s different context. Stories morph anyway, so I don’t get to terribly hung up about it,” she says.
“But I know personally I would think twice about a story if I was telling it and thought ‘I don’t think I like this, I don’t like how the woman is treated.’ I might look to kind of modernize it and then I would probably say to kids that I made some changes to the story because I think it makes it more interesting, I think it makes it more how we live our lives.”
Jessup points to one universal truth about fairy tales and all stories for that matter: they’re altered over time.And just like most phenomena in history, there is no streamlined direction that points us to a particular place and time when these stereotypes of women specifically (the wicked witch, the helpful fairy godmother, the damsel in distress) first came to life. Instead, the roots of these storybook stereotypes tangle and overlap. How they came to fruition on paper, however, might be easier to pinpoint.
To trace back the very first fairy tale in existence would be nearly impossible, as many began and grew through oral tellings. Of course, there are countless records of literature and entire PhD’s dedicated to understanding the nature and origin of fairy tale themes, characters, and symbols. But the first printings of some of the more infamous fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella can be traced back to French author and former lawyer Charles Perrault.
“I think there’s a lot we can do as storytellers to sort of bridge those gaps, to open up the world to a child.”
— Kathy Jessup
Perrault wrote said tales a little over 300 years ago, and is most famous for a collection called Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals. He even offers a direct translation to the messages sewn into his stories, like Little Red Riding Hood for example: “From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, and it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner.”
The statement in itself paints a picture of how young girls should behave according to the standards of the time. However, the French writer is not all to blame for the negative gender stereotypes associated with classic fairy tales. Perhaps today it is easy to understand these stereotypes as crude, but in the 17th century it was nothing outside of normal.
Many of these classic fairy tales also contain, aside from their negative stereotypes, a great deal of wise women and women whose characters are a reflection of nature, guided by their own intuition. Clarisa Pincola Estes describes this archetype in her book Woman Who Run with the Wolves as the “wild woman.” According to Estes, it is something placed within all women and within all tales, but often buried deeper when each new version is made.
“I have learnt a vast body of knowledge about the bones of stories, and know when and where the bones are missing in a story,” says Estes. “Through the centuries, various conquests of nations by other nations, and both peaceful and forced religious conversions, have covered over or altered the original core of the old stories. But there is good news. For all the structural tumble-down in existing versions of tales, there is a strong pattern that still shines forth.”
The fairy tale stereotypes placed upon women have always had a hand in influencing our position in society, and the way we ought to act there. Whether those stereotypes belong to the beautiful princesses or the intuitive wild women, or both. Some Disney films are starting to show the duality, where beauty is illustrated alongside strength, intelligence, and courage. It’s how we look at these fairy tales today, and the ways we choose to allow them into our current lives which will give their stereotypes power.
It’s now more than ever revealed that outside the fairy-tale world, women indeed do have the power to break away from from the chains of stereotypes or the spells cast upon us. We know that the narratives of our own lives don’t require us to be only cast as victims in order for the story to go on.