They’re the bedtime stories we’ve been telling for centuries; they’re the inspiration behind the box office hits that indoctrinated our childhood – and yet, fairytales are riddled with prejudicial and archaic stereotypes.
Stories like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are so ingrained in popular culture that it can be all too easy to overlook the damaging ideologies that they perpetuate via misogynistic characters, degrading plot lines and racial uniformity.
Now, parents are imposing bans on these classic Disney tales, with Keira Knightley and Kristen Bell among those criticising some of the key storylines, which depict women being rescued by men and kissed while they sleep.
Donald Haase, author of Fairytales and Feminism, encourages parents to read these stories sceptically, so as to confront such archaisms rather than endorse them.
“They can read or tell classical tales in ways that intentionally question or subvert the stereotypes,” the Wayne State University professor told The Independent.
So, what are the stereotypes that parents should be discouraging?
Women are passive damsels who can only be saved by men
What do Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella all have in common?
Aside from porcelain skin and inexplicably glossy hair, they are each saved from a lifetime of misery and/or eternal sleep by a heroic Prince Charming figure.
Typically, this character is a glorified caricature of defunct masculinity, incensed solely by the egotism of a heroic quest for “true love”.
Naturally, this is as offensive to men as it is to women.
“This places a large amount of unnecessary stress onto both sexes and in particular women as they believe that they should take up the western traditional role of being a woman,” explains Dr Victoria Showunmi, who lectures in gender studies at UCL.
Marriage is the ultimate reward
In a culture where we’re getting hitched later than ever before and many choose never to marry at all, the compulsory “let’s get married and live happily ever after” narrative seems practically medieval.
Unfortunately, it is one of perennial focus in fairytales and subsequent remakes of stories such as The Little Mermaid, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, all of which culminate in a grand celebration of matrimony.
An everlasting romantic union is even the be-all and end-all for supposedly “modern” fairytales such as Shrek and Stardust.
Not only does this present marriage as the sole goal for the male and female characters, which subsequently characterises them as vapid, but it totally abhors the value of professional, financial and social success, all of which seldom feature in these narratives.
The implication, Showunmi argues, is that an unmarried person is a “failure which society has no place for.”
“Love is seen as a concept which happens when you find somebody to marry and not seen as evolving philosophical concept,” she told The Independent.
Lack of racial/physical/sexual diversity
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Disney princesses are beautiful, slim and more often than not, white.
While there are some exceptions (Mulan, Pocahontas and Princess Jasmine), traditionally, a white face reigns supreme.
Equally problematic is the unrealistic body standards set by whippet-thin Belles and Ariels, who dictate the animated fairytale world.
For a child encountering these stories for the first time, such restrictive aesthetic standards can be hugely detrimental, portraying the idea that beauty and happiness is synonymous with thinness.
On the rare occasion that a “plus-size” character features in one of Disney’s traditional remakes of a classic Grimms fairytale, they are either the typified antagonist or the benevolent maternal figure – think The Little Mermaid’s Ursula and Beauty and the Beast’s Mrs Potts.
Plus, these characters are almost always heterosexual.
While some celebrated the recent Beauty and the Beast remake for featuring a homosexual character (LeFou played by Josh Gad), the fact that this was simply a mere allusion rather than a definitive, plot-driving characteristic was deemed a feeble attempt at sexual diversity by LGBTQ campaigners.
Female characters are either bound to the home…
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 - one of whom is unappetisingly called Sneezy.
At least none of them were named Smelly.
…Or they’re evil step mothers/sisters/witches
That’s not to say that it’s all aprons and marigolds for our fairytale heroines.
One Google search for “fairytale villains” generates a slew of sadistic female “baddies”: Cinderella’s evil step mother, her “ugly sisters”, Ursula, the wicked witch of the west.
These women are vindictive towards one another and negate any concept of sisterhood.
They represent what literary scholar Ruth Bottigheimer called an “apparent inner drive to incriminate females” in her book Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys.
These rancorous caricatures present us with the “same theme” time and time again, explains Showunmi, that could severely inhibit a child’s propensity to form stable and supportive relationships.
While fairytales can be brilliant for inspiring imaginative discussions in children, parents must be vigilant in their way of sharing these tales so as to avoid promoting outdated ideologies they continue to foster.
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