Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Claire C on 05/25/2012

The Problem With Fairy Tales

Something has never felt right for me with fairy tales. Even before I knew what feminism was, I knew there were aspects of fairy tales that made me uncomfortable. By fairy tales, I mean stories that originated in oral tradition and were written down by folk collectors such as Charles Perrault. As I have grown older, I have realised what was making me uncomfortable; I felt that fairy tales were sexist. Or as Marina Warner put it in her Daily Telegraph article, fairy tales “aren’t… always on the side of women.” So what are the issues with fairy tales and feminism?

Let’s examine the way fairy tales emphasize feminine physical beauty. Notice how many times the heroine is described as being beautiful, whilst the (usually female) villain’s lack of attractiveness is highlighted. The Ugly Sisters in Cinderella are a case in point. Ok sure, you may argue, the heroines are always beautiful, but they also succeed because they are good hearted, caring, etc. But can you name a fairy tale with an unattractive heroine? Many fairy tales tend to place a woman’s value on her beauty and servitude. In 2003, researchers at Purdue University examined 168 Grimm Brothers’ tales and found that 94% of the Grimms’ tales acknowledged physical appearance, and the average references per story were 13.6. They also found and that in one story, female beauty was referenced 114 times. In comparison, the number of references to male beauty did not exceed 35 per story.

Age also crops up many times in fairytales. In most versions of Little Red Riding Hood, the aged grandmother gets eaten. But the child, Little Red Riding Hood survives. Another example of youth triumphing where age falters is in Snow White, because as soon as Snow White is born, her mother dies and the daughter takes her place. Throughout traditional fairy tales, older women are depicted as hags, witches and evil step- mothers, such as the Step- Mother in Snow White. However, one point that can be made is that there are a few positive depictions of older women in fairy tales, an example being the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella who aides the heroine.

Moving on. I think we have all heard the term “damsel in distress,” a term synonymous with fairy tales. “Sleeping Beauty” or Briar-Rose, as she known in the Grimm version, is an example of one such “damsel” who needs a man to save her. In this fairytale, a woman is socialised into a passive role, waiting for a man to come to her rescue. Briar-Rose also doesn’t appear to be surprised when she wakes up from a long sleep, with a strange man kissing her. Instead, according to Grimm’s version of the tale, she “looked at him quite sweetly.” Angela Carter, in her anthology The Bloody Chamber, inverts these passive depictions of women. Her take on the Little Red Riding Hood tale, “Company of Wolves”, does not depict the female protagonist as a submissive victim. When she is faced with the werewolf, instead of being scared, the girl “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.” It could be argued that she is almost complicit with the werewolf’s actions.

So is there an issue with fairy tales and their depiction of women? Fairy tales can be viewed as powerful transmitters of cultural ideas and could be regarded as playing a key role in advocating traditional gender roles. It could definitely be said that fairy tales put forth the idea of women being beautiful, young and weak. However, how many children have really been influenced by fairy tales? Aren’t they just stories? I do think it’s unlikely that fairy tales will affect someone’s perception of women and gender roles to a huge extent — by which I mean I don’t think fairy tales will make somebody sexist. But I think that every time we hear these stories, there is an impact on the way we view women, and that should not be underestimated.

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  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 2:45 pm, May 25th, 2012

    Great article. I was raised with fairytales but they were never a huge part of my childhood, so I never had these strong feelings about them.

  • Rekha @ at 6:52 am, May 28th, 2012

    never looked fairy tales thru your spectrum! really great post and yes i agree whatever we feed to the young brains slowly shows up in their thoughts and behavior.glad writters like u bringing up such issues! Kudos!

  • Amanda Anastasia @ at 7:19 pm, May 31st, 2012

    Great post. This brings to mind the newest Snow White and the Huntsmen that is being released tomorrow. I am really interested to see how Hollywood handles a story with two female leads pitted against one another.

  • Emma E @ at 7:58 pm, June 3rd, 2012

    Thank you! Something always bugged me about fairytale Disney movies–the only ones I liked were The Little Mermaid, because Ariel’s kind of a badass, and Mulan, because Mulan is basically an awesome kickass woman who does lots of awesome stuff. But now my little sister’s into Disney Princesses, etc, and I’ve been trying to steer her away from Sleeping Beauty stuff (seriously, a guy breaks into her house, kisses her, and she MARRIES HIM.) Hopefully I can get her to see that it’s better to be Mulan than a Sleeping Beauty.

  • Ann @ at 9:30 pm, June 7th, 2012

    Awesome job– I completely agree! Not to mention that the disney fairy tales (and fairy tales in general) are disgustingly heteronormative. I’m still waiting for the lesbian disney princess. If we had one, maybe young girls would think it was less weird when they start having feelings for other girls. I know that when I started questioning my sexuality around age 11, what kept me in the closet for a long time was the thought that “But…I can’t be gay! I like wearing dresses and shopping and trying on makeup!” I wasn’t like the stereotype of lesbians we always see in the media (big, butch, manlike), so I thought that I could not possibly be a lesbian. If I had seen a disney princess ride off into the sunset with another princess on a white horse, as a kid, I would have felt much less that I was a freak, or “the only feminine gay girl out there.”

  • Rebecca J @ at 4:07 pm, June 10th, 2012

    I have been interested in the affects of fairy tales on young girls for a while and I agree with all your points. I really like what you said with, “Notice how many times the heroine is described as being beautiful, whilst the (usually female) villain’s lack of attractiveness is highlighted.” To add to that point; more so than highlight the lack of attractiveness, the villains are shown to have traditional masculine facial features (stronger jawline, etc.) and more traditional masculine personality features (outspoken, selfish, ambitious). All this can add up to the separation of sexes and leave one with the idea that for a woman to step into a male role makes her inhumane and therefore evil. Just something to think about.

  • 22 June 2012 « Whisper To Me @ at 4:25 pm, June 25th, 2012

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