One of the most well known, well loved and influential genre of literature is the fairy tale. A fairy tale is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “A children’s story of magical and imaginary beings and lands”. Overtime the concept of fairy tales has changed.
Fairy tales are being re-written and re-illustrated constantly, which makes fairy tales appealing to every generation. Fairy tales broaden the imagination of children. They allow us gain an insight into a world of magic and adventure- a world we will never experience but fantasize about. “Fairy tales are nothing if not realistic: and it is their cynicism that keeps them lively. (Opie, 1980, p. 19) “A characteristic of the fairy tale, as told today, is that it is unbelievable. Although a fairy tale is seldom a tale about fairy-folk and does not necessarily even feature a fairy, it does contain an enchantment or other supernatural element that is clearly imaginary. ” (Opie, 1980 p. 18). The origin of fairy tales is commonly unknown and more often than not never discovered by the reader. French writers Catherine Bernard, Marie-Jeanne Lheitier, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy are believed to be “chiefly responsible for the establishment of the fairytale as a literacy genre in Europe. (Zipes, 2006,p. 13) of the 1960s. However, it was Italian writers Giovan Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile who played a major role in the rise of literacy in Europe. “This is one of the best kept secrets that is well worth unlocking because it reveals just how closely tied the literacy fairy tale as genre is to spread of the civilizing process throughout Europe. ”(Zipes, 2006, p. 13) However, it was the influence of Boccaccio’s Decamerone that led to the production of various collections of ‘novelle’ that had an impact on the literacy fairy tale as a short narrative.
Straparola was the first to publish his collection “Le piacevoli notti (1550 and 1553) from the example Boccaccio had set. Straparola was different from previous writers. He was the first European writer “to adapt many tales from oral tradition, creating approximately fourteen literacy fairy tales in his collection of seventy four novella. ” (Zipes, 2006, p. 14) Straparola’s work caused some controversy and at one time one of his collections was banned by the pope in 1791. This was due to themes which Straparola had included in his work.
He introduced “plain earthy language” and “critical view of power struggles in Italian society”. Basile shared similar views on power and civility. (Zipes, 2006). Even form this early stage, fairy tales have always been connected to power, social class and gender stereotyping. Both Straparola and Basile recognised that Italian principalities were being damaged through family conflicts, the change in commerce and trade and war. They used fairy tale’s as a written means of broaching their concern over the unexpected change of norms on human behaviour. Although time passes and things change, fairytales have not dated.
The classic fairy tales that Basile and Straparola once told are still being told to children today all over the world. Thanks to the origination of the fairytale by Straparola and Basil “we still rely on its narrative strategy to see how dangerous it is to think that we live in more civilized and better world than the realms of the past. ”(Zipes, 2006) For centuries young children have been enthralled by fairy tales. Tales of witches, wizards, princes and princesses, fairy godmothers and villains alike have been influencing how children view the world around them.
This appears particularly true in the case of young girls, with whom these stories seem to resonate. However living in a contemporary 22nd century society the question needs to be posed; are these stories, written centuries ago, still providing a relevant and realistic portrayal of female role models to the youth of today? Or are these folktales of ‘prince charming’ and ‘happily ever afters’ corrupting ideals from infancy and setting these young girls up for disappointment? Women today have come along away from their 18th century counterparts.
Women have fought for years to be able to vote, work, raise children as a lone parent and run a household. Women have gained their right to respect and independence in a world that is no longer dominated my males. These rights are marked as historic events that women are extremely proud of. However still today, when educating children we use “fairy tales” as means of communicating, although sometimes indirectly, the role women should play in life. For example, in fairy tales, the concept of beauty is outlined very clearly. Beauty is expressed as a physical necessity.
The leading lady in the typical fairy tale is usually described and illustrated as a woman possessing features considered physically attractive to males, a thin figure, glowing skin, red lips, symmetrical facial features and well attired. In the classical tale of Sleeping Beauty Aurora has “red lips as red as the red red rose” fair skin, blue eyes long blonde hair and an impossibly thin figure. This seems to be the universal concept of what beauty is among all the fairy tales that Walt Disney have produced. This image of beauty is in stark contrast to the reality in which we live into today.
This depiction of the need for beauty is not the only negative stereotype conveyed in fairy tales. Instead of being able to defend and stick up for themselves, women are forever relying on males to rescue them. Whether it be the ‘handsome prince charming’ or the father figure, a male, nevertheless is always there to save the day and resolve whatever predicament has arisen in order for all involved except the villain to live “happily ever after”. The act of stereotyping serves as a short-cut to the way that the majority of the population views our culture.
Therefore, though we might not completely agree with the way in which gender roles are represented in these fairy tales, it still serves us well in a sense that we might gain a basic understanding of what it means to be a male and what it means to be a female. Whether personally accepted or rejected, the notion of males being dominant and females being subordinate has been deeply embedded into our culture’s view of the gender roles. The villain is also an interesting stereotype which is evident in all fairy tales.
Villains are portrayed as ugly, malicious, jealous characters. They are almost always characterised by being an evil step-mother, wicked queen, a witch or an evil mother in law. The job of the villain in a fairytale is to make life difficult for the leading protagonist. The queen in Basile’s version of Snow White is described as “a murderous and unnatural, unsexed anomaly who tricks Talia… ”(Warner ,1995,p. 220). However, evil they are, they always play a powerful female role in all the fairy tales I have chosen to discuss.
To consider whether the portrayals of women in classic fairy tales are genuine role models for young girls, I will be examining and referring to the following books: Cinderella , Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the seven dwarfs, Mulan and Shrek. Certainly by examining classic fairy tales it is obvious that the central female character is continuously presented as being ‘beautiful’. In the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast, the story begins with “Once upon a time there lived a rich merchant with three pretty daughters.
The youngest was the prettiest of the there and she was called beauty. ” From the very beginning of the story, emphasis is put on how beautiful Belle is in the fairytale. The fact that the lead character is appreciated for her beauty alone speaks multitudes about the message the story gives out to its reader and indeed to young girls. “There is the threatened union of an almost supernaturally beautiful girl with a hideous monster. ” (Iona,Peter, 1980,p. 180) The fairytale puts emphasis on how beautiful Belle is and how ugly the beast is.
Similarly Sleeping Beauty “had a beautiful face and she thought beautiful thoughts”, Snow White “grew into a beautiful woman”, when Cinderella arrived at the ball everyone wondered “Who is that beautiful girl? ” and The Little Mermaid was “the youngest, and most beautiful, daughter of Mer King. ” The initial portrayal of these women is innocent and positive. Any young girl would aspire to possess such favourable qualities and attractiveness. Being beautiful and falling in love with prince charming, then living happily-ever-after, seems to be the most important outcome of these fairy tales.
But the question we have to ask ourselves is -are these ‘harmless’ tales instilling false ideas of what life is like for children? One may not think that reading such biased material to a child could possibly have a lasting effect on their perceptions of how one should conform in society, however according to Bettelheim “A child trusts what the fairy tale tells, because its world view accords with his own” (Bettelheim, 1991, p. 45) The fairytale is so convincing to the child, as the tale matches the child’s thinking, approach and understanding of the world.
Bettelheim states “these fairytales direct the child’s own thinking about his own development, permitting the child to draw his own conclusion”, yet since some classic fairy tales are known to display gender stereotyping, we must ask ourselves, what implication this has on children’s perspectives of specific gender roles in society if the child is drawing his/her own conclusion after reading the fairy tale. Fairy tales portray a black and white view of society. Males are frequently portrayed as the head of the family, who are physically and emotionally strong, and whose sphere exists outside of the home.
Females are frequently portrayed as dependent, physically and emotionally weak, and belong inside the home. This depiction of the male and female roles sends a very false and blinding message to its audience. On the other hand it can be argued that stereotypes are a part of life/society. The act of stereotyping serves as a short-cut to the way that the majority of the population views our culture. Therefore, though we might not completely agree with the way in which gender roles are represented in these fairy tales, it still gives a basic understanding of what it means to be a male and what it means to be a female.
A similar theme seems to run through all the fairy tales I have chosen. All of the female protagonists are punished in some way as a result of their physical fortune. In Snow White, the evil queen wants the “fairest of them all” so a search is sent for Snow White to be killed. Snow White ends up cleaning, tidying and cooking for seven dwarfs in the forest as payment for letting her stay. Similarly in Cinderella, the beautiful Cinderella is made servant to her step mother and step sisters. Cinderella is isolated in the house and ignored by her step sisters and step mother.
Sleeping Beauty is cursed from the moment she was born as a result of her beauty. A wicked witch was furious that she wasn’t invited to the baby’s banquet so she put a spell on her to remain asleep for a hundred years. Belle in Beauty and the Beast finds herself in a similar situation; she is one of three sisters and the only one who cleans and cooks as a result of her misfortune. The women all have a variety of traits in common. All of the female characters I have mentioned display admirable qualities.
All of the women are kind and gentle but these female characters are viewed as being passive and submissive. These women depend on the male characters in the tales to be either saved or to be happy. This sends out an extremely negative stereotype to young readers, presenting that women’s job in life is cook, clean and wait for “Prince Charming” to come in order to be happy. According to Bettelheim it is child’s life experiences that teach the child the right manner, he goes on to say “when children are young, it is literature that carries such information best. ” (Tartar, 1999, p. 69) If this is the case then children reading heavily stereotyped tales from an early age will impact their manner and possibly the way they view the gender roles. Bettelheim also states that a child’s “mind is animistic” and children especially young girls are vulnerable to believing that being beautiful and meeting prince charming are key goals and will result in a “happily ever after. ” West (2004) argues that “books are such a major influence in the formation of children’s values and attitudes that adults need to monitor nearly every word that children read. (Hunt, 1999, p. 5) If this is the case, should we be reading child fairy tales? It was the feminist movement that brought a closer examination of gender roles in fairytales. In Lissa Paul’s article she argues that “While children’s literature is predicated on the notion that children are essentially blank or naive and are in need of protection and instruction, then issues of suitability or unsuitability are important. ” (Hunt, 1999, p121) This idea seems to be evident in feminist’s attitudes with regards the lead female character in fairy tales.
Feminists feel that these women over rely on their beauty and each wait, in some way or another, for their Prince Charming to come rescue them. According to Lissa Paul’s article, while discussing Cinderella, she states that “Most of us- women, children and feminist critics, I imagine – don’t want to be seen valuing riches. Or princes for that matter” (Hunt, 1999, p. 112). However many of the fairy tales chosen for the essay have the common theme of a male hero rescuing or saving the female heroine in the story.
They solely depend on the prince to come save them in the end. In Cinderella her family feels she is inferior to them and so she serves as a slave in her own home. “They were very unkind to her and ordered her about from morning until night. ” She is too weak to stand up to them and so waits for a prince to come rescue her. Similarly in Sleeping Beauty she sleeps for one hundred years before a prince comes and rescues her, in Beauty and the Beast, Belle finally ends up with a handsome prince “the beast disappeared and in his place stood a handsome prince”.
In Snow White after she ate the poison apple, she lay peacefully in her coffin until a prince fell in love with her and rescued her “she opened her eyes and on seeing the handsome prince she fell in love with him”. There is evidently a strong portrayal of physical beauty in these fairy tales and these images of the female protagonist gives a very weak and negative display of women’s abilities and aspirations. On the contrary, however, a very interesting aspect is in Beauty and the Beast. Belle demonstrates having a mind of her own compared to her female counterparts whose main focus was to find their handsome prince using their good looks.
Belle looks beyond physical appearance and recognises the good man in the Beast “she has not mistaken a human lover for a monster, like Psyche, or failed to see a good man beneath the surface.. ”(Warner, 1995,p. 307) This follows her gradual arousal of both attraction and sexuality for the Beast throughout the course of the fairytale until he unsurprisingly too turns into a handsome prince at the end. “Beauty’s wooer has the appearance of a monster, and only after Belle has overcome her aversion for his vile shape can the monster be seen to be a handsome prince. (Opie, 1980, p. 180) The notion of being socially stable is put forward to us. Once these women are saved by their ‘Prince Charming’ and fall in love with him, they are rewarded with a luxurious life as a princess and will ultimately ‘live happily ever after’. The Little Mermaid was written by Hans Christen Andersen in 1836 and was released by Walt Disney in 1989. This fairytale was hoped to go against the grain and portray a leading women who wasn’t submissive or passive but strong and independent and good role model of young children.
The tale is about a young teenage mermaid, called Ariel, who doesn’t like her life under the sea and is much more fascinated by the human world. Regardless of her father’s warnings she exchanges her voice for legs with the evil witch to spend three days on land. She must make Prince Eric fall in love with her and kiss her or else she becomes the sea witch’s forever. The witch reassures her “the graceful form, the modest gait and speaking eyes. With such as these, it will easy to infatuate a vain human male” (Anderson, 1993,p. 8). It is clear from that short summary that the tale still managed to stereotype women. The message being sent out is that if Ariel relies on her beauty alone she will get the Prince to fall in love with her. Trites 1990 said, “Undoubtedly, feminists’ have criticized Ariel because she seems to have little ambition beyond getting her prince. ” (http://charlottesmedia. blogspot. com/) The story of Mulan helped change the perception of women in Fairy tales but still managed to imply a message that women are inferior to men.
Mulan is no one’s trophy and to me is the first groundbreaking Disney film to show a woman to be capable of taking the same roles of men. The story is based on a Chinese myth about a woman who saves china from the Huns. She goes to fight in the war instead of her father and displays traits that are stereotyped as only being male. She is a strong and a courageous woman and breaks social boundaries and expectations. However, Mulan is similar to Belle in Beauty and the Beast, as she too isn’t seen as acceptable in society and this idea of gender obligations is evident.
Women ‘should’ be a homemaker and a wife, not cleaver and strong. Finally the film Shrek, created in the 22th century and displays beauty in a different way. Beauty is displayed on the inside in this new image of the princess, which I found to be really refreshing. The two leading characters are ogres. The film goes against the classical fairy tale characteristics. Princess Fiona is different from other princesses and does not wait for prince charming to rescue her. She is a dependent woman who is able to stand on her own two feet. She chooses Shrek as a husband and decides to live her own life as an ogre.
This is a unique fairytale as Fiona overlooks physical beauty and is not saved by a male, which results in her having a better life. However she still does live her life as a princess. Unfortunately, many women today hold a “princess attitude”, and aspire to have a princess type of life. This attitude can be seen among some girls and young women. They often believe that marrying well, especially financially, is desirable, so they can easily live the life of a princess. This may very well be an effect caused by the women that are presented to us in these fairy tales since early childhood.
Certainly a clear progression can be seen with regards the representation of women between the 17th-18th century fairy tales (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) and the 19th -22nd century fairy tales (Mulan, Shrek). I do appreciate that the morals and values are changing in regard to fairytales in recent years. As a whole, however, In my opinion I think that the fairy tales discussed portray a negative stereotype to young children and are not good role models. According to Zipes “We can continue to enjoy this harmless pastime of telling classical fairytales to our children, not realising the possible harm or harmlessness. Zipes, 2006,p. 57) Bibliography Andersen, H. C. Fairy Tales: The Little Mermaid, Bristol, Parragon Book Service Ltd, 1993. Bettelheim, B. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance Of Fairy Tales, England, Penguin, 1991. Charlotte’s media blog. available at http://charlottesmedia. blogspot. com/ accessed on 14/4/2012 Hunt, peter. Children’s Literature, An illustrated History, Oxford, University Press,1995. Hunt, Peter. Understanding Children’s Literature, London, Routledge, 1999. Ladybird, Snow White And The 7 Dwarfs, Ladybird Ltd, 2005. Marsoli, L. A.
Mulan, NY, Mouse Works, 1998. Opie, Iona ; Peter, The Classic Fairy Tales, USA, Oxford University Press, 1980. Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson. Concise Oxford English dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press,2012. Southgate, V. Beauty and the Beast, UK, Ladybird Books Ltd, 1988. Southgate, V. Cinderella, UK, Ladybird Books Ltd, 1982. Southgate, V. Sleeping Beauty, UK, Ladybird Books Ltd, 1984. Warner, M. Beast to the Blonde ,London, Vintage. 1995. Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, New York, Routledge, 2006. Film: Shrek, Disney, 2001.