A few weeks ago, after reading the story of Rumplestiltskin, a child asked me, "What does 'happily ever after' mean?"
The class discussed it and came to the conclusion it meant "happily forever after that moment".
But, of course, that’s not actually possible, to be forever happy, and we discussed that, too. We also discussed the fact that no one would really want to marry someone who had locked them in a room for weeks on end and that perhaps she felt that she didn’t have a choice – the King was, after all, very powerful.
It also made me wonder why Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were happy to wake up and marry the men who kissed them while they were in drug-induced comas. At a time when we are hearing more and more of powerful, rich men taking advantage of women, this is an uncomfortable storyline.
Fairy tales, and their origins in folk tales, have been part of our culture and heritage for hundreds of years. They are tales of morality, there to teach us about good and evil, fairness, honesty, kindness and courage. They are familiar and a joy to tell, but they haven’t evolved to teach lessons that are important today and they perpetuate gender stereotypes. Improvements in gender equality across the globe have a long way to go – women still earn less than men in every Western society.
Many of our fairy tales are sanitised versions of the Brothers Grimm tales, such as Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel. They all depict men and women in stereotypical ways.
- Old/powerful women: witches, scheming, jealous and cruel
- Young women: beautiful, helpless, in need of rescue (by a man)
- Old men: Easily duped by powerful women
- Young men: handsome, brave, powerful and in search of a women who is beautiful (no other attributes necessary)
Twitter user @Smithssm advocates that it’s not the story that’s important but the talk around the story. What concerns me about fairy tales is that there often isn’t any talk around them or the implicit messages they carry to all our children. It’s not OK for a strange man to kiss a woman while she’s sleeping. It’s not OK to be judged entirely on how beautiful you are and it’s not OK to expect a man to come to the rescue.
I remember vividly at about six years old hiding a pea under my mattress and hoping to wake up covered in bruises as proof that I was truly as sensitive as a princess. I’m sure I didn’t really expect to find out I was a princess, as I knew it was make-believe, but I did grow up hoping for my own Prince Charming and a happily ever after. I didn’t play at wielding a sword or rescuing anyone from anything – that wasn’t my role.
These stories are often the ones that are bought for children by grandparents and relatives as they are familiar to them. Some versions are better than others.
Phillip Pullman’s version of the Brothers Grimm tales are beautifully written with rich and vibrant language. They lack the saccharine of many modern versions – for example, the Princess throws the frog against the wall rather than kissing him.
There are benefits to reading children fairy tales but many of these benefits apply to all stories. In his essay Imaginary Friends (2017), Pullman states:
‘…The kind of stories children are offered has far less effect on their development than whether they’re given stories at all and the children whose parents take the trouble to sit and read with them… and talk about the stories… will grow up to be much more fluent and confident not only with language but with pretty well any intellectual activity… and children who are deprived of this contact, this interaction and the world of stories are not likely to flourish at all.’
A cautious approach
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t read these cautionary tales but that we should read them with caution. Be mindful of the hidden messages they may be giving. Discuss the language, themes and imagery and acknowledge that the stories children read influence how they perceive themselves, the world and the opportunities available to them.
We should also ensure that children are exposed to a wide variety of stories that open up their worlds and allow them to walk in the shoes of many other people.
Author Anne Fine believes that “women should be giving a much beadier eye to the books they share with children…It’s important to balance much loved old-fashioned classics with stuff that evens things up a bit and reflects women’s current role in the world”.
One way to challenge the stereotypes in fairy tales is to reverse the roles within them. An altered version of Snow White where a vain, balding King is jealous of a handsome young prince with a thick head of hair. He is then banished to the forest where he meets seven little women, who can’t clean their house and need a man to come and tidy up. This enables you to enjoy all the fun of the story and also brings up some fantastic conversations afterwards.
There are brilliant alternative fairy tales that can be read alongside the traditional tales to confront the stereotypes: The Paper Bag Princess is a perfect example of this.
It’s not only fairy tales in children’s literature that perpetuate the gender stereotypes. The majority of stories for children contain a central male character. Once you start looking at your bookshelves with this in mind it’s quite an eye-opener. The Hungry Caterpillar, Where the Wild Things Are, Winnie the Pooh (the only female character is Kanga in her apron) and the list goes on.
New role models
The current children’s laureate, Lauren Child, has expressed concern that books with female leads are less popular – the sales figures back this up. Author Melvin Burgess notes that the “truism in publishing is that girls will read books that have boy heroes, whereas boys won’t read books that have girl heroes”.
To my shame, I’ve endorsed this. I bought my daughter countless books with male protagonists but did I buy my sons The Worst Witch or Clarice Bean? Nope.
I don’t want my boys or the boys I teach to grow up thinking they need to be the brave knight and the rescuer, so they need to see an alternative view of men, too.
NB: I did get my Prince Charming moment. He walked into the students' union with a pint of Theakston’s rather than a sword and our "happily ever after" has been 20 years of "working hard at it".
Caroline Ash is a deputy headteacher and blogger. She tweets @cazzash
This blog was first featured on the Learning together... blog.