Deconstructing the Inherent Sexism in Fairy Tales

If there’s one thing that unites people more than anything, it’s the nostalgia they have associated with childhood. There’s a common thread that runs through everyone’s childhood, familiar stories of prince and princesses fighting against the world to realise their love for each other. Fairy tales have been an inextricable part of nearly everyone’s childhood. Princesses, princes and the evil step mother are characters we have all grown up with, characters that have taught us wrong from right. These fairy tales, with their popular princesses like Cinderella, Belle, Snow White and the others, were eventually reimagined for the big screen and generations grew up on stunning visuals of princesses overcoming the strangest of hurdles to unite with their true love. Over time though, this fog of nostalgia found itself fading when cultures began to understand the issues with the characterisation of these princesses, their narratives and the kind of negative, regressive attitudes and perceptions they propagated.

The most problematic aspect of the portrayal of princesses is the inherent sexism that runs through their narratives. These women are victims of poor circumstances, however they don’t choose to actively seek solutions to overcome them. Instead they wait for a prince to rescue them, a trope that is now seen in most romantic movies. The concept of a man rescuing a woman from the drudgery of a domesticated life without the woman seeking ways to save herself has led generations of women to assume that they will always need a man to rescue them. Agency has never been an option for these princesses, being the victim is what benefits them. These fairy tales establish set gender norms and roles and have helped propagate them over years. They’ve managed to compartmentalise the role of a woman and man in a society very subliminally.

These princesses also taught young girls across the world that the only way to live a fruitful happy life is by being virtuous and pious. The wicked women in these stories were always punished for their actions, yet no explanations whatsoever were offered to show why these negative characters existed the way they did. Black and white, good and bad was spelled out for young children watching these films or listening to these fairy tales. Therefore, women began to internalise the fact that the only way they would achieve happiness is by following the status quo because culturally this is what the characters of these fairy tales instruct women to do. Narratives in cultures have been shaped by these fairy tales because they’ve been passed on from generation to generation in some form or another. The inherent misogyny in them is visible to anyone who is able to see through their superficial exterior. Ideas about love, relationships, and goodness of character have, to a great extent, been influenced by fairy tales.

The concept of consent or the lack of it, is also a persistant issue in fairy tales. Belle is kept in the Beast’s castle by force; Sleeping Beauty is awoken from her slumber by a kiss from a prince she doesn’t even know. The girls in these stories have no voice or control over their narrative; they’re predestined to feel a romanticised, glorified version of love, which is also charted out for them by others. In today’s society, when a woman’s greatest achievement is often considered to be her ability to find a man and start a family, it isn’t surprising to note that this is an idea quite directly connected to the basic structure of a fairy tales. While we assume that books and films have fleeting effects on the minds of individuals, they clearly have the ability to change the course of cultures and societies.

Feminist readings and interpretations of fairy tales have successfully showcased to the world the fallacies of these stories and their morals. They have urged women and men to understand the severe implications of these seemingly innocent fairy tales. Often the on screen adaptations of these tales, have also been criticised for a lack of ethnic representation. Princesses on screen were shown to be white, slim, tall and blonde. They propagated the idea of what a desirable girl should look like and left no room to represent women of different races and body types. The films wanted to create a norm of what it meant to be perfect and coveted.

Only in recent times, have these fairy tales been reimagined with nuanced portrayals of both the men and women. There’s also been a change in the way these princesses have been made to look and behave. There’s a sense of ‘relatability’ that is consciously created to prevent women from feeling insecure, by these stories. However, the larger idea of fairy tales being responsible for several of the society’s distorted notions about women, romantic relationships and the supposed ‘happy ending’ still persists. The only way to overcome this is for people to begin understanding that these fairy tales cannot become markers of how people should behave and what they should expect from life.

Picture Credits : mychocopie

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