Like most '80s born baby girls, I grew up on fairy tales and Disney animation. Cinderella always got her Prince, and the wicked witch was always defeated. Good triumphed over evil, and you were only ever punished if you were bad.
Sure, you always got the moral of the story, but are the messages fairy tales send more sinister than they appear?
While it's never as simple or black and white as some parents and academics would like it to be, fairy tales are important. It's almost impossible for a child to come into adulthood without any knowledge of fairy tales (thank you, Walt Disney) no matter how hard their parents try to keep the stories out of their lives.
They infiltrate our classrooms, televisions, and Halloween costume isles. Short of living in complete isolation Duggar-style, you can't avoid fairy tales. What's good, and what's bad? What's at stake when Prince Charming saves the Damsel in Distress?
The dangers of fairy tales
Fairy tales typically place female characters in one of two roles: the damsel in distress or the villain. The greater the woman's purity, naivete, virginity, or kindness, the more she is praised, and the more likely she is to be saved by her prince. On the flip side, the female villains are always cruel, heartless, selfish, and not exactly smart.
What do little girls take away from this? They learn to be docile, precious waifs waiting for a man to make their life happen. They are taught the worth of domesticity through Snow White's motherly role in the house of dwarves, and Sleepy Beauty's desire to spin yarn. But what they don't learn is just as important: they are not encouraged to have independent thoughts, be courageous, or aspire to be anything but wife and homemaker.
They are overly simplistic binaries of good and evil. In old school fairy tales, the villain is never sympathetic: she is evil without remorse or just cause. Villains are bad apples, they were just born that way. Children learn that following the rules is how you be good, which can be taken to the extreme in the hands of ruthless leaders and governments. They are taught to behave through these fairy tales, and not to question.
But what about the good?
Fairy tales aren't all bad, they teach us a lot about the world in a simple code we can understand at a very young age. At best, they tell us that good things happen to good people, and that bad people get what they deserve. They tell us that the world, and society as a whole, is just, and will protect us from the evils that exist. This need for safety is important in a world where we leave our children in the care of strangers all day. From day care to teachers, parents have little control over what their child is exposed to. Fairy tales can ease some of those fears.
Readers learn morals in every story, even if they contradict and collapse on further examination. Little Red Riding hood teaches children the danger of strangers, and yet, in some versions, she is saved by a strange woodsman. Cinderella teaches us that kindness should be bestowed upon everyone, and that you don't need money, wealth and fame to be happy. But in the end, Cinderella marries the Prince, and acquires all those things she never truly needed.
Of course, they are just stories, and most readers know the difference between fantasy and reality. But that doesn't stop women from wanting to be wooed, saved, and praised. Even though we can tell the difference between what's real and what's, the fantasy world has a way of sneaking into our most secret desires.
Fairy tales aren't going anywhere: they've been around too long. The tradition of using stories to teach children about society's morals is not new. In a world with working mothers and stay at home fathers, how do we read fairy tales to our children?
Check back next week to find out how fairy tales are being re-worked and reinterpreted for the modern daughter.