Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Fairy Tale Menace

I'm going to post this after January 1st (because of my "no bitching between Christmas and New Year"-vow). It is not, after all, a pressing social issue.

I went through some new articles on "the f-word" recently and discovered an article about fairy tales. The writer wasn't very happy about their contents. This got me thinking about fairy tales as well.


As most children in Germany, I've grown up mostly with the fairy tales gathered by the Brothers Grimm (they didn't write them actually, they just gathered the stories they were told by various sources all over Germany) and the fairy tales actually written by Hans Christian Andersen.

As a kid I always loved visiting an aunt of mine because she had a complete collection of the fairy tales (four books, huge volumes, small type, only a few pictures) which I could read at my leisure. But I don't look for my 'Prince Charming' (he's called 'Märchenprinz' in German and does not have a French accent usually - we prefer them home-grown, it seems).

In fact only very few of the many fairy tales written down by the Brothers Grimm are about princesses or princes - some feature princes, but normal girls; others only feature 'normal' people. And I wasn't really a fan of those princess-stories, as I'm brunette and most princesses are usually depicted as blonde (even though the stories themselves quite often do not feature the hair colour of the girl in question). Snow-White was, of course, an exception.


The writer of the article mostly didn't like the image the fairy tales give of women - but that's given, it's a feminist site, after all. She claimed that the stories made girls think that one day they would find their Prince Charming to whisk them away from all problems (but isn't that what a lot of 'modern' fairy tales for grown-ups like "Pretty Woman" also tell you?). They would often depict strong women as evil (like the 'ugly sister' or the 'evil step-mother'). They would instil superstitions (making people believe in magic that will solve their problems).

Therefore she asks whether it wouldn't be better to eradicate or rewrite them. I can't agree with her about that, for various reasons.


First of all most women I know do not dream of a 'Prince Charming', they dream of a man who will understand them and with whom they can lead a good life - equally shared by both. They may say he's their Prince Charming, but what they really mean is: he's a good guy and I think he won't hurt or betray me.

It's true that girls at a certain age often dream of a Prince Charming, but that's during puberty most, in my experience, and the idea of Prince Charming is often fuelled more by love stories read or seen on TV (and the Prince quite often looks more like the pop-star or actor of their choice) than by fairy tales - which are 'out of date' for most girls around that age. To them, I think, Prince Charming is more or less a guy who's non-threatening, gentle and friendly ... that's not exactly something you get with boys their age, normally. It's, basically, the same thing older women mean while referring to 'Prince Charming' as well.

The dream of 'Prince Charming' as ones saviour dies out after a few years spent as an adult. But it's a story a lot of successful Hollywood-movies work with, telling the story of the lowly worker (female) who meets a manager/millionaire/movie-star she doesn't know, who is rich and famous (huh, how very realistic...), falls in love with him and marries him in the end. And most women above a certain age know, by experience or logic, that it's just a tale, nothing more. It's the basic 'great love story', if you really get down to it: Girl meets perfect boy, girl falls in love with perfect boy, girl marries perfect boy. (Which is why I can't really get the point of reading romance novels, they're boring to me.)


As far as the evil step-mother and the ugly sister are concerned, there she's right to a certain extend. I think the fact that most 'evil' mothers are step-mothers (what about the mother of "Hansel and Gretel", isn't it evil to sent two young children into the woods to let them perish? It's her idea, not her husband's) has a lot to do with seeing the connection between a mother and her child as something sacred and pure. If a story needs an evil woman, then let it be the step-mother who has not given birth to the child and doesn't share a special link with it (even though in reality a lot more children are abused or killed by their birthmother than by their step-mother). That's stupid, but it's how things work ... and you need something or someone evil to start a story, otherwise things won't change.

Most of the 'evil step-mothers' and 'ugly sisters' aren't strong women per se, either. For example the evil step-sisters of Cinderella see her as an obstacle on their way to fame and riches. Without her at the ball, they think, they'll be able to get the prince. So they just want to marry, they don't want to become a person of their own. And the evil step-mother in "Snow-White" doesn't try to kill her step-daughter because the girl is in her way to something special ... she just becomes more beautiful and that's something this 'evil queen' can't deal with.

And it is true that physical beauty is often seen as a sign of purity and goodness in fairy tales (but how many 'ugly' heroes can you recall from movies, apart from the Hunchback of Notre Dame?). But sometimes beauty is well hidden for a long while throughout the story and the 'beautiful woman' (or, as with the story of "Beauty and the Beast", the beautiful prince) is seen by others as somebody ugly. Those stories teach children that being ugly doesn't necessary mean being evil. Others might even think you're beautiful while you think you're ugly (think about the "Ugly Duckling" who was a beautiful swan).

The characters of fairy tales are, when all's said and done, stereotypes - some of them don't even have names in the original tales, they're just 'the princess', 'the prince', 'the king', 'the witch' and so on. They have their roles to play in a moralistic story.


It's true, fairy tales tell us about magic quite often, but most of the time it is indeed hard work, self-reliance and patience that counters it. The evil things, like curses or spells, come from magic, but more often than not it's courage, perseverance and inner strength which destroys the spell or curse, helping the hero or heroine to make their dream come true.

The princess in "The seven swans", for example, has to make seven shirts out of stinging nettles to set her seven brothers free from their evil step-mother's curse. She has to gather those nettles during the full moon on a graveyard (and in the superstitious times of the fairy tales that requires a brave woman) and is not allowed to utter a single word until the shirts are all done. A prince meets her, living by herself in the woods and only visited by her brothers after nightfall when they change back into human form, and falls in love with her, but she doesn't break her silence for him. One of his counsellors (in some versions of the story a bishop) sees her gathering nettles and claims she's a witch, so she gets tortured and sentenced to death, but she doesn't break her silence to get out of it. She goes on making the shirts even while she is taken to the stake to be burned. There, having almost finished her last shirt, the brothers appear in their swan-form and she gives the shirts to them, to set them free before she dies. Of course, afterwards she's allowed to tell her husband (how she can get married without saying "I Do" isn't explained in the tale) and he forgives her. So the picture of the girl is far from the air-headed fairy tale princess, even though she's a princess herself. This princess shows courage (living alone in the woods which then meant living outside the protection of the law, gathering stinging nettles in the graveyard at midnight), perseverance (never breaking her vow to stay silent until the shirts are finished) and patience (working on the shirts even in her darkest hours, just thinking about freeing her brothers). Making shirts out of stinging nettles without doubt is hard work as well. Is that really a bad example for children?

In addition fairy tales and fantasy with their balance to our 'real' world are very important for shaping imagination - which is also needed to create new things for real. I was an avid reader of fairy tales as a kid, but I'm interested in modern technology even far more than a lot of girls who stopped reading fairy tales far earlier than me. The "women not being interested in technology"-problem from my point of view comes from a modern 'fairy tale': the "women can't understand technology anyway"-myth shaped mainly by men.

In "The Science of Discworld" the authors point out that a lot of our education is build up of 'lies' - not meaning evilly not telling people the truth, but meaning not telling them all at an early date, but building up the knowledge step by step. And in order to believe the 'great lies' about speed of light and quantum physics necessary in the beginning so children can start to understand, the children have to believe the 'small lies', such as fairy tales, first.


Strangely enough especially "Arabian Nights" has it's share of fairy tales dealing with strong women who save their husbands or families, starting with Scheherazade who manages to cure the king from an evil curse forcing him to kill his wives the morning after the wedding night. She doesn't rely on pure force there, but on her intelligence, weaving a tale so long and complicated that it takes 1,001 nights to tell it ... and her husband falls for it, every morning deciding that in order to hear the end of the tale, he will let her live for another day. After the tale is finished, she presents him with his children (about three years are a lot of time to have the first one or two children) and he realizes he no longer feels the need to kill her - curse broken, "happily ever after" starting.

Fables about animals usually are full of stories about the 'intelligent animal' cheating the 'strong, but dumb animal'. Those, too, teach the children that intelligence is often more efficient than brute force.


The writer is right about "Shrek" being a fairy tale, too. It's actually a collection of motives from various fairy tales (the other two princesses offered to Lord Farquart by the mirror [which is from "Snow-White", of course] are "Snow-White" and "Cinderella") and other children stories - especially English (like the Muffin Man) as well as European. In time "Shrek" will probably become a fairy tale of it's own right.


I've come across a lot of children stories and I think that the fairy tales are that successful not because they cement the roles of men and women, as the writer thinks, but rather because they can be easily updated whenever necessary. Those fairy tales containing the wrong messages about a girl just having to be pretty and to wait for the prince to arrive, may be the most renown these days, but they're not the only ones - and even as far as movies are concerned, you'll find a lot of strong women once you turn to the stories of Czech or Russian fairy tale movies.

Not all fairy tale princesses are "Snow-White", "Cinderella" or "Sleeping Beauty", a lot of them have to work hard and sacrifice a lot for the "happily ever after".

And even if stories do not teach children the truth about society, life will - without fail. So what should we teach children in their fairy tales? That you can work hard for 40 years, just to loose your work a couple of month before getting a pension? That you can be a good girl and always do what's right, just to get raped or killed by somebody for no real reason? That you can suffer from your own 'evil curse' of a deadly disease without any chance of survival? All those are facts of life, but we usually try to protect children from them during their early years - the years during which they learn from the fairy tales that indeed hard work and courage can foil evil plans, that you can have a happy life one day, if you just are strong enough to live through the hard times. That's what fairy tales taught me, when I was a kid.

A fairy tale princess may marry the prince in the end, but not all do (unlike the Disney production, the 'real' "Little Mermaid" in Anderson's story sacrifices her life in the end, because she can't keep her prince's love and doesn't want to kill him just to survive). And a lot of fairy tales are about average people who do get next to nothing out of it (think of "Little Red Riding Hood" ... what does she get, except for her grandmother's life?). They prove they're good people (virtuous, and that includes being hard-working, perseverant, patient and so on) and because of this they live on while the evil people perish.

So in essence, a lot of fairy tales do tell exactly the kind of story the writer wants the children she may have one day to hear. The only problem with it is that most fairy tales are almost forgotten, because they don't feature a princess you can make a good movie about. I personally don't even see a problem in telling children stories with pretty princesses, as all stories start with "Once upon a time, in a country far, far away..." - provided you also tell them that 'today' is not 'once'.

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