Fairy Tales and Feminism: A ‘Happily Ever After’?
In an ever changing society, in which people believe ‘five a day’ refers to five different Apple devices, one consistent childhood tradition is fairy tales.
But, having once upon a time sat through these tales myself, I’ve now begun to question whether there is room for feminism in these big castles filled with princes, princesses, and the occasional dragon?
Story time is always a favourite with little children, and I have recently enjoyed reading to a group of year three pupils at a local school. Yet, despite knowing what I was like as a child, I was still surprised to see that from choices including The Hungry Caterpillar, The Far Away Tree and many other classics, the little girls delved straight into the pile of books for Sleeping Beauty; for the fairy tale. And as I sat reading the adventures of Aurora to a class of captivated seven year olds, something else started to bother me: why are the only women who have any real power evil?
I must confess that in my earlier years I could frequently be found in a princess dress, singing – somewhat out of tune – “Someday my prince will come”. Yet, reflecting now upon what I was actually singing, I wonder whether emulating this world of damsels in distress who need to be rescued is actually an empowering activity for little girls – an observation which, at seven years old and waiting for my ‘prince,’ I missed.
The most famous fairy tale of all – as evidenced by the hundreds of little princesses at children’s parties – is Cinderella. The ultimate fairy tale consisting of a girl, a prince, a fairy godmother, a pumpkin and, of course, an evil stepmother. But in Cinderella, as in many of the traditional fairy tales, the heroine is shown to be weak and waiting upon a knight in shining armour to save her. The only woman who has any real power is the evil villain, a damning female character. In these original fairy tales, the heroic prince leaves no room for female power, or female equality.
Dig deeper still and there are more menacing undertones. Cinderella, like the majority of fairy tales, was based on a somewhat sinister, less-Disney-like, story. The real tale is that the young Cinderella, or Rhodopis as she was called, was sold into slavery, where she later became one of the many sex slaves of Pharaoh Ahmose II. Hardly the ‘magical’ message for a multi-million pound Disney movie.
Recently, however, there seems to have been a shift. With a message of sisterhood and female empowerment at its core, Frozen fever has conquered the traditional fairy tale formula, making its way into the hearts of viewers by challenging convention and reversing the traditional ‘role’ of each gender. With Frozen becoming an instant success, as well as other modern stories such as Brave focusing on women’s power, it is clear to see that fairy tales are changing in accordance with the time; female equality is now at the forefront.
Looking down at the bright eyed children staring up at me, I realised that what fairy tales now offer these impressionable little girls is a choice: they could choose to be a damsel in distress, they could choose to be an evil stepmother, but they could also choose to be the valiant knight. After all, why shouldn’t it be the princess who rides in on a white horse to rescue the ‘prince in peril’ rather than the ‘damsel in distress’? Traditional childhood fables are starting to be replaced by more female-friendly fairy tales – a change which suggests there is room in the kingdom of ‘happily ever after’ for feminism, after all.
Image Credit: Jordan Justen