The multiple benefits of bedtime stories have long been in the limelight. Not only do these promote strong parent-child bonds, but they also have a positive impact on the cognitive development of the child. While reading is akin to a tree that bears sweet fruits, reading something productive is a matter of grave concern too. For instance, girls are mostly handed fairy tales, but do these really make up for healthy reading content?
Childhood stories tend to ingrain deeply in our minds, and at some stage of life these always come back to us. Isn’t that the reason why we read stories with morals? The gist of these stories always stays subconsciously with us, growing as tiny seeds, shaping our expectations and a lot more than we can comprehend.
While moral-yielding stories are healthy snacks for our character development, I feel that fairy tales are the junk food of the reading shelves: additive but poor quality meals. The master reason behind this is that there is really nothing that we learn from them except for some gibberish set of ideals and expectations. Here’s what I mean:
The Promotion of Perfection
Do you remember Cinderella being fat? Or Snow White being dark skin-toned? Or Sleeping Beauty with a zit? No, not really. The standards of beauty set in these fairy tales are sickeningly high. To make things worse, the princes of these stories always look picture perfect too. So is that really real?
Such beauty descriptions are not a reflection of reality — rather a mirror into the soul that just wants to see central characters having the fairest complexions, the darkest of hair, and the rosiest cheeks. If children are taught to idealize such beauty benchmarks, they would only grow into self-conscious teenagers, worrying about looking their best so that they can attract a prince charming.
The Cliché of Happy Endings
There is no denying that fairy tales revolve around a girl, regardless of her origin, meeting a boy, one way or the other, and ending up married to him after falling deeply in love with him. The next thing you know, it’s a happy-ever-after. Mind if I ask: Is marriage the solution to all problems in the world? Is marriage a magical potion that, once consumed, would take you into a phase that exhibits no problems at all?
Isn’t this fairy-tale mindset a bit too convenient, and doesn’t it portray life as a sweet slice of chocolate lava cake with caramel topping instead of periodic bitter sips? I bet we wouldn’t want us growing with a simplified picture of life as is shown in the storybooks.
Also, happy endings are not all about finding the perfect man and living happily-ever-after with him. This changes the very definition of happy endings, so we need to break free from this cliché of happy endings that are not limited to finding a prince but have far wider borders, like an adventurous teenager or settling with a stable career, for instance.
Shallow Scale of Expectations
Fairy-tale plots set a shallow scale of expectations from life because what is ultimately expected is a knight in shining armor. Sleeping Beauty needed a guy to wake her up, Cinderella needed a prince charming to save her from her cruel step-family, Rapunzel also needed a dude to escape from her tower, and so on goes the list. By reading such stories, girls end up expecting that “true love” is the only “true ambition” in life and that the love of one’s life will eventually emerge from some corner. What we need are more heroines like Pocahontas, who are the lead heroes of their own life and caretakers of their own selves, determining their own paths to fulfilling their dreams and passions.
Additionally, these stories always end up making boys synonymous with heroism when, in truth, everyone is a hero in their life. We really need to understand that girls shouldn’t be raised up reading fairy tales only. There are plenty of other stories that can teach them better and can polish their expectations well; those are the kind of books kids need to read more.
One thought on “Why Girls Shouldn’t Be Raised on Fairy Tales Alone”
I disagree. I think the issue is with the way we interpret fairy tales today, probably in large part due to the Disney-fication of all things fairy tale.
There is a book out there that analyzes themes in fairy tales, using Snow White as its cornerstone. (I’m on the go right now and can’t remember the title or author to give a proper citation, but I’ll come back with one as soon as I remember.) This book points out that if you go back far enough, fairy tales tend to be, at their core, stories about women for women, passed down from mother to daughter. This book highlights how Snow White is a story about a girl on the verge of becoming a woman, who comes at odds with her mother figure—whether the death of the birth mother and the arrival of an evil stepmother is literal or metaphorical is up for interpretation. As this mother figure tries to shove her into adulthood by trying to make her more adultlike—first with the poisoned comb in her hair, then the corset pulled too tight, and finally the apple, the biblical forbidden fruit of knowledge—Snow White finds refuge with men who care for her and allow her to remain in the role of a child, assigning her chores and rescuing her from her stepmothers’ attempts until the apple bite caught in her throat, which they cannot see and don’t know how to save her. In this case, the prince—who causes her to wake not with a kiss, but by jostling her coffin as he and his men carry her off to be a decorative ornament for his castle—is again, a symbol. Snow White is at last ready to wake, and step into the role of an adult.
Similarly, Cinderella is a story of a woman in a hopeless situation with no way out. Sure, nowadays we say, “She could have just left, she could have fought back!” But historically, neither of these were truly advisable options. Women out in the world alone had little recourse, and realistically, she would have likely wound up a slave-like servant in someone else’s home, or something even less pleasant. Given the unlikelihood of a woman being able to find a job—especially as I highly doubt that her stepfamily would have helped her by giving any sort of reference—marriage was her only way out. Instead of despairing, she does her best until she finds some solace in the idea that she could attend this ball. The prince doesn’t save her—she is the one who set out to give herself these three nights at the ball, and despite everything she’s been through, she has remained kind and personable enough that the prince falls for her over these three nights, choosing her out of all the other women in the kingdom.
Sleeping Beauty, if you go back to the story of Talia, the Sun and the Moon, is not a happy story at all. Her kiss is not a rescue. Perrault turned it into a sweet kiss and ended the story there, because he was adapting the story for the nobility of the French court. He deemed the original far too shocking, in which the king rapes Sleeping Beauty in her sleep, and she goes through pregnancy and birth while still asleep, only waking when one of her twin babies sucks the spindle out of her finger. Following this, the king returns and takes her back to his kingdom—where he already has a queen and a daughter. Said queen tries to assassinate Talia and her children until at last, the king beheads her and their daughter, and marries Talia instead. I’ve always seen this story as a contemplation on the merits of survival. The curse at the start of the story would have had Talia die; the fairy amended the curse into a long sleep. So now, Talia has survived—but at what cost?
My point is only this: I think we spend too much time talking about how men save women in fairy tales, when this in fact teaches our daughters to see fairy tales as stories of men saving women. Instead, why not focus on the journeys of these girls and women? We still read Jane Austen with the understanding that her female characters have an eye on marriage because in that day and age, that was the only “respectable” role a woman could have in the world, unless extremely rich. So why do we resist affording fairy tales the same allowance, even though they tend to be much older, with far less emphasis on romance or eternal happiness in marriage?
Excuse the long response. I’m a bit of a fairy tale fanatic (I have a blog that used to be devoted to reviewing retellings of fairy tales, at http://storybooker.wordpress.com if that’s any sort of credential).