Now I know I’m probably stating out things that most people already know, the feminist critical literature has been tackling this subject for years now. But after referring so often to the concept of Prince Charming, I really felt like a talk on fairy tales was in order. There are many ways in which we are socialized and even socially conditioned and I believe gender roles to be one of the strongest ways in which nurture builds characters.
In early childhood we are told stories that fascinate us, but also give us guidelines to who we should eventually become when we grow up. Apart from the gender-specific behavior we learn from our families, there is this powerful effect stories have upon us. They answer to our need to enjoy our imagination and also to our spirit of adventure. But the things we eventually end up learning may not be just human values and qualities like kindness, courage, determination, integrity and so on. We learn that as girls or boys we have separate places in the social world and that we don’t succeed in the same way.
Women in fairy tales are most often portrayed as helpless, damsels in distress waiting for their prince to come find them. They lack initiative and they lack any distinctive personality traits. The only thing that we know about most of them is that they are beautiful and that is their main worth. They are usually passive to events that come about in their lives and are only thrown into adventure by outside forces and with the help of supernatural creatures. Cinderella dreams of going to the ball, but it is only after the Fairy Godmother gives her a dress and a carriage that she can actually act upon her desires. Most main female characters in fairy tales are still stuck in the domestic realm. Snow White, even when she runs away to the dwarfs’ house, takes care of the cleaning and cooking and Cinderella does that all day long for her family. Even in some of the Romanian stories, where the main characters are girls and they are revered for being more that pretty faces, their smarts and kindness are put to the service of their families and they all do housework and care for others and that is the only thing they are rewarded for. Moreover, their devotion to men is religious. “The Poor Man’s Smart Daughter” eventually marries the town’s judge and when he gets upset with her and wants to throw her out, the one thing she chooses to take back with her (given the option to pick anything) is her husband. In stories where the main character is a prince who goes on a great adventure to rescue his kingdom or a princess, the women’s role is purely of décor. They sit around waiting to be saved from the evil grip of the monster and then indiscriminately marry the one that saves them. They are envied not for their personality, but for their beauty, which is what gets them in trouble and saves them at the same time. The evil forces want to kill or kidnap them just because of their looks, they pose no substantial threat as persons, but rather as a better and improved model of the female charms.
Talking about evil forces, the alternatives to the beautiful submissive soon-to-be-housewife in all fairy tales are women with supernatural powers. The good ones are Fairy Godmothers or kind old witches who give a helping hand. The others are evil witches or bad mothers. Any unmarried woman in stories has to be a witch. One of my anthropology teachers believes that witchcraft is strongly associated to women’s sexuality. So one way of explaining why some women chose to live outside of society’s clearly ascribed roles was witchcraft. The years of witch hunting were, in his opinion, just a measure to reinforce traditional gender roles.
So the templates for being a woman we get from fairy tales as little girls are nice and simple. You can either be a beautiful homebound princess, who is patient and kind and submissive and lives to meet her prince. Or you can be a witch who is forever alone and lives only to help or maim others.
The role models boys get from fairy tales are completely different. One annoying thing is that almost all male heroes are royalty or at least really rich. They are good looking and great fighters, fearless and intelligent. Men are part of the public sphere in all fairy tales. They roam around looking for adventure and saving damsels in distress. They don’t wait for things to happen, they go and take it. In a way, these are all attributes that are more difficult to live up to than those ascribed to women. And they create unrealistic expectations for the female readers about what a worthy suitor is supposed to be like. It is rarely that we find that knightly strength and courage in a man. They don’t fight monsters for us and don’t take us away to a castle on a white horse. We don’t instantly fall in love with the first one that rides into our lives and don’t live happily ever after with them. We rarely meet any male evil characters, though. In German fairy tales they are barely existent and Romanian folklore has created this semi-human creature, similar to a basilisk, that kidnaps young princesses and is always defeated by Prince Charming. They are also secluded and, the way I see it, have all the psychological traits of a sociopath.
So boys and girls, we’ve all been taught by stories adults told us that there are two ways to go: comply with our gender roles, get married, have babies and live happily ever after, or stay bachelors and turn into monsters or slutty witches. Even though the world has changed so much, we still have these patterns of how we are supposed to be and live our lives buried conveniently in our subconscious.
If I ever get to have children, I want them to hear the real stories. About women who worked their way through school or even went to prison for their convictions who eventually got to run some of the largest or most powerful countries in the world. About real life princesses who raised money to feed the poor and give as many children as possible an education. About those who were laughed at and discredited, but kept fighting for our right to now be better educated and reach parity in economic power with men, for our right to choose whether to and what kind of family we want to dedicate ourselves to, for giving us the horse and the sword to be our own Prince Charming.