My mother likes to tell a story about how she came home from her honeymoon, c. 1965, presumably still misty-eyed. The reality of married life dawned the next morning, when my father sat her down and gave clear instructions on how he liked his English breakfast prepared.
Especially the fried bread, where he would be particularly attentive.
Well, I don’t know about you, but that would definitely constitute a run-for-the-hills moment for me.
Which makes me think. I don’t remember ever seeing the epilogue after the words happily-ever-after in fairy tales. Does Snow White’s new hubby leave his dirty socks on the floor? Does the Princess discover a stack of the Prince’s porn alongside the pea under the mattress? Or does Sleeping Beauty (like my mother) get a rude awakening as Prince Philip lays down the dos/don’ts of married life to her?
My father’s awful behaviour dates from the (arguably less enlightened) 1960s. Well, given gender roles in fairy tales are still much the same since their mainstreaming in popular culture in the mid 18th century, I wouldn’t actually be that surprised if Cinderella: the Shoe Diaries turned out a little less rosy than we would imagine.
Take, for example, Disney’s latest offering, Frozen. For those of you who have miraculously managed to avoid it, the synopsis is relatively straightforward. There are two orphaned princesses. The elder (Elsa) has strange powers of the thermal-cooling type that she cannot control. She runs away in shame after inadvertently turning her Kingdom to ice, whoops. Her younger sister (Anna) sets out to convince her to come home (falling in love not once but twice along the way).
I resisted the Frozen phenomenon as long as I could. But, curious to see what the fuss was about (and feeling that a Responsible Parent should at least know what my daughter was watching at friends’ houses), I gave in.
Predictably, I got annoyed. I was about to turn it off, exasperated at Princess Anna’s sugary excitement about meeting The One (aged, like, seventeen): and then watched in surprise as big sister Elsa refused Anna’s engagement to the man she had just met.
Sounds logical, right? You don’t generally marry a man you’ve just met, even after a splendid duo on the rooftops of the palace. But this small step for man, in Disney terms, is a giant leap forward for womankind. Ever since Sleeping Beauty made it to big-screen technicolor fame in 1953, little girls all over the planet have grown up with the idea that you’re supposed to lie passively and prettily on your bed (preferably in some hard-to-get-to-place), having been poisoned/cursed (by some evil stepmother/witch/fairy reincarnation), and wait for a (handsome-only-need-apply) Prince to come and save you.
Then, of course, you marry him, and there is your life wrapped up.
So, good for Elsa, and for Disney. I started watching more attentively, breath tentatively held. Could Disney have dared to break the mould? Was this history in the making? A turn of the tides?
Alas, no. Shortly after this landmark moment comes Let it Go, Elsa’s trademark solo (the one which permeates your brain like a syrup sponge, especially when your bilingual child dishes it out endlessly in both languages). And there, Elsa’s rousing chorus (tellingly translated in French, btw, as Freed/Released) finales with a swap of her dowdy coronation robes for thigh-high-hem-split low-cut off-the-shoulder number, accompanied by a layer of make-up and a good pair of heels.
It is a good thing indeed that the cold never bothered Elsa anyway, as there is suddenly a lot more skin on show.
Freedom, it would seem, is less about shaking off those demons than about having a glamourous frock. I can testify to that, since I can carbon-date my five-year-old-daughter’s tugging of her tshirt to reveal bare shoulders (“pour être jolie”) to Elsa’s wardrobe change.
Bear with me, please: this post is not a feminist critique of Frozen: that’s already been done to death elsewhere, and better than I could ever do. But I’ve long been exasperated with this Groundhog Day of fairy tale Prince and Princesses, and Frozen has just brought it to the surface.
Even if it’s never crossed your mind before, indulge me, think on it now. Can you tell me if you’ve ever seen a Disney film (or read a modern-day version of a fairy tale) which does not include:
- a beautiful, poor/otherwise hard-done-by, kind, thin, virgin Princess, not terribly good at saving herself, and ready to fall instantly and unquestionably in love with the first man that comes along;
- a handsome, good-on-horse/fighting-dragon, ready-to-be-wed, rich Prince, on the lookout for someone to save;
- a scheming older woman of some kind (stepmother, witch etc), doing everything in her (magical) powers to stop the saving-process;
- a triumphant ending involving demise of evil older woman, and then marriage of our young lady and her True Love.
Ah, I hear (some of you) sigh in irritation. But it’s all harmless fun. These are fairy tales; make-believe; part of our culture. Modern-day women do not define themselves by these gender roles (and nor do men).
In a literal sense, that’s true. I have to admit that my husband never had to take on a dragon before I decided to marry him. But I chose to marry him having had other boyfriends and after many years and children together; having my own career and resources. So that already makes me entirely ineligible for the damsel in distress job spec.
But dragon-slaying aside, these stereotypes are pretty awful.
What do they teach us?
In a nutshell, that women must be beautiful and submissive to succeed, and disproportionately grateful for help from the opposite sex; that men must be forceful, resourceful and handsome; that adult companionship is about getting married as soon as you can and believing in one True Love.
And the thing is, since we read fairy tales to our children from toddlers onwards, this becomes accepted wisdom from childhood. Even if it isn’t a blueprint, it’s still genderwashing.
You’re not convinced?
Here are a few concrete examples. Like when 8-10 year-olds in Germany were given an opening sentence and asked to complete the story: both boys and girls chose to write about a female character if the introductory sentence implied victimization, but chose a male character if the opener suggested someone leaving home or acting independently.
Or the fact that when children in a classroom in Alberta, Canada, were asked what would have been different had Red Riding Hood been a boy, they replied: “he would have been brave”. Or the sad truth that children’s books are still twice as likely to feature a male hero rather than a female heroine. Or the frequently referenced fact that at a young age children readily identify certain successful jobs or strong character traits with masculinity, and the opposite with femininity.
The articles quoted above often get some aggrieved reactions, such as this one:
But feminism isn’t about denying difference or making men and women the same. It’s about equal opportunity and equal worth. And I for one cannot see how the roles we’ve identified above can be beneficial to either sex, or society as a whole.
So why is it so hard to change? Granted when fairy tales first took (written) cultural root three hundred years ago, women had no financial independence and no control over their sexual or reproductive health; riding off into the sunset with a handsome Prince probably was the dream of many little girls.
But this lack of agency is no longer the case now (I say that with a massive caveat depending on where you are reading this).
So why am I still picking up the same tired plots to read as bedtime stories to my daughter? Why is it utterly inconceivable, uncomfortable, to imagine a story where a young man is rescued by a Princess?
Or, in fact, where no-one needs rescuing at all?
And when will I be able to take my daughter to see an animation film where we are not brainwashed with pink, giddy princesses and irresponsible notions of submission, true love, and beauty?
When, indeed. Once upon a time?