We all have fond memories of growing up while listening to fairy tales. Fairy tales appeal to children because they help them better understand the world in their own ways. Some of the themes shared by a significant proportion of fairy tales include good vs. evil, the benefits of hard work, kindness and service to fellow human beings, power of dreams, and happy endings. It is not hard to understand why fairy tales appeal to children because they often imply that the system of the world is based on fairness and justice. But in trying to emotionally appeal to children, fairy tales also promote gender stereotypes which have traditionally hindered the progress of women in the society. Times have changed and new fairy tales should be promoted that promote gender equality and not gender stereotypes because fairy tales are one of the major educational tools to teach values and morals to children.
In early years, children are gaining information about gender roles from a wide variety of sources of which one is books. The children literature sends the message that males are more likely to be leaders, active, and adventurous while females are more likely to be victims (Balter). Fairy tales usually make a clear distinction between the roles different genders take as well as the power differences between the two genders. They even portray characters being punished when they display the behavior usually associated with the opposite gender such as female characters being punished for taking the initiative while male characters being rewards for doing the same thing (Yavorsky). It is clear that fairy tales convince children there is a clear gender line between males and females that should not be crossed and the society punishes those who defy gender expectations and norms. As a result, fairy tales continue to promote stereotypes that have held women back historically.
It is important to note that the time periods in which fairy tales are written influence the beliefs and value systems reflected in fairy tales. Many of the fairy tales popular among children from the eighteenth and the nineteenth century were meant to teach women how to become house caretakers, marriage-worthy, and physically attractive (Zipes) and a research by Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz found that 94 percent of Grimms fairy tales touched upon the topic of physical appearance (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz). Now we live in different times and have different ideas of men and women roles in the society. Moreover, we also have come a long way to acknowledge the fact that a woman’s worth is not determined by her physical appearance thus, it’s time to write new fairy tales that reflect the values and belief systems of our times.
One cannot overstate the importance of lessons learnt early in life and we are teaching the wrong lessons to our young children. The lessons learnt in early life often stay with the individuals their whole lives as formal interviews with boys and girls revealed. The study author Stone found that females use characters in fairy tales as models even in adult life. Not surprisingly Stone recommended stronger female characters should be introduced to the children in educational environment (Mello). Thus, there is a need to reduce children’s exposure to many of the popular classic tales because such tales make it difficult for the society to progress because they continue to reinforce older and dated ideas.
One of the problems with classic fairy tales is that they put too much emphasis on factors outside individual’s control especially when it comes to women. Attractiveness is often portrayed as the most desirable trait in females. This sends a wrong message to our children that the society doesn’t value what they are capable of or what they do with their life but how attractive they look. In other words, fairy tales have the unfortunate outcome of promoting superficial values among females. It makes our young females believe that the key to success is winning the heart of a successful man through one’s appearance. As long as fairy tales promote the importance of beauty, young girls will continue to believe that their fate will be determined by their marriage partner and it will lead to inferiority complex among those who are physically less attractive. In fact, some stories like Cinderella actually portray evil people as less beautiful and may help attach negative stigma to less attractive people (Neikirk).
The fairy tales continue to promote the values of male-dominated society that men should be head of families and women should be submissive. Fairy tales do not only promote gender stereotypes regarding females but also males. In fact, they may also promote negative values among boys such as use of violence, being macho to prove one’s masculinity, and those who avoid physical conflicts being seen as weak. Fairy tales, thus, promote gender-specific images of males and females that have persisted since centuries but are now a hurdle in the way of progress.
It is now apparent that even the most popular fairy tales may promote misleading gender stereotypes. Lessons learnt during childhood shape one even during adult life, thus, there is a need to create modern fairy tales that reject these gender stereotypes and teach that men and women are equal and equally capable.