WAITING FOR HER KNIGHT: GENDER STEREOTYPES IN FAIRYTALES
Our childhoods are drenched in pretty princesses, courageous knights, evil witches and magical creatures. Fairytales are oftenthe very first kind of literature that young readers are acquainted with, andas such, the first place where children first encounter the differences between “male” and “female”. Why do we give books to children? Common answers to that question involve phrases like “to expand”, “to open up” or “to broaden”, followed by “their minds”, “their horizons” or “their imaginations”. Sadly enough, many children’s books do just the opposite. They peddle stereotypes, close minds to new experiences and offer limited horizons.Fairytales supposedly portray worlds that are better than our own, as they reflect the ideal. However, in fact the typical gender stereotypes portrayed in fairytales are inappropriate and one-sided portrayals, in a way that it is especially concerning for women.
Gender is one of the most defining aspects of a person after their name.In fairy tales, it often forms the very crux of a character in a story, laying down and cementing the expectations that a reader has of the character.The concept is a social construction. There are certain social roles that society prescribes to individuals on the basis of their sex. If you are a man, then you must be “masculine”. Conversely, if you are a woman, you must be “feminine”. Female characters in children’s books are often underrepresented despite the passage of the years, while male characters are often given overrepresentation even when the story does not essentially revolve around them. One must remember that the readers of these books are impressionable, and reading books where female and male characters are not equal can lead to the continuation of damaging gender stereotypes.
In children’s books, the character’s gender determines the character’s activities: male characters are more adventurous and physically active, while female charactersaremore passive and reserved.We know that children are guided by the information that they absorb from their environment on how to feel and act. The prevalence of books and reading in their lives means that children will take in the information presented in these books and use it to shape how they perceive their own gender. If they are presented with the idea that girls cannot do math, or boys cannot like the color pink, then that skewed image of gender is now part of how that child sees himself or herself. The acceptance of these stereotypes may limit what children think themselves to be capable of throughout their lifetime, and can lead to the perpetuation of the stereotypes to future generations. Hearing these stories for the first time, impressionable children come under the spell of gender stereotypes.
Most fairytales engage two prominent stereotypes where women are involved: either that of the hapless damsel-in-distress, or that of the vile, conniving witch; that is to say, the protagonist or the villain. These character stereotypes are so well-known that they have become a regular component in children’s literature. However, when you look deeper into these characters, the presence of patriarchy makes itself known.
Let us focus on the well-known character sketch of the damsel-in distress. A common character where most fairytales are concerned, she is a familiar part of every story. Looking deeper into the text of the tales, you will see certain recurring features that are present in each and every damsel-in-distress. The first attribute is that every damsel, whether child or adult, is a gorgeousbeautywho is able to enthrall the people around her. In most fairy tales, physical grace, beauty and innocence are all rewarded, while inelegance, ugliness and aggression are all punished.Another common feature is the damsel’s naiveté and submissiveness. She is naturally docile and easily suppressed; her simple-minded thinking making the character meek and unable to stand up for herself.Most of the time, it is one of the most prominent reasons for her distress: her inability to come to terms with her reality and her misplaced faith that things will go well as long as she suffers patiently.
In addition, the plots of most tales impress upon their readers that the home is where a woman belongs and, furthermore, she receives both social and financial security through marriage into the home of her “Prince Charming”. In most fairytales, in order for the woman to have a proper “happily ever after”, marriage is a must. Through her marriage, she receives the guarantee of social and financial security and her original troubles cease to be. This dependence of women on men for the fulfillment of their social and economic needs once again reinforces the idea of female subordination and the necessity of male approval.
Most fairytales enforce the idea of “femininity” and its necessity in order for a woman to have a good, secure life. This idea is implanted into the minds of children from the very moment they are able to understand the words that flit about their surroundings.The presented stereotypes are often internalized and considered as the absolute. The message that this sends to girls often then sends them in pursuit of male approval over other worthwhile pursuits like character, self-dignity, education and career. Fairytales propagate a gender ideology that encourages an obsession with physical appearance and dependence upon a man for social and financial security.Such a strategy, relying on physical beauty rather than personal merits for financial security and happiness, leaves a girl at the mercy of a man and diminishes her future chances for self-elevation.
If, in such a situation, the female protagonist broke out of her stereotypical mould and relied on herself and her wits rather than on her so-called “prince”, she would be greatly empowered in the story and would become a proper protagonist in every sense of the word. In short, if a woman is empowered, the importance of a man in her life would greatly decline in relation to what is currently considered to be the norm. In such a case, one could say that the power of a woman and the power of a man are directly proportional to each other.