Ugly sisters? Evil step-mothers? Prince charming and happy ever after? Dina Jose argues that traditional fairy tales can cause more harm than good, and suggests we need to tell children fun, inspiring stories instead that teach them the right messages.
Ever wondered why children, well most of them, are so credulous? They believe what they’re told and seem so trusting, uncritical and even accept promises at face value. I wish I were still like that; with that born-yesterday attitude towards life. Yet it’s this trusting naivete that convinces me that we need to analyse the traditional fairy tales we still tell children – because the messages in these tales that we learn as children still continue to affect us in our adult life.
Many of us grow up to learn all the fairy tales. Most girls latch onto the myth of prince charming, a well groomed persona, preferably with a French accent, that is going to liberate them from all the evil spells! I was surprised recently as one of my friends exclaimed: “I think X is my prince charming; he swept me off my feet, and I can’t wait till he proposes.” Thankfully I was able to contain myself and didn’t say anything, but on second thought I didn’t think it was only silly, but actually alarming. For a girl in her late twenties, still thinking in that way, using these exact words “prince charming“, is not only preposterous, but an utter disaster.
I am not saying that dreaming is only limited to youngsters, but it’s adulthood that is at stake here. Regardless of race, religion, or culture, a young woman should have other prospects and dreams besides getting hitched. Finding “prince charming” does not conclude a girl’s destiny nor guarantee happiness ever-after!
If such an attitude is due to reading fairy tales, then I think that if I ever have children, I shall spare them such nonsense. It’s not just the “happily ever after” element that’s damaging. Many fairy tales also convey ideas such as all step mothers being ugly and vicious, and that to be “beautiful” is always the most desirable thing. And these stories affected me. When I was a third-grader I imagined my own mother as an evil step-mother, after having refused to buy me the latest Barbie! I do believe these fairy tales do have negative psychological effects as they sometimes stimulate the imagination more than is necessary or in the wrong direction altogether.
I think it is time we re-evaluate fairy tales and what messages are being conveyed to children. These stories could be eradicated, re-invented at best. Unfortunately I am not aware of many alternative equalitarian fairy tales to suggest reading to children, but I believe that some fairy tales with careful selection and perhaps some alteration of the plot can still be read. There must be other good alternatives out there; other stories from our lore or even those of different cultures which have morals, travelers’ adventures, stories of animals, or anything that feeds the brain as well as the imagination.
I think Shrek, the story about the green ogre, is a twisted fairy tale that tried, and I believe successfully, to contradict a great part of the myths conveyed by most fairy tales. Although Shrek could be well classified as a fairy tale in its own right, it retained only the good elements such as beauty of spirit, truth, as well as goodness of the heart. It even added new themes; appearance versus reality and self-acceptance, which are vital lessons for children in our modern-day societies. What’s more, being the first computer animated fairy tale makes it more contemporary. I think we need more of that in the stories that are being narrated to or read by the children themselves.
Additionally, fairy tales help nurture superstitions, beliefs in magical and supernatural beings as well as happy endings. Such unfounded thoughts and delusions might do more harm than good. We are civilized societies in a quest for more knowledge and greater advancements in science and technology; thus we need to eradicate such superstitions and beliefs. Children should learn that only through hard work, perseverance and patience do their dreams come true – not magic. What we think about expands into action, and if only fantasies are what’s embedded in a child’s subconscious, then what support system do we expect him/her to have to face life’s injustices?
Both girls and boys suffer as a result of the restrictive models society sets on men and women, girls and boys, and the sex-roles that box them. Although this is slowly changing in some respects – for example, men are being accepted as ‘metrosexual’ – more restraints are yet being imposed on women to look “feminine” and beautiful 24/7. A wrinkle in a man’s forehead is seen as character; a sign of fortitude and valor. While in a woman it is seen as a sign of old age creeping or a sure sign of the ticking biological clock. Women have best before dates, and thus are meant to inject botox into their being, pucker their lips, and cement high heels to their feet to retain their viability. All of this emphasis on physical appearance may help her exchange loving glances with an imaginary “prince charming”, but it should not be considered what make or break her femininity or being.
Stories for children that include women with ambitions beyond marriage? Exciting, inspiring role models that don’t fall into outdated stereotpyes? Now that would make me happy ever after.