Nursery rhymes, continued

In this guest post, Ellie Levenson responds to my post about her column on fairytales in The Independent

I was surprised to find my article on fairy tales being discussed on The F-Word, not least because the sentence that caused the outrage in Jess McCabe’s post was meant to be a witty aside in mine – I had said that political correctness in children’s rhymes is all well and good but only if it doesn’t mess with poetic scansion.

The typical view of feminism is as a humourless movement. It’s like that joke I think I first read in an article elsewhere on this site: How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer – That’s not funny. So for this reason I was a bit sad that the humour in my aside about poetic scansion was not picked up on.

But more than that, I actually stand by my point that where a story or rhyme is discriminatory the best course of action is to leave it as it is in the original and then discuss the implications of this with the child. So should we tell our daughters feminist versions of Cinderella or Snow White? No, but we should talk to them afterwards about the moral messages and how thing as are today and how to fight discrimination when you or others face it.

Why not introduce politically correct versions instead? Well for two reasons. First because literature is a record of the time in which it is written. We do not remove anti-semitic phrases form Shakespeare or Marlowe, but we do discuss them when studying literature as a way of understanding the values of the time. And second, because life is not all that pleasant. If we pretend that nothing is sexist then girls will get a big shock when they enter the real world and find that actually, sexism abounds. Surely it’s better to tell it how it is and then talk about and encourage ways of changing this.

This isn’t to say don’t sweat the small stuff. I do think that we need to tackle the small feminist issues (being called’love’ or ‘sweetheart’ by male strangers for example) along with the big stuff like discrimination in the workplace and access to abortion. But we must also be realistic and understand that sexism in fairy tales is not only way down the list of battles, but perhaps necessary as a way of preparing children for the many battles that lie ahead.

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