*Bruno Bettelheim, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” (1976).
Katherine Wilde reported for The Telegraph on 29.6.18:
“From needing to “kiss a few frogs” to “finding our happy ever after”, watching endless romcoms that mirror the stories we fell asleep to, not to mention the next-level excitement that greets any kind of royal wedding, we’re clearly still hooked on these less-than-likely tales, however little relation they bear to the more troll and ogre-packed realities of daily life.
So why are we so keen to see fairy tales come true? And why do these narratives stay with us well beyond our childhood (and despite everything we’ve learned along the way)?
According to child psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe, director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology and author of The Genius of Natural Childhood: Secrets of Thriving Children, even in our own age, fairy tales still have a lot to teach children about life, and indeed give us key imaginary experiences that shape us throughout our lives.
“Fairy tales are important not because they show children how life is, but because they give form to deep fears and dreams about life through fantasy,” Goddard Blythe says.
“The important thing to remember is that children take on these stories at the developmental level they are capable of. In fairy tales, it’s always clear that this isn’t the real world. The characters might be unfamiliar to the child but the problems and the feelings that are dealt with are themselves often very true to life. Fairy tales give children a way, through stories that are safely set apart from themselves, to understand some of the really confusing and difficult feelings that they can’t yet articulate for themselves.”
Firstly, she explains, the black-and-white nature of fairy tales helps children feel comfortable and that makes them perfect for learning important life lessons, such as those around behaviour and basic morality.
“The simplistic, good-versus-bad narrative of fairy tales and the characters within them help children deal with uncertainty – it’s uncertainty that makes children anxious. By setting up this clear dichotomy from the beginning, and following this basic rubric throughout, whatever the story, fairy tales help children feel safe and comfortable with the story as it develops. So even if the hero or heroine at the centre of the tale experiences difficulties or hardship along the way, children can feel confident that they are going in the right direction.”
Conversely, the wicked stepmothers, witches, trolls, wolves and imps that make life generally difficult for everyone supply another important life lesson. “Learning that there are some wicked people in the world isn’t necessarily a bad thing for children,” says Goddard Blythe. “We don’t always help our children by allowing them to believe that the world they go into will always be easy or that other people will always understand them or make allowances for them.”
Fairy tales allow kids a safe place to explore the idea that life isn’t always easy, that things can go wrong, and people don’t always have your best interests at heart. At the same time, as the “good” characters are usually rewarded at the end, it’s a way of reinforcing positively the importance of being kind, thoughtful and true…”
Olivia Petter reported for The Independent on 18.10.18:
“…parents are imposing bans on these classic Disney tales, with Keira Knightley and Kristen Bell among those criticising some of the key storylines, which depict women being rescued by men and kissed while they sleep.
Donald Haase, author of Fairytales and Feminism, encourages parents to read these stories sceptically, so as to confront such archaisms rather than endorse them.
“They can read or tell classical tales in ways that intentionally question or subvert the stereotypes,” the Wayne State University professor told The Independent.
So, what are the stereotypes that parents should be discouraging?
Women are passive damsels who can only be saved by men
What do Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella all have in common?
Aside from porcelain skin and inexplicably glossy hair, they are each saved from a lifetime of misery and/or eternal sleep by a heroic Prince Charming figure.
Typically, this character is a glorified caricature of defunct masculinity, incensed solely by the egotism of a heroic quest for “true love”.
Naturally, this is as offensive to men as it is to women.
“This places a large amount of unnecessary stress onto both sexes and in particular women as they believe that they should take up the western traditional role of being a woman,” explains Dr Victoria Showunmi, who lectures in gender studies at UCL.
Marriage is the ultimate reward
In a culture where we’re getting hitched later than ever before and many choose never to marry at all, the compulsory “let’s get married and live happily ever after” narrative seems practically medieval.
Unfortunately, it is one of perennial focus in fairytales and subsequent remakes of stories such as The Little Mermaid, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, all of which culminate in a grand celebration of matrimony.
An everlasting romantic union is even the be-all and end-all for supposedly “modern” fairytales such as Shrek and Stardust.
Not only does this present marriage as the sole goal for the male and female characters, which subsequently characterises them as vapid, but it totally abhors the value of professional, financial and social success, all of which seldom feature in these narratives.
The implication, Showunmi argues, is that an unmarried person is a “failure which society has no place for.”
“Love is seen as a concept which happens when you find somebody to marry and not seen as evolving philosophical concept,” she told The Independent.
Lack of racial/physical/sexual diversity
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Disney princesses are beautiful, slim and more often than not, white.
While there are some exceptions (Mulan, Pocahontas and Princess Jasmine), traditionally, a white face reigns supreme.
Equally problematic is the unrealistic body standards set by whippet-thin Belles and Ariels, who dictate the animated fairytale world.
For a child encountering these stories for the first time, such restrictive aesthetic standards can be hugely detrimental, portraying the idea that beauty and happiness is synonymous with thinness.
On the rare occasion that a “plus-size” character features in one of Disney’s traditional remakes of a classic Grimms fairytale, they are either the typified antagonist or the benevolent maternal figure – think The Little Mermaid’s Ursula and Beauty and the Beast’s Mrs Potts.
Plus, these characters are almost always heterosexual.
While some celebrated the recent Beauty and the Beast remake for featuring a homosexual character (LeFou played by Josh Gad), the fact that this was simply a mere allusion rather than a definitive, plot-driving characteristic was deemed a feeble attempt at sexual diversity by LGBTQ campaigners.
Female characters are either bound to the home…
Another disheartening commonality that Snow White, Belle and Cinderella share is their heightened domesticity.
The only way Belle can save her poor father from the Beast’s entrapment is by becoming his house maid and Cinderella is bound to a life of floor-scrubbing while poor Snow White has to cater for seven male dwarves – one of whom is unappetisingly called Sneezy.
At least none of them were named Smelly.
…Or they’re evil step mothers/sisters/witches
That’s not to say that it’s all aprons and marigolds for our fairytale heroines.
One Google search for “fairytale villains” generates a slew of sadistic female “baddies”: Cinderella’s evil step mother, her “ugly sisters”, Ursula, the wicked witch of the west.
These women are vindictive towards one another and negate any concept of sisterhood.
They represent what literary scholar Ruth Bottigheimer called an “apparent inner drive to incriminate females” in her book Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys.
These rancorous caricatures present us with the “same theme” time and time again, explains Showunmi, that could severely inhibit a child’s propensity to form stable and supportive relationships.
While fairytales can be brilliant for inspiring imaginative discussions in children, parents must be vigilant in their way of sharing these tales so as to avoid promoting outdated ideologies they continue to foster.”