Wednesday, February 01, 2006

fairy tales and stereotypes

(ok. i had posted this on sthreeling, but in case you've not been checking that one (boohoo!) i'd still like to know what you think. and hence post in duplicate, signed by notary public blah blah :D)

when i was a kid, i had a pretty nifty collection of story books. i loved reading, and on each of my birthdays, at least one of my numerous relatives used to give me a story book. whether it was a book with those colour illustrations on one side with the story printed in huge thick black letters on the other side, or those small satisfyingly thick books with fine print, books were an obsession with me. and so I got to thinking about the stereotypes we feed our children.

the heroines are almost always pale, slender and wilting uselessly from atop a tower, waiting for a hero to come and transfer them from the captivity of a witch’s tower to the captivity of a castle. it seemed all they were capable of doing, was languishing. if i remember right, one of ‘em even opted to wait a hundred years than lift a finger and help herself!

the tales gently and inexorably instilled those stereotypes in our heads: be figure-conscious, fairer is more beautiful. also, if youre a woman, be helpless. be inert. show no initiative – above all, never try to change or help your circumstances.

i think the most damaging tale for a kid to read, is probably cinderella. cinderella didn’t want to tell the prince she was poor, because a prince couldn’t marry anyone other than a (beautiful) princess. read into another caste. read into even a different socio-economic strata. same principle. but that’s not all - the prince who loved cinderella enough to rummage through his entire kingdom for her couldn’t even recognise the love of his life until she was dolled up again to match the glam image in his head. only when she was in her evening finery did he propose to her. moral of the story: if you want to find your prince and live happily ever after, appearances are everything.

those were the english stories – of our native folk tales, sita was depicted as the picture of paralysing virtue, solidly bolstering the stereotypes of Virtuous Wife, Obedient and Helpless Woman and - this gets me the most - the Husband’s Property, to be exchanged, stolen and shifted around like loose change. (the Ramayana is separate-post-worthy so im skimming over it for now!)

so there we have it. all the young women were this insipid, uninspiring kind. the ones that actually did something, were the evil old hags. the witches, the shrews, the mantharas – if a woman had a spark of intelligence she would promptly cause untold trouble and strife in the kingdom!

one gasps and turns to “alibaba and the 40 thieves” for support. (there’s patriarchy for you by the way – margiana saves the day, and what do they do? they name the story after the man!) but alas, a clever woman just isn’t as acceptable as a pretty dimwit. so while margiana fades into obscurity to the extent of her name changing from version to version, jasmine (Aladdin) lives on....

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Blogger Wrong number said...

The Fairy Tales were definitely Grimm! Hansel and Gretel (to take just one example) has some particularly gruesome torture imagery (including a child-roasting oven!!!). So, I'm not entirely sure one should limit the criticism of these tales to their overt (if not intended) typecasting of male and female characters in gender stereotypes.
p.s. I think the word "empowerment", that so many feminists swear by, is an extremely demeaning one. Look the meaning up in a dictionary and you will know why.

10:33 am  
Blogger m. said...

yes, the brothers grimm wrote gruesome stories didnt they. what i find striking, is that whether it is in a happy endings kind of story, a gruesome one, a thriller, fairytale, or one of adventure, these stereotypes prevail in all of them, as if theyre some kind of universal truth. its so damaging!

as for "empowerment", if i understand you correctly, you're pointing out the angle of need for a societal grant for status.

unpleasant as it is to have to ask for one, it is still necessary. if a woman considers herself intelligent, competent and capable, it still doesnt free her from all her bonds or dispel her frustration - if anything she is more frustrated when she knows herself to be all those things and is still denied employment, opportunity,freedom and self expression since the people around her have not accepted her status. hence a consensus is necessary you see. the societal grant, which has been unfairly withheld, must be given.

3:47 am  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

well these tales are centuries old. Can't expect these guys to have the right perspective. These are taken from an article that was emailed to me. Can't verify if these are true but makes for an interesting read:

In the 1400's a law was set forth that a man was not allowed to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. Hence we have "the rule of thumb"

Many years ago in Scotland, a new game was invented. It was
ruled "Gentlemen Only..Ladies Forbidden" and thus the word GOLF entered into the English language.

12:48 pm  
Blogger Wrong number said...

Just because you deserve it doesn't mean they're going to give it to you on a platter. (Note the use of the word "they" rather than "we".) Sometimes you have TAKE what's yours.
Empower yourself. Dont wait for a societal grant.


4:57 am  
Blogger the wannabe indian punkster said...

Finally a feminist blog(I feel like whooping!):)
where do I begin about gender bias?
If you notice, the brothers Grimm rewrote most of the fairy tales which were actually folk tales, and introduced a "male element" because they didnt want people to believe that a female could be resourceful and get out of situations on her own. Case in point "Red Riding Hood" the original french version which was titled "Story of Grandmother" she escapes from the wolf by her own wit and smartness....but in the Grimm's version...there is a macho male hunter introduced in the story to finally save the "weak" female involved. So much gender makes me want to hurl(not literally...but you get the point)
Great work and feel free to wander by my blog too!
BTW here is the link to the oldest version of Red Riding Hood:


5:22 pm  
Blogger the wannabe indian punkster said...

I dont think the last link worked so here it is
The story of Grandmother

5:27 pm  
Blogger Bharat said...

Let me show you the real picture of today's moders daughters-in-law, who are destroying Indian institution of marriage.

9:45 pm  
Blogger m. said...

m (tread softly upon): oh boy. tell me that rule of thumb thing isnt true! :-|

saale: forbearance isnt the same as weakness - nobody is asking for favours.
we also cannot crack skulls and create changes overnight. since this is a structural reform and involves people, it will have to be brought about carefully. we would be achieving nothing if we followed dubya-like tactics.

megha: welcome, and thanks a lot for the link! the first one works :)

bharat: right. my heart bleeds for you.

12:48 am  
Blogger the wannabe indian punkster said...

ha ha the first one actually worked! Go figure!
Isnt there a vast difference between the Grimm's version and the original boggles my mind.....

11:00 am  
Blogger Aishwarya said...

m, please, please try to find a copy of The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. Feminist retellings of the stories, with all the wonder (and gore!) of the Grimms versions. There's a retelling of the Bluebeard story, a couple each of red riding hood and beauty and the beast, and a few others. you'd love it. magnificent stuff.

8:15 am  
Blogger MC said...

very nice take on the tales.. but like someone else almost suggested , probably women were like that those days because they had more respect and say in things. now men have changed and thats why we have stories like "charlie's angels" today to remind me you can kiss ass too.

2:41 am  

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