Childhood is wonderful, like a flower on its way to full bloom, like a butterfly emerging gracefully out of a cocoon. A child’s mind is young, willing to take in all the information it can. It is curious and impressionable, making it an easy target for the haunting messages their story books unintentionally convey.
Progress in children’s literature occurs at an almost glacial pace. For far too long, children are subjected to the same old fairy tales, the same old ‘classics’, and consequently, the same old gender stereotypes incorporated in them. These distorted values are instilled into them through books, movie adaptations, and even cartoons inspired from these stories. The world children are exposed to seems to perpetuate flawed gender roles. It is hardly surprising how the glaring differences between the two sexes still persist.
One can identify some common themes across most children’s stories. Here are seven insidious messages children should not be hearing right before they go to sleep at night (or ever):
- Damsel in distress
No one is unfamiliar with the poor damsel who always seems to find herself in an unpleasant situation that she herself does nothing to get out of. She is delicate and helpless like a deer caught in headlights, and someone, somewhere is always out to get her. Her main contribution to a story is often simply looking beautiful and passively accepting her circumstances. Every now and then, she might shed a tear, but that’s about where it ends. Too often, she is not given any agency or opportunities to make decisions. The damsel is captured and then the damsel is rescued. Her role is responding to what is being done to her, even when she is the protagonist of the story. This teaches young girls with immense potential to never tap in to their capabilities. It teaches them that they always need to be rescued, and can never be their own savior. Sit still, look pretty, and get rescued.
- Knight in Shining Armor
Of course, one talent the female lead of the story is permitted to have is that of waiting patiently. She is good at waiting, and waiting is all she does. With no attempt to escape a distressing situation, she awaits her knight in shining armor to get rid of her troubles for her. He always succeeds (there was never any doubt about that), and relieves her of her many woes. He is always the solution, always the light at the end of the tunnel. This only teaches young girls that dependency will be rewarded.
- Older Vicious Women
The portrayal of older women and older men in children’s fairy tales is quite unfair, to say the least. Older women, in most cases, are described to be horrendous in appearance. They are malicious and always wish to inflict harm on the young female protagonist. They are witches, evil stepmothers and sisters. Their sole purpose is to make the life of the young girl miserable because they envy her beauty.
Older male characters, on the other hand, are powerful kings and kind, elderly men with a pure heart. This contrast between the two contributes significantly to the way the perception of men and women is shaped in a child’s mind.
Speaking of older women envying the beauty of a young girl, what is with their unrealistic preoccupation with good looks? Why are they obsessed only with the preservation and acquisition of a pretty face? Women are shown to be vain to such an extent that, not only do they spend excessive amounts of time pursuing beauty, but are willing to cause harm to another woman in the process. This is a common stereotype that is constantly reinforced in children’s stories and fairy tales. The impact of this can be seen even today when girls are ridiculed for wanting to look ‘good’, for it is automatically assumed to be the only thing they exert any amount of effort into.
Another common theme recurring in these fairy tales is of women constantly being pitted against each other. They are almost never there to empower each other. They are in battle, always in opposing teams, and fight over things like beauty and men. Not only does this reinforce the point about vanity, but also establishes beauty and men as things worth quarrelling over. It is no wonder so many young girls still feel like they are in competition with each other.
- Body Types Associated with Certain Traits
The media receives significant criticism for portraying only one type of body as the ‘ideal’, while the fairy tales sitting on the bookshelf of every house get away with doing the same. The female lead character is always seen to have a slender body and tiny waist. It is designed to be pretty and graceful and dainty and easy for a prince to lift when he inevitably rescues her. Not only is this body type always saved for the female protagonist, any other type is assigned to women who are evil and hold bad intentions. This leaves any body type that is not slender associated with villainous traits and the quality of being extremely wicked. Embossed into the minds of young girls at a very early age, this leads to problems relating to low self-esteem. While the media is accepted to be quite foul in its discrimination between body types, the reinforcement of the association of moral goodness with appearance in a seemingly safe story book is particularly harmful.
- Virtues in men and women
Finally, the fairy tales and stories narrated to children have strong implications in the way they define what is expected of them in the future. The benchmark of excellence for both differs vastly, and is infuriatingly low for girls. Girls are encouraged to aim to achieve perfection in appearance, in being well-groomed, in being still and delicate, and in stroking the ego of the male hero. Boys are encouraged to fight for what they want to be brave. Why isn’t she taught to stand up for herself and others? She is to be kind to everyone but herself. She is celebrated for doing pretty much nothing other than be innocent and cower in the face of a challenge. Strength and courage are unimaginable traits for her to possess.
The tame and gentle way in which children’s literature inculcates certain unwanted values in children makes it all the more insidious. It is left unquestioned and considered innocent, which is perhaps why it is so difficult to see the need to change them significantly.
When themes with the potential to trap young children in rigid gender stereotypes appear at an age where they are so gullible, one must acknowledge that it is only to go downhill from there. Room must be made for empowering young girls and balancing the roles of all characters in writing meant for younger readers. It is time to have more queens who are not evil, where a woman in power is not a threat. It is time to have more older, kinder women who are lenders of wisdom rather than borrowers of physical beauty. It is time to stop propagating these messages under the mask of bright colours and magical characters.
Author: Manasi Pant