How is gender handled/represented in fairy tales?
In many fairy tales, the heroine is not so much a heroine as a damsel in distress who must be rescued by a hero. The stereotypical fairy tale princess is known mostly for being beautiful and needing assistance. To her credit, she is often kind and gentle, but any redeeming qualities she has generally do not make up for the fact that her purpose in the story is usually to look pretty, be helpless, and find true love.
Meanwhile, the fairy tale hero is usually responsible for saving the princess, a task which often involves danger, bravery, and heroics. The stereotypical fairy tale hero is more likely to have goals and aspirations that are not marriage-related, but this is not always the case. Consider the prince in Cinderella – often, his primary aim is to find a wife, but of course this can vary in different versions of the story.
Steeped in history and tradition, fairy tales tend to inherit historical perspectives on gender. This explains why fairy tale princesses tend to have such an emphasis on finding a husband, and why the action roles are often left to the princes. Fairy tales’ historical roots can also be blamed for their adherence to cisgender norms and their focus on heterosexual relationships. In this sense, fairy tales are outdated – they do not represent today’s society, in which women do more than get married and diversity of gender and sexuality are increasingly accepted.
That said, and although there are some modern fairy tales that are beginning to treat these topics in a more modern light, the attitudes reflected in stereotypical fairy tales have not yet faded entirely from our society. The perspectives that the fairy tales espouse are still (unfortunately) present in society, which is why they have not yet faded completely from fairy tales. Discrimination and acts of hatred still occur against those who break the norms that traditional fairy tales establish.
While it’s true that many women nowadays have more than finding love on their minds, I would argue that society still expects them to fulfill the traditional role too often. Before coming to Plymouth as a transfer student, I attended a college that is generally considered rather prestigious. Among the girls I encountered there, it was alarmingly common to hear comments about family members who had told them to “find a man” in college. These are girls who had gotten into an extremely competitive college on their own merits – they were remarkably intelligent, talented, and hard-working. Their relatives did not expect them to start famous businesses or one day run for president, but to find a husband. There are still many parents and grandparents out there who expect their daughters and granddaughters to go off to college not necessarily to get an education, but to find someone to marry. For real.