Weekly Training Journal #3

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 In this sense, fairy tales are outdated – they do not represent today’s society, in which women do more than get married and diversity of gender and sexuality are increasingly accepted.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.

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5 thoughts on “Weekly Training Journal #3

  1. I really liked how you dug deeper into the understanding of the history of gender stereotypes in fairy tales. I totally agree that gender stereotypes are becoming more modern and not as negative in today’s society. I also like how you brought up your college encounters…everyone goes home from school on break and gets asked if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend like that is our role at college? Why can’t a girl just go to school and come home as her independent self?!

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  2. I basically wrote what you did on this topic! The woman always seems to be the damsel in distress, while the man can be the hero, even if the woman wouldn’t actually need saving if she tried. I love that there are many new stories of young women empowering themselves and not needing men, because this teaches people who read the stories, such as young girls, that they can do things for themselves and that finding a man shouldn’t be your top priority. Were you ever extremely influenced by fairy tales and felt you had a specific role to play in your life? Or do you have people at home telling you how things should be? Society kind of does this to us too, and it seems to be based off of those fairy tales!

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    • It’s great that we feel similarly about this! I don’t know if I was ever influenced by fairy tales in feeling I needed to play a certain role – if so, it would’ve been subconsiously. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve always believed I could go out and achieve whatever I set my mind to – perhaps this is a reflection of inspiration from some of the more driven and independent Disney princesses. If anything, people at home have expected me to focus more on achievement than anything else, which is not necessarily ideal either but which I definitely prefer to being expected to find a relationship.

      That said, I do think society still expects that from us … but I’m not sure if society bases this off of fairy tales, or if this expectation started in society and is simply reflected by fairy tales. Interesting to think about!

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  3. Reading yours and the other I did a response to, I think the general consensus here is definitely that fairy tales often give off the whole “Damsel in Distress” vibe. The princess locked in the tower, the princess under a spell, the princess who ate the bad apple. It always involves them being saved by the brave man or the strong man. I guess these qualities seemingly found in many fairy tales can give us an idea of how gender roles worked in the time period each story was written in as well. It probably cues up and coincides with how women and men acted in real life at that time.

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  4. Very well articulated post. I liked how you compared the gender roles in fairy tales to the impact that might have on society, and the behavior of individuals. I did a similar thing in my post, and it was the first thing that came to my mind. I also liked how you mentioned the shift in gender roles in society, and I think that should also be accounted for more often in fairy tales. The woman doesn’t always have to be pretty and helpless and define their success by love and looks. Some woman’s main priority is not finding a man to love, so I would like to see that be brought up more in some of these stories. I would be interested in reading something where woman play a non stereotypical role, as well as males playing different roles. I think that would make for a good read, and be very refreshing.

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