Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who sat around and waited for her handsome prince to save the day. She was passive and never played an active role in claiming her destiny. All in all, she ended up getting married, starting a family, and lived happily ever after. Although that sounds rather dramatic, this is the plot of many children’s fairy tales.
Like a lot of others, I grew up reading and watching various fairy tale classics such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. However, it wasn’t until recently that I realized how large of an impact these stories had on my relationship with femininity as a child.
After being exposed to these fairy tales, especially the early Disney princess movies, I remember thinking that ‘happily ever after’ for a woman revolved around getting married to a man and having children. I can still distinctly envision the ending of Cinderella – the shot freezes on the happy couple, they kiss and ride off in a carriage after their wedding, the words “and they lived happily ever after” the last thing on screen. The perfect picture of happiness – or so they wanted us to think.
As if the idolization of marriage wasn’t enough, let’s talk about the portrayal of fairytale women themselves. One of the most famous lines in any fairytale is “someday my prince will come”. This phrase is said by none other than the first Disney princess herself: Snow White.
It’s jarring to me how many young women know this phrase and were exposed to it during their childhoods. In a literal sense, this phrase tells women that they should not actively try to change their bad situations but should wait for a man to rescue them.
I personally got so accustomed to the literary convention involving men rescuing women that when I wrote stories in my youth, I would depict my female characters as passive and needing male assistance. It wasn’t until I re-visited these stories as an adult that I realized the patriarchal standards that had been normalized in my life at a young age.
Now, although the gender biases in these stories may not seem like that big of a deal, exposing young women to these kinds of messages can seriously change how they perceive their identities as women throughout their lives. If a young girl is consistently told through bedtime stories that women must be passive and submissive to men, she will most likely grow up believing in those anti-feminist standards.
These passive female leads teach women to expect and tolerate the patriarchal aspects of society and to not speak up for themselves to get what they want. This can work to silence feminist voices in young women and further the equality gap between men and women.
The glass slipper has been switched out for a glass ceiling and many women are now faced with various gender-based prejudices in the workforce and society as a whole. Once I was made aware of the dangerous messages embedded in fairytales, it was like taking off ‘Briar-Rose’ coloured glasses and I began to see the reality of these beloved childhood stories.
However, it’s worth noting that things have changed since the days of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Many feminist critics have pointed out fairytales’ tendency to idolize marriage and encourage passivity in women.
The movie industry has also been making some strides and has recently released various films that depict stronger and more independent fairy tale women. For example, the new Cinderella movie that just dropped earlier this month in which Camila Cabello depicts an ambitious and clever Cinderella. Cabello’s portrayal presents girls with a princess who has her own career driven ambitions outside of marriage. Audiences follow ‘Ella’ as she makes an effort to pursue her dreams of starting her own business and opening a dress shop.
This positive change in leading fairy tale women can also be seen in the book industry. One of my favourite book series in high school was The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. Meyer’s series retells classic fairy tales and features leading women who are independent and do not consider marriage an essential part of their ‘happily ever afters’. In Meyer’s story, Cinderella is re-envisioned as a girl named “Cinder”, a resourceful and intelligent cyborg who does not wait around for any man to get what she wants in the world.
So, although society’s depiction of women still has a long way to go; we are making progress. If we are made aware of the patriarchal conventions of the stories around us, we can work to crack that glass ceiling one strong and independent princess at a time.