Oct 22, 2020 in Literature

The Role of Women in Fairy Tales Compared to Society Today


Fairy tales have formed an important part of the global culture both in the past and in the present. Initially, fairy tales were considered only as fictitious creations that were meant to put children to sleep or to teach them how to speak among other things. With time, however, it was noted that each culture had a version of a fairy tale that communicated of their beliefs, contexts and social constructions especially with regards to the gender roles. While some of the fairy tales may have a specific origin, most of them have different versions depending on where they are being told. The Grimm fairy tales are some of the relatively modern fairy tales that became popular globally as a result of the mass media era where they got the transcultural publicity. They remain the most practical reference that will consistently be used in this literature review with the female characters including Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel among others. This literature review will show that there remains a contention over the actual role that the fairy tales play with regards to shaping the social constructs on the gender functions. The children are still exposed to fairy tales during their formative years thus having an impact on whom they think they should be as they grow up. Therefore, the role of women in the society today is defined based on the role that the women in fairy tales played. Even with the high access to information and the freedom to choose whom to become and how to act, the gender-based concepts learned from fairy tales remain very influential in determining how women conduct themselves in the modern society.

The Role of Fairy Tales in Modern Society

Ruterana posits that the information that children are exposed to at a tender age tend to shape their perspective on gender roles. This author conducted a study in Rwanda where the main objective was to establish how these children thought with regards to the traditional gender roles. In the findings, it was noted that the children were more receptive of literature that depicted men and women within their traditional definitions while rejecting literature in which the gender roles went against the established norms. Considering that this is a recent study and the old fairy tales are still used in the literature that children get to read, it can be stated that these fairy tales continue to shape the gender roles in the present times. A child who has read Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White, as well as Sleeping Beauty among other fairy tales, would grow up convinced that the woman needs to be helpless and delicate, with their main role being to look beautiful and attractive enough for the men. The men, on the other hand, are presented as strong and fearless and in most cases, the sole reason of the woman's existence. These definitions may be adjusted as the child grows up but they still form the core tenets of their understanding with regards to gender roles. It would thus be difficult to argue that there is a difference between the women in the fairy tales and those in the modern society with this information in mind. It may however also be noted that there are some modern tales that children are exposed to and in some of these, the women are not as helpless and as dependent on men. Also, the mainstream media is consistently working against the stereotypes created by the fairy tales thus countering the effect of the old fairy tales on the social constructions of gender roles in the modern times.

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Crowley and Pennington then argue that fairy tales, for as long as they have existed, have done more harm than good in shaping the gender roles and determining how women perceive themselves within social contexts. Girls grow up watching characters like Cinderella and her ugly stepsisters thus deciding that only the beautiful ones get a happy ending in life. Exposure to such literature is specifically why most women believe, correctly, that their value is based on how they look and how submissive they are to the men in their lives. Cinderella was not only beautiful but also very trusting in her fairy tale. The stepsisters, on the other hand, were ugly and mostly argumentative and thus portrayed as stupid. As such, the girl child is meant to believe that they have to be beautiful within specified parameters while also being more submissive in their interactions with the male members of the society. The expectations that women in the fairy tales have may also be transferred onto the women in the modern society such that while there is no real Prince involved, these women work hard to be attractive enough to find a charming and well-mannered man who will walk them down the aisle and give them a happy ending. As such, even despite the major contrast in the settings the women in the modern times have a little bit of fairy tale influence in their perspective on life. Watching these fairy tales as children gave them hopes and dreams that may fade with time but still exist in their minds. Only a few of these women get to grow out of their fairy tales and thus embrace a new perspective in which they have to be just as strong and work twice as hard as their male colleagues.

Descriptive Words and Themes Used in Fables and Fairy Tales and Their Impact on Modern Society

Fitzpatrick and Barbara is a rather interesting article that examines how the female gender is defined not only within fairy tales but also in some of the most famous fables that are presently popular in the mainstream media. The use of descriptive words in a story setting is meant to portray a specified picture for the reader. Adjectives that portray the female danger are often softer and more related to the quality of relationships than on personal achievements just like within Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. In most fables, weaker characters are portrayed as gentler and humbler while the male characters are fierce and forceful and often cunning. These traits are easily associated with the masculinity thus making it a norm for men to be strong while the women are weaker and more dependent on the men in their lives. A credible example that these authors use is that of the Rabbit and the Turtle. The Rabbit in this fable is, of course, male because he is confident and assertive while the Turtle is powerless and naturally inhibited. Anyone who will have watched the fairy tales would be able to make this connection and thus assign gender to these animals that would otherwise remain without a sex within the fable's contexts. It thus follows that these fairy tales and fables also impact the perceptions of the society about the gender roles both in the past and in the present.

Seifert is a primary research that focuses on how women are portrayed in children's books. This author also seems to agree that childhood is a very formative stage of psychological development such that any content in children's literature or media would have a significant impact on how these youngsters act in the future. The mindsets that they format that tender age often determines the perspectives that they carry through the rest of their lives. Fairy tales portray women in a specific way. In Snow White, the value of the woman is based on her beauty. The Queen was jealous of Snow White because the mirror said that she was the fairest in the land. In such a situation, therefore, the Queen would only be satisfied if she were the most beautiful woman alive. The fact that the Queen was willing to take Snow White's life so that she could be the nicest woman means that being beautiful is a paramount thing to the women. Also, the fact that Snow White is saved from the Queen and she even ends up with her one true love indicates that being beautiful is an added advantage and in many cases, it is the most important one. Valuing women based on their looks affects their role in the society. They become more like accessories to the men since their most important quality is to be pleasing to the eyes. This perspective prevails even in the modern day.

Wojtalik et al focus more specifically on the how the themes explored in childhood fairy tales and literature affect the modern woman. These authors argue that the modern woman is primarily a product of the fairy tales. In the contemporary contexts, women have been exposed to much knowledge such that they are known to have the capacity to be just as pragmatic and rational as the men. This, however, does not rule out the fact that most of these women grew up listening to, reading or watching the fairy tales. Therefore, in their most formative development phase, they were instilled with certain expectations as related to gender roles and social norms. They were taught that women needed men in their lives and that they had to be breathtaking and attractive to be noticed and respected. The beautiful girl always got the happy ending and these modern women all strive to be that pretty girl in the fairy tale. Another similarity presented by this author is the fact that women in the fairy tales are always followers rather than leaders. While there are many examples of modern women in leadership positions, it must be noted that many women remain under male figures in their various fields. Most women in the corporate world forever never get past the middle level management unless they are in a feminine organization where most of the employees are female. This matches the fairy tales where even a Queen often sought the approval and support of a man to be complete.

Similarities between Fairy Tales and Reality in Historical Contexts

Golsan also clearly highlights the similarity between the fairy tales and reality using a quote from Renoir which simply states that there is little difference between the fairy tales and the reality. This assertion brings forth the argument that these fairy tales were edited to match the contexts of the authors or the narrators who were passing them on. This may explain why there are very many versions of the same fairy tales. In this text, the author argues that Renoir's works were often labeled as failed attempts at realism because they were often more like a fairy tale than a reality. In these works, the women were able to rise through ranks, though by getting married to a wealthy man. Two arguments can be established from this text. First, men in the olden days did not believe that a woman from one class could get married to one in a higher class. A chambermaid, in this case, would be more likely to marry a peasant and not a wealthy business man. This would indicate the rigidity of a society in which women were restricted in their potential, a fact that was also visible in most fairy tales like Cinderella where the protagonist had to be helped by a fairy godmother to get married to the prince. The magical element was meant to make it believable. The second argument from this text is that women have to rely on men to improve the quality of their lives. Using Renoir's assertion, this applies not only in the fairy tales but also in real life.

Catherine considers a rather different but relevant subject in her essay on women and the white wedding. In a white wedding, the woman is perceived as a precious and sacred gift for the man. The wedding gown is also charming and often made of lace, just as Cinderella's gown is often portrayed in popular culture. White weddings were not popular until the mid-nineteenth century when it suddenly because of mandatory for the affluent families. Women from influential backgrounds were no longer willing to get married without the privilege of a ritualistic sendoff where they dressed like Cinderella being united with her Prince both culturally and religiously. This practice continues to be common in the present day, thus showing the lasting impact of the fairy tales even on modern culture. It can, in this case, be noted that there is likely to be more similarities than differences between the women in the fairy tales and the modern women. The fact that fairy tales are still a pivotal part of the current practices invites the question of whether the modern times are any different from the fairy tale settings. Ideally, it would be stated that the fairy tales affect the perspectives of the society based on the fact that children are exposed to them at a very tender age. Being in their formative years, the information that they get from these fairy tales becomes the basis on which they build their thought patterns and shape their expectations about adulthood and gender roles. In a different argument, it would be stated that the fairy tales were fictitious variants of real life experiences that were adjusted for drama and relevance to the contexts of the readers. In some circles, it has been argued that most fairy tales be actually edited to make them palatable for the children thus indicating that they are more fact than fiction except for the re-told sections. Either way, one must note that these fairy tales are very close to reality in the modern times.

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Women in Literature

McCleary & Widdersheim found that over the years, women were consistently represented with traditional gender roles in the literature thus defining these gender roles as the norm. Women have in many instances featured in stories and fairy tales, but in most cases, they were overshadowed by their male counterparts who were always given the dominant and more powerful role in the story. The woman would only be a companion in a war story or a Queen or Princess in a kingdom story. In stories about Princesses, the mothers were barely mentioned compared to the fathers, and sisters, if any, were often referred to only as the sisters. These stories mainly draw focus to the male figures, and each time a woman would be featuring as the lead role, she would have to submit to a man at some point. Even in the fables, Simba was a male as was Mufasa and Nala was barely mentioned in the entire tale. All the duties performed by the female characters are often forgettable and not impressive at all. In such a scenario, it easy for the audience to remember and appreciate the men while believing that the women should rightfully remain in the background away from too much attention. These definitions limit women not just in the fairy tales but also in life. Like Simba and Mufasa, most influential families only front the men to the public while the women remain in the shadows. This applies in particular in countries where the women remain hidden in the shadows of the men in their lives.


All the sources discussed above agree on the close similarity between the women in the fairy tales and those in the modern society. This similarity is based on two possible explanations. First, the fairy tales could simply be tweaked versions of the reality, with the authors having added on some aspects to create some dramatic effects that would keep their audiences interested. Another explanation is that the children have been consistently exposed to fairy tales such that most if not all of their decisions as they grow up are based on the perspectives that they earned from being exposed to these fairy tales and fables. It can however also be considered that some things still stand out regarding the differences between the fairy tale women and the modern women. These differences are the main interest of this study based on the fact that they are not fully covered in the existing literature. Scholars have been working tirelessly to establish the similarities between the modern woman and the fairy tale woman while ignoring the need to create some differences between the two.


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