Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Changing the fairy tales

Welcome to ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ Carnival This post was written especially for inclusion in ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ carnival, hosted by Mother’s Milk Books, to celebrate the launch of their latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience: The Forgotten and the Fantastical. Today our participants share their thoughts on the theme ‘Fairy tales’. Please read to the end of the post for a full list of carnival participants. ***

If you'd asked me a couple of years back, I'd have told you vaguely that I liked fairy tales. I liked the idea of them, and had fond memories of stories with my grandmother, and of one particular book of illustrated Grimm tales (I think) with the most perfect, detailed pictures you could imagine. I can still bring to mind the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, such detail on the cakes and sweets and biscuits, oh, and the frog sitting by the princess's golden plate and asking, horror of horrors, to drink from her golden cup - in the picture there was drool dripping from his mouth, and horror on her princessy face. I remember a boy covered in treacle and feathers, too, though I've no idea what the story might have been.

It's only getting back to them now (and sadly, not in such a beautiful edition) with a nearly-four-year-old that I realise how crude the basic premise is in so many of the classic fairy stories.

Princess and the pea - prince waits in his castle, auditioning princesses, hoping to find one of unprecedented fragility and girliness
Princess and the frog - man frog buys you dinner gets your ball out of a pond so you're morally obliged to bonk him let him sleep on your golden pillow - but it's ok because he turns out to be a prince so you grit your teeth
Rumpelstiltskin - dad sells his daughter to a king, who locks her up, sets her impossible tasks, and says if she's really really good then eventually he might marry her. (No wonder she promises she'll give his baby away to a funny little stranger)

I could go on, but it's been done before, and with greater skill. It's easy to defend them as just stories, as being simple fun and as also having other more uplifting messages (the princess made a promise to the frog, and you must always keep promises; Rumpelstiltskin was foolish enough to offer a loophole, and you must always take advantage of loopholes). But I really do fear the way we've internalised these messages. Most right-thinking modern people wouldn't agree to the idea that women should wait to be chosen by a man, but we can't stay away from this narrative, the one where the ultimate reward is marriage, obviously to a prince. Sleeping Beauty has her fate set from the beginning, and her redemption is through the kiss of a stranger who she ends up shackled to - she is the powerless woman, her whole life's structure fixed, only freed by a man who effectively gives her the freedom that should have been hers.
I'm struggling to put any of this in an original way, but it's an honest reflection of my unease with fairy tales, and my difficulty with sharing them with my boy. He questions so much but this is also the time when all his values are being shaped, when he is so receptive to everything that comes into his world. I'd not show him violence on the television, or swear in front of him; I try to model gentle and respective interactions with people and ways of talking about them. And yet here the only goal, if you're a woman, is to find someone who will marry you and keep you in style, and if you're a man you only want the princesses, the beautiful, unachievable, hyper-feminine ones, who come with a dowry.
I don't know, in real life, mothers of girls who tell them they need to find a prince. But if we don't argue with the stories, point out the problems and the stupid assumptions and the ridiculous value systems embedded in them, we're not doing right by our children. We tell them not to worry, ogres aren't real, trolls aren't real, witches aren't real; we should add that princes who make it all ok aren't real, women who are worthwhile just because they're pretty aren't real, and there are better ways to start a relationship than being rescued from a dragon.

*** The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2015 book cover
The Forgotten and the Fantastical is now available to buy from The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (as a paperback and PDF) and as a paperback from Amazon.
It can also be ordered via your local bookshop.
Any comments on the following fab posts would be much appreciated:
In ‘Imagination is quantum ergo fairies are real’, Ana, at Colouring Outside the Lines, explains why we should all believe in fairies and encourage our children to do the same.

 ‘Wings’ — Rebecca at Growing a Girl Against the Grain shares a poem about her daughter and explains the fairy tale-esque way in which her name was chosen.

 In ‘Red Riding Hood Reimagined’ author Rebecca Ann Smith shares her poem ‘Grandma’.

Writer Clare Cooper explores the messages the hit movie Frozen offers to our daughters about women’s experiences of love and power in her Beautiful Beginnings blog post ‘Frozen: Princesses, power and exploring the sacred feminine.’

 ‘Changing Fairy Tales’ — Helen at Young Middle Age explains how having young children has given her a new caution about fairy tales.

In ‘The Art of Faerie’ Marija Smits waxes lyrical about fairy tale illustrations.

 ‘The Origins of The Forgotten and the Fantastical — Teika Bellamy shares her introduction from the latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience published by Mother’s Milk Books.


  1. Excellent post. I'm off to read the other ones you link to.

    I agree. Fairy tales can be very subversive. I'm shocked to find that at my children's school, the tradition for the Leavers' Ball is that girls wait to be asked by boys. Imagine the pressure, and the embarrassment, and the heartache. It's rare that a year has an equal number of each gender. We're trying to tell our daughter (aged 11 but with two older brothers who will go through the system ahead of her) that if she wants to go to the ball with someone, she should go right ahead and ask him. But whether she'll be brave enough to do so, I don't know. Peer pressure and tradition will be stronger than parents' exhortations, no doubt.

    I wonder if it's time for the whole tradition around marriage proposals to be reinvented. There does seem to be a lot of waiting around involved on the woman's part still, and if a couple has lived together for a while, it seems like it should be more of a joint thing. Those girlish expectations must come from somewhere pretty deep-rooted. (Can't say I broke the mold personally on this one, though.)

    There are some good fairy-tale-busting books out there for children. Princess Grace, by Mary Hoffman. Princess Pigtoria and the Pea (she marries the pizza delivery boy instead of the prince, and the story is all about the letter P - geddit?), by Pamela Duncan Edwards. Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole (which personally I don't like, but others do). I'm sure there are plenty of others.

    This is Iota, by the way, but on a computer at work, so not logged into my account.

    1. Thank you, Iota - and I'll have a look at those alternatives.
      I remember the ball thing well - the popular girls would stack up their offers and wait to the last minute to choose which to have, so the other girls would be waiting for the "second round" of all the rejected suitors. There was also an under-system where a girl could let a boy know that, should he approach her, he might get a favourable response - but that couldn't be said out loud. A horrible system for the self-esteem, and setting girls up to think this situation's normal!

  2. Here's a post which is interesting, about the lack of strong female leads in children's fiction. Seems that once your children have grown out of fairy tales, it doesn't get much better in modern fiction for older kids. That's a bit depressing.


    (Iota again!)

    1. Thank you, Iota - I like the way the blog you linked to resolves that we need to write the books we want to read! (Note to self - I've got a proposal to draft).

      Of course, you say you're Iota, but I don't know you're not an impersonator...

  3. The Paper Bag Princess is another reversal of the classic princess fairy tale.

  4. Great post, I've been pondering similar. I suppose fairy-tales reflect the times they were written in? Not that we should forgive them all the dodgy ideas and passive princesses, but perhaps the starkness of fairy-tales makes the limits placed on the women in these stories more visible, and as a result, easier to discuss? I've had some good conversations with my boys about how Disney's Merida is different to say, Sleeping Beauty (yawn), and they get it, and I've seen them use those ideas in relation to other stories they encounter. They're gonna need some analytical skills in this crazy world - check out http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/27/your-princess-is-in-another-castle-misogyny-entitlement-and-nerds.html

    1. Wow - thank you so much for that link!
      I am terrified by how much I need to help my boys learn: as you say, they're going to need so many analytical skills, and they'll always have to be switched on. It would be so easy to accept societal values unquestioningly, yet we need questions at every turn.
      Seriously, that post has proper woken me up after a bad night's sleep, and made me want to sit and have deep-and-meaningfuls with my 3 year old.

  5. I do agree with you about some of the fairy tale set-ups, I really do, they are genuinely disempowering of women, but I do want to add that interestingly enough the Grimms’ book of fairy tales went through about 7 or 8 editions over many decades and academics have noted how there is very clearly a shift in the tales – how they become more ‘moral’ than they were before (I think that probably also means that the women were less empowered too as the versions went on).

    Funnily enough, in the original version of ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (I think it was originally called ‘The Frog King’ or ‘Iron Heinrich’) the princess actually hurls the frog against the wall when he wants to snuggle up with her in her bed and it is that act of aggression/self-defence that causes the frog to turn into a prince (rather than a kiss). So take of that what you will!

    Anyway, I DO know what you mean, and I guess that I try to be mindful when reading ‘sanitized’ versions of fairy tales to my children (or even tales that were downright ridiculous to begin with) that I make my views known about the silly situation of the princess/girl/woman whoever… and I’m beginning to notice my daughter point out the gross errors in some of these stories! (And btw we do tend to prefer the ones where there is a strong female lead. Mind you, all of us love Cinderella at home, so what can I say about that?!)

    1. Now, that is interesting about Iron Heinrich, and it rings a vague bell - I like the idea that the woman wins the man by displaying her strength!
      (though it's also a little bit "mmm you're sexy when you're angry" which is always an infuriating line!)
      I reckon if you have a boy/girl combo at home it might help with discussing these situations.

  6. If children were only consuming these out-dated messages I'd be worried but I think they can be negated with discussion and by the sort of values you clearly encourage in your son. Clare's post on Frozen seems to show that things are moving in the right direction. All of the posts have made me look more closely at my own writing.

    1. Ana, Oy is so wonderful, such an un-butch hero, in fact all your characters wear their genders so lightly, they're people not men or women, boys or girls.
      (fan rant over now)

  7. I love this post! I wrote something similar a while back about the problem I have with princesses (http://gagatg.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/why-i-hate-princesses.html) and I have to admit that, having been so excited to share fairy tales with my daughter when she was first born, I soon realised when reading them again that they set a really bad example for relationships. But I love your way of interpreting it so that, as we reassure that the 'baddies' aren't real, we also explain that the gender roles and relationships also aren't real - or at least very outdated!

    1. :) I promise I wrote my post without having read yours first, though we were obviously on the same page!