Words || Ashley Regan
Prince Charming kneeled next to the glass coffin. Her eyes were closed, her chest rose and fell with air. He leaned over and kissed her lips tenderly. Snow White’s body jolted her awake, “Get the fuck off me” she yelled as she pushed the prince off her. I know what your thinking, here’s another case of MeToo.
What we know as the classic Fairy Tales of good and evil marketed towards a PG child audience is orginially rooted in rape, incest, torture and cannibalism. Over the centuries authors have readapted original folk tales from tribes which preserved beliefs and experiences, into easily digestible ‘fantasy’ stories catering to a wider audience. But no author created a cult following or fairy tale monopoly like Disney.
He was the first to readapt the stories into cinema, but he also completely scrubbed away the overt violent themes. Turning story-telling into an industry, capitalising on merchandise through movies, books, toys, clothing and multiple theme parks! Once a communal activity with rich history to a capitalist commodity with one-dimensional portrayals. Although, Several psychologists have proven children gain important lessons from fairy tales. Through imagination the child learns the basic instructions and expectations of civilization, they apply meaning through the fantasy world into reality. Whilst it is necessary to teach children discipline and learn ‘right’ from ‘wrong’, the classic fairy tales are often teaching the wrong rules.
The original tales are outdated teaching children rigid notions of life, sexuality and gender. No fairy tale shows this better than Snow White. We all know the innocent girl with skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as night, but it is a classic sexist narrative.
In both Disney and the original, Snow White is a passive character who seemingly makes no decisions for herself. The only other woman character, the Queen, is constructed as evil and ugly because she is independent, has rare knowledge of magic and is fighting against the system. Snow White is always saved by men, by the huntsman, Dwarfs and the Prince. She is the perfect image of obedience, innocence and beauty, making her desirable by the Prince. Without even having a large presence in the story the Prince is pictured as the hero in the end and takes Snow White to live in his castle.
This sexist trope where good women are framed as silent and passive, and evil women as ambiguous and powerful, are not unique to Snow White. Each of Disney’s classic princess embodies society’s attempts to silence women and reinforce patriarchal ideals. In Sleeping Beauty Aurora is also pictured as a passive and obedient character. As soon as she is left on her own Maleficent appears and hypnotises her to prick her finger and consequently fall into a deep sleep. This depicts women as incapable of being left alone, they easily fall into the trap of being a damsel in distress in need of a male to rescue her as she can only be awakened by the prince’s kiss. In contrast, Maleficent is pictured as easily angered, responding irrationally to not being invited to Aurora’s christening, showing women’s ability to overreact because of trivial matters.
What is this teaching our children? Boys should seek out beautiful women who don’t speak up, and ignore women who are ambitious? What is clear is patriarchy is harmful to both men and women. Children internalise the values in these stories leading girls to strive to become the perfect princess and boys to be the perfect prince. We set up children with unrealistic expectations of how relationships function and all endings are happy. Life is not this optimistic so why should we spread this lie?
Psychologists have suggested the themes of fear in fairy tales is proven to improve judgements of safety and critical thinking skills. Whilst Little Red Riding hood teaches children the dangers of speaking to strangers, to always follow the path. The original tale is more so rooted in experiences of rape, more of a how-to deal with predators. The woof represents the aggressive and active males who tricks females into bed with them. Either way the tale presents cautionary meanings reminding us that some wild beasts seduce us with gentleness and sneak into our beds. In addition, Alice in Wonderland presents the consequences of acting on childish curiosity. Alice constantly neglects authority and chases her desires, but this gets her into constant trouble. She repeatedly eats cakes and cookies without asking permission. Whilst this also portrays in the classic sexist narrative as a passive character who acts without thinking, she teaches lessons of consequences. Disney’s easy-going readaptions of violent fables comforts audiences with simplicity, but we must also recognise their hidden meanings to teach our children better.
Media is totally influenced by the culture of its production. Today’s Disney realised the need for updating the fluidity of life as modern princesses are much more active in their roles. Now characters are represented through a variety of paths, fitting into the current narrative of today’s society. No longer are characters simply the strong male hero, the wicked female witch or the weak submissive young females. Even producing films such as Enchanted which openly mock Disney’s original patriarchal expression
Mulan released in 1998 was the first of Disneys to push the outdated sexist narrative to the side. Instead of being passive and rescued by a man, she becomes the man and does the saving. She is active by breaking the constricting norms of her culture and challenges the prejudices her country has. Brave portrays the female heroine as a warrior who actively refused the patriarchal norm of and arranged marriage to a man. Frozen and Moana present narratives which write out Princes Charming permanently from the fantasy world. They each possess more freedom to make their own choices and changes in their lives as they pursue their highly articulated dreams.
Whilst fairy tales set up unachievable life expectations for children with patriarchal and sexist values, the genre of fantasy seems to be a necessary element for all stages in humanity. Fairy tales for children to comic books and cartoons for tweens. Video games and reality tv for teenagers to novels and music for adults. The fantasy world helps us to role play our desires and master our anxieties, so we can contribute to the real world at the hands of society’s expectations.