5 Ways Fairy Tales Affected You Without You Even Realizing It
They might seem like harmless fables, the kind of stories that are easy to dismiss as adults, but fairy tales affect us more than many people may realize. They're as prevalent now as they were when we were kids; indeed, they might even be more so, thanks to the internet. But fairy tales have been around far longer than the internet, or even the animated movies so many of us grew up watching, and they often still serve their original purpose as morality tales.
Many of the lessons are fairly by-the-book: Be good to others, listen to your parents, and don't eat apples given to you by strangers. However, many fairy tales implicitly reinforce gender norms; after all, they're where the "knight in shining armor" and "damsel in distress" archetypes originate. And over time, these stories have an effect on the way we think. In fact, earlier this summer, a study from Brigham Young University found that engaging with "princess culture" makes children more likely to exhibit gender-stereotypical behavior — and it's hardly the first to do so.
Although it shouldn't stop you from enjoying them — if you're into fairy tales, by all means, be as into them as you like — fairy tales clearly leave an impression that lasts far beyond childhood. Let's take a look at five problematic lessons you may not have realized you absorbed from fairy tales — and take a moment to remind ourselves that just because we've been taught them from an early age doesn't mean we have to follow them.
1. "Adventures Are For Boys"
Let's start with one of the most obvious fairy tale tropes: Adventure is something men seek out and women happen to stumble upon. To be fair, not every male protagonist goes out of his way to find adventure, but they tend to take a far more active role in their stories than the typical damsel in distress. Cinderella makes it to the ball, but she ends up right back where she started until the prince comes to whisk her away to the castl; the climax of Snow White's tale happens when a prince breaks the curse for her; Rapunzel is quite literally stuck waiting around for rescue from her tower. When such limited roles are presented, boys and girls may grow up to feel like their own roles in society are limited as well.
2. "Chores Are For Women, Even Princesses"
While men are asked to prove their worth by feats of physical prowess — going on a quest or climbing a glass mountain — women are stuck with more traditionally "feminine"-coded activities like cooking or sitting around looking beautiful. (More on the latter in a minute.) It might not seem significant, but in a society where women still shoulder the brunt of housework, the reinforcement of this status quo by fairy tales certainly doesn't help matters.
3. "Beauty Equates To Goodness"
In virtually every fairy tale, physical appearance is directly linked to morality. Princes and princesses are all beautiful and good; witches and evil kings are all ugly and malicious. As Alice Neikirk wrote in an essay on the subject, "In many ways, some of the more popular stories can be interpreted as elaborate 'beauty contests,' emphasizing the message that a woman's youthful appearance, especially when paired with the appropriately meek demeanor, is her most important asset." This goes for male characters as well, but Neikirk has a point — men have characteristics beyond their attractiveness, but appearance is the most important factor in a female protagonist.
4. "Vanity Must Be Punished"
Although beauty is hugely important in fairy tales, humility is almost as significant. Fairy tales teach us that vanity is something to be punished; on the rare occasions when a villain is beautiful, she (because it's almost always a woman) is also scheming, vain, and obsessed with cutting down her competition. The most well-known example is Snow White's wicked stepmother, but examples can also be found in stories like "The Rose-Tree," "Vasilissa the Beautiful," and "Gold Tree and Silver Tree." If you've ever wondered why you feel weird about taking too many selfies, maybe you can blame the Brothers Grimm (and everyone else who's ever written or collected fairy tales) for this one.
5. "It's Not An Ever After Until You're Married"
This trope swings both ways. Whether it's a valiant prince or a peasant girl with a heart of gold, our hero's story isn't finished until the wedding bells are ringing throughout the land. Even when marriage is just a happy afterthought tacked on to more important stuff — it's safe to say Briar Rose was more excited about being released from her curse than marrying a stranger — fairy tales end with a wedding almost every time.
Even in adulthood, happily ever after is conflated with marriage. Although the number of people getting married has declined since the '80s, most people are still expected to settle down into a monogamous relationship eventually. This pressure extends to both men and women, but it's especially hard on the latter. Marrying a dude remains one of the most important accomplishments a woman can achieve in society's eyes, and if you're a single woman older than 30, the spinster-cat-lady jokes are almost endless — not to mention the increasingly pointed insinuations that you're inching ever closer to dying alone and penniless, just like a wicked stepmother.
I would apologize for ruining your childhood, but we all know the internet took care of that a long time ago.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, Giphy (5)