6 Problematic Lessons Fairytales Taught Us About Female Friendship
As beautiful and perfect as she was in my young eyes, I always wondered why Ariel from The Little Mermaid didn't have any girlfriends. She seemed to have everything else going for her — a successful singing career, a nosy but endearing mob of sisters, and a handsome prince for a boyfriend (even if he was a little boring). But I couldn't help but notice that the only friends she had were male. Don't get me wrong: I loved Flounder to pieces, Sebastian was adorable in his own unique way, and Scuttle made me laugh until I peed, but I couldn't ever figure out why this odd group of guys was her only support system.
By now, of course, I know that the classic fairytales of our childhood are sometimes nothing more than cute stories that help uphold the patriarchy and generate heaps of revenue. According to animated fairytales like Snow White and Aladdin, as well as more contemporary ones like the Twilight series, women are damsels in distress whose main goal is to land the guy of her dreams. What's talked about less frequently, however, is that if you look closely at all these storylines, you'll also find that the female protagonists have no women around them as friends. It's a subtle part of the plot that often gets overlooked, but it can have tremendous impacts on the way we interact with the women in our lives.
Here are six lessons fairytales taught us about friendships with other women.
1. It's Normal To Have No Female Friends At All
Fairytale princesses invest almost all their time and effort into romance. In fact, in most of these cases, the protagonist doesn't have any women around them at all who could remotely be considered friends. For example, in Aladdin, there wasn't a single human being in Jasmine's life who was there for her when she was being set up with all those weirdos, let alone a girlfriend who could listen to her complain about her sexist dad. The same goes for the Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast; as likable as these main characters were, they had no friends.
From a young age we learn that it's perfectly normal to go about life without having women around you who care about you — these characters don't even have mothers around who can help them get through the tough times. It sends a pretty clear message: young women shouldn't put any effort into developing and maintaining female friendships, or expect those relationships in the first place.
2. Guy Friends Are More Worth Our Time
We've already covered Ariel's crew — three guys who all help her defeat Ursula and win over (boring) Prince Eric. A lot of princesses adopt similar guy squads to help them along the way. Cinderella employed the services of her pals Jaq and Gus, two boy mice who helped her escape, only to be nearly killed by the stepmother shortly after. In Mulan, the title character is accompanied everywhere by Mushu, Chien-Po, Ling, and Yao, each of whom are charismatic males that have vowed to help Mulan bring her family honor.
These fairytales teach us that we have more to gain from male friendships, and that guys are the ones who will make us laugh and cheer us on when we accomplish something significant. There's also something inherently damsel-in-distress-like about these friendships; the guys will do anything to protect the female protagonist, because it would be too far-fetched to imagine a princess who could completely take care of herself.
3. It's Normal That Women Are Wildly Jealous Of Each Other
Unfortunately, seeing women pitted against each other is the foundation of many fairytales. The stepsisters treated Cinderella like dirt for no reason other than shallow jealousy, and Tinkerbell basically tried to sabotage Wendy's entire life in Peter Pan because she couldn't stand having a "big ugly girl" around. Envy is the basis for pretty much every female feud in these stories.
We've been taught from a very young age that it's OK to be jealous of a girl who is prettier or more talented than you. To be more specific, according to the evil queen in Snow White, it's OK to put a fair-skinned woman in a coma for an indefinite amount of time in the name of raging jealousy.
4. Choose Male Love Interests Over Female Friends
In Twilight, the few girlfriends Bella has at school are left behind in the dust when she shacks up with her vampire lover; the books and movies make it seem like she simply doesn't have much in common with these annoying girlfriends now that Edward is here to sweep her off her feet. Similarly, when Ariel meets Eric, she is so smitten with him that she can't even carry a proper conversation with her sisters in the powder room. All she can do is hum and float around, dreaming about her prince — until she ends up ditching the ocean completely for him.
Are we supposed to write off our friends as soon as a guy comes along who sparks our interest? Yes, declare fairytales. Because obviously, platonic female companions are nothing more than temporary props that keep us entertained until the main event comes along.
5. The Most Important Thing To Talk About With Your Friends Is Your Love Life
Although Fifty Shades of Grey is a newer story, it's a big enough cultural phenomenon (and adult fairytale) that it deserves to be analyzed. In the movies, the only scenes in which Anastasia speaks to her friend is when they're talking about Christian Grey. Nothing else is important enough to talk about — not their careers, not their hobbies, not their families. It's all about the knight in shining bondage armor.
We're taught that the most interesting thing to chat about with our real-life girlfriends is what guy has caught our attention. In the meantime, boys are geared up to talk about conquering the world and defeating evil forces.
6. The People We Should Fear Most Are Other Women
In the beloved childhood fairytales, the antagonist is almost always another woman. Sleeping Beauty was up against Maleficent (who was actually the star of the show), Ariel was battling the forever-frightening Ursula, and Cinderella was trying to escape her wicked stepmother. Every once in a while we'll see a guy who's trying to mess up everything, like Jafar in Aladdin, but you can't deny that most of the time our princesses are fighting scary, old, and "ugly" women.
Young girls may not realize that they're being taught this lesson, but it's a strong enough message that it can easily get imprinted. In reality, there are so many other evil forces that we should focus on defeating, like extreme poverty, climate change, and structural racism. But instead, fairytales make us believe that the most frightening things in the world are other women. We then find it difficult to connect with strong women around us, even though that's the very thing that will make the world a better place.
Images: Warner Bros; Giphy