It's no secret that many fairy tales set women up for failure. Between all the gritty retellings and feminist criticism of the genre, most people are aware by now that the idea of "happily ever after" often doesn't stand up under scrutiny — in the tales themselves or in the real world. Obviously, this doesn't stop us from enjoying fairy tales. Who doesn't love a good story, especially when it features talking animals, magic, and bands of murderous, thieving cannibals? Or, you know, the more modern versions with fairy godmothers and true love prevailing against class barriers — whichever floats your boat. Either way, though, it's worth it to be critical of the media we're consuming, even when we enjoy it.
Fairy tales will never go out of style, and for good reason: They're some of the first stories we learn as children, and that kind of thing tends to stick with you well into adulthood. In fact, in the 19th century, Victorians used fairy tales as ways of teaching morals to children — lessons they were meant to carry with them throughout their lives. And while contemporary audiences tend to take these intended life lessons with bit more of a grain of salt, fairy tales still wield cultural influence. The feminist princess may be on the rise today, but that doesn't erase centuries of sexist tropes in fairy tales.
Without further ado, let's look at five ways fairy tales set women up for failure.
1. Women's Stories End With Marriage
Unless the story is about a literal child, female protagonists are almost always married off by the end of their tale (and sometimes, they're married off despite the fact that they're still children). Often, the tales themselves are defined by their relationship to marriage; in "Donkeyskin," the princess' story begins when she runs away from her father's attempts to marry her, and in "The Glass Mountain," a princess waits around at the top of an unreachable tower for someone to marry her.
To be fair, most men wind up married in fairy tales as well; the only difference is that they get to have adventures along the way. In the meantime, women are told that their lives begin and end with marriage — what are we supposed to do afterward?
2. Vanity Is A Death Sentence
In a fairy tale, displaying vanity is almost always a one-way ticket to a horrible death. To be fair, it's punished no matter the character's gender; the titular character in "The Emperor's New Clothes," for instance, is a man. However, vanity is far more likely to be associated with women in fairy tales; the wicked stepmother is jealous of her new daughter's beauty, old women are willing to murder in pursuit of youth, and so on. The implication is that women are far more likely to obsess over their appearances, and this vanity is ultimately their downfall. It really makes you wonder what Hans Christiann Andersen or the Brothers Grimm would have thought about selfies, doesn't it?
3. Women Aren't Supposed To Know They're Beautiful
As a counterpoint to the vain, wicked stepmother, female protagonists in fairy tales are exclusively beautiful and pure, all the more so because they're unaware of their beauty and purity. Seriously — you'd be hard-pressed to find a fairy tale where the princess or peasant girl isn't introduced as beautiful and virtuous in the same sentence.
So, to recap: Fairy tales are set up to associate women's appearances with their worth, but if they're aware of their beauty, they ultimately become murderous villains. Yikes.
4. Other People Save The Day
It's been talked to death at this point, but it's worth pointing out. In fairy tales, women rarely take action on their own behalf. Aside from enlisting the help of woodland creatures to clean her house, Cinderella meekly does what she's told until the fairy godmother saves the day; Snow White and Briar Rose are literally unconscious for the better part of their tales. The message? If your life is in shambles, sit around and wait for some helpful passerby to take care of things.
5. Men Have All The Fun
While male protagonists are out there adopting clever cats and kissing strange women in coffins, women are stuck waiting around to be rescued, scheming to murder their defenseless stepdaughters, or making poor decisions for the sake of love. (Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," anyone?) I don't know about you, but a life of quietly counting my blessings and ignoring my reflection for fear of finding out I'm pretty — thereby setting me down the road to villainy — isn't my idea of a good time.
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