My 5 year-old daughter is currently a big fan of fairly-tales (well, she has been a fan for quite a few years). Almost every evening she asks me to read to her from a volume containing all the greatest hits in fairly-tale world (the usual Andersen/Grimm/Perrault stuff), in suitably slightly modernized versions. I must say that I find it excruciating: it is glaringly obvious that these fairy-tales do nothing to promote the healthy development of a child’s emotional self, both for boys and for girls. I know that there is a massive literature on the psychology and psychoanalysis of fairly-tales, but if anyone has ever said (as I’m sure someone has) that fairy-tales tap into deep archetypes blablabla, I can only reply: surely you must mean stereotypes.
A few years ago, I came across (via my former student Antonio Negro) an awesome blog post on Disney princesses and feminism, which patiently deconstructs what is wrong with each of them from a feminist point of view. Disney certainly does not make things any better, but in truth most of the horrific bits are already in the original versions. Take The Little Mermaid for example: what can one say about a mermaid who abandons her family, friends – literally her whole world – gives up on her fish tail and her voice for a pair of legs (and presumably other bits and pieces…), for her ‘love’ for a human man she does not even really know?
I do not have the same patience as the author of the post I just mentioned, so let me just bring up two of the recurring aspects in fairy-tales that really bother me. One is the annoying habit that fairly-tale princesses have of being saved by their male counterparts: usually, they just sit there and wait for rescue to come – think of Snow White, Cinderella, and the worst of all, Sleeping Beauty. The other aspect that bothers me is the whole fantasy of ‘love at first sight’: in Rapunzel, the prince ‘falls in love’ with Rapunzel simply from hearing her voice; Cinderella dances at a ball with Prince Charming, and right there they immediately figure out that they are made for each other and will live happily ever after. Clearly, no surprise that both girls and boys grow up thinking that they will hear bells and see fire-works the very first time they lay their eyes on ‘the one’ – as I said, not exactly conducive to the development of a balanced emotional psyche…
But now I made a deal with my daughter: I can read her the stories, but at the end (and sometimes even during) we undertake a critical evaluation of the material and discuss all that is ‘wrong’ with it. So now she independently goes through the book looking for stories where it is the princess who saves the prince (or at least something going more or less in this direction), or where the falling in love process is not the usual ‘love at first sight’ fabrication. Am I indoctrinating her? Possibly, but I’d much rather have her exposed to this kind of indoctrination than to the fairly-tale propaganda. Time will tell what will come of it.