I started to think about this subject a year ago when I used to read old stories and Disney tales to my daughter. Hungry wolves, bad witches, scary monsters, greedy giants, heroic princes and beautiful princesses, living happily ever after in a castle, served by hundreds of maids and low-class workers… Old stories with themes and images like child abuse in Hansel and Gretel, horror in little red riding hood, social injustice and discrimination (poor versus rich) and sexism in Cinderella, Snow White, etc. as the villains or victims are usually women. I found myself twisting these stories in order to be closer to our reality, and my own principles and aspirations.
Old fairy tales were not originally meant for children. They used to be entertainment for European peasants centuries ago, often at evening gatherings. They were the television and pornography of the day, the life-lightening trash of preliterate peoples – same with the 1001 Arabian Nights.. Of course, in those days, little distinction was made between adults and children. There was no notion of child innocence or the need to keep certain things away from young ears. Even when the French instilled morals in newly conceived nursery tots, the dark roots of the tales were never entirely expunged.
Fairy tales share a common logic: a hero’s journey in quest for a treasure – often a woman, who always seems to wait for her savior and focuses on her physical beauty. The qualities of a princess therefore are: to obey, be patient, pretty and calm, and certainly no PMS! According to Liz Grauerholz , associate professor of sociology at Western Illinois University: “Hearing these messages that were created by an old, patriarchal society may cause women, especially young girls, to withdraw from activities or careers, such as competitive sports or hard labor, because it is not part of being feminine. This continued emphasis on beauty is a way society controls girls and women. Women adopt behaviors that reflect and reinforce their relative powerlessness, which can lead to limiting a woman’s personal freedom, power and control.” Women are also more likely to fall in love with the wrong individuals, endure mistreatment and abuse.
Today, though things are different – even in Lebanon where you may find families expecting women to have the same hero’s journey as men, to live life as they choose, pursue a career, and do all the other things that men do -, patriarchal views prevail. Judicious examples are found in the mainstream images of the ‘Lebanese Snow White and Helen of Troy’: ‘slim and beautiful’, ‘sois belle et tais-toi’, ‘sleeping beauties’, ‘I need a hero’, …
Fairy tales aren’t ‘bad’ for children. They encourage imagination and creative thinking. They are part of popular culture and history (they provide information about a certain period), and in theory, sticking so closely to the hero’s journey should be a healthy thing to expose children to – a universal metaphor for the way their life is going to turn out and for the journey that they should feel a pull to embark on. It should encourage them to dream of leaving home, having grand adventures, and of growing and meeting new friends.
However, most fairy tales do not provide positive images about groups who are not white, middle-class/bourgeois or heterosexual. Many women end up waiting out for their Prince Charming, trapped in their “castles”, staying home with their parents until they meet men who could support them. And what about men? According to Elisabeth Danish: “For men there are rarely challenges as heroic as fighting dragons and the reality tends to be more along the lines of fighting deadlines and pushing pencils. This can lead to something like dissatisfaction for those whose lives do not pan out quite as they hoped and fairy tales might put too fine a point on this. Fairy tales also tend to focus very much on the hero’s journey – the coming of age – and don’t tend to give much space to what happens after the hero and the princess ride off into the horizon. What then?”
I am not saying that we ought to be overprotective and keep our children in a padded cell until they are teenagers, nor that romance is bad, but before we subject our children to old and/or mainstream stories, we should examine their content and see what kind of impact they may be having. Better to expose them to different realities and create with them constructive contextual stories: one of the many positive steps needed for a change of mentalities in Lebanon.