Be Fair To Fairy Tales

Why we need these old stories in the new age

On March 7th, I came back from telling stories at a Women’s Day (2017) program at a large foreign bank’s office in Chennai and this video cropped up on my facebook timeline:

A few seconds into the video, I got a sense of what to expect; by the time it ended, it broke my heart and angered me as I realized it was wrong at so many levels. I say this as a woman, a feminist and most of all, as a storyteller.

Yes, POPULAR fairytales are lopsided. The girl is always a helpless princess in distress who waits for a prince to rescue her, which is a terrible message for any child, leave alone a girl, growing up. Can you imagine the pressure on young boys who grow up believing that it is entirely their job to come to the rescue and provide for the family? So much that if a man doesn’t work, he is immediately branded as irresponsible, while young girls grow up believing that they must depend on a fairy godmother or a prince for a better life. It is therefore, easy to conclude that the stories we tell our children must reflect the times we live in and that we don’t need fairytales anymore, as the video points out.

But let’s be fair. Because that’s one message that all these tales carry. That good things happen to those who are reasonable. That good things happen to those who are just. At a time when polarization is the new mantra, these old stories show us a mirror.

Had the makers dug a little deeper, they would’ve found that the original versions of the Grimms’ Tales, were never meant for children. The brothers never set out to amuse and entertain kids. The very first edition of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” was academic in tone, with footnotes and hardly any illustrations. The themes dealt with issues like premarital-sex (Rapunzel), bestiality (Red-Riding Hood), child abuse (Snow White), and wicked parents (Hansel & Gretel). Only later, as children became their main audience, did they take out some of the more adult content. Make no mistake that these were never written by the Grimms. They simply interviewed the volk (folk) and recorded their versions, which meant these versions were around for centuries. The stories were then further sanitized and adapted by Walt Disney and others, for commercial success.

It is at this juncture — much later in the timeline of events — that the issues pointed out in the video are based, while conveniently ignoring the back-story of these tales. In a certain time and context, the ideas propagated by these Disney versions may have been acceptable. It is unfortunate that while the world has moved on, these versions continue to be read and watched by millions of children all over the world, spreading the message that women have to be subservient and men must be strong. We witness the objectification of women (and men) all around us.

However, since this is about being fair, we must stop to appreciate the current crop of fairy tale inspired films such as ‘Frozen’, ‘Maleficent’, ‘Snow White and The Hunstman’ and ‘Brave’ that have consciously moved away from these stereotypes while offering alternate perspectives. But does this mean we don’t need the old tales? Certainly not. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you won’t know where to go, would you?

At my session that day, I told a room of 100-odd women a few folktales and fairytales. Stories that have not been touched by Disney. Stories that have been recorded from cultures all over the world. Stories that put women at the power-centre of the narrative. Stories that showed women with both positive and negative traits. Stories that were fantastical but with a real message. Stories that are all out there waiting to be told. Now more than ever, I thank God I’m a storyteller and I’m grateful to the storytellers who find and and tell these stories.

While I may never have the stomach to tell the original Cinderella story to children as the Grimms recorded it — complete with the sisters getting blinded and girls cutting off their toes to fit into the glass slipper — I know I will tell fairy tales like Bopuluchi, Yeh-Shen and the Rough-Faced Girl — versions in which the protagonist uses bravery, wit and kindness to change her destiny. And I might ask those very children to compare them with Disney’s version. I’m fairly certain that children will choose well without my having to take them to the water. From my experience as a story-educator, I can vouchsafe for the fact that children are far more capable of nuanced arguments and decision-making.

The video urges mothers — and hey, isn’t that a gender-bias to begin with? — to diss fairy tales completely in favour of stories about Rani Laxmi Bai, Michelle Obama and Marie Curie. And, at 2:52, one of the actors in the video takes a dig at Prince Charming and calls him, “Prince Erectile Dysfunction.” How is making fun of a physical ailment becoming of a better human being, I ask. Would Michelle Obama make such statements?

There’s nothing wrong with telling real-life stories but for God’s sake, children need a little fantasy in their lives, don’t they? Don’t we, as adults need them too? What right do we have as ‘grown-ups’ to rob them off this privilege?

I say to mothers and fathers out there, tell your children every possible story, but don’t stop with just telling them. Take them into a make-believe world but talk to them about reality; give them questions to think about; ask them how they would like to retell the story; discuss with them what worked and what didn’t; shape their world-view that is free from your own judgement.

Sadly, we live in a world in which visual stimulation rules supreme. We see and we believe. For every video that spreads such a one-sided message, a hundred articles that rip the veil off misplaced feminism need to written. And a thousand stories have to be told.

(I first posted this piece on my facebook wall. This is a slightly modified version.)