Why fairy tales are horror stories we need to be more wary of in schools. Fairy tales can be great ways of engaging children, but must be approached with caution, says one deputy headteacher. A few weeks ago, after reading the story of Rumplestiltskin, a child asked me, “What does ‘happily ever after’ mean?”
But, of course, that’s not actually possible, to be forever happy, and we discussed that, too. We also discussed the fact that no one would really want to marry someone who had locked them in a room for weeks on end and that perhaps she felt that she didn’t have a choice – the King was, after all, very powerful. It also made me wonder why Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were happy to wake up and marry the men who kissed them while they were in drug-induced comas. At a time when we are hearing more and more of powerful, rich men taking advantage of women, this is an uncomfortable storyline.
Fairy tales, and their origins in folk tales, have been part of our culture and heritage for hundreds of years. They are tales of morality, there to teach us about good and evil, fairness, honesty, kindness and courage. They are familiar and a joy to tell, but they haven’t evolved to teach lessons that are important today and they perpetuate gender stereotypes. Improvements in gender equality across the globe have a long way to go – women still earn less than men in every Western society.
Many of our fairy tales are sanitised versions of the Brothers Grimm tales, such as Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel. They all depict men and women in stereotypical ways.
– Old/powerful women: witches, scheming, jealous and cruel – Young women: beautiful, helpless, in need of rescue (by a man) – Old men: Easily duped by powerful women – Young men: handsome, brave, powerful and in search of a women who is beautiful (no other attributes necessary)
Twitter user @Smithssm advocates that it’s not the story that’s important but the talk around the story. What concerns me about fairy tales is that there often isn’t any talk around them or the implicit messages they carry to all our children. It’s not OK for a strange man to kiss a woman while she’s sleeping. It’s not OK to be judged entirely on how beautiful you are and it’s not OK to expect a man to come to the rescue.
I remember vividly at about six years old hiding a pea under my mattress and hoping to wake up covered in bruises as proof that I was truly as sensitive as a princess. I’m sure I didn’t really expect to find out I was a princess, as I knew it was make-believe, but I did grow up hoping for my own Prince Charming and a happily ever after. I didn’t play at wielding a sword or rescuing anyone from anything – that wasn’t my role.
These stories are often the ones that are bought for children by grandparents and relatives as they are familiar to them. Some versions are better than others. Phillip Pullman’s version of the Brothers Grimm tales are beautifully written with rich and vibrant language. They lack the saccharine of many modern versions – for example, the Princess throws the frog against the wall rather than kissing him. There are benefits to reading children fairy tales but many of these benefits apply to all stories. In his essay Imaginary Friends (2017), Pullman states:
‘…The kind of stories children are offered has far less effect on their development than whether they’re given stories at all and the children whose parents take the trouble to sit and read with them… and talk about the stories… will grow up to be much more fluent and confident not only with language but with pretty well any intellectual activity… and children who are deprived of this contact, this interaction and the world of stories are not likely to flourish at all.’