How Disney Destroyed The Fairy Tales And Paved Way For Gender Stereotypes

Posted on October 7, 2014 in Society

By Pooja Salvi:

“And thus, they lived happily ever after” – the obvious ending to any fairy-tale. I still remember mother getting me a whole set of fairy tale books to read over the summer. It all started there. When you are a kid, you can’t escape the fairy tales. We have been reading fairy tales for as long as we can remember. They are everywhere.

Picture Credits: Juska Wendland
Picture Credits: Juska Wendland

Originally, fairy tales were not supposed to be the feel-good bedtime stories that they are today. They were supposed to be dark, grim, creepy and scary. The Grimm brothers (Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm) originally collected and chronicled the famous fairy tales to scare children into living ‘moral’ lives – to teach moral values to children and young adults, and to living the right way.

Let me tell you how the original fairy tales were different, prior to undergoing the Disney treatment:

1. The Little Mermaid, originally, is over looked by the prince, and he ends up marrying someone else (surprise!). She is then advised by her sisters to stab the prince and his new bride. But she can’t because she loves him too much. So, she stabs herself instead, and becomes sea foam.

2. The very famous ‘Cinderella’ was way too gory than what Disney showed us. Cinderella was not invited to a one-night ball, but to a full-fledged three day festival; and she manages to visit the festival all three days, wearing magnificent dresses. Secondly, her step sisters force the tiny shoe in their feet by chopping off their toes and heels (bloody? yes!). Also, there was no fairy godmother. Sorry.

3. Now ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is on a completely different level of gore. Aurora was impregnated by the Prince when she was still under the spell. She wakes up to having kids she has no memory of, and they still go on to ‘live happily ever after’.

4. ‘Rapunzel’ is another fairy tale character who was impregnated by the prince. But she didn’t know it. It was only when she complained to her witch-captor that her clothes had gotten too tight, and her belly was swelling, that it was revealed to her.

See? At one time, such stories were considered okay for children. But as time passed, Disney started meddling with the original Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale collection, and over sanitised it to how we know them today. Today, children and young adults look at fairy tales from a glamorized perspective. Of course, that is the perspective which is fed to them. The ‘moral’ factor that was originally intended by the Grimm Brothers to be the only prevalent factor in the stories, has over the years been amalgamated with glamour and fed to the masses.

It was Disney’s treatment of the fairy tales that changed everything.

In due course of time, the ‘morals‘ got compromised with, and made way for stereotypes. When asked what was the first thing that came to her mind when she heard ‘Cinderella’, Insiyah Pereira, 17, says, “Beautiful, elegant and righteous.” Conversely, when asked about the stepmother and stepsisters, Insiyah liberally uses the words, “cruel, evil and ugly.”

It is uncomfortably funny how easily one relates ‘good’ with beauty and evil with ugliness. When you are making children and young adults read (or watch for that matter) these fairy tales, they indirectly form a perception of characters in their brains. Given the way the characters are portrayed in the books and movies, children find it okay to associate ‘goodness’ with ‘beauty’ and ‘cruelty’ with ‘ugliness’, which means that a dark-skinned 1st grader is disliked in school because, well, she is ugly. No, don’t pay attention to her helping and giving nature, but the colour of her skin speaks volumes.

Slowly and steadily, these fairy tales end up giving children and young adults a completely wrong perspective. These stories have stereotypes that are as harmful as the lurid sexual images shown in pop music videos and movies today.

The manipulated stories of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, for instance, concentrate on looks and beauty, particularly the female beauty. These stories go ahead to let girls believe that beauty eventually wins everything – that it pays to be pretty and it is entirely okay to compromise on other more important and valuable ideals of valour, kindness, vanity and intelligence.

In the story, the princess will marry a young and handsome prince, and eventually gain vast riches as a result of her beauty. Her character, goodness and righteousness is still a secondary aspect. On the other hand, the antagonist in the story is always portrayed as a physically ugly character, their cruelty and evil intentions are a part of them throughout.

Does this subconsciously program children to value looks over ‘moral values’?

“Sadly, in such a case, we can’t blame the children because this is what they read and get to know”, says Liz Grauerholz, associate professor of Sociology at Purdue University in Indiana, “Parents should not throw the books away, but discuss plots and characters with their children and consider whether they are telling their daughters to seek beauty at the expense of their education and careers.”

When asked if she will let her children read the fairy tale book despite all the controversial stereotyping, Drishti Mistry, 21, said, “Of course, I will. It is necessary that they read and explore. But I will make sure that I sit with them and have a discussion to know what it is exactly that they have absorbed from the story. Such stereotyping is way too necessary to be discussed.”

On a similar note, Kartikey Rai, 24, says, “I will not want my daughter thinking that she is ugly and eventually a bad person. She should feel beautiful about herself and not any less than any other girl.”

You know what the problem with the society today is? They want to believe in a certain set of ‘rules’ set for beauty. They want to believe that beauty is not a product of an individual’s perspective and comfort in his/her own body, but that of guidelines set by propagation. Propagation by whom, you ask? By years and years of beauty standards piling on. The fact that young girls and women are supposed to be a certain way to be beautiful, and to feel beautiful, is simply saddening.

It is so easy to believe in a kind of a story where the good wins over the evil, where the prince fights against every villain to get his princess, where the princess is an ideally “good” person, where there is an evil witch or an equally evil step-mother, where, sadly, beauty ideals are set.