How We Feed Our Children Gender Stereotypes Through Stories

Posted by Akshata Ram in Culture-Vulture, Feminism, Media
February 2, 2017

Being the bibliophile that I was from the beginning, my favourite activity would always involve curling up in bed with a book. I grew up in a virtual world filled with dark woods, enchanting castles, beautiful princesses, handsome knights in shining armour who would come riding on white horses to rescue the damsel in distress, and the wicked ugly witch who tortured the princess but would meet a horrible end.

I was always an avid reader, thanks to my mom who inculcated this hobby in me from a young age. This is a rare and priceless gift which she gave me and has stayed for life. I can’t thank her enough for this. I was drawn into the enchanting world of books, where the characters danced before my eyes; it seemed so real. Little did I realize that these books were feeding my subconscious with stereotypes that would become integral parts of my thinking and personality, and that shaking them off would not be easy at all.

Have you realized that most of the fairy tales of our times are so deeply flawed, gender biased and scarily possess the ability to influence young minds in a very powerful way? “Snow White”, for instance, which has always enthralled us, talks about an evil stepmom, and a beautiful princess who is dumb because she blindly obeys her step-mom. She escapes finally from the clutches of her evil step-mom and ends up with the dwarves. But due to her dumb and docile nature, the dwarves are always seen ordering her around, while she mutely follows their instructions. Then she apparently dies by eating the poison laden apple. *Enter the handsome prince* He is spellbound by her beauty. Note that he knows nothing about her qualities as a person; her external beauty is enough to enthral him. He kisses her, the spell is broken and they live happily ever after.

Did you just notice how deeply flawed this story is! The step-mom is evil, which creates a notion that all step-moms are evil (“Hansel and Gretel” propagated the same). The heroine’s supreme quality is her physical beauty- other qualities are not spoken about at all. Even the prince is drawn to her due to her beauty. She is a meek girl who refuses to stand up for herself. The prince is again shown as someone who rescues her, rather than she herself being the rescuer and master of her fate.

Take any other fairy tale- “Red Riding Hood”, “Cinderella”, “Rapunzel”- the themes are the same. When young children grow up reading these, it is but obvious how badly skewed and stereotypical their thinking would be. It’s time to re-write these tales to show our young girls and boys that, for example, the heroine can be someone who is bold, compassionate, and has dreams for herself and the courage to chase them. She writes her own destiny, she is not a damsel-in-distress who awaits the prince to rescue and marry her. She creates her own ‘happily ever after’. The prince is not a supernatural guy but the boy-next-door who plays with his sister, helps his mommy in the kitchen, is a friend and companion. He dreams with her and they write their story together.

I was really impressed by reading an article about Scandinavian schools who have decided to completely do away with these old fairy tales because of their gender stereotypes and skewed theories. They want the kids to be in sync with the reality of our times to the largest extent possible. Their stories depict different types of heroes and diverse family models like adopted children, adoptive parents, single moms and dads, and same-sex parents.

We always talk about how divorce is a taboo in India. And while it is difficult for the adults in question, it is always tough for the kids because they are looked upon as outcasts by others in school; people whisper about them and, chances are, very few befriend them. This behaviour comes, to a great extent, from the experiences our children are subject to – through books, conversations etc. Imagine if they read stories which spoke about single parents, adoptive parents and the like. It would just seem a normal thing to them when they would hear that someone parents’ decided to separate.

Some may argue that these are just fairy tales and we will eventually grow up and move on from them. But we often fail to recognize the damage these stories cause. Gradually, bit by bit, we are feeding such irrational and outdated ideas to young kids. When they grow up, see the world and eventually learn the reality, how many are able to shake off these notions and carve their own destiny? This is a question we must all ask ourselves.

It is time we work towards creating a gender-egalitarian society by doing away with these fairy tales which propagate biases and feed us with so many wrong notions of beauty, ‘happily ever after’ and prince charming. We should work towards creating innovative stories which are in sync with the reality of our times and steer clear of gender stereotypes.