A damsel in distress. A wicked witch or an evil stepmother. A fairy godmother, perhaps. Most certainly, a prince in shining armour to the rescue. The fairy tales we have been fed since generations are like handbooks of misogyny, sexism and gender biases.
As mother to a four-year-old girl, I found it immensely hard to stomach that her impressionable mind was being fed with notions such as fairest of them all, beasts turning into handsome princes and glass shoes changing destinies. Yet, here was a young child so enamoured by this world of fairy tales that she wouldn’t so much as let a pair of scissors near her hair, because she saw in herself, Rapunzel! Since there is no blocking out these stories completely, I did the next best thing — tweak and twist these classics to neutralise the stereotypes. In my telling of the story of Rapunzel, the young girl with enchantingly long, beautiful golden hair, one day manages to open the window of the high tower in which she is held captive and sees the beautiful world in front of her. From that day on, she trains for hours every day to master the art of slithering down on her own hair. When she is confident of her skill, she neatly braids her long hair, cuts it off and hangs it down from a hook, and then climbs down the tower. There is no prince to the rescue in this adaptation of Rapunzel, for, I do not want my girl to even entertain the notion that any woman, no matter her circumstances, needs rescuing.
Turns out, I’m not alone. A growing majority of young parents are recognising this and a trend of adaption to make these stories more relevant to the modern world view is setting in.
Chandigarh-based marketing professional Digvijay Singh, who has been his niece’s appointed bedtime storyteller since she was three, says, “Be it Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or any other classic, they all bolster the stereotypes of gender roles and physical beauty. In the beginning, I tried not to introduce her to these stories at all, but then kids get around to hearing them from friends, TV, YouTube or even grandparents. When my niece started insisting on hearing these stories, I began altering the narrative to make it as less jarring as possible. Take, for example, the story of Ugly Duckling. I told her the tale of ‘Different Duckling’.”
Ariana Gupta, a 17-year-old Class XII student from Mumbai, channelised her abhorrence for these fairy tales to initiate a thought revolution by re-writing these classics from a feminist perspective. Her book, New Age Fairy Tales, presents empowered renditions of five of the most popular fairy tale stories — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. When children grow up hearing these stories, it somehow normalises beauty standards and gender inequality for them. With my book, I want to help impressionable minds internalise the equality of genders and the various forms of beauty,” she says.
In her stories, the Little Mermaid does not give up her tail for the prince; Snow White is a girl with a skin of mixed complexions and her stepmother isn’t outright evil but is obsessed with the idea of making her fair; Sleeping Beauty wakes up on her own and slays the dragon single-handedly; Beauty is a girl with a sharp brain and when she falls in love with the Beast he doesn’t change into a handsome prince; Cinderella is an office-goer, struggling to meet a 12 o’ clock deadline on which her career depends.
Major Nupur Gupta, who hung her boots after 10 years of service and currently works as management faculty and freelance corporate trainer, feels a child should not grow up with stereotypes that stepmothers or stepsiblings are essentially evil as it renders them incapable of accepting a step-parent or brother or sister should the family dynamics change. “Similarly, young boys and girls cannot be led into believing that waiting for the ‘man of their dreams’ to whisk them away to live happily ever after is the sole goal in a woman’s life. There is just so much wrong with these stories we have been telling for generations. It is upon us, as parents, to change that discourse and give the new generation a fresher perspective,” she says.
Changing outlooks and perceptions doesn’t happen overnight or with one bedtime story. It takes years of consistent conditioning to drive home the right message. Stories make the perfect carrier for such a message, as long as you choose to tell them right.