More on Portrayal of Women in Literary World

I consider myself lucky to have had a childhood where I could indulge in dreams and dreaming. I belong to a generation where reading was the best and at times the only source of entertainment. Thus I grew up on a healthy dose of Grimm’s and Disney fairy tales in addition to Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. At that age like every little girl I was happy to live in a make believe world of enchantment – uncorrupted by doubt and technology. Lately however, questions have arisen regarding the impact of these fairy stories on little female minds.  On the surface, they seem to be innocent narratives of childlike fancy which have actually originated as European folk tales, which were, like the Grimm brothers, famously transcribed by writers and retold to wider audiences. What our elders didn't point out was how the female almost always played the central figure in these stories and the stereotypical roles they played out. The heroine, like Cinderella, Snow White or Rapunzel was a weak character, who constantly submitted to other's wishes and did only good. Everyday, she would look out of her window to the castle in the distance, constantly dreaming of her day of reward and pining for her Prince Charming to come and whisk her away.
At the other end of the line is the female villain in the form of the step mother or the step sisters. Villains were almost always certainly female in fairy stories, as for example, Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters, but in real life not every stepmother or sister is evil. Most kids grow up fearing step mothers or fathers due to these tales they have read.  Evil witches and wicked fairies are aplenty too, for example, the witch that wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel and the evil fairy who cursed Sleeping Beauty. Even the crocodile who wanted the monkey’s heart was female, the husband was a loyal friend. The paper shall be a humble attempt to explore how fairy stories from the west have played a major role in conditioning innocent females into fitting particular gender roles.
  Most successful writers of children’s novels have been females – Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and of course lately, J.K. Rowling. Strangely enough, these writers have proven that it took females centuries of writing to move away from the stereotyped themes that were usually taken up by the writers of fairy tales where females were depicted as damsels in distress waiting to be saved. Female characters were depicted as good, dutiful daughters whose ultimate reward would be marrying a prince. Rarely, did we read of a wizard as being evil and if at all a male did show cruelty, then he showed it under the spell of a witch as in the case of the ‘beast’ waiting for the patience of his beauty. Though each fairy tale had a different moral to impart at the end of the story, there was one aspect that was crystal clear as far as girls were concerned namely that patient endurance would fetch a handsome husband and rebellion would lead to doom.
The stereotype of childhood has much in common with the feminine ideal because in the traditional great chain children possessed less worldly power than women. The preadolescent of either sex took on many of the qualities of the Angel, which meant separation from many public concerns. Books for children still contain gender stereotypical behavior, and most of the characters in literature for children are males. Ernst (1995) surveyed the titles of books written for children to determine if boys or girls’ names were more frequently included in the title. His findings were that boys’ names appeared twice as many times as girls’ names. Books that did have a gender neutral name, or a girls’ name, were in fact books about boys   (Ernst, 1995). Fox (1993) noted that eighty-five percent of children’s books published in 1973 had a male as the main character. In contrast to the passivity of female characters in children’s novels, the male characters are aggressive, physically strong, full of a sense of adventure, and able to function in complete independence (Ernst, 1995; Jett-Simpson & Masland , 1993).
Critics are quick to point out that a gender bias exists not only in male as opposed to female characters, but in the language, content, and graphic elements of children’s literature.  Children’s books still portray women as less aggressive than boys. Female characters in children’s novels start out as active, aggressive, "headstrong" and "defiant" but soon surrender their independence (Rudman, 1995). Female characters are in essence "tamed," either by a male character, or circumstances that occur in their lives. They relinquish their independence while boys never do. Rudman (1995) found as well that females in children’s books were the "nurturers" and often depicted as mothers, nurses, and kitchen helpers. Male characters in award winning books were adventurers, risk takers, and explorers.
The anti-feminist messages in fairy tales, both in their classic forms from the tales of Grimm, Anderson and Perrault, and their Disney versions are plenty. Heroines are frequently passive. They are either spared by kind huntsmen or pumpkins or simply fall into slumbers waiting to be rescued.  Evil befalls them during puberty. Many fairy tales are known for their warnings about female sexuality and its existence as both a threat and as threatened.
 But why do children need fairy tales in the first place? One of the foremost reasons cited by critics is that by having a sense of hero and villain, of conquering evil and facing challenges, it helps teach them to understand other literature and forms of entertainment they will come across, and take great joy from, in their lives, be it Harry Potter fighting the ‘dementors’ or computer games where they must repel aliens.
Furthermore, it helps children to understand how to deal with situations that arise in their own lives and that not everyone is nice and going to help them. If parents want their children not to talk to strangers and not to wander into the forest at night, then children need frames of reference for what might happen if they do. So learning how to avoid being fattened up by a witch who intends to eat you could be understood in modern terms as avoiding giving out personal information online to people wishing to befriend you for evil reasons.
Innumerable tales have been passed down from generation to generation. These stories are necessary and essential to continuing the customs and values of a culture. They bind the past with the future. Fairy tales can be used for entertainment and comfort. Often, they can even bond elders with the youth. They can also teach children valuable lessons about right and wrong, morality and immorality.
Underneath the magic and enchantment of a fairytale, with its castles and princesses, often lurk ideas around the dangers of sexuality, the dangers of growing up and leaving home, the relationships between children and parents and the threats that adult strangers can pose. One of the main reasons that these stories continue to be told and re-told is that they are a positive way of telling little girls of the dangers of life but they can at the same time lead them to look at males with mistrust. Charles Perrault, who popularized the Little Red Riding Hood story, made it pretty clear from the outset that the “wolf” is a seducer, and the story is seen as a metaphor for women to stay away from males.
From this story one learns that children, especially young girls, pretty, courteous and well-bred, should not listen to strangers and it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf eats them up. The lesson the story imparts is that the ‘gentle’ wolf is the most dangerous and to be strictly avoided.
Along with Red Riding Hood, tales like Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty all share concerns about female sexuality. In Beauty and the Beast, the chaste beauty can tame the male beast--even when she's imprisoned against her will. In Sleeping Beauty a bitter old fairy punishes the heroine with slumber when she pricks her finger, a symbol for menstruation (as is Red Riding Hood’s cloak). All of which successfully instill false notions in little minds.
Similar symbolism is at work in The Little Mermaid, in which a young woman, besotted by a handsome prince, goes to an older witch and exchanges her soul for a pair of legs that hurt her to use and even make her bleed.
 Beauty is also highly revered in fairy tales. In many cultures beauty is the basis of many decisions. Most often the beautiful person will be chosen over the ugly or homely person for a position or prize. Beautiful girls marry to a higher social standing and ugly girls are made to serve as maids. Beauty is associated with intelligence, ability, kindness, worthiness, and morality. For instance, the beautiful and virtuous Cinderella gets to marry the handsome, powerful, and wealthy prince, while her ugly step-sisters perish due to their evil doings. The beautiful Cinderella has tiny, dainty feet (a pre-requisite of feminine beauty), which easily fit into the glass slippers and she ‘wins’ the Prince.
Such an emphasis on surface attributes contributes to a woman’s quest for marriage. A woman must make sure she is appealing and attractive, so as to gain the affections of a suitor. For if she is unable to gain the attention of a male, she cannot get married, and this, in fairy tales, would hinder the acquisition of her main goal in life. Women are intended to marry and be the woman of a household. Their place is in the home catering to the husband, producing an heir and spare to ensure the dynasty continues. It is the ultimate achievement of a girl to grow up and find a handsome and rich husband to wed and live happily ever after. That is why most fairy tales end this way. The girl struggles, triumphs and earns herself a good looking, wealthy man who rescues her and rewards her with marriage to himself. Once married it is also a woman’s responsibility to bare healthy children according to fairy tales. This is a major consideration when a man chooses a wife.
Parents need to be aware that some stories tell children that unattractive people are more likely to be evil and reinforce traditional gender roles that may be confusing for today's young women.
Women today – despite increasing independence for many – still tend to value beauty and appearance. Why is it that attractive women and men are socially rewarded more than unattractive people? From early childhood, girls are read fairy tales about princesses who achieve vast riches simply because their beauty makes them special. That's a powerful message that can inhibit young women who feel they do not meet society's expectations of what it means to be attractive. No wonder fairness creams are doing brisk business in the markets. Even in Indian mythology, the vamp is physically crooked like Manthara or a female demon like Surpnakha who is made to look uglier by chopping off her nose. A hidden message which has never been interpreted is that Surpnakha is punished for her sexual boldness.  A fact that strengthens her demonness and provides a sharp contrast to the chaste and coy Sita while at the same time teaching little girls that Surpnakhas meet such a fate.
Having fixed notions of beauty created by an old, patriarchal society may cause women, especially young girls, to withdraw from activities or careers, such as competitive sports or hard labour, because it is not part of being feminine. Grauerholz says, "This continued emphasis on beauty is a way society controls girls and women. Women adopt behaviours that reflect and reinforce their relative powerlessness, which can lead to limiting a woman's personal freedom, power and control.
Can we then say that because fairy tales were written by men who did not understand the ‘other’, they excluded from language feminine discourse, which necessarily excludes ‘maternal discourse’?  The mothers in fairytales are not images of femininity, but of the supernatural other; they are witches, hags, and monsters, which is why they are such abusive parents. This again hampers the ideal image of motherhood, thus having a negative impact on the young mind which will grow up to imbibe such a monstrous image of motherhood herself.
Fairy tales will always be with us, sugarcoated and fed to us in childhood and adulthood alike. Feminists should continue to embrace the retelling and transformation of these tales as part of our ritual for contending with the myths propounded by patriarchy. Parental care needs to be taken to ensure that we do not fall into the traditional traps of forcing our kids into straitjackets. It is the responsibility of grown-ups to ensure that the little girls do not fall into the traditional gender pitfalls. Questioning and doubting are healthy signs. At the same time, change can be seen in the number of women opting for unconventional career goals and the healthiest signs are to be found in the respect that men are giving their women. If Harry Potter is important then so is Hermione Granger and if that is not a giant leap, it is at least a tiny step forward.


1. Jett-Simpson, M & Masland, S;(1993), Girls are Dodo Birds! Exploring Gender Equity Issues in the Language Arts Classrooms, Language Arts, 70 (2), 104-108.
2. Ernst, S. B. (1995); Gender Issues in Books for Children and Young Adults, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. (pp. 66-78).
3. Rudman, M. (1995); Children¹s literature: An issues approach, (3rd edition).White Plains, NY: Longman.
4. Temple, C. (1993). "What if Sleeping Beauty had been Ugly? Reading Against the Bias in Children¹s Literature, Language Arts, 70 (2), 89-90.