starWhat are fairy tales really saying?star
My Introduction
What is a Fairy Tale
Negative Portrayal of Women
Stereotypes
Sexual Innuendoes
Conclusion/ Bias
Bibliography
Home

Everyone in the world grows up reading, listening to, or watching fairy tales as a child. More than 200 million people a year watch a Disney film or home video, 395 million watch a Disney TV show every week, 212 million listen to Disney music, records, or tapes (Giroux 19). Fairy tales are part of our everyday lives, and are often used to teach children principles. We use fairy tales to teach young children morals; however, these fairy tales instill negative stereotypes of girls, reinforce racism, and expose children to strong sexual innuendos.
Fairy tales were never meant for children. They were originally a form of adult entertainment that were told at social gatherings, in spinning rooms, fields, and other settings where adults meet. This is why many tales included exhibitionism, rape, and voyeurism. For example, one version of Little Red Riding Hood has the heroine do a striptease for the wolf before jumping into bed with him (Cashdan 6). In a version of Sleeping Beauty called Sun, Moon, and Talia written by Giambattista Basile in 1634, the prince rapes the sleeping beauty Talia in her sleep and leaves her pregnant. It wasn't until the early nineteenth century that fairy tales were made into children's stories. This happened because of peddlers, known as "Chapmen," who traveled from town to town selling household items, sheet music, and affordable little books called chapbooks. Costing only a few pennies, chapbooks or "cheap books" contained drastically edited folktales, legends, and fairy tales that had been simplified for less literate audiences. Though poorly written and vulgarly illustrated, they caught the eye of many young readers (Cashdan 6).
While there is no universally accepted definition of a fairy tale, generally they are stories of enchantment and entertainment. A fairy tale is typically a story about something that would not usually happen in real life, such as animals that can talk to humans. A fairy tale will always end happily with the hero or heroine living happily ever after. The exact definition of "fairy tale" has been a matter of debate for a long time. Even the "experts" agree that, for a story to qualify as a traditional fairy tale, it must contain certain elements, but they don't all agree on what those elements are. There may be a supernatural or magical being, a sort of "fairy substitute," if you will. Therefore, stories with genies, ogres, imps, wizards, brownies, witches, sorcerers, or fairies are all fairy tales (Lane 37). Fairy tales are moralistic, these stories teach readers a message. Usually the messages are cautionary, warning children against situations. Fairy tales are also full of negative stereotypes, messages, and images.
Fairy tales are full negative of stereotypes of girls. It is common in fairy tales that the men are strong, smart, and in power and women are portrayed as pretty, passive, and powerless. The women depend solely on a man to save them in their lives.
Traditional and modern fairy tales both depict this in their stories. One example of this is in Cinderella. Cinderella is believed to be one of the oldest well-known tales; it is over a thousand years old. There are different versions of Cinderella all over different cultures of the world. Today there are over 700 versions of Cinderella. The earliest written version was titled Cat Cinderella and was written by Giambattista Basile and published in 1634 (Cashdan 86-7). Cinderella lives with her evil stepmother and stepsisters after her father dies and is forced to act as the family slave. She is portrayed as weak and passive. She doesn't have the self-respect to stand up for herself and say "no" to her family. She just lets her family walk all over her and tell her what to do. Her family members feels she is inferior to them, and her only purpose was to serve them. "Why should that stupid goose sit in the parlor with us?" they said. "If she wants to eat bread, then she will have to earn it. Out with this kitchen maid!" They took her beautiful clothes away from her, dressed her in an old gray smock, and gave her wooden shoes. "Just look at the proud princess! How decked out she is!" they shouted and laughed as they led her into the kitchen. There she had to do hard work from morning until evening, get up before daybreak, carry water, make the fires, cook, and wash. Besides this, the sisters did everything imaginable to hurt her. They made fun of her, and called her names. They scattered peas and lentils into the ashes so that Cinderella had to sit and pick them out again. In the evening when she had worked herself weary, there was no bed for her. Instead she had to sleep by the hearth in the ashes (Brothers Grimm 153-4). Her family was not poor, they had enough money to hire help for the house, but they forced Cinderella to do work just for their own amusement. Cinderella was too weak to say no and stand up for herself. She waits to be rescued by a prince before she is able to live happily ever after.
The Little Mermaid is teaching girls that looks are all that matter in life. Hans Christian Andersen first wrote The Little Mermaid in 1836. In 1989 Disney came out with its own version of The Little Mermaid, giving credit to its original story writer Hans Christian Anderson. Ariel in Disney's The Little Mermaid isn't quite like Cinderella. She has a voice and is rebellious. However, this tale still portrays negative stereotypes of girls. Ariel is a mermaid that falls in love with a human, but is forbidden see him by her father King Triton. Ariel goes to the evil sea witch Ursula and makes a deal with her. If Ariel gives the sea witch her voice she will receive a pair of legs in return. The catch is that Ariel has to get Prince Eric to give her a kiss of true love before the sun sets on the third day. Ariel is deprived of her voice and personality. How can someone fall in love in three days, let alone fall in love with someone they've never spoken to? Ursula tells Ariel "Men up there don't like a lot of blabber, they think a girl who talks is a bore. But don't worry you have your looks, your pretty face, and don't forget about body language" (The Little Mermaid). Ariel manages to get Prince Eric's love despite Ursula's attempts to keep them apart. The message that girls are getting from this story is that they don't need a voice, instead they can depend on their looks to get by in life. Ursula gains power of the sea by a deal she made with King Triton to save his daughter and sacrifices himself instead. Ursula is about to kill Ariel, but Eric comes to the rescue and saves the day. Once again a man saves the day and gets the girl.
The movie Mulan teaches girls that they are only looked at as objects and are inferior to men. The Disney movie Mulan is about a young Chinese girl named Mulan who tries hard to please her parents and bring honor to her family. The only way she can bring honor to her family is by becoming a bride and marrying a "good match". On the day she is to meet the matchmaker, a woman who judges what kind of wife a woman will be, Mulan is being primped to look like a bride by her family and friends and they sing "You'll Bring Honor To Us All." Wait and see, when we're through boys will gladly go to war for you. With good fortune, and a great hairdo, you'll bring honor to us all. A girl can bring her family great honor in one way. By striking a good match, and this could be the day. Men want girls with good taste, calm, obedient, who work fast-paced, with good breeding and a tiny waist. You'll bring honor to us all! We all must serve our Emperor, who guards us from the Huns. A man by bearing arms, a girl by bearing sons. When we're through you can't fail. Like a lotus blossom soft and pale how could any fellow say "No sale." You'll bring honor to us all (Mulan). This is a horrible message to be sending out to young girls. Telling them the only purpose they have in life is to be skinny and bear a husband with a son since they are the only important people in society. Mulan doesn't do well when she meets the matchmaker and goes home without a husband. The Emperor has requested that one man from each family serve in the Chinese army. Mulan decides to take her fathers place in the army; when he is summoned to war. She disguises herself as a man and joins the Chinese army. She manages to fool the men into thinking she is a man herself. Mulan and her battalion are called to battle and are walking through China and the men start singing about the women they left at home in "A Girl Worth Fighting For". The men start describing what kind of women they like. That's what I said, a girl worth fighting for. I want her paler than the moon with eyes that shine like stars. My girl will marvel at my strength, adore my battle scars. I couldn't care less what she'll wear or what she looks like. It all depends on what she cooks like: Beef, pork, chicken... Mmm... My girl will think I have no faults. That I'm a major find. Mulan: How about a girl who's got a brain, who always speaks her mind? Men: Nah! (Mulan). After she says that the men all laugh. This is another horrible message to be sending to children, teaching them that women are objects. They're saying it doesn't matter what a girl's personality may be but what the girl looks like or even cooks like that matters.
Men are always the ones to come up with a plan to save the day. In Hansel and Gretel it is always Hansel who comes up with the plans to save himself and his sister. He thinks to make a path of pebbles to make sure they get home as they are being led into the woods by their stepmother to lose them. When they return home safely to their stepmother's surprise. She takes the children once again into the woods, but this time deeper. Unfortunately Hansel makes a path using breadcrumbs, but crows eat the crumbs leaving the children lost in the woods. They come upon a house made of sweets that a witch lives in. The witch takes Hansel and Gretel as prisoners and puts Hansel in a cage to fatten him up to later eat him. Gretel doesn't do anything to help save her brother. They manage to escape from the witch and return home, thanks to Hansel, to find their stepmother has died and they live happily ever after with their father.
Stepmothers are often depicted as cruel and spiteful. Stepmothers favor their own children, usually girls, and despise their stepchildren. For the most part, mothers and brothers die in fairy tales. The deaths of fathers and daughters are less likely (Atwood 31). The death of a mother is a common occurrence in fairy tales such as, Snow White, Donkeyskin, Cinderella, and Bambi. Most mothers are not in the story from the beginning or the cause of their death is not determined. Most mothers often died after giving childbirth. Bambi is an exception; we know his mother died when she was shot by a hunter. Fairy tales often reflected the era a tale was written in. That is why there are so many stepmothers in fairy tales. Childbirth was one of leading causes of death. Men then often replaced their wives with younger women (Oates 249).
Cinderella is known for its evil stepmother who does anything to favor her own biological children over her stepdaughter Cinderella. Her stepmother does everything she can to make Cinderella's life miserable. "Cinderella obeyed, but wept, because she too would have liked to go to the dance with them. She begged her stepmother to allow her to go. However, because Cinderella kept asking, the stepmother finally said, "I have scattered a bowl of lentils into the ashes for you. If you can pick them out again in two hours, then you may go with us." Two white pigeons came in through the kitchen window. They gathered all the good grains into the bowl. Hardly one hour had passed before they were finished, and they all flew out again. The girl took the bowl to her stepmother, and was happy, thinking that now she would be allowed to go to the festival with them. But the stepmother said, "No, Cinderella, you have no clothes, and you don't know how to dance. Everyone would only laugh at you." Cinderella began to cry, and then the stepmother said, "You may go if you are able to pick two bowls of lentils out of the ashes for me in one hour," thinking to herself, "She will never be able to do that." Two white pigeons came in through the kitchen window. They gathered all the good grains into the bowls. Before a half hour had passed they were finished, and they all flew out again. The girl took the bowls to her stepmother, and was happy, thinking that now she would be allowed to go to the festival with them. But the stepmother said, "It's no use. You are not coming with us, for you have no clothes, and you don't know how to dance. We would be ashamed of you" (Brothers Grimm 155-156) With this she turned her back on Cinderella, and hurried away with her two proud daughters. After all that work Cinderella did and all the hope her stepmother gave her she just lied, portraying yet another bad image of women.
Fairy tales are full of implications of racism. The Disney movie Aladdin is an important example because it was a high profile release, the winner of two Academy Awards, and one of the most successful Disney movies ever made. The movie begins with the song "Arabian Nights," which is filled with Arab stereotypes. The lines "Oh I come from a land from a far away place where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey its home". Offended many people after it's movie release. Disney changed the line "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face" to "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense". Yousef Salem, a former spokesperson for the South Bay Islamic Association, characterized the film in the following way: "All of the bad guys have beards and large, bulbous noses, sinister eyes and heavy accents, and they're wielding swords constantly. Aladdin doesn't have a big nose, he has a small nose. He doesn't have a beard or turban. He doesn't have an accent"(Giroux 104). This portrayal of Arab characters gives people a negative perception of Arabs. The Arab characters are mean whereas those who speak clear English and appear to be Americanized are "socially accepted", or the "heroes" of society.
Racism is also evident in Disney's, The Lion King. Scar, the icon of evil, is darker than all of the other lions. Moreover, racially coded language is evident, as members of the royal family speak with posh British accents, Shenzi and Banzai, the hyenas, speak with the voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin in accents of a decidedly urban black or Hispanic youth (Giroux 105). At first when I heard this it wasn't obvious to me why the way the hyenas spoke was considered racist. However, after I watched the film it became apparent to me that it portrayed the cultures as uneducated and unintelligent.
Disney fairy tales also hint to sexual references hidden within the movie. These movies are full of hidden sexual innuendos. In the Disney VHS, Aladdin, there is a scene where Aladdin is standing on princess Jasmine's balcony and shooing away her pet tiger. If the volume is turned up loud enough you can hear Aladdin say, "Take off your clothes". Disney denies knowledge of the voice and does not know how it got into the movie. In Disney's, The Little Mermaid there is a scene at the end of the movie where the priest gets visually aroused. However, Disney claims that it is only his knee. Also, on the old VHS cover of The Little Mermaid, one of the towers on the palace looks like a phallic symbol. In the Disney movie The Rescuers Down Under, one of the early scenes has the mouse detectives Bernard and Miss Bianca flying on their tour guides Wilbur's back through city buildings. In one of the windows they pass by there is an image of a naked woman. I was unable to see it in the VHS that I have, but that could be because my version was a newer one. However there are images of the scene available on the Internet. In Disney's Lion King there is a scene where the characters Simba, Pumba, and Timone are lying in a field under a starry sky. As Simba lies down on the field, dandelions float up spelling the word "SEX" in the sky.
Out of all the children's movies I've seen Shrek had the most hidden sexual innuendos in a film. The magic mirror is having a mock dating game for Prince DuLoc. Talking about Snow White the host says, "Bachelorette number two is a cape wearing gal from the land of fancy. Although she lives with seven other men she's not easy." and then the men laugh. Shrek and donkey are watching DuLoc kid puppets sing kingdom rules. "Please keep off of the grass. Shine your shoes, wipe your…face" (Shrek). As the kids are singing this they bend down to their shoes and then turn around to show their butts and turn to point to their face. They were hinting at saying ass, but then changed it to say face. In another scene the dragon is holding the donkey and the donkey says, "Hey what are you doing that's my personal tail. You're going to tear it off" (Shrek). In the movie it appears as if the dragon is performing sexual favors. The donkey's dialog is very quiet, and his voice in the background of the scene. In another scene with the donkey the donkey is asleep he says, "Mmm, yeah, you know I like it like that. Come on, baby. I said I like it" (Shrek). Finally, the last hidden innuendo has the French Robin hood Monsieur Hood sing, "What he is really saying is he likes to get-paid" (Shrek), but because of his accent it sounds like he is saying head. I think the sexual references are put in the films for adult purposes. If adults have to watch a children's movie why not make it interesting for all viewers. Since fairy tales are targeted towards kids why not bring fairy tales back to the adult audiences?
Everyone reacts differently to what they see and hear in fairy tales. Some people take the messages to heart, while others don't see the messages within the story. Everyone needs to be aware of what they are showing their children. Just because the rating might say G doesn't mean it doesn't have R images. This is where parents need to make a judgment call on whether they think a Disney movie or fairy tale is wrong for their child. If there is something that might affect their children in a strong way parents should talk with their kids and discuss what they are about to see or what they have seen. My mom made a judgment call and said I was not allowed to watch Dumbo because of the way animals were poorly treated. It basically comes down to the parents' decision whether or not their child is able to watch a video containing stereotypes, racism, and sexual innuendos. In my interview with my outside expert I asked why she thinks there are so many sexual references in these stories and she said " Sex sells" (McMillen). It couldn't be put any simpler.
We need to continue raising questions about what role fairy tales play in our lives. Fairy tales can affect genders differently and they shape our childhood values. I think we need to continue educating our youth about the stories we have learned. Vocabulary and imagery need to be questioned. Things are not always the way they appear to be. Not everything can end with "they all lived happily ever after".

                                                                                Works Cited
Aladdin. Videocassette. Writ. Ed Gambert. Prod. Amy Pell. Walt Disney Studios, 1992. 90 min.
Atwood, Margaret. "Of Souls as Birds." Mirror Mirror On The Wall Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales. Ed. Kate Bernheimer. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 1998. 22-38.
The Brothers Grimm. Grimms' Fairy Tales. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
Cashdan, Sheldon. The Witch Must Die How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives New York: Basic Books, 1999.
Giroux, Henry A. The Mouse That Roared Disney and the End of Innocence. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 1999.
Lane, Marcia. Excerpt from Picturing a Rose: A Way of Looking at Fairy Tales, by Marcia Lane. Reprinted with permission from The H.W. Wilson Company. "Defining Fairy Tales". Fairy Tales.
The Lion King. Videocassette. Writ. Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts. Prod. Don Hahn. Dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Walt Disney Studios, 1994. 88 min.
The Little Mermaid. Videocassette. Writ. Roger Allen, Gary Trousdale, Matthew O'Calaghan, Ed Gambert, Thom Enriquez, Joe Ranft, and Brenda Chapman. Walt Disney Studios, 1989. 83 min.
McMillen, Max. Personal interview. 1 March 2004.
Mulan. Videocassette. Writ. Rita Hsiao, Christopher Sanders, Philip LaZebrink, Raymond Singer & Eugenia Bostwick-Singer. Prod. Pam Coats. Dir. Barry Cook and Tony  Bancroft. Walt Disney Studios, 1998. 88 min
Oates, Joyce Carol. "In Olden Times, When Wishing Was Having." Mirror Mirror On The Wall Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales. Ed. Kate Bernheimer. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 1998. 247-272.
The Rescuers Down Under. Videocassette. Prod. Kathleen Gavin. Dir. Maurice Hunt. Walt Disney Studios, 1990. 74 min.
Shrek. DVD. Writ. Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, and Roger S.H. Schlman. Prod. Aron Warner, John H. Williams, and Jeffery Katzenberg. Dir. Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. Dream Works, 2001. 93 min.

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