Damsels-in-distress, evil stepmothers, wicked queens, and valiant, nameless princes. If you ever meet someone who has never seen these and other stereotypes, it would be appropriate to ask them (politely) whether they’ve lived under a rock for very long. Most of us are subjected to these at very early ages. We’ve seen them in Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, all of which are more commonly known by their Disney versions, the king of reproducing classic fairy tales to be fed to a modern audience and by fault the king of regurgitating old, undying stereotypes at a new, young audience. Let’s break it down.
The damsel needs no introduction. Most of us have been well acquainted with her since childhood when our eyes beheld Disney’s Cinderella (who fell so low she had to be helped by a few incoherent mice). However, broken down to the basics, the damsel is beautiful, innocent, hapless, and most often young and at the mercy of another person, be it a step-mother or someone else. In some stories we really have no other characteristics to go by but that and a good amount of those are the female character’s physical appearance.
The Evil Older Woman
Also, in classic fairy tales such as Cinderella or Snow White the young, innocent creatures play opposite to less attractive-to-haggard, older women who are vain and greedy, but often in a more powerful position and more cunning. Whether they are witches, queens, or step-mothers, they are free of male dominance (although some of them are supposed to be married) and have control over their own lives and choices.
So, what does that say to children? Powerful women are undesirable and wicked? Think about it: how many little girls do you meet who play queen? Girls like to play princesses who are subjugated, but they never play powerful queens. Personally speaking, as children, never did any of my girl friends nor I pretend to be a queen because we thought of them as mean old women, an idea that was certainly strengthened in our minds by Disney, if they did not completely give us the idea. These portrayals also fuel incorrect messages of “good” and “evil” by the way that it is related to physical appearance; the beautiful are good, the ugly are bad.Also, these fairy tales like to pit women against women (or more correctly, girls against women). This supports a societal concept that the U.S. has fueled of women putting each other down, ideas that run strong today in stories recreating (or attempting to recreate) high school mean girls scenarios. Instead of being taught to help and support each other, girls are taught from a very early age to be wary of possible threats from their fellow females.
Needless to say, the rescuer is always some prince on a white horse (in some cases, literally). Here’s a question: can you remember the names of those Disney princes? Some of them didn’t actually have names such as the prince from Snow White and Cinderella. Both are forever destined to be “Prince Charming,” the nameless and soulless guys with a kingdom and an apparent need to rescue girls they have artificial crushes on. Let’s face it; the so-called “romance” in these fairy tales must be physical attraction. The only other explanation would be that the two lovers knew each other in past lives thus they already have gotten to know each other, but I don’t think that kind of romance scenario was so popular back when these stories were made. Anyway, in the end, the two beautiful young people end up in a bland, unrealistic love.
However, it is also important to point out that while the princesses give priority to beauty, the princes impress the idea of masculinity for boys. This deepens harmful traditional stereotypes that restrict people in real life. In Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts Through Disney Princess Play by Karen E. Wohlwend, a study done on young boy and girls is noted, to have found that “girls as well as boys positioned male characters as powerful and female characters as weak, even suicidal, victims.” So, while Disney’s fairy tales are just tales, sweet and innocent, the ideas within them hold more weight in a child’s mind than one might think.