Amanda Gore: Fairy tale portrayals of women

Published: Monday, March 11, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 8:59 p.m.

Fairy tales have been around for centuries, since the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Greece until today in fictional literature, movies and television shows. Fairy tales were originally passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth, and in later times the addition of literature.

Enlarge |

As these stories have progressed in time they have been constantly retold, the details of a tale may change based on who has told the story, and their purpose for telling it. The intended audience effects details as well because of the concern for violent actions in tales being frowned upon if told to certain listeners. Past fairy tales have shown a grittier, realistic picture of life and the events a person experiences.

They are used to show life's dark side and that there aren't always happy endings in a story. Some stories were told as warnings to abide by society's laws and moral values, or face the consequences. Wrongdoers usually suffer a gruesome for the crimes they committed.

In America, Disney is one example of media influence and detail negligence where the focus is usually on the languishing princess who is ultimately saved by her prince, while the enemy is a monstrous person who has harmed many. The films negate to talk of or show graphic images of exactly what the villain is supposed to have done. Such details of omitting the villains' crimes is an example of a reconstructed fairy tale whose audience is seen to be too young to understand the level of maliciousness the villains have stooped to.

Over time, the views of women's roles in our society have changed with the changing of American ideas. During the 1950s, women were told that the occupation that would make them feel most fulfilled and happy would be the role of housewife. It was considered a woman's job to maintain the house and raise the children. This is shown how princesses in Disney films appear to clean at some point in her story.

Opinions such as these have influenced our culture especially through the media. This is best seen when analyzing Disney films as they progress through the years. Plenty of these films show the main female character to be a young, beautiful princess caught in an awful situation and facing a deadly fate. The young woman goes through life happily unaware of her tragic future until she is tricked or manipulated into participating, willingly or otherwise, into a deal with her unknown enemy, ultimately triggered the tragedy through her own actions.

This is seen in various Disney films. Snow White accepts a poisoned apple from a stranger, Aurora consented to touching an object she had no idea what it did, Ariel agreed to a spell from a woman her friends said couldn't be trusted and Cinderella believed that she could go to a ball if she completed her chores even though she lived with her part of her life and knew she wasn't liked by her stepfamily.

This is actually extremely disappointing because it portrays women as unintelligent individuals who can't seem to recognize the dangers in trusting strangers, especially when they were warned not to go near them. It doesn't show that a woman can change her fate by playing on her strengths. For instance, why didn't Aurora think “Ya know stranger with a pointy, sharp object wants me to go mess with it; I think it is time to make a fast exit?” Rapunzel could have easily cut her own hair to use as a rope and escape her tower. These movies don't show a woman's resourcefulness in times of stress and her intelligence.

As time has gone on, the idea of a woman as an independent, strong individual who is capable of saving herself has gained support. This is shown in today's media, where women have become their own saviors. “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” came out in theaters in 2013 and is about two siblings who defeat witches throughout the lands. But the unique aspect to this story is that only women are shown to have the ability to control magic and therefore control a devastating power.

The sister of the siblings, Gretel, is also characterized as more aggressive than her previous female counterpoints. In the film she punches the man talking down to her and works with her brother to set a trap in an attempt to catch the evil witch before the witch can get her.

Another representation of a woman taking her fate into her own hands is the character of Ella in the book “Ella Enchanted.” Ella regularly uses her wit, fast-thinking skills and charm to find ways around her troubles despite the curse of obedience cast upon her. She works to interpret the orders forced on her by moving as slowly as she can to complete tasks she is told to do or by adding her own individual twist to her order.

The defiance and inner strength to test her curse's boundaries is ultimately the key to freeing herself from the curse. These changes to women's capabilities are good markers to study the changing idea of what a woman should be able to accomplish and helps in further promoting the view that media plays a strong influence on how society's identify what is acceptable and what isn't and that over time these views have changed to support and positively affects women's lives.

Amanda Gore wrote this column as part of a University of Florida anthropology class, “Sex Roles Cross-Culturally.”

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top