Most of us grew up on bedtime and big screen fairy tales. In most, males were represented as the domineering saviors and females, as sweet damsels in distress. Over the decades this concept of perceived sexual roles has been changing. Even when my daughter was young, she’s now 30, the story lines were starting to depict both as having talents and abilities that ultimately saved each other. Unfortunately those ridiculously sexually imbibed bodies still have a long way to go.
Unlike the original Snow White or Cinderella where the girls looked like little girls, fairy tales became sexualized to the point their bodies became more like Playboy centerfolds, while the boys remained, well, little boys. Men still have torsos and muscles so large you had to wonder how they walk but not the boy characters, they are usually fully clothed and slight of build. The girls? In real life, standing up straight would be a challenge. Case in point- Aladdin, a clearly boyish character in looks and speech. His counterpart, Jasmine, is anything but, I often was distracted waiting for her skimpy tops to falter, barely able to cover her incredibly large, anything but girl-like chest. Or the lead female figure in Hunchback of Notre Dame-Esmeralda. Here she’s not just smart, capable and stunningly beautiful but the sinister male character- Phoebus- actually has a powerful scene where he blames her for his inappropriate feelings! All wonderful concepts I wanted my five year old to subconsciously glean. Even the little mermaid was similarly built.
Fairy tales have pigeon holed and type cast gender roles in ways that harm both little girls and boys. Boys are often brainless and clueless. Depicted as falling for the female characters based on looks alone, or victimizing their love to be while she spends the rest of the story comatose or enslaved, fighting for freedom. Male father figures are just as bad. Take for example when Scar makes a fledgling cub- Simba- believe he’s the reason his dad died and a mother who’s shocked and angry when she learns “the truth” as in Lion King. Are these really the role models we want our children, at their most formative years to see as characters to emulate? But the industry is growing and adapting.
Disney seems to have a way to go but it’s improving. In Shrek, Princess Fiona is still portrayed as a stunning female in need of rescuing, but makes the point her alter ego is her real beauty and truth. Freeing both she and her love when they accept who they really are. Even Lightening McQueen’s character path is full of real life pathos as he learns the value of friendship and trusting others. And the breathtaking impact coming together for a common goal works to revitalize a community. Marlin, Nemo’s father, shows how a parent must learn to curb their desires to protect and define their children’s lives when his teenage son wants more freedom and respect. Or the delightful “bromance” between Woody and Buzz Lightyear as they both traverse the challenging and difficult paths of romance, friendship, self awareness and ultimate separation anxiety as Andy grows up.
I particularly loved the story of the wicked queen Maleficent who put a curse on the baby of her royal enemies. Decades later that now teenage girl she ended raising as her own falls into a coma just as she had decreed. Only one thing can awaken her- true love’s kiss. Naturally they all seek out the male Prince. But when his sweet touch fails to arouse her all hope seems lost. The step mother cradles her daughter. A tear drops onto her little girl’s face as she apologizes for the cold heart and anger that created this situation. She softly kisses her lips and says goodbye…. When the princess awakens.
Anna in Frozen is another example as she’s struck in the heart and requires true love’s kiss to live. Everyone thinks the manipulating Hans or sweet, endearing Kristoff are the saviors when it’s really the love of her sister, Elsa, that keeps her from dying. They were saved by those who loved and stood by them no matter what. Not the knight in shining armor.
Life is messy. It rarely goes as planned. It definitely has its ups and downs. But the final message never varies. Tomorrow really is only a day away, and with it anything really can happen when our lives are filled with love, friendship, belief in ourselves, learning to like who we are, purpose, respect for others and hope. There’s nothing wrong with fairy tales. We are all struggling. Believing in happy ever after can often get us through the day. When everyone is included and working towards a common goal that fairy tale ending becomes far more likely, for us all.