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Modern Happily Ever After? : Racism, Divergence, and Sexism

Most fairy tales originate from the infamous Jacob and Wilheim Grimm, brothers from Germany who collected and published this folklore during the nineteenth century. While the original versions of most fairy tales were rather gruesome and meant to teach children harsh life lessons, the modern renditions of fairy tales are much more mundane and “PG”. The modern interpretations of fairy tales still include overarching ideological messages, however, and can be seen from just a harsh light as the original perspectives: such as the protagonist (meant to be identifiable with the reader or viewer but rarely reach children with minority backgrounds) always finds their way, difference or divergence of social standards of beauty is clearly evil, and gracious forbid that the main character is a female: she is bound to be a damsel in distress, hence a man just must come to her rescue. Classic examples include Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; and while not all fairy tales follow this hegemonic pattern, such as the modern take of Frog Prince, a strong majority of the contemporary re-tellings of fairy tales do.


First and foremost, a majority of fairytales for children include protagonists that are almost always white or come from some sort of privilege background; sure, the “underdog” makes it’s appearance in a story or two but the general portrayal is of white protagonists. In fact a general premise of fairy tales themselves includes extreme amounts of racism; while it is taken into account that they are typically nineteenth century German folk tales, it does not commend the historical issues with most if not all of these stories. Regardless, the most common nursery fairy tale stories told to children are Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Hansel and Gretel; both stories featuring young blonde children, making the lack of diversity outrageously clear even in the twenty-first century. However, the modern interpretations of them still almost always include little white children, frolicking off into the woods, and stumbling upon an obscure cottage. Yet also in both stories, the young children manage to miraculously escape their captors or “find their way to where they belong”.


Another common ideological message held within even modern interpretations of fairy tales is that any sort of deformity or difference from the typical beauty standards must be evil. This is a common message in most of today’s media as well as other forms of media dated back to always; any sort of break or deviance from the “normalcy” in terms of appearance has always been and likely always will be a strong part of society. The stories of Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk exemplify this ideology because both include characters of “difference”: Rumpelstiltskin, presumably a dwarf in retrospect, was seen as an extremely evil little man, making deals with people when they get into any sort of a bind. Similarly, the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk was seen as greedy and dangerous with an abundance of riches up in his castle. This typical view of physical appearance having to all conform in a single entity of perfection is highly unrealistic yet is still portrayed in modern interpretations of fairy tales as well as in other forms of media. While dwarfs are also portrayed in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, these dwarfs are still given particular characteristics and are even theorized to exemplify the biblical seven sins.


Furthermore, an extremely common ideological message in fairy tales is that there must always be a damsel in distress and thus, a strong and kind man must come to her rescue. Often seen in a majority of Disney Princess fairytales, these hegemonic message is sprinkled across a vast majority of fairy tales. A popular example that demonstrates this is the tale of Little Red Riding Hood; with the little girl entering her woods with some treats for her sick grandmother, the big bad wolf comes and takes advantage of the child. When he gets to grandmother's house and (while interpretations vary) pretends to be her grandmother in order to eat Little Red, the only character that can save the elderly woman and the poor girl is the Huntsmen. While there is vast speculation on whether or not Red Riding Hood was a small girl or an adolescent one, the idea remains the same with the man coming to the rescue. Similarly, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs perfectly shows how a man is only capable of saving a woman, particularly with some affection. Obviously the general story of Snow White results in her eating a poisoned apple from her evil stepmother and the dwarfs putting her in a coffin. Therefore, the only way to break the spell of the apple is true-love’s kiss, hence the Prince waltzing into the middle of the woods in order to kiss her. Rather than allowing for the apple to just past through her digestive system, the fairy tale illustrates that a man must come to the rescue and if he comes with “love and affection”, even better.

Modern Interpretation Concurs All:

Paradoxically however, there is a great fairytale also portrayed as a loose, modern interpretation by Disney Princesses of The Frog Prince turning into The Princess and the Frog. The remodeled version involves people of color in New Orleans, Louisiana with the princess Tiana. Not only does this modern re-telling cast aside the stereotype of fairytales and princesses being a “white only” concept, it also debunks the sexism idelogy that most fairytales partake in. The protagonist, Tiana, is the one that primarily the “rescuer” of the tale, rather than the male frog. The contradicting ideological views of this fairy tale for modern interpretation has brought about the circulation of many current changes to viewing fairy tales and the telling of stories to young children. For example, the Disney movie Frozen also exemplifies the typical trope of a fairy tale but has the ideological message that familial-love is just as strong as romantic-love. The increasing interest in changing the general ideology of the perception of fairy tales has ultimately been a demonstration of society and culture diversifying.