Gender Roles in Fairy Tales

Preface: A recent class I took regarding writing, interpreting, and understanding fairy tales was the motivation for this piece. My instructor asked me “Would the gender stereotypes and differences of men and women in fairy tales relate and carry over to the real world?” I never got around to submitting a good answer to him, so this is my way of answering it even though the class has ended at this point. I want to preface the entire thing by saying that this entire post is not meant to paint stereotypes, insult anybody, or cause problems. This is simply my honest answer to the question. Enjoy!

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Current society shows an always fluctuating debate involving gender equality, unity, and stereotypes. Even though many people have tried to break those stereotypes, they still exist in many mediums. Several gender stereotypes are prevalent for each gender in several aspects. Women are usually portrayed as beautiful, gentle, and delicate. Now, this is not always the stereotype, but the majority of mediums follow this formula. Men, on the other hand, are always shown as intimidating, dominating, and fierce. Sometimes these roles are reversed or broken throughout many stories. The roles of both genders have differences and similarities in relation to fairy tales and real life.

Beauty and the Beast

Throughout the story of “Beauty and the Beast”, the main focus is put on wealth and beauty. In the beginning of the story, the author describes the daughter as, “not only more beautiful than her sisters; she was also far more charming.” Regardless of the author defining her charming personality, the focus was drawn towards her attractiveness. It is explained in the beginning of the story that the daughters’ attractiveness had drawn many suitors. Because of this, the focus is drawn to the idea that a woman’s beauty is more important than a man’s.

Even though their personalities may clash, Beauty and her sisters convey two entirely different stereotypes for women: homebodies and superficial tendencies. This idea is portrayed perfectly when the two sisters say, “Look at our sister . . . She’s such a simpleton and so dim-witted that she seems perfectly satisfied with her miserable lot.”  Unfortunately, both viewpoints are stereotypical and condescending to women in general. Thankfully, the author of the story showcases a brighter side to Beauty’s mindset that is not normally shown for women in stories.

Beauty serves a greater purpose as the main female character of the story, by reminding the reader that making a choice to be happy with oneself is far more important than conforming to the rules of society. Later in the story, Beauty is able see past appearances and materialism, which in turn, allows for a good moral lesson. She makes a decision based on the Beast’s personality and overall persona rather than his physical looks. Many fairy tales stress the importance of beauty and superficiality, and Beauty helps break those rules.

The Beast, on the other hand, is an exact mirror of the stereotype. Most men in stories are shown as fierce and dominating. Notwithstanding, the Beast definitely portrays many aspects of that stereotype. When the Beast felt offended by the ungratefulness of the merchant, he threatened the man with his fury. The reader eventually learns, however, that the Beast is actually a quiet, caring, and insecure individual. Perhaps that fact speaks volumes to how the Beast overcomes a stereotype.

Once Beauty risks her life for the merchant, the Beast shows a softer and insecure side by trying to convince her that he is stupid and unattractive. Beauty, however, is able to see past those insecurities to the kind heart hidden beneath all of his tough exterior. In that sense, the Beast does not conform to typical rules for males, because he shies away from a mask of masculinity and showcases a great vulnerability. Beauty tosses aside the stereotype of women portraying beauty, and not brains, by seeing the true man behind the mask.

Snow White

Unlike “Beauty and the Beast” the main virtue learned at the end of “Snow White”, is the dangers and evils of vanity. Rather than focusing entirely on the importance of beauty, the story shifts to the dangers of focusing on superficiality. The main example of this is when the Queen decides to have Snow White murdered because the mirror tells her that Snow White is more attractive. This statement causes the Queen to become enraged, as she sends the huntsman to kill Snow White.

Snow White, however, falls into several stereotypes usually associated with women in fairy tales. Snow White is described as being meticulously beautiful and pure. Women are typically shown as lighter and inferior to all other aspects, and Snow White is definitively shown this way in the story. Because of Snow White’s beauty, the dwarves allow her to sleep in their home, and the prince notices her beauty, which makes him stop. Snow’s beauty causes envy amongst many people, putting more emphasis on the importance of physical beauty.

Another stereotype of women in fairy tales is the idea that women must be patient and wait to be swept off their feet. Rather than subconsciously waiting for a man to come and save her, Snow White was put into a situation via the apple presented to her by the Queen. This event conforms to the idea that all women need to be rescued in some sense by another person, usually men. The huntsman, the dwarves, and the prince all serve the stereotype for men that says physical beauty plays an important role in life’s choices. Snow White is able to live from the huntsman, stay with the dwarves, and become rescued by the prince, because she is beautiful. The men in the story quickly succumb to physical attraction, regardless of what lies beneath the surface in Snow White’s personality and psyche.

Fairy Tales and Real Life

If the situation was reversed, and Snow White and Beauty, along with the men from the story, were put into real life, there would be several similarities and differences. Although the stories take place in a world filled with magic and intrigue, this does not mean human nature is absent. Men and women from both worlds fall into different categories of stereotypes, human nature, and life-changing decisions. The virtues and morals of these stories can relate to real life in several aspects.

In “Beauty and the Beast”, Beauty chooses a life at home with books, her family, and her own virtues. This is a common attribute among many women in today’s society. Rather than going out and partying every weekend, many men and women choose to stay at home and do things considered “homebody” and lame. Regardless of their looks, some women choose to increase their intellect, wit, and charm so as to better themselves as overall people. Unfortunately, if Beauty was in the real world today, experience dictates that the looks of a man would play a far greater role than his personality.

Movies, television shows, the Internet, and popular male celebrities all put emphasis on the importance of being toned, fit, and muscular. Without those attributes, women will not show any interest in them. Many men feel vulnerable and insecure, but it goes against the norm to display those attributes as they are considered a weakness. The Beast, however, would feel out of sorts in this world, because he would display the same insecurities and most likely not be rewarded or sympathized for his kindness.

Snow White, on the other hand, would fare better in reality. Women in today’s society are taught to be strong and independent, but unfortunately, looks will still play a large role in a woman’s ability to accomplish many things. This is a terrible practice but still holds truth. Her attraction and behavior befitting a vulnerable woman would be appealing to many men. The men from the story would also fare well in the real world. So much emphasis is placed on superficial beauty, that they would also be entranced by women in this world. Their decisions to fall in love and help beautiful women would allow them to go far in life.

Conclusion

Fairy tales attempt to teach valuable lessons of inner beauty and the victory of personality over superficiality. Conversely, the real tries to teach the same lesson, but too much emphasis is put on materialistic tendencies. The stories, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Snow White”, paint a vivid picture of male and female stereotypes. These stereotypes would fit into the real world to a certain degree, but some would bring the characters a terrible culture shock. Many fairy tales, regrettably, fail to teach their lessons when so much controversy surrounds the stereotypes of genders, their roles within the story, and the impact of their actions on others.

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