Back off, and let's be Princesses
Growing up in northern Nigeria our version of Once upon a time was ‘GATA NAN GATA NAN KU’, and good lord did I love hearing those words. My mom’s favorite stories to tell were always about a spider and his praying mantis wife. Simply put, the spider was a jerk, and like most storybook females, the wife was dutiful and too good for him. At the end of every story, the selfish-pompous-too-wise-for his-own-good spider learns a lesson or two while the wife takes home a better but undoubtedly not great spouse. And I, on the other hand, went to bed every night with a new moral upgrade courtesy of the adventures of ‘Gizo da Koki’ i.e. the spider and the praying mantis.
Gizo da Koki seeded a love for stories in me, and it was no surprise that when I progressed to fairy tales, I sucked those up too like a sponge. They were magic, full of sparkle and color. I loved the variety of characters and location, which meant every night I was transported to a new world, with new rules, new adventures and new people to discover. And because of Gizo da Koki, fairy tales transcended past legends of glamorous love affairs promising ‘happily ever after.' They were stories of strength, honor, adventure, sacrifice, majestic gestures and most importantly they were stories of tirelessly pursuing the object of your desire, no matter the number of dragons you had to slay.
Unfortunately today, there is a tide of criticism directed right at my beloved fictional fables, mostly at Disney Princesses, for their ‘negative impact on kids.' And to be honest, I don't understand why…correction, I do understand why, I just find it invalid. And here are my reasons why fairy tales, especially those about princesses, are wrongfully judged.
Nothing says Feminism like a Girl who gets herself out of a Bad Situation
I bet it comes as no surprise that the biggest and most evident crime committed by Disney's princesses has to do with feminism and the portrayal of females. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are case-in-point. The two princesses are essentially beautiful bubbleheads (and that is coming from someone who loves fairy tales), however, saying that that is all they are is narrow-minded.
The princesses, let's add Cinderella to the equation too, have lived a life of isolation with little to no human interaction past their oppressors. Not to mention little to no practical or monetary skills (except domestic work). Bottom line, they are handed a raw deal, but what I find admirable is their resilience and strength. The so-called worst (the most anti-feminist) and weakest of all Disney Princesses, Snow White, takes a stand by running away from her cruel and evil step-mother aka. The Wicked Queen. Alone, afraid and with no survival skills, Snow White endures the harsh forest until she finds herself a haven with the SEVEN dwarfs (that's seven men...just imagine). She takes up the role of homemaker, by using what little skills she does have, and turns a gangly group of men into civilized people. And if the supposedly meekest, blandest and most anti-feminist of the princesses can do that, I think it is safe to say the rest of them aren't that bad.
There is also a common notion that these princesses are one dimensional, in the sense that they are all in search for love or more accurately a man that would complete them. And except for maybe Ariel, this is bogus. They simply went looking for adventure or an exit and stumbled upon love along the way.
No one said it was gonna be easy
Halle Barry recently made headlines with the following statement "As women, we go into marriage thinking it's going to last forever and that this is our prince on a shiny horse. That's what fairy tales taught me as a kid... and I'm kind of anti-fairy tales today." She hints at the unrealistic expectations women form based on the stories depicted. And with all due respect, Halle Barry got it wrong, because when you look into it, you see no princess got it easy when it comes to love. They might have fallen in love at first sight, but everything after that was a continuous test of their strength, resilience, will, skill and good nature. They not only had to overcome their shortcomings and fears but also had to stand up for the love they wanted.
Disney (or the original fairy tales) never portrayed love- and life- as an easy-going thing. Rather, they depicted the irrational, tormenting, challenging, transformative, and uncertain nature of love (and in turn life). Seeing a simplified, linear portrayal of love/ life targeted at children and concluding that it lacks value or reflection is like looking at Barney and saying kids don’t learn good, realistic morals and skill from the show just because they use hugs to solve their differences.
Unrealistic Balancing of Scales
I always looked forward to storybook endings because I knew the protagonists (and antagonists) would eventually get what they deserved. And I loved that. I loved knowing that our deeds and actions counted, both good and bad. It inspired me to do good and be good because I wanted good for myself. Unfortunately, people don’t see it like that. After all so much bad happens to good people, and Disney’s depiction of everybody getting what they deserve doesn’t reflect the truth about life. Right?
But then I look at the Disney princesses and ask, which of them didn’t live through painful situations? None. Most of them were brought up by single parents, while Cinderella, Aurora, and Rapunzel didn’t even have that for the majority of their lives. They experienced the loss of people they loved either because of natural causes or murder. Pocahontas and Merida were pulled from both sides, torn between duty to their people and what they desired. Mulan and Belle put themselves in harm's way and sacrificed their freedom for their fathers. Not to mention, how Tiana, Merida, and Ariel fought through physical transformation.
Any of the princesses could have easily taken the ‘L’ and given up (that would have made for lousy stories btw), but they didn’t; which is what people fail to see. The success of these stories and the concept of ‘happily ever after’ isn't that everyone gets a fairy tale ending just by being, but rather by living through a fairy tale nightmare and doing whatever it takes to change the narrative. It is in being good, determined, and resilient no matter what that the scales are balanced.
Accepting tragedies happen for no reason or simply because people can be evil, self-centered or jealous is something Disney hasn’t shied away from. The reality is that these princesses and the worlds they belong to act as mythical reminders for people to be good and do good. They promote hope and a desire to never give up because you never know maybe your happy ever after, in whatever way, could be right around the corner.
Now that all that is said and done, I’ve deducted that fairy tales lose their significance because of two missteps. Firstly, people forget the context of these stories. The evolution of Disney princesses from Snow White (1930s) to Moana (2017) is evident in the storyline. These princesses went from achieving their own identity, freedom, and adventure by chasing liberty in the form of love/ companionship; to accomplishing all that without romantic entanglement. Case in point reflecting the growth and transition of our societies. Therefore, when we talk about these legends critically, it becomes paramount to accept the difference in generation and target audience. And as such judging them by the laws and norms of 2017 is just plain ludicrous.
My second point comes from my experience with storytelling. My mother never believed in just telling a story; she always used it as a gateway for conversation. Unfortunately, this is missing from our dialogues today. We fail to look past the face value of these stories; and as such, fail to have meaningful conversations about life with children. Often, leaving them to decipher these stories in whatever way their developing brains can process. Which I believe to be a great disservice to children; and a major reason why some adults have a hard time taking the message without deluding themselves with ideas like ‘life should be fair’ or ‘I deserve a happily ever after.
Here we are at the end of another blabber. Hope you enjoyed my perspective on why fairy tales are important pillars that we mustn't dismiss. Let me know what you think about fairy tales in general; and their impact on children. Are you pro-fairy tales or anti-fairytales? What was your experience with them growing up and have they shaped the way you look at life, good or bad? Don’t forget to like, comment and share.
Till next time Blabbers :*