Some people’s memories of childhood are vague. Some remember a summer holiday, the smell of mown grass, the damp sensation of shoes in winter or the patterns of wallpaper in a childhood bedroom. Fairytales, however, seem eternal.
The stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and The Snow Queen are all told in different ways; by different publishers, illustrators and theatre companies, but their essence remains the same. The same stories are told in Asian, Middle Eastern and African cultures in myriad forms.
This is both the reason we love fairytales, and the reason we need them. They create a link from our personal histories to our future and they represent a constant moral compass which either replaces or reinforces a religious belief.
Fairytales and stereotypes
There is a view – not an unreasonable one – that fairytales reinforce the very stereotypes our generation is working hard to dismantle. Certainly, there are more than a few princesses to be found in fairytales, and female characters are either portrayed as pure and innocent of heart (the virtuous woman) or as evil witches (stepmothers and power-hungry temptresses alike). Male characters have very little emotional substance and tend to spend fairytales being brave and slightly daft. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a character with a disability or any minority representation.
Because we’re so good at guilt (you’re reading a parenting article, just saying…), this very justifiable view might encourage you to collect up all those old books and toss them away.
Before you bin the stories…
But before you do, consider why our children love these stories; why they boo and hiss the baddies on stage and fall in love with Cinderella year after year. Why are they happy to listen to these stories again and again and why do we, as adults, still remember exactly the feel of the pages of the Hansel and Gretel book we had as children?
Because our children don’t see the stereotypes; gender, colour, disabilities, religions. They see only good and bad, right and wrong.
Fairytales are very clear indeed about good and bad, right and wrong. Being kind to your friends is good, making your stepdaughter work harder than your kids is bad. Looking after your grandmother is right, luring children to their death in a house made of candy is definitely wrong. These clear messages may be exactly what our children need in a word full of social complexity. As adults we have a choice to read more into fairytales. But there’s a reason they’ve stood the test of time, and that is because they are deeply understood and appreciated by the very little people for whom they were written in the first place.
Julie Englefield is General Manager of Brisbane Arts Theatre. She has two boys and makes up fairytales to explain why they’re not allowed to climb to the top shelf of the pantry when they’re hungry.
This article featured in Issue 30 of our printed magazine, published October 2018.