No More Damsels in Distress

Raghav Harini
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Fairy tales are nothing but a society’s accumulated defiance to gender recalcitrance. As young girls, we were exposed to the realms of fantasy, magic and beauty through fairy tales or the regional versions of them, but no one seems to have looked through the purported significance of these fairy tales.


Most of these fairy tales were written by male authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, Grimm Brothers, etc. in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A closer analysis of socio-political milieu of the Victorian era and pre-modern American society, to which these authors belong, reveals that they had strict institutionalised patterns of gendered behaviour and were not conducive for socially non-conforming conducts.

Rousseau’s political theory, conveniently excluded the rights of women, to property. The French revolution of 1789 triggered the initial political undercurrents of feminism. All of these further necessitated the strict gendered behavioural patterns and sex-based division of labour, which were perpetuated through fairy tales and fables.

According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, it is a result of progressive mental transformations which are influenced by biological maturation and the environment in which the child grows. The theory also explains the two types of intelligence, operational and figurative. The former is the active intelligence which is moulded by the external environment and the latter is the static and dormant intelligence which includes all forms of interpretations and representations, to retain the state of mind. Consequently, even though as adults, we gain the ability to reason and justify our behaviour due to the presence of figurative intelligence, we tend to fall prey to the set of instructions given by the external environment, in this case, it is the paradigm of gendered behaviour, unconsciously. Thus, it is imperative to understand the factors which influence a person’s behaviour which is habituated to the strict gendered codes.

Almost all the fairy tales have the same plot. A young girl who is weak, emollient and cute is constantly abused by her stepmother or other relatives in a dystopian environment. She befriends inanimate objects and other creatures symbolising her depression and loneliness. Having tolerated the abuse and harassment, she is rewarded with a handsome, wealthy and courageous husband.

This, in reality, perpetuates the notions of what is considered to be “good behaviour”. Behind these norms also lie the patriarchal assumption that a male is inevitable in a woman’s life and that only a man is capable of destroying the evil and the wicked.

Tales like Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty have rigid binary female patterns of behaviour. A decisive, independent woman is portrayed as a wicked and ugly woman and a naive, docile and tolerant girl who has superficial pleasures of life is beautiful and has a happy ending in her life. The tales explicitly adulate the white and fair girls and anything less is termed ugly, wicked and jealous and further the beauty standards of size zero waistlines and flawless skin which have narrowed the scope of understanding beauty.


The tales never seem to focus on developing the personality of the character and even if they do, physical appearance is always prioritised.

In Neil Gaiman’s contemporary version of Snow White (Snow, Glass and Apples) which is narrated from the stepmother’s point of view is quite different. Snow White, who is the villain in this story, is beautiful, malevolent and a vampire who seeks to destruct the kingdom of her father. The stepmother, who is equally beautiful, pursues Snow White not out of jealousy of her beauty but in order to protect the kingdom. The story is a successful attempt to reduce the feminine ideals to shambles.

A quintessential fairy tale always ends with the female protagonist seeking refuge under the institution of marriage with a handsome stranger with whom she fell in love at the very first sight and this, is rather understood as the ultimate and the priceless gift for her tolerance and patience.

The problem is not only the idea of perpetuating the patriarchal ideas of pre- modern times, but also, romance is understood as the only solution for her abuse and harassment.

In her book of Seeing like a Feminist, Nivedita Menon explains why the narrative of romance is inherently flawed. The entire narrative is about an inferior, naïve and a diminutive woman who is enticed by the handsome, valorous and much superior male who might harass the woman in the name of romance. In the story of Snow White, the prince buys the corpse of the princess out of attraction, is nothing but necrophilia and not the utopian idea of romance. The story of beauty and the beast received criticisms for romanticising Stockholm syndrome and sending a message to young girls that it is indeed feminine to tame the male "beasts”.

Old tales in new skin, try to dye the tales with harsh reality and weed out misogyny. Emma Watson, who plays the role of Belle in The Beauty and the Beast is defiant, strong and her greatest asset is not her beauty but her intelligence. In Emma Donoghue’s The Tale of the Apple, Snow White is shown as an unyielding young girl who is capable of protecting herself without the help of Prince Charming.


Feminism is not about final triumph, but about the gradual transformation of the society so resolute that the old markers shift forever. The change happens, slowly, but it does.

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 Also Read: Emma Watson Receives First Gender Neutral Acting Award


Raghav Harini is an intern with SheThePeople.TV

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