When the classic fairy tales were being written, “happily ever after” didn’t usually include mutual consent. In fact, a lot of stories actually encourage sexual assault. I didn’t realize it as a kid, and it didn’t register immediately when I started reading these stories as a mom, either. But thanks the wake-up call our culture is finally experiencing, how could I not notice how much violence against women exist in time-honored tales?
Though I don’t think we need to do away with fairy tales, I do think we need to scrutinize their messaging and use them not only to entertain kids, but as examples of old-school patriarchal thinking. I can’t protect my kids from the evil morals embedded in some of these stories by never reading them, but I can contextualize the books for them. I know someone who is refusing to show her kids certain PG-rated sci-fi action films, and, instead, is committed to making sure they see films with positive messaging about women, bodies, and sexuality. I think there is room for both, though. I believe I can show my kids Star Wars (violent!) and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (queerness positivity!). It doesn’t have to be one or the other because, eventually, my kids will see it all and I’d rather I be the one who takes them through it.
So even though the following stories unquestionably encourage sexual assault, I don’t think they should be banned. They should be read with an eye towards why they are morally bankrupt, and why women suffer if we keep believing these fairy tales to be aspirational.
I guess the Evil Queen really is to blame for including in the spell of the poison apple that death could be reversed if the victim was kissed by an admirer. I often wondered why she bothered with that part. Still, that doesn’t get the prince off the hook for not having consent to plant one on Snow White. Yes, she then wakes up, but I’d argue she’d be better off dead (or in a coma) than riding off into the sunset with her attacker.
Here’s another story whose happy ending is derived from a man forcing himself onto an unconscious woman. The idea that “true love’s kiss” is a cure-all for women in comas is definitely a sexual predator’s happy ending, and not that of the female protagonist.
Enough with the kissing. This princess was problem-free until an amphibian begged her, against her will, to kiss him. Sure, she might have hated him after that when her kiss didn’t turn him back into his princely state, and changed her into a frog as well. But she, apparently, can’t stay mad at a prince who forces himself on her for his own benefit. They get married, of course.
Belle trades her life for her father’s (I’m not even going to get into her dad’s atrocious parenting here), only to be at the beck and call of her captor. She must do as he says. She must wear what he wants. And she must never assume to be treated differently than any other object in his castle.
But then he shows a softer side and that magically erases any doubts she might have had about him having his way with her again in the future. He’s totally stable. She’s totally safe. Gross.
Though it's Ursula, the Sea Witch, who grants Ariel’s wish to become human and is the one responsible for taking away the mermaid’s voice, it’s the prince who’s the real villain here. Why should Ariel have to change to enjoy a fulfilling partnership? Couldn’t he consider becoming a merman? Wouldn’t that be so much cooler than Ariel giving up her aquatic prowess?
In this story, a miniature princess is kidnapped by a toad to bring to his son as a wife. She runs away and then is set up with a mole. She weeps and finally is able to marry someone like her, a petit prince, but why does finding a good match factor so much in this story, which begins with her doing just fine living that tiny solo life in a polished walnut shell?
While it was a bummer that Cinderella felt like she couldn’t stay with the prince past midnight, when the illusion of her fanciness would evaporate as her fairy godmother’s spell expired, she could have figured out a way back to him. But no. Instead, the lesson of this story is that the prince would invade every young woman’s home in search of the mysterious woman whose shoe he found after she fled from him.
The fact that Cinderella ran away from him didn’t deter the prince. He stalked her. He wouldn’t rest until he had her. This is creepy, no matter what mutual sparks Cinderella might have felt the night before.
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