By Ujjavala Bothra
Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
In today’s era the role of fairy tales, which started as amusing stories for adults, has been transformed. They are not mere stories but are something more than that. Over the course of time, these tales have been deeply embedded in our culture, and have become regular bedtime stories for kids. It is from these stories that children learn or are supposed to learn how to behave in the world around them. A classic example of one such fairy tale is ‘Cinderella’. On the surface, Cinderella is simply about a young girl who has lost her mother, is treated cruelly by her stepmother and whose wishes come true eventually. On closer inspection of the story, one will realise that Cinderella reflects skewed visions of various concepts. Not only does it portray the cultural expectations from a woman in contemporary society by defining ‘a good woman’, but it also stereotypes various issues which are obstacles for society in attaining modernity in terms of thought.
Firstly, the story clearly teaches the children that all stepmothers are brutal and cruel just like Cinderella’s stepmother, who abuses her all day long, with not even the slightest impression of love and care. In reality this may not always stand true, all stepmothers may not necessarily be ‘bad’. Secondly, the story shows that society expects women to be silent, passive and patient. Cinderella tolerated her stepmother’s abuse silently without any revolt. All she did was wish for happiness, without taking any action herself. Such a situation is quite prevalent in contemporary Indian society, where today numerous girls are raped, molested and eve-teased but fail to take action themselves for the fear of social stigma. And if this is what we are imparting to the future generation, I doubt where the future will lead us.
Moreover, the story emphasises that society expects women to be dependent. All that Cinderella hopes for is that one day, a charming prince will come and rescue her from her stepmother’s atrocities. The young girl never takes a stand for herself and this clearly portrays the dependence of the ‘fairer’ sex on the masculine. Even in the contemporary world, which is highly patriarchal and male centric, women are hardly on the forefront of decision making, and all major decisions related to even her life are either taken by her father, husband, brother or son. Furthermore, the story clearly shows how women are not just supposed to be dependent but they also ought to be beautiful wherein the definition of beauty is restricted to the fragility of women reflected by her skin colour, the clothes she wears, etc. The women depicted in the story strive to be ‘beautiful’, and this is clearly reflected by the protagonist’s comments “Oh! It’s beautiful” when the fairy Godmother gives her a new gown. Not only this, the entire population of single women in the kingdom get busy dressing themselves up in order to impress the prince, as if doing so is the sole aim of their lives. This leads us to another crucial social issue, wherein marriage is considered the ultimate goal of a woman’s life, irrespective of career and education. One should be urged to question such baseless “norms” of society and this is actually the need of the hour.
Not only does the story talk about women centred stereotypes but it also raises a pertinent question-do events in reality always end happily like in ‘Cinderella’ and all the other fairy tales recited to children? Are we telling our future generation that nothing can ever go wrong? On the contrary we must prepare them to face all sorts of situations, be it favourable or not.
It is enticing to consider ‘Cinderella’ as only a fairy tale. There is no doubt regarding the fact that the concept of ‘an ideal woman’ does exist in society and that this concept is shaped over generations, on the basis of what an entire generation receives as a message in their childhood. Unarguably, these fairy tales have an immense role to play in that. Thus, however harmless these fairy tales might seem to be, they indeed have a grave impact on our societal thinking and existing cultural norms. The need is to modify these fairy tales in order ensure an egalitarian approach in the generations to come.