Sexism in Fantasyland This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

February 22, 2010
Custom User Avatar
More by this author
And so the story ends. The dashing prince in his tasseled, shoulder-padded suit bends down to kiss her lips. He swoops her up in his arms and gingerly places her on the white stallion. Then the perfect couple gallops toward the prince's lavish castle, its two towers silhouetted against the orange sunset with its turrets poking holes in the fluffy clouds. Oh, and of course, she lives happily ever after. Bleh.

These sappy, wistful endings seem to be the uniform finish of fairy tales. Back in the days of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, fairy tales were the wish fulfillment of medieval-day peasant girls.

Think of the fairy tales you know – the popular gooey ones with princes and kisses. Now think of the boring, vapid girls who star in them. Their grand role is to sit pretty and mope around until a handsome hero comes to their salvation. It's a popular case of the classic someday-my-prince-will-come syndrome.

In Hans Christian Andersen's famous “Cinderella,” Cindy's simple jobs consist of cooking, cleaning, crying until a fairy godmother shows up, wearing a pretty dress, being home on time, and ultimately being rescued from slavery to her step-family by none other than … Prince Charming.

Now ponder Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” who lives “under the sea, under the sea.” Clad in just a skimpy seashell bra that would shame a Victoria's Secret model, Ariel starts out as a spunky, happy-go-lucky redhead who rebels against her stern father's rules. But as soon as her sky blue eyes glimpse her prince, she becomes meek and shy. And since trading her beautiful voice for a pair of nice legs was her pact with the sea witch, Ariel must capture his heart with just her looks and bashful smiles. Not exactly a good message to send to children, Hans. The story ends just as the star-struck mermaid wants. The evil sea witch is defeated, Ariel's voice is restored, and the prince is hers. Of course, in the process she gives up her family, underwater friends, her home, her royal title, and everything she knows and loves – all for a man. But hey, whatever makes you happy, Princess.

Think of the Grimm Brothers' “Snow White.” Snow White herself is described as a translucent beauty with raven hair and blood-red lips. She also happens to be meek, sweet, and a great cook and housewife. The fairy tale depicts women as beauty-crazed fanatics in desperate need of male protection. When Snowy's evil queen stepmother declares that she wants her stepdaughter's heart cut out of her chest so she can eat it, Snow White runs away to the forest. At first, it seems this darling femme might actually have an adventure for herself, but alas, no. As soon as she enters the forest, the silly nit joins up with seven dwarves and washes, cooks and cleans for them in return for protection. Apparently, male protection is what Snowy needs, even if they are only two-and-a-half feet tall.

And you can add “vulnerable” and “idiotic” to the list of negative traits fairy tales attribute to women. After all, only an idiot would open the door to a gnarly, creepy old woman in a black cape and actually buy apples from her. Especially if she gives you a hint they're enchanted. And when she falls into a death-like coma, who wakes Snowy up? You got it … another predictable, face-sucking prince.

And now a different fairy-tale star: Rapunzel. Trapped in a tower by an evil witch who kidnapped her at birth, Rapunzel somehow manages to keep her 100-foot-long tresses shiny and clean with no running water or Herbal Essence shampoo. Her fabulous escapade is to “let down her hair” out of a window. It's the prince's job to climb up the side of the tower using her locks. Anyone who's ever tried to climb a rope, even with knots in it, knows how hard that must have been. Vain 'Punzel refuses to chop off her lid to get herself out of the tower, so instead she slowly knits a ladder, which adds weeks to her escape date. Then she's stupid enough to tip off her witchy captor. Even after thorns blind her darling hero, he still commandeers the final escape and provides transportation to his castle.

Think of Mulan. This Chinese girl probably is the best fairy-tale subject out there. She fights, saves the man she loves, kills the Huns, and gets to shoot cannons. Of course, her story is set back in sexist Imperial China, where, as a woman, she is expected to serve her husband. The only way Mulan gets ahead in life and makes friends is by disguising herself as a man. When the truth finally comes out, Mulan's friends shun her. This fairy tale clearly supports the idea that being born female is a bad thing.

Who remembers the story of Rumpelstiltskin? Oddly enough, the girl we must call our heroine doesn't even get a name. The creepy, baby-stealing stalker is the villain who snags the title. The lovely miller's daughter responds to the news that she must spin straw into gold or die, by crying and sniveling. Then when she realizes she must give up her baby, she cries and snivels some more. Throughout the tale, she does almost nothing for herself besides producing enough tears to water a cotton field. The only reason Mr. Rumpelstiltskin doesn't triumph in the end is dumb luck, happenstance, and a faithful male messenger who informs his queen what he heard the little man sing at the campfire.

All of the classic fairy-tale females end up being saved by masculine heroes. The only women in the tales with any cunning, wit, cleverness, boldness, or strength are hideous hags, murderous witches, and beauty-obsessed stepmothers. The young, lovely heroines are meek, good, obedient, submissive, and naturally weaker and inferior to their heroes. We need more heroines with independent traits.

We need a Rapunzel with the brains to have cut off her hair and climbed down it years ago. We need a Gretel who saves her beloved brother. We need a Beauty to rescue her Beast. We need a Bella to fight alongside her Edward, and a Maid Marian to spring her beloved Robin Hood out of prison. We need a Cinderella who stands up to her stepmother. At least can we have a Snow White who won't open the door to strange, wizened women?

We need a gal with guts, derring-do, moxie, gumption, and agency. We need female characters who can fight for themselves, and maybe pick up true love along the way. We, along with the rest of America, need a good dose of fresh, unadulterated girl-power.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

Join the Discussion

This article has 85 comments. Post your own now!

PennyM.L said...
Jun. 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm
Bella? Seriously? That series is so sexist. Many times implying how she needs someone, or how men can do things women can't. And Mulan, it was stating that being born a women is bad, it was showing how men discriminate her simply because of her breast and what's between her thighs.
AlmostPublished replied...
Jul. 15, 2012 at 11:56 pm

I agree with Penny, that series is sexist. Bella is pretty much another modern day princess who has now 2 men protecting her. I guess that the twist.

And Mulan is actually a fighter, probably the best disney female character.

MissMaegan This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jul. 16, 2012 at 7:41 am
I understand what you're saying. OF COURSE Twilight is sexist. That's why I said that we NEED a Bella to fight alongside her Edward...because that's exactly what she doesn't do. I wasn't saying that she DOES. Does that make sense lol? And as for Mulan, I in no way deny she's a total badass...what I'm sayin is that the cartoon that children watch advocate that the only way for her to advance in her life, save her father, and do the righteous thing is to through out her identity as a woman. It's b... (more »)
songofsongs said...
Jan. 12, 2012 at 10:57 am
by far my favorite opinion article ever. hands down. amazing job!!!!!
savetheplanet said...
Aug. 17, 2011 at 1:35 pm
I personally have always loved fairytales, but you bring up anexcellent point.  That was one of the reasons that I loved Mulan so much, because she did things for herself.  They should have more heroines!
RealisticWoman replied...
Dec. 7, 2011 at 9:01 pm

The reason that fairy tales exist, was to scare little kids into listening to their parents. That, yes, there are bad scary things out there. They made those women characters stupid, so to show the kids a certain moral that goes along with the story.

Blame Hans Christian Anderson for even suggesting the idea to write the stories so it doesn't scare kids and is used for entertainment.

I hate that stereotype too. The only reason is because Hollywood decided to take it out of ... (more »)

NeeleyLeigh said...
Aug. 11, 2011 at 1:58 pm
Alright, I loved this. And it totally sparked an idea for a novel I wanted to right. Thank YOU so much for writing this AND for pointing it out. Fairy-tales always highlight the man as the hero and he's always "good." But in real life women are totally tougher ;)
NeeleyLeigh replied...
Aug. 11, 2011 at 1:58 pm
*wanted to write
MissMaegan This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jul. 16, 2012 at 7:44 am
Haha, you know it ^.^ you're so welcome, and I'm glad I managed to inspire someone! So than YOU :)
Anon said...
Jul. 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm
Whike I congratulate you on your wonderfully generic feminist rant, I must correct you in regards to your opinion about The Little Mermaid. Andersen did not write the story you are talking about; that was Disney's creation. In Andersen's story, the prince falls in love with someone else and the mermaid turns into foam.
rockyraccoon said...
Jun. 17, 2011 at 8:57 pm
I think you missed something firstly there are some new fantasys written somewhat recently where there are smart female heroes though admittedly not a ton. secondly ofcourse allmost all these stories seem sexiest the originall stories were written when this sort of thinking was quite common and thirdly the original grimm stories were a thousand times more disturbing and violent towards both sexes. ps offcourse the mermaid is afraid and delicate she is literaly a fish out of water.
AHandfulOfDust replied...
Jan. 11, 2012 at 5:20 am
A note: "It was common at the time" doesn't make something less ______-ist. Relevant time periods has nothing to do with how offensive something is. Please, please, please do not cut those Southern planters who abused people who were black any slack, because there is no denying it: they were racist. Similarly, Andersen's (and Disney's!) gross inequality of treatment between the sexes is sexist.
Sky.. said...
May 15, 2011 at 1:23 am
I think you looked at these classic fary tales in the wrong light. Instead of seeing stupid and weak, yet beautiful women,  I think we were supposed to see men (and in some cases the woman) giving up everything for what they loved, for what they belived in. We were supposed to see that we should put 100% behind what we want, give up things, or not give up things and fight for what we belive in; and if that means refusing to cut off our  hair because we like it long,... (more »)
INHAILED replied...
Jan. 12, 2012 at 1:00 pm
This is a much better way to look at fairy tales. Regardless of what the intended message, this is the best message you can get from them and I think this is how they should be viewed as, not sexist.
InBetweenDays said...
Apr. 23, 2011 at 5:00 pm

I really liked this piece, and I do agree with you that there are many fairy tales that have the female characters being dependent on males.

If you're looking for fairytales where the roles are reversed, read Not a Damsel in Distress or The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block. One of my favorite fairytales that is a re-did version of BlueBeard by Angela Carter which has the mother not the brothers be the savior of Bluebeard's bride. However, it does have some explic... (more »)

Tbug1997 said...
Apr. 13, 2011 at 7:24 pm
If you want a kick butt girl go for The Hunger Games or Graceling both of these books have really tough kick butt girls as the heros insead of the boy being there helping the girl somehow the girls help the boys
RedheadAtHeart This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 8, 2011 at 4:56 pm

If you're looking for tough female heroines, allow me to point you in the direction of most crime dramas on TV. The female detectives are always stalwart, tough, "don't start with me 'cuz you won't win"-type ladies.


Personally, I think we need a happy medium. Heroines who are smart enough not to open the door to enchantresses, as you said, but who are not superwomen whom everyone else bows down to. We need reality, and that's what we've missed.

Lilliterra said...
Mar. 18, 2011 at 12:19 am

I can hardly begin to say how much you got wrong about this article.

I beleive in respect towards women. This is a weird thing for me, as a girl, to say, but I think men should still do stuff like open doors for ladies, and let girls go first. It doesn't devalue us, rather it esteems us. Too few men do it these days. If men desire the privelege of serving women, let them.

Cinderella: what's wrong with wearing a pretty dress and being home on time?

Ariel: "As soon a... (more »)

SallySunshine replied...
Nov. 2, 2011 at 7:27 pm
I think you're EXACTLY right. As a young girl, I always looked up to these women because they followed their heart and they didn't need to step on anybody's toes to get what they wanted.
Lenah said...
Mar. 10, 2011 at 11:29 pm
i like fairytales and they are just that- fairytales. they can be quite cheesy at times but that's why i like them- i'm weird that way
EternalLove said...
Mar. 4, 2011 at 10:30 am
absolutly awsoem, you captuerd the whole essence of the idioticy of those stories. The way you protruded your side of the story was enlighting and very informative. I belive you just wrote what 100s of SMART girls were thinking. This is a peice everyone should read, listen to, and be informed by.. Amazing job, very well written and very well put together. Your peice was amazing, and i am recomending it to many of my friends. Thank you for sharing this wonderfull outlook with rthe rest of us. :D
Site Feedback