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The Role Of Stereotyping In Fairytales English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3103 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Fairy tales have a great history in Europe and they were transmitted from the one generation to the other by oral speech, until the Grimm brothers decided to commit many of them, around 1815. The fairy tales’ stories are very important for children’s psychology, as psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim says, because they communicate with the unconscious of the child, through their secret messages, like the battle between the good and the evil, where the good always wins. So, the children feel more hopeful and ready to pass through the difficulties that emerge in their lives (Salkind, 2004).

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Fairytales contain material that influences a lot the feelings and the cognition of children. Contemporary research has shown they are not coming into the world as black slates, but they bring reflexes, predispositions and capacities, with their birth. Although schemas, the cognitive structures, that represent “organized knowledge about a given concept or stimulus”, that influence “perception, memory and inference”, (Hewstone, Stroebe & Stephenson, 1997, p.617), are transmitted to them through the contact with their guardians and the society (Hewstone et al., 1997).

Another effect of fairytales is the elongation of some schemas, specially those that concern gender. There are three types of schemas, according to Baron and Burne (2009); those that have to do with persons, with roles and with events. The role schemas, that are correlated with specific social roles, concern the way that people act and are like. Gender identity is one of the major role schemas that people cope with (Baron, Branscombe & Burne, 2009).

Gender roles affect the behavior of men and women throughout their life, social and personal. Some characteristics of the male stereotype is that the man is able to be a leader, aggressive, forceful, competitive, independent, individualistic and defending his own beliefs. On the other hand, woman is affectionate, compassionate, shy, soft-spoken, tender, she loves children and she is sensitive to the needs of others. Men are also considered as the owners of their family and like the head of the wife. Stereotypes like that have still their place in many religions, but are also tought to the children through the fairy tales. Women are still presented as followers of the active male figures or helpless with the need to be rescued.

Children attain the meaning of gender identity, the fact that they are boys or girls, by the age of two and between the ages of four and seven, they realize that the gender is a basic attribute of the person. As they grow up they come in contact with the stereotypes that concern what it means to be male or female, and they are enforced by their environment to show these traits Children also, learn gender stereotypes very early in their life. By the age of two they know to accord stereotyped behaviors and traits with each gender and at the ages between three and six, they seem more strongly sex stereotyped than adults. Furthermore they are convinced that these stereotypes are true. In particular, in the research of Urberg (1982, cited in Golombok & Fivush, 1994), it was found that children espouse unconditionally the gender stereotypes at the age of five, but at the age of seven they become more conciliatory. Another finding of the same research was that children tend to stereotype other children more than stereotype adults. In another study of Haugh, Hoffman & Cowan (1980, cited in Golombok & Fivush, 1994), it was shown on a screen to two groups of children of three and five year old, a shortcut with two twelve month infants playing. The children of the first group were told that the infant on the left was male, and on the right female, and to the other group the opposite. Both groups described the babies labeled as males, with characteristics like big, mad, fast, strong, loud, smart, and hard, while the female labeled as small, scared, slow, weak, quiet, dumb, and soft. As for the predictions that children can make about the preferences of the two sexes, in the study of Martin (1989, cited in Golombok & Fivush, 1994), it was found that children of all ages tented to predict the character’s interest about some toys, based on his or her gender. But only the younger children relied absolutely on this trait. It seems that younger children are more categorical with gender stereotypes, and the gender of an individual is determinant for his or her characteristics and habits (Baron, Branscombe & Burne, 2009, Golombok & Fivush, 1994).

The research about the gender roles in fairytales, has shown that even though women represent more than the half percent of the population, they are represented much less in children’s literature. Research during 60’s decade found that women were underrepresented in a big amount in the book titles, central roles and the illustrations of popular children’s stories. After the political changes of the decades of 70’s and 80’s, it was found that women are better represented in children’s literature, but the male characters were represented double times. When a woman had a leading role was described as the males that had the same character. But when she had a secondary role, she was described with the traditional characteristics, as passive and depended (Golombok & Fivush, 1994, Godden & Godden, 2001).

Furthermore, it was found by a research of DeLoache et al., cited in Golombok & Fivush, 1994, that children get in contact with the gender stereotypes not only through the characters of their stories, but also by the way that their parents present the gender roles, while they are reading them a book. In particular, mothers that were reading a book to their children were presenting the 90% of the characters with unknown roles as males. Also, when they were asked to read a picture book with bears of indetermined gender, the 62% of them represented the bears to their children as male and a small percentage, about the 16% as female. It was also observed that the bears that were labeled as females, where those that were not been presented to interact with other bears (Golombok & Fivush, 1994).

According to the Bandura’s Social learning theory, cited in Cole & Cole, 2002, gender is formed by social factors. He supported that the child’s behavior is formed by that one of the others and specific by parents’ behavior, through the learning processes of reinforcement and observation or imitation of a model. Other factors responsible for socialization can be the teachers, the peers and generally the people that get in contact with the child, without underestimating the role of media, like tv’s and children readings (Cole & Cole, 2002).

It has been observed that parents provide to their children except of patterns of imitation, rewards, when the behaviors of the last are compatible with their gender and they punish them for the behaviors that are not accord with it. In the studies of Beverly Fagot, cited in Cole & Cole, 2002, in families, it was found that the parents were praising their daughters when they were trying clothes, dancing, playing with their dolls, or when were following them and they were punishing them when they were exploring things, running and climbing around. Contrary they were praising their sons when they were playing with cubes and they were punishing them, when they were playing with dolls, giving or asking for help. These findings are also supported by other studies, like those of Langois & Downs, cited in Cole & Cole, 2002.

Except of the rewards, it has been observed by studies that the fathers in contrast with the mothers, treat their sons much more different than their daughters. More specifically they were considering boys as more strong and taugh and they were enforcing them to do similar activities, while they were rating them more strict than their mothers when they were playing with dolls. Also, when the boys were between the age of two and twelve, they were becoming stricter, more equable, less affectionate and more directional than with their daughters. Furthermore, it seems that the pressure to the boys to conform to their gender role, is bigger than this one that touch girls. As a result the gender role of boys is more cohesive than for the girls’, something that continues to exist in mens’ and womens’ roles, when the male characteristics and roles are acceptable for women, while the opposite is not acceptable.

Another stereotypic role for women in fairytales is that they have to stay in silence. It’s inappropriate for them to express their thoughts and claim for their rights. This could be like an insult to their husband and only evil women, like witches, are taught with these behaviors. The only way for the women in fairytales to speak is only after asking a man’s permission. It’s also common for the man in fairytales to hit his wife when she dares to interrupt him. Women can only express themselves by crying and show helpless (Afanas’ev, 1973, Bottigheimer, 1986).

In “Snow White,” Brothers Grimm classic fairy tale, the female gender is represented in a negative way. Snow White is displayed as being frightened, naive and helpless, and the evil Queen, her stepmother, the only other prominent female character is a narcissist. Thus, after reading or hearing this fairy tale, society begins to mold into these stereotypes. This quote demonstrates what society considers to be women’s role. These traits are presented when the huntsman spares Snow Whites life and when the Dwarfs expect Snow White to do house work in order to live safely with them. Although the queen ironically is very powerful in this fairy tale, she also falls into the stereotype for females. She only uses her power for negatives, rather than positives, scheming vindictive plots on Snow White throughout the whole story. In which, naive Snow White falls victim, not once but three times. The evil queen sends the huntsmen to kill Snow White. This setting introduces the readers to Snow White as a scared helpless girl, a typical expected role of a female (Zipes, 2000).

Although there are exceptions, the rule is that a woman has to lose her voice and her identity in order to provide a place in the society for herself. There are specific gender roles in the classic fairy tales that state that the men have the voice and the women are to be collateral.

In the classic fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid,” the character of the seventh daughter is being taught what it is to be a woman. When she complains about grooming for her first trip above water, her grandmother remind her that someone can’t have beauty without paying a cost. A woman must be beautiful and must suffer for the cost in silence. Silence is repeated throughout the tale as being a virtue. The mermaid suffers the pain and blood of her feet and the cutting out of her tongue as to be with her love, even though the man does not want her in return. The Disney version of this tale also shows Ariel learning about the importance of outward beauty and suppression. Ursula convinces Ariel that she doesn’t need her voice in the human world. She has her beauty, her lovely face and she can use her body language. A woman can live in the man’s world, only if she will lose her opinion.

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At first, Disney’s Ariel seems not to follow the typical stereotype role for a woman. She is active, curious and rebellious sometimes. However, when she falls in love, her independent character, transforms into a dependent woman that only wants to become the wife of her beloved man. Moreover she decides to sacrifice her voice, as to become a human, and leave her underwater kingdom to live next to her man (Bell, Haas, & Sells, 1995).

Another example of the importance of women silence, is in the story of The Merchant’s Daughter and the Slanderer where the king decides to marry her only when it is mentioned to him that she is quiet and vestal. The value of silence is correlated with those of speech and power. Generally in fairy tales the speech comes from people that have authority, which most of the times are not the women. The women that appear to speak are evil, like witches, and only when they give a curse to their enemies, as it was mentioned before (Afanas’ev, 1973, Bottigheimer, 1986).

Another stereotype in fairy tales, is that the man’s role is to work and provide food to his family by this work. Besides that, in many fairy tales, the opposite fact happens. In “Constantino Fortunato” of Straparola, it is a woman, the mother Soriana, who provides the food to her three adult sons, who end helpless when she is dead. Their only way to survive is to use the items she left them and because they do not have any qualifications for work they become dependent on other people. Because of the fact that they have never worked, they do not appreciate the people who help them and they forget each one when a new person who can help them appears. And that’s what Constantino does when is been ensured to him the marriage with the princess.

In this fairytale the sons are completely dependent on their mother who has the main character in that. She is described as a very poor woman who had three sons, a description that appears in many points of the story. The important to notice is that never this family is been demonstrated as a poor family, but there is only a really poor mother and her sons. The sons are not considered as independed members of this family and they are not responsible for their poverty, even though they are old enough to have a job. They stay sideliners even when their mother is dead. Their only way to survive is to wait for their neighbors to ask them to borrow some of the items their mother left and give them something in return. When Constantino’s brothers get a sweet like a gift from their neighbors they eat it by themselves and they don’t keep anything for him but only advice him to ask the cat for help. That is what happens and the cat begins to provide everything to the young man, even his marriage with the princess. When he becomes a prince he has to face many responsibilities but even in that time he denies to do it and continues to count on women’s of the palace help (Zipes, 2000).

Another common characteristic for the women in fairy tales is their passivity. Most of them when they find themselves in trouble, are waiting for a male to rescue them and don’t take the situation in their own hands. In the story of “The Footless Champion and the Handless Champion” the sister of the family has to endure every day the minatory visits of a dragon, without doing anything to protect herself like to escape, but only waiting for her brothers to come back from a hunter travel, to save her (Afanas’ev, 1973).

Another message that fairy tales give to women is that disobedience to men and possible will for power will be strict punished. The woman’s role is to serve the husband and do the housekeeping. In the Mayoress fairy tale, the woman explains to her husband her intention to become mayoress and he decides to punish her with some elder men. Because of her inability as a mayoress she spends the public money and then it’s impossible to collect the taxes in time. Even though she makes efforts to control the situation, the Cossack decides to punish her by beating her. The meaning of this story is that this woman should never desire a position of power and disobey her husband. Generally this story teaches women to stay allegiant to the authority of their husband and also men that women are incapable for positions that have to do with the public affairs and power.

Beauty is another value that is overestimated in fairy tales. Usually we meet in their pages, young and beautiful girls to be chosen by men with power, but ugly and much older, like what happened in “Beauty and the Beast” and the ugly girls to be rejected not only from men but also from society. It is also common that the beauty is correlated with traits, like honesty, purity, virginity, delicacy and modesty. Beauty is also a virtue that has to be well protected from the world outside and be well guarded like a treasure. In the story of “Dawn, Evening and Midnight” the king watches his daughters during all day not allowing to anyone else to see their beauty. He doesn’t even leave the sun or the wind to touch them. It is obvious that he adores his daughters only because they are extremely beautiful.

It is not only the beauty that determine a wedding but also the ability of woman for reproduction. More specifically, it is the ability of the woman to make male children. It is considered as an ability of the woman to control the sex of her child, something that does not correspond to the contemporary knowledge and when she fails to make a boy, she is usually considered as cursed or worthless and she is driven away from her husband. This is obvious in the “Singing Tree and the Talking Bird”, when the king chooses his future wife only after she promises him to make three children, two males and one female. No other traits are more decisive than this, like the worth of a woman is considered first of all, with her ability of reproduction (Afanas’ev, 1973).

It seems that even nowadays fairytales attribute to women the stereotyping traits of their gender, like passivity and silence, and to men those of power and courage, as it was shown through the fairytales of “Snow White”, “The Little Mermaid”, “Ariel” and “The Footless Champion and the Handless Champion”. Although there are traditional fairytales like “Constantino Fortunato”, that shows the woman in a position of power, this one of the head of the family and modern, that describe their heroine with some “male” characteristics, like Ariel of the “Little Mermaid”, who is independed and curious, before falls in love with a man, it seems that social sciences have to make a lot of efforts to modify the gender stereotypes in children literature (Zipes, 2000, Afana’s ev, 1973).


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