Happily never after

It was the tale of Bluebeard that scared me to death. The tale of the wife unable to resist the temptation of opening the forbidden door at the end of the gallery and finding beyond it a room lined with the mutilated bodies of former wives and—a nice touch, this—“clotted blood all over the floor” shook me more than somewhat. And I was 24 at the time.

But what happens when we hear the bloodthirsty tales of folklore and fairy tale at a more impressionable age? According to a recent study by the aptly named Susan Darker-Smith, a student from Britain’s University of Derby, the messages contained in them can encourage the girls who read them to become victims of abuse in later life.
Beauty and the Beast, for example, is said to foster the notion that love can alter the nature of a man and may make early absorbers of the information more inclined to stay with a violent partner in the hope that she can change his behaviour. And Rapunzel is just one of many passive heroines, imprisoned in a tower and awaiting a prince on a white charger to climb up and rescue her. The question, says Darker-Smith, is why she doesn’t break down the door herself.

Marina Warner, author of From the Beast to Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, argues that Darker-Smith misreads the first tale. “The beast treats her very well—she doesn’t like him because he looks like he does. The monstrosity doesn’t lie in his behaviour. It actually contains the simple, rather banal message about seeing past appearance.’’ I might just lob in my own defence of Rapunzel’s actions (or lack thereof) here too—according to my Ladybird book of fond memory, it’s because the old crone who locked her in the tower had deliberately neglected to include such a door. Big R did the best she could with the means at her disposal. You go, freakishly hairy girl.

Still, any cursory sweep through childhood stories will reveal further examples of submissive women who were implicitly or explicitly offered up as role models during our formative years. The little mermaid who sacrifices her home, family and fishy tail for a crack at the oxygen-breathing prince. Cinderella, endlessly sweeping and scrubbing floors with a patient smile on her face until her fairy godmother sends her off to the ball to meet the prince and her happy-ever-after.

The idea that fairy tales are harmful to girls is not a new one. Modern sensibilities are inevitably offended by stories that equate outer beauty with inner perfection, patient suffering rewarded with marriage and riches, obedience with femininity, and so on. But remembering the characters and events of these stories does not necessarily mean they have influenced our lives to any meaningful extent. Darker-Smith relied on a small sample (67 women) to draw her conclusions, and also relied on self-reported memories and measures of how much her subjects had identified with the characters they read or heard about, a notoriously shaky indicator of the truth.

It also raises the chicken-and-egg question. Do girls who identify with Cinderella and her like become victims because they have learned from her example, or do children with essentially submissive characters latch on to those figures because they recognise themselves in them? How else do you explain the fact that most girls are exposed to fairy tales at a young age but not all of them grow up to become sufferers of abuse? And how do you account for abuse in preliterate societies?

Darker-Smith’s conclusions also seem to derive from what is known as a “hypodermic account’’ of what happens when people read—in other words, from believing that the words on the pages are absorbed unmediated and in their entirety by the child without the reader bringing anything to bear upon them. Dr Pam Knights, senior lecturer in English at Durham University, says: “Impressionistically, I think children are much more active than we give them credit for. The way fairy tales are used, even in picture books, is with irony. Writers assume a much greater intelligence in their readers than possibly the study does, and children pick up on stereotypes surprisingly early.’‘

Deborah Cameron, professor of language and communications at Oxford University, concurs with the view that children do much more complicated things with the things they hear and read than we might think, and that their influences are in consequence diluted.

Not all fairy tales should be tarred with the same brush, of course. “A lot of them—like Hansel and Gretel—are about plucky children resisting the powers of evil and cruel adults marshalled against them,’’ Warner points out. “And many offer a very good way of looking, in a disguised manner, at issues like abuse in a family that lets children know that it might happen, but doesn’t scare them like the tabloid insistence that there’s a paedophile on every street might.’‘

It is the multiplicity of possible readings, of course, coupled with the uncountable influences on every reader, that makes any cause and effect so hard to state. Perhaps we should turn our attentions elsewhere instead and start searching for the answer to a question posed by Cameron.

“Why,’’ she asks, slightly wearily, “are we always looking for reasons why women become victims, and not at why there are still such large numbers of men around who think it’s okay to beat their wives?’’—Â

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