Are Fairytales PG-13?

Fairy tales have much darker underlying themes than they appear to have and should be taught to students much more carefully, in a way that acknowledges their problematic aspects.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When I was in the early years of elementary school, I loved reading fairy tales. Each time I visited the library, I would check out a giant—by first-grade standards—book of these stories. However, these wouldn’t be the simple and condensed one-sheet-length stories teachers give in classrooms; instead, they would be pages and pages filled with background details, internal motivations, and fleshed-out characters. When I was done with the classics “Hänsel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” I moved on to books of fairy tales from different cultures. In fact, I distinctly remember my favorite was an approximately 200-page, tall and deep purple book filled with fairy tales from all over the world such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Egypt, and Russia. As I grew older, I transitioned to a broader affinity for fairy tales because though I loved to pore over those books as a six-year-old, I failed to see the sinister qualities of these stories—specifically, the European fairy tales.

We often associate the word “fairy tale” with a very whimsical and positive connotation likely because these stories are read to children and at first glance present heartwarming and simple themes including love, animal friendships, and the good winning over the bad. However, fairy tales often also have dark underlying themes. For instance, in the story of “Snow White,” Snow White’s stepmother’s plan to murder her stepdaughter simply because of her beauty is what kicks off the entire plot, and she has no guilty conscience. What makes Snow White beautiful? Her stark white skin, ebony hair, and red lips, which are absolutely unrealistic and set a dangerous beauty standard for children from a young age. Furthermore, there are various versions of “Cinderella,” but in the original story, written by the Brothers Grimm, the stepmother forces one of her daughters to cut off her own toes and later part of her heel in order for her foot to fit in a shoe so that she can be married off to a rich prince. According to creator of “Little Red Riding Hood” Charles Perrault, the well-known fairytale was intended to be a “lighthearted” message for young women to be wary of sexual predators who appeared innocent at first glance. Though I did not understand this while initially reading, fairy tales have the potential to address deeper topics such as sexual intent, the consequences of jealousy, and how “important” and not at all superficial beauty is. While literature is certainly our forum for discussing and sharing opinions about these important topics, presenters do not examine the same level of nuance while presenting fairy tales to small children. Either these complex themes in fairy tales should be comprehensively analyzed for children instead of glossing over them, or fairy tales should phase out from childhood literature and be reserved for an older audience.

One question can give rise to many more when it comes to these dark tales—for instance, when we consider “Snow White”. There are the more obvious awful themes in fairy tales including “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” and “The Little Mermaid,” such as that girls need men to save them or that porcelain-white skin and a nice voice are the defining traits of beauty. However, there are deeper concerns under the surface: a girl is not obligated to fall in love with or marry anyone who admires their talent or saves them. Additionally, a man does not have the right to kiss an unconscious woman. The stereotypical idea of beauty is meaningless, as it’s simply a reflection of your genes, and your value is not based on something uncontrollable that lacks utility. It is inhumane to associate beauty with pureness, innocence, and overall, the epitome of goodness. Anyone who wants to murder their stepdaughter to be the “prettiest in the land” should be in a psychiatric hospital (and yes, those did exist in the early 1800s, which is when this story was written). 

In fact, the last point ties into the omnipresent philosophical debate of the thin line between sanity and insanity. The stepmother is depicted as an evil mastermind, but there are also questions such as, “Is she simply boundlessly cruel?,” “What led her to prioritize beauty so much?,” “Is she aware of her actions?,” “What are the boundaries of insanity, in fact?,” Children should not be exposed to these topics in the shallow vessels of fairy tales since they might accidentally internalize these extremely harmful themes without truly understanding what’s wrong with them. However, many movie producers have created prequels to these fairy tales, which address the backstories behind these storybook villains and in turn, humanize them. These are effective by presenting a more nuanced image of good and bad. This is a good example of how fairy tales can be given to children: by presenting both sides of the argument and making it clear that there is no such thing as pure good or pure bad, which creates more varied and open-minded interpretations of these stories.

Furthermore, according to the masters of European fairy tales the Grimm Brothers, these fairy tales were meant to serve as warnings to children in the 1800s regarding the dangers of the world, so that they would be careful of dangers in their everyday lives—or as history editor Sarah Roller puts it: “discipline instilled through fear.” Since we live in the 21st century, children are exposed to the dangers of life in more comprehensive ways when compared to the 19th century, including lessons concerning street safety and personal space at school or through their guardians. Therefore, fairy tales don’t serve the function today that they once did centuries ago.

Currently, I deeply enjoy reading modern young adult (YA) renditions of these fairy tales meant for an older audience because YA novels that explore these themes have a larger leeway to really parse them out. If there was any discrimination, underlying sexism, or racism in stories, YA novels with almost the exact same plot have the scope to actually acknowledge, bring to light, and completely dismantle them instead of leaving them as some terrorizing commonality that a seven-year-old would think is normal. While these characteristics make YA novels a great way to explore similar themes, fairy tales for a younger audience can achieve a similar effect if the educator or narrator acknowledges the misogynistic, racist, and chauvinistic elements as problematic. Traditional fairy tales often cannot explore all the storyline’s nuances, which is why I believe that fairy tales should not be treated as light, easy bedtime stories. Instead, they should be taught carefully and with more perspectives in ways that introduce the underlying messages of them to children more clearly. Though fairy tales are not as commonplace as they were decades ago, it’s important to try to clarify any underlying dark themes so that no child ever internalizes a misunderstanding of them.