“When a boy changes his life, it’s called an adventure. When a girl does the same, it’s only a fairy tale.” – Emma Donoghue
I recently listened to Emma Donoghue speak through Denver’s Pen & Podium series, and she’s lovely. And her books are dark twisted places that always manage to surprise me in various ways, which is why I love them so much. (If you’ve seen or heard of the movie Room – Donoghue wrote the book.)
I hadn’t heard this quote before that night, and it struck me as an unfortunate truism, a variation on theme we’ve all come to know well – that there are different standards and perceptions for boys and girls.
I get what Donoghue is saying here – essentially that girls are dismissed while boys are encouraged – but I don’t like how fairy tales are often used as pejorative. Not by Donoghue, per se – I think she’s commenting on perceptions of genres as much as gender roles – but to an extent, they are reductive – good and evil are conveniently self-contained and very easy to recognize. Good always triumphs in the end. Any adult will tell you that that’s not how the world actually breaks down.
But if you think about these stories in a childhood context, they teach hope. They teach you that while bad things can happen to people who don’t deserve it, you can overcome. They teach you that the underdog can prevail over someone bigger and stronger. They teach you that evil can be exposed. They teach perseverance through hardship.
They are imperfect – many times in traditional fairy tales, the girls are rescued, rather than being the architect of their own escape. They can be ableist, ageist, racist. If you’re old or ugly, you’re bad. If you’re young or beautiful, you’re good. Fat people are bad. Little people are comical or whimsical. Stepmothers are almost always evil and/or reject their stepchildren. Many traditional tales do perpetuate harmful stereotypes – and that shouldn’t be ignored.
It’s the format that’s valuable – the distinct categories of people that seem reductive to an adult are important to a child’s understanding. The knowledge that somehow, the underdog is going to prevail and everything is going to be okay. That’s important to anyone’s psychology.
Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright who lived in the first half of the 20th century, disliked this practice in stories. He felt that a satisfying ending, where good trounces evil, led to complacency in the audience, where he wanted to inspire critical thinking and action. Perhaps a happy ending doesn’t leave people fired up and ready to tackle social justice on a widespread scale, but it does send the message that the odds can be overcome. You can walk through darkness and sadness and misery and come out sunny on the other side.
What’s funny is that adventures teach the same thing. You can encounter hardships, and take the wrong path, and follow the wrong people, and still end up exactly where you were supposed to be, all or mostly unscathed, and probably a little more resilient.
Point is, there’s real life in fairy tales – real nuance. Our biases and stereotypes and problematic beliefs and fears are there. The knowledge that bad things happen to good people, that sometimes people dislike you for no good reason, that adults are not always right and not always caring, that power and wealth can corrupt, that life can be unfair, that sometimes the way out only comes after hardship and toil and waiting.
Maybe there’s no happily ever after…that’s too reductive for real life. But what matters is, there’s an after.