Performing Gender in Fairytales

It has been a particularly challenging week (what do you mean it’s only Tuesday?) and I find myself not up to the challenge of writing a thought out, readable essay on Nodame Cantabile and since I love it too much to do a shoddy job on it, I have decided to postpone that post till next week and have instead reproduced for you below an essay I wrote for an undergrad class years ago. Enjoy?



Childhood is a succession of discoveries about the world and about one’s own individuality. There are monsters under the bed and fairies in the sparkling light. Fairy godmothers and pumpkin coaches compose the best bedtime stories and it is through these stories that “children assimilate culture (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz 713)”. The most common fairytales originally had a primarily didactic function, serving to morally educate children through the experiences of the characters in the stories. An examination of a selection of these fairytales, particularly from the romantic genre, reveals that they perpetuate beauty as an ideal in women and paradigm physical activity and courage in men and by doing so, promulgate the traditional prescription of gender roles and expressions in society.

The story of Rumplestiltskin establishes the importance of names in literature. The formulaic manner in which the heroines of romantic fairy tales are named is of particular important. Sleeping Beauty, Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella and Briar Rose amongst others all lack one essential thing: an appellation that is more than a description of their physical appearance. Their names, as they are, fulfill two purposes. Firstly, they maintain a concentrated focus on the physicality of the heroine, and by doing so make the appearance of the heroines the most important aspect about them. Secondly, the owners of these names are shadowy creatures who are prevented from being realized as distinct characters that are set apart from each other by dint of their individual personalities.

The princesses of the fairytales are, without exception, possessors of fantastical beauty that inspire panegyrics from the narrators. Sleeping Beauty is “as beautiful as an angel” with “rosy” cheeks and “lips like coral (Perrault 72);” Cinderella’s beauty moves even the monarch to comment on it (Perrault 100); and Snow White is “as beautiful as the day (Grimm 147).” Rapunzel is “the loveliest child under the sun” (Grimm 154) and Beauty is “more beautiful than the dawn (Beaumont 179).” Even though minute descriptions of the features of the heroines have not been given, there is a certain degree of specificity about the type of beauty that is being glorified in these tales. The protagonists are usually likened to refulgent objects thus emphasizing the importance of fairness in the composition of beauty. Beauty, as far as the European fairytale canon is concerned, has no other colour but white.  Marina Warner, in “The Wronged Daughter: Aspects of Cinderella,” contends that in addition to fairness, blonde hair is also a significant factor of a fairytale heroine’s appearance. Rapunzel has hair “as fine as spun gold (Grimm 155).” Beauty “remains blonde,” and Cinderella retains the blondeness of her hair if not the original coiffure (Warner 160). As a contrast, Warner offers Cinderella’s sisters who are created as red-haired and black-haired in Disney’s version (161). The hair color of the heroines is significant because even though blondeness is usually associated with “love… [and] erotic attraction,” it is also, sometimes, the hair colour of the Virgin Mary (160). The representations of Black Madonnas and the Saints Dympna, Catherine, Agnes and Barbara as blondes suggest that “blondeness with its associations with imperishable gold, wholesome sunshine…is also the sign of virtue” (160). The underlying message then that these fairytale heroines impart by their appearance is that true beauty is blonde, fair and chaste.

In romantic fairytales, beauty often has a direct relationship with the morality of the characters. Marcia R. Lieberman observes that “good temper and meekness are associated with beauty” (385). As such, Cinderella is a “lovely and sweet-natured girl” (Perrault 97) and Snow White is bequeathed with “the disposition of an angel” (Perrault 71). Additionally, she is very domestic and uncomplainingly keeps house for the seven dwarves. As for Beauty, she is “not only prettier than her sisters but very much nicer” (Beaumont 171). Fairytales focus “on beauty as a girl’s most valuable” if not only asset and as such, it is not necessary for the fairytale princess to adduce evidence of her worth in any other way except by being beautiful (Lieberman 385-386.) Since beauty is so closely related to goodness, her moral character is not questioned as long as her looks meet the fairytale standard. In “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” the prince takes one look at the princess who “is so lovely that she seem[s] to shine” (Perrault 74) and promptly falls in love with her. Cinderella wins over the elite of her kingdom with her looks alone and Snow White bewitches the prince by lying serene and beautiful in a coffin. None of the protagonists take the role of the aggressor where courtship is concerned. Even Cinderella who had to work to attend the ball has to do nothing but walk into the party to capture the prince’s attention. It would not be improbable then to infer that aggression is not a quality encouraged in women. Women are conditioned to accept that beauty by itself has the power to yield happiness.

Beauty wins for the protagonists a husband, wealth and security but as with all other things, it comes with a price: attraction of danger and oppression. Cinderella’s stepmother and step-sisters recreate her as a cinder girl while Beauty’s sisters, provoked by jealousy at Beauty’s fortune, plot her downfall. Sleeping Beauty and her children attract the Ogress’s attention and Snow White is targeted by her mother on account of her superior looks. The case of beauty attracting unwanted and often dangerous attention is paradigmatic to fairy tales and coheres a suggestion that beauty needs protection. This is a veiled attempt at justifying the control of women by a patriarchal society by implying that it is because they are beautiful that they need safe-keeping.

Conversely, unattractiveness is reviled and those unfortunate enough to be ugly often find themselves holding the mantle of the villain(ness). A study conducted by Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz finds that “thirty one percent of all stories [studied] associate beauty with goodness, and seventeen percent associate ugliness with evil (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz 718).” A majority of the villains in fairytales are unattractive females motivated by jealousy. In “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” the villainy is shared by an “old witch” (Perrault 71) and the mother in law Ogress who is unable to deny her cannibalistic appetites. Cinderella’s burden comes in the form of “the haughtiest and the most stuck-up woman in the world” (Perrault 97) and her step-sisters. While it is not explicitly stated that Cinderella’s step-sisters are ugly in the Perrault version, there are implications to the effect, especially when their appearance is compared to Cinderella’s. Beauty’s virtue is delineated by her sisters’ lack of it. Snow White is engaged in a beauty contest with her stepmother who is entirely without limits in her desire to become the fairest in the land.

The conflict between Snow White and her stepmother underlines the message artfully concealed within the romance: the stepmother is unable to achieve true beauty because she is a woman in power, and as such, her beauty is corroded by the power available to her. The true beauty is Snow White who lacks agency, is meek and docile, and quiescently endures everything that happens to her; content, instead, to wait for a prince to come rescue her in the end.  Marina Warner notes in her book, From the Beast to the Blonde, that “authentic power lies with the bad women (Warner 207).” In all the fairytales discussed, the villains exist because they crave beauty which belongs to the main character, thus putting beauty on a pedestal to be envied and coveted. By creating female villains who are in a position of power, fairytales catechize that power for women is deadly and will lead to endings similar to the ones suffered by the Ogress and Snow White’s stepmother. The relationship between ugliness and wickedness has been limned by visual artists such as Maurice Sendak and David Hockney who “created memorably warty, hook-nosed, crouchback horrors in their illustrations to Grimm (Warner 207).” This combination of unattractiveness with moral decrepitude not only discourages children from relating feminine power with good so that they may seek it for themselves; it also evokes a fear and reviling of any woman in their lives who may have power.

As Lieberman discusses, the few women in fairytales who are not castigated for their power are the good fairies (Lieberman 391). In Perrault’s “Cinderella”, the fairy godmother appears to help Cinderella find a way to the prince’s ball and then disappears. In “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” the fairies appear at the party thrown in honor of the princess, gift her with grace and beauty and save her from a fatal end by a well-timed blessing before fading from mention until a supernatural intervention is needed to ensure a happy ending. The fairy in “Beauty and the Beast” appears first in a dream and then again at the climax to magically restore Beast his lost kingdom and punish Beauty’s greedy sisters. Fairies in these tales are presented in such a way that “they are not examples of powerful women with whom [children] can identify as role models (Lieberman 391).” Their presence in the narrative is distanced from the reality in the context of the story and their appearance is always transient; fairies do not linger after their function in the plot has been fulfilled. It is made explicitly clear that these fairies (also women with power) are entirely mythical and have no tangibility in the real world.

While women grapple with the impossibility of trying to achieve the traits of beauty, meekness and docility that are considered ideal, men have to contend with an entirely different set of expectations which are just as limiting in their scope of gender expression. Like their female counterparts, romantic fairytale heroes are not given names or any individuality. Unlike the heroines however, the male protagonists of “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty in the Wood,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Snow White” have names that describe their position in the hierarchy; and they usually occupy the highest position in it. The hero is usually a monarch of a kingdom or the heir apparent and this designation evokes images of a person who has great responsibility and the courage to fulfill the accompanying obligations of the position. In “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” the prince is out hunting (which is a manly and noble sport) when he comes upon the legendary forest that encloses Sleeping Beauty’s castle. His “quest” yields him the beauteous maiden whom he marries and then leaves to go to war with the “Emperor of Catalabutte (Perrault 75).” Minor male characters are also referred to by their professions, such as the merchant in Beauty and the Beast and the huntsmen in both “Snow White” and “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.” These denominations attach an importance of appropriate activity to the men in the story. Questing and pursuit of war, though unrealistic, are meant to indicate that the valor and strength required for such activities are ideal traits in men.

The prescribed denouement of a romantic fairytale is the appearance of a prince to save the damsel in distress and earn the title of hero and savior. It is often the case, however, that the prince has to share these titles with the lesser known male characters. The corollary to women being conditioned to accept that beauty needs protection is that it is the duty of men to be the ones protecting it. In “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” the Ogress’s butler, moved to mercy by the princess and her children, hides them from the Dowager Queen. Snow White, being particularly helpless, is saved twice. First, the kind huntsman disobeys the queen and lets her run away to the forest, and then there are the seven dwarves who save her from hunger and homelessness. In fairytales, the savior is always male and the distressed is always female.

The tale of “Beauty and the Beast” also illustrates the difference expected in the gender expressions of both sexes. Beauty, after being struck by the climactic epiphany, realizes that “it is neither good looks nor brains in a husband that make a woman happy; it is beauty of character, virtue, kindness (Beaumont 198).” The prince, when he has been restored to his original appearance, confides that “a wicked fairy condemned [him] to retain [the form of the Beast] until some beautiful girl [consented to marry him] (181).” This leads the reader to question what the result of the story would have been had Beauty been Ugly but had “beauty of character, virtue [and] kindness (180).”

Another way in which fairytales assert gender roles is by focusing on the presence of the two genders in the spaces created within the context of the story. Males are strictly absent from the domestic space in the story. Cinderella’s father is always away pursuing various business ventures as is the merchant in Beauty and the Beast. In Snow White, the princess’s father is rarely home and the seven dwarves daily leave their house on the pretext of work. Similarly, Sleeping Beauty is left in the castle while her husband, the King, goes war mongering. By the same token, females in fairytales do not leave the domestic space, which is usually their demesne, unless they are being persecuted by wicked stepmothers, sacrificed in the name of filial piety or getting married. This deliberate separation of spaces imposes the traditional prescriptions of gender roles on men and women, and creates sexual spheres that merge very infrequently.

Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz’s study of “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairytales” found that the fairytales “that have been reproduced the most are precisely the ones that promote a feminine beauty ideal (722).” Their findings contemporize the issue of emphasis on superficiality that is so verdant in recent reproductions such as Cinderella and Snow White. They offer an alternative perspective on the frequent “media messages concerning attractiveness (722);” arguing that while men are also being manipulated by the media, “messages concerning women’s beauty are far more dominant than those for men (723).” Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz “suggest that [the] emphasis on a feminine beauty ideal may operate as a normative social control (723).” To elucidate, because this is a patriarchal system and women are competitors, this emphasis on beauty makes a woman more conscious of her appearance and as such, detracts her from engaging in activities that would make her seem unattractive. In other words, a woman spends more time and resources on her appearance that could otherwise be spent competing with the other gender for an equal status in society.

Steven Swann Jones believes that the “function of fairy tales [is] to provide a sense of order, beauty and meaning in the world (Jones xiii).” This assertion of the function of the fairy tale is only true in the most superficial sense. The fairy tales discussed are aimed at, and more popular among, the females. Therefore the message obfuscated by the glamour and romance in these tales reveals the sinister motivation of a patriarchal society: an attempt to control women by conditioning them to accept the traditional gender roles. It is during childhood that children first learn culture and recognize the differences between genders, and fairy tales are commonly accepted as children’s tales. Fairy tales do not just legitimize gender inequality but also limit the expression of a gender by illustrating that there is a type of behaviour specific for men and women: meekness, docility and domesticity for women; and courage, heroism and activity for men. Any departure from the behaviour prescribed is considered deviant and thus the villains of the stories emerge. The gory end of the fairy tale villains are veiled warnings of the consequences of dissenting against traditional norms. Romantic fairy tales inculcate suspicion and dislike of people, especially women, who do not meet the societal standards of beauty. This leads to the creation of a hierarchy in society of which unattractive people occupy the lowest tier. As beauty is prized in women, valour and physical activity are in men. The romantic fairy tales condition women to expect such traits in potential mates; in their view, a strong man is the only type of man worth marrying. Romance fairy tales in particular, with their near deification of beauty and valour, do more than just entertain children; they infuse children with unrealistic expectations of the other gender and try to force them into the traditional gender moulds.

Works Cited


Baker-Sperry Lori, and Liz Grauerholz. “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine

Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales.” Gender and Society. 17.5 (2003): 711-726. Print.

Beaumont, Madame Leprince de. “Beauty and the Beast.” Folk and Fairy Tales. Hallet Martin,

and Barbara Karasek. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008. 171-181. Print.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm . “Rapunzel.” Folk and Fairy Tales. Hallet Martin, and Barbara

Karasek. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008. 154-156. Print.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm . “Snow White.” Folk and Fairy Tales. Hallet Martin, and Barbara

Karasek. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008. 147-153. Print.

Jones, Steven Swann. The Fairy Tale. New York: Twayne, 1995. Print.

Lieberman, Marcia R. “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation through the

Fairy Tale.” College English. 34.3 (1972): 383-395. Print.

Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella: Or the Little Glass Slipper.” Folk and Fairy Tales. Hallet Martin,

and Barbara Karasek. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008. 97-102. Print.

Perrault, Charles. “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.” Folk and Fairy Tales. Hallet Martin, and

Barbara Karasek. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008. 71-77. Print.

Warner, Marina. “The Wronged Daughter: Aspects of Cinderella.” Grand Street. 7.3 (1988):

143-163. Print.

Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde. London: Chatto and Windus, 1994. Print.



10 responses to “Performing Gender in Fairytales

  1. It is so true what you say about portrayals of fairytale princesses and definitions of idealised beauty. I myself as a child wanted “golden hair and blue eyes” because that is the image of beauty created in my head.

    • I actually did too. Maybe this is an example of neo-colonialism where a certain kind of unachievable beauty is held up to be ideal.

      • Growing up I never wanted to be blonde, I think because of the unfortunate and negative “dumb blonde” stereotype that we have here. :( I did long to be “slender”, though, because princesses were always described as “slender”, and I most definitely was not…..!

    • They often do which is why I like reading them. The many different ways modern retellings subvert the original is very enjoyable (to me).

  2. My library is filled with different versions of traditional Western fairy tales – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, you name it, and they remain as popular as ever. Just as playing video games doesn’t necessarily make children violent, reading fairy tales won’t necessarily result in children developing outdated perceptions of gender roles, and children should be encouraged to make their own reading choices. Still, caregivers should be aware that these stories are the products of a very different time, and are works of fiction created to represent different and often out-dated cultural norms. There’s nothing wrong with children reading and enjoying fairy tales, but ideally they should be accompanied by discussions and conversations with caregivers, so that children can work through what they’ve read, and come to their own conclusions.

    • Ideally, yes. But in so many cases, these discussions are absent–especially in third world countries like the one I grew up in where fairytales are offered as standard fare for children but without any commentary to accompany them. It has been proven by smarter people than me that children do assimilate culture through the stories they read in their formulaic years so I think what children read (or are read) does in some way shape the people they become. Of course it is not always that simple and a child’s surroundings and home life goes a long way in offsetting messages she/he/they find in the books they read. I don’t think I’m stopping people from reading fairytales with this essay? Nor am I saying that there’s something wrong with children who do read and enjoy fairy tales. I was one of those children. So I’m not sure what exactly to take away from your comment? Because I do agree that conversations with caregivers about the tales is important. I think it would also be interesting to give a child an original fairytale and then follow it up with a retelling and see which one they prefer. I might need more sleep but yeah. I hope this made sense.

      • I guess I was essentially just voicing my agreement and reiterating what you were saying – fairy tales are here to stay, and we can’t get around them, so we need to at least make sure that we’re talking about them and discussing them, and that we’re encouraging open conversations with caregivers and children. While you or I wouldn’t want to censor children’s reading choices, we do get parents at libraries, well-meaning, intelligent parents, who want us to remove books that they feel are sexist and contain negative portrayals of gender roles, which they often do. What we have to try and do is encourage caregivers to talk with their children about what find objectionable, which in the long run is more effective than simply removing content that’s deemed inappropriate. So, just take from my comment that I’m saying we need to take your thoughts and spread them on the front line of children’s literature, especially with people who work with families, so that caregivers who interact with these kinds of stories have tools with which to start conversations with their children.

        • Hmm true. Some of the kids I tutored were talking about how Harry Potter was all about witchcraft and they wouldn’t be caught dead reading the series and that surprised me because the sentiments were so adult. I mean, when I was a kid, being told that I couldn’t read something meant I found ways to read it, hah. So to hear them not just being accepting of the tripe but parroting the things their parents said was worrying. And thanks for the clarification. It’s been a long week (how can it only be Wednesday?).

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