The Modern Take on the Sexist Fairy Tale

Posted April 29, 2016 by Carlisa in Fairy Tale Fridays / 7 Comments


Fun Fact about Carlisa: I am all about these new fairy tale remakes that’ve been exploding. They’re everywhere, and it’s fantastic. There are shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time, which I still need to catch up on by the way. There are movies everywhere you look with Disney remakes like Maleficient and Cinderella to the the new Huntsman movie. It’s also prevalent in YA literature with so many new fairy tale retellings coming out in the past couple of years. This market is exploding, and I am a firm believer that media trends are a direct result of cultural and societal beliefs and issues of that time, as I stated in my discussion on the Dystopian genre last summer.

And, how I see it, this rings true for the Fairy Tale Remaking trend. I believe fairy tales are being remade with much stronger, independent female characters that correlate to society’s push for gender equality and feminism. So let’s talk about it.

When You Think About It…Fairy Tales Can Be Pretty Sexist

It pains me to say this…because I truly do love fairy tales, but you can’t deny that there are tons of sexist tropes that litter both the original tales and many more modern adaptations—like basically all of the original Disney princess movies. And the originals that were written back in the day, when Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers were strolling around…it’s more understandable that these have sexist ideals. I mean, it was the 1800s, and that’s just how their society worked. Not that sexism and inequality is ever justifiable…but, I mean, we can’t look at those stories with the knowledge and eyes that we have today.

The biggest way that sexism is presented in these stories is through beauty being practically the only things that gives women value. There was a study done at Purdue University that examined Grimms’ fairy tales and the results are super interesting to me:

Their analysis also showed that 94 percent of the Grimms’ fairy tales acknowledged physical appearance, and the average references per story were 13.6. In one story, there were 114 beauty references for women. In comparison, the number of beauty references for men did not exceed 35 per story.


I wish that the article said which story mentioned a woman’s beauty 114 times because I would love to analyze that further. But anyway, there’s no denying the importance of a woman’s beauty in these stories.

But besides beauty, women have other characteristics in these stories: she’s selfless, innocent, sweet, and passive. They wait to be acted upon, to be saved by their heroic and dashing prince, who falls in love with her at first sight (of course) with no thought or care whatever of her personality. So, basically, she’s a blank, oh-so-beautiful slate for the prince to act upon. And this ideal continues to creep into more-modern adaptations.

And with the classic Disney adaptations, well, it’s harder to brush off and look past as a cultural fallacy of the time. Sure, some of them were made in the early- to mid-1900s, which was a time riddled with unequal gender norms…but those movies are still so incredibly prevalent today, that these inequalities should not be ignored.

Just look at Snow White. Literally the entire premise of that movie is about beauty. And, sure, it kind of describes the fallacy that comes from caring too much about beauty…but the heroine is still beautiful and innocent and passive—everything Prince Charming wants in a woman. Or Ariel who literally cannot speak to Eric, but woos him with her big, beautiful eyes.

But Today’s Fairy Tale Remakes Are Better

So, here we are. Today. When, like I said, fairy tales are being remade and re-worked up the wazoo. And I think they do a much better job of representing women as stronger and more independent and valuable for more than their beauty.

The kiss that awakens Aurora in Maleficient is not that of a smitten-by-beauty prince, but of a dear friend who loves her. Likewise, in Frozen Anna isn’t saved by true love’s kiss, but by her loving sister. Merida in Brave decides that she is a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man (*snaps fingers in a Z-formation*). Snow White in Snow White and the Huntsman trains and fights for her kingdom instead of waiting for her prince to do it for her. Emma from Once Upon a Time is literally the “savior” of the town, a title given to her whether or not she has a man by her side.

And these are just a few examples. These women can fight and protect themselves, and if they choose to have a man by their side, then so be it! And if they don’t…well, then so be it! And it’s awesome.

To me, this rise in strong, kick-butt heroines in fairy tale retellings is telling of our society and our push for gender equality and independence for women. And I think it’s so important that these type of women are presented for children, and everyone really, in these movies. They provide strong role models for young girls and boys to show the value in their personalities and characters and strength. Wouldn’t you say that’s important?

…Aren’t They?

But…these new remakes are not perfect. Beauty is still a prevalent and important part of a fairy tale. Prince Kit still falls in love with Cinderella moments after seeing her beauty in the 2015 Cinderella. Aurora in Maleficient is portrayed as a beauty and ditzy young girl who doesn’t really do much, but is still crowned queen at the end of the film. Maybe this is just a fallacy of the Hollywood system, but there really aren’t any ugly—or even normal-looking—princess figures. With the exception of Princess Fiona in Shrek (which is not a traditional fairy tale in any way whatsoever), they’re all beautiful, and valued for that.

Beautiful with a side of kick-butt, in most cases.

But, all in all, I think we’re seeing progress. And I think the reason for the huge surge in fairy tale retellings in movies, television, and books is this need for strong and independent female figures. These differences are important to everyone, whether you’re 5 or 85. Strong princesses set up role models for young children; they show that you can be much more than a beautiful face. And this is so completely necessary in today’s world. And, slowly but surely, I think we’re getting there.

What do you think? Do you see the prevalence of the sexist fairy tale…that maybe we can still see echoes of today? Why do you think fairy tale retellings are so popular right now? Let me know in the comments!

sexist fairy tale

  • When I first read this title I thought it said The Modern Take On the SEXIEST Fairy Tale, and I thought Oh! Where is she going with this? Lol. I loved this, Carlisa. *slow clap* It’s awesome that girls are being represented in a different way now. I think Once Upon a Time is really great for that. Snow White, for example, is forced to save Prince Charming just as often as he must save her. She’s even skilled with a bow :D. I remember being a child and wanting to be Aurora because she was so beautiful (and I totally wanted that dress and fairy friends), but maybe girls these days will love her for other reasons as well!

    • I still can’t get over that you thought it said sexiest, and now that’s all I see when I look at this title! Hahahah. Maybe that’ll be a post for another day 😉

      YES! I thought of Snow White from OUAT after I already published the post, but she’s a perfect example. And I loved Aurora back then too, but I’m excited to see how she’s interpreted. The Aurora in Maleficent is basically the Aurora in the original, though.

  • I think now that the world is changing and becoming more inclusive and diverse, people are looking back on their childhood stories and wanting to create something that wasn’t there for them then. I specifically remember hating Snow White and Sleeping Beauty as a child because the princesses never DID anything. Not like Mulan or Pocahontas. And outside of Disney, I remember reading Grimm’s tales as an adult and there’s this one story that always stuck with me. It’s this woman in a tree who is, of course, super beautiful. And this prince comes upon her and asks her to come and marry him. And she’s like ‘no, I like my tree’ and he annoys the crap out of her until she finally agrees, and they get married and it’s like “and they lived happily ever after” and I was sitting there like… what just happened? Like I would NEVER want a little girl to read something like that. So retellings are actually really important in giving the next generation a story they can relate to and be proud of with better messages.

    • Yes, you took the words out of my mouth! And I looove the Grimm’s tales because they’re written really beautifully and they have a lot of cultural importance. But we have to be careful how much we’re propagating those messages. And retellings are great ways to tell the same story…with perhaps a much better role model or take-away.

  • VanessaIsen!

    I love how you sited Purdue! Holla!

    • I loved that I found that study!

  • Yes, I love this! I can totally see where older fairy tales, classic ones, can be seen as sexist because that’s what was expected of women for their time period. It’s important to remember the differences between the time periods, though, and think of how far society has come in terms of women’s rights and showing that women ARE, in fact, strong, capable, independent, brave, proud, loving, witty individuals. I think the rise in fairy tale popularity now is all because of those reasons and because we, as women, want to see more women kicking butt somehow, someway, no matter where it is. What a great topic!