I’ve been reading some children’s stories again thanks to my daughter N. And what strikes me so hard now in my adulthood is how biased against women these stories are. What skewed role models they create. And how stereotypical they are, all under the guise of innocent fun.
Let me illustrate.
You have read “Haste makes Waste.” In my version, a farmer lives happily with his wife and infant/ toddler son. He finds a baby mongoose in the wild and brings it home saying it will make a fine pet for his son. The mongoose becomes very attached to the baby and hangs around the baby all day. The mother is terrified since she is afraid the mongoose might harm her baby. The farmer waves away her concern. One day she asks the father to mind the son since she’s going to buy groceries. A while later, the farmer’s friend arrives and they both go out for a walk. In the meanwhile the wife returns to find the mongoose with a bloodied mouth. She fears the mongoose has killed her child, hits out at the mongoose and rushes inside only to find a dead snake near the crib where the child is sleeping peacefully. She realizes her mistake and repents her haste. The farmer arrives to chide her for being hasty.
Here’s what is wrong with this story.
!? You bring home a wild creature expecting it to make a pet for your son. But your wife isn’t comfortable. You don’t address her concerns– you only wave them away. What if the mongoose hadn’t turned domestic? What if the mother’s worst fears had come true?
!? Her anxiety grows each day. It worsens each time she sees the mongoose near her baby’s crib. So when she hits out at the mongoose it wasn’t a momentary lapse of reason. It was a culmination of months of dread, finding release in an unexpected situation.
!? The farmer was supposed to mind the child when the wife was away. He instead goes away for a walk, “since he had nothing else to do.” Where is his responsibility towards the child, his commitment to his wife? Yet, he’s the one who plays holier-than-thou, advising his wife that ‘haste makes waste,’ washing his hands off any responsibility in the business.
Yet, the supposed moral of this story, that we teach our children without a second thought, is only that the woman acted in haste and killed her pet mongoose. No fair!
Then there’s Rapunzel.
Whatever was she thinking? An enterprising Rapunzel would have chopped off her hair, used it as a rope to let herself down the tower when the witch wasn’t around.
In any case, I think the story of Rapunzel takes one of the symbols of traditional female beauty and blows it out of proportion. In fact, the curse is not that Rapunzel is in the tower. The curse is her long golden hair that in reality weighs her down. Imagine dragging around yards of heavy coiled rope every time you move. How mobile would that make you? You wouldn’t want to go to the bathroom, let alone escape from the tower. Rapunzel is in a prison of her own making. Her hair is the only way she interacts with the world – both the witch and the prince reach her through her hair – and in turn, it is the core of her self-identity. That is why she hasn’t thought of chopping it off to escape on her own. Rapunzel reflects the curse of beauty, when beauty becomes a burden and a parasite, consuming your life and pushing out every other passion, leaving you as a mere showcase of some physical attributes.
Another thing that strikes me in this story is that even in the addendum to the story, where the prince wanders blind and Rapunzel finds him and cures him – but wait a minute, by crying –, her one moment of glory, when she actually saves the prince, is not due to some brave action on her part. It is due to her tears. It seems as if she needs to suffer in response to someone else’s suffering in order to help them. How much more passive can a heroine get?
Hmm… Not done yet. Watch this space.
A version of this post appeared in the blog Infinite Randomness.