The Dark, Hidden Truths in Fairy Tales and What We Can Learn From Them
By Aly Walansky
Most of us consider fairy tales to be stories for children, innocent and without real evil or harm. The reality is that, while there are many empowering and positive messages in fairy tales, they don’t always depict relationships between men and women in the best light.
When we delve back into the fairy tales of our childhood as adults, we rediscover our heroes and princesses from a different perspective. The endeavor is not useless, far from it! Fairy tales still yield useful lessons about life for us grown folks when we learn to take a deeper look at the stories.
“Beauty and the Beast,” a tale of abuse and inner strength
Originally written in 1740 by French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, “Beauty and the Beast” is a tale that is still relevant to us. In today’s online dating, most people would swipe right for Gaston, the arrogant narcissist who wants Belle as an arm piece to validate his ego, and swipe left for the Beast, who has a heart of gold underneath his rough exterior.
“The tale’s message is a good reminder that we should not judge a book by it’s cover. We should take the time to get to know somebody on a deeper level to see if there is a meaningful love connection,” said Joyce Marter, a licensed psychotherapist and national speaker.
It’s a reminder that inner beauty, not outer beauty, is what leads to lasting love. With a heroine who owns her strength and intelligence, and refused to let the snarky townspeople stop her from being herself, “The Beauty and the Beast” has a strong protagonist.
However, “Beauty and the Beast” is not without problems, the first one being its portrayal of abuse as romantic. Belle is held captive against her will by the Beast. Yet, she falls in love with him over time, almost as if she was afforded no choice in the situation.
“This is a negative message, as sometimes victims of abuse misconstrue controlling and domineering behavior as signs of love and care,” says Dr. Marter. Indeed, the Beast’s unpredictable behavior, from angry outbursts to kindness, is destabilizing and manipulative.
We see Belle’s resilience and ability to love such an unloveable creature as noble–which it is, to an extent–but it can also normalize these red flags to younger readers.
“Beauty and the Beast” is also a tale of self-sacrifice, which, while noble, can also be taken too far. When Belle sacrificed her freedom to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, we all believed her decision to be powerful, a reflection of her strength as a heroine.
However, as Dr. Marter argues, it is “a negative message” about “detrimental care-taking at the expense of one’s own health, safety and overall wellness.”
Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the question of consent and female friendships
Both “Snow White” published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 and Sleeping Beauty, a folktale originating from the Medieval era, feature a famous kiss that brings the princess back to life.
Both heroines, Snow White and Briar Rose, are unconscious when the prince kisses them, which raises up a lot of issues about consent. This is especially relevant now, as conversations surrounding sexual assault and abuse have become more mainstream, thanks to the #MeToo movement.
These two stories also feature an evil older woman who is jealous of the younger woman’s beauty. This is a harmful stereotype, as it not only reduces the value of women to their appearance only but also perpetuates harmful and ageist stereotypes about older women.
“We need to show more examples of women lifting other women up and the value of women being placed on far more than beauty,” says Dr. Marter.
Indeed, the princesses have dwarfs and animals as friends, but are missing the enormous support that can come from close female friendships.
Many fairy tales have the message that a woman needs to be saved by a prince to live happily ever after and don’t show empowered women making their way on their own.
However, these two stories still have a good ending, where true love conquers all and goodness prevails.
“Little Red Riding Hood”, a timeless cautionary tale
“Little Red Riding Hood” is a good example of a cautionary tale. Like “Snow White,” the story was compiled by the Grimm Brothers and Charles Perrault, but its origins can be traced as far back as the 10th century.
The main character is warned by her mom to stay on the path and bring food to her sick grandmother. But she does not listen and ends up meeting with the wolf instead, who pretends to be her grandmother and ends up eating her in the end.
“This fairy tale is a warning to women that there are bad men out there,” says Dr Renee Solomon, a clinical psychologist with Forward Recovery. It is helpful in terms of trusting your judgment that someone is dangerous.
“Little Red comments on his features being big as compared to how she remembered her grandmother. She is showing us that she senses that something is off, which is important for children to trust their instincts when people appear dangerous,” says Dr. Solomon.
The unfortunate truth behind “Little Red Riding Hood,” is that it is relevant in today’s world, where the most vulnerable of all, children, are still the victims of predators.
Cinderella’s struggle with identity and bullying
“Cinderella” treats abuse and trauma in interesting ways. Its main character endures unjust bullying from her stepmother and stepsisters, but she refuses to let their actions break her.
“I think it’s beneficial to show that when people are jealous, they can be mean as demonstrated by Cinderella’s stepsisters who are not nice to her,” Dr Solomon says. It sheds light on the motivations behind a bully’s actions and reassures us that it has actually nothing to do with who we are.
However, the only form of escape avoided to Cinderella comes in the form of a prince whisking her away from her house. This perpetuates the idea that women have to rely on men in order to be saved.
I think it’s not a great message to tell little girls if they put on a slipper they instantly turn into a beautiful woman and then a man wants to be with them. The prince wants to marry the woman that fits in the shoe.
Dr. Renee Solomon
This sends a message that we have to appear a certain way to be valued and loved, that we have to fit a certain mold in order to deserve a better fate.
Understanding and helping teenagers develop
However, Cinderella is an example of a modern day teenager’s ‘coming of age’ story and can help parents to conceptualize bullying, its effects and solutions. “As a young person, Cinderella struggles with identity issues, much like our teens do today,” says Bri McCarroll, MSW, LICSW.
Cinderella is not liked for who she is and where she comes from. Throughout the story, “she is ridiculed by her peer group (stepsisters), not supported by authority (her stepmother), and is stuck in an apparently hopeless situation.”
This story symbolically conveys the experience teenagers go through as they navigate relationships towards developing their own identity.
They have to manage critiques by their siblings and peers and often don’t feel understood by parents and other figures of authority.
Like Cinderella, who is isolated in her own home, “teens often feel ‘alone’ in the family unit, as they strive to find their own identity and be liberated from the ‘confines’ of the family.”
The fairy godmother represents, for a teenager, the adult who is outside of the family unit, like a teacher or mentor.
Through the coaching and support of this non-family adult person (this Godmother), the teen is able to be seen for who he/she truly is. Through the reflection of self in this adult’s eyes, the teenager is able to come into their own identity and see his/her own worth and value.
Much like Cinderella, who shocked her stepfamily by revealing her true self, teenagers can finally achieve recognition as capable young adults through the relationships with non-parental adults in their lives. And we know what happens then: they live happily ever after…or at least, so the fairy tale says.
Destructive parenthood in “Hansel and Gretel”
“I see it as a story of personal resourcefulness,” says Dr. Michael Alleman, Ph.D., who is an Associate Professor of English at Louisiana State University Online. Abandoned by their father, who cannot feed them, in an alien and alienating world–a classic childhood anxiety–the children are able to defeat the witch (who can be seen as symbolic of the suffocating and devouring parent), thereby achieving independence.
The story illustrates the importance of mutually nurturing relationships. Without parents, the children are forced to ‘parent’ each other, and their relationship is essential to their survival.
Either of them alone would have been easily devoured by the witch, but together, they bring about her demise. Its ending is a positive one, but it also reflects much about the importance of ensuring a safe family environment for children to grow up in. When parents are either too absent or too suffocating, they can significantly inhibit the development of their children.
Self-improvement through self-awareness in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
Most fairy tales are about self-improvement through lessons on morals and ethics. Some of the most powerful ones come from the 19th century Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen.
“One of the Andersen fairy tales that can teach about self-improvement through self-awareness is ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’,” says Sam Gladding, Ph.D., a professor at Wake Forest University’s Online Master’s in Counseling program who specializes in creativity in counseling.
The story revolves around an emperor who is obsessed with his clothes and appearance; he wants to be the best-dressed monarch in the land. When approached by two swindlers who promised to weave him a marvelous fabric for his clothes, the emperor cannot resist.
“Not only do the swindlers tell him the fabric they are making his clothes out of will be beautiful, but it will also be invisible to those who were stupid or unfit for their positions in the kingdom,” says Gladding.
The tricksters, who have not done any work, praise the invisible threads they present to the emperor and convince him that they have made an exclusive, fashionable outfit.
“The emperor, not willing to admit he does not see the invisible and nonexistent clothes wears them to a great procession. Everyone in the kingdom at first pretends to see the emperor’s clothes, except a child who vocalizes the truth – the monarch is naked.”
A lesson in being honest with oneself
This story provides powerful learnings about pride, vanity, and image. As Gladding says: “When we are over concerned about trivial matters, such as our clothing, we become gullible and often act foolishly.”
Self-improvement comes through acknowledging reality, listening to truth, and genuinely interacting with others.
Seeing matters clearly helps us avoid pretentiousness and improve our lives and those of others in our environment.
We do not know what happened to the king in Andersen’s story after he received a harsh, but much needed lesson on self-awareness. “The fact that he did not march in another parade in invisible clothes probably means he made a needed change,” Gladding suggests.
But, “self-improvement, as Andersen subtly points out, has to do with what we do as well as what we avoid.” The child helped him face the truth of his actions and motivations, so that his future decisions will be much more grounded and thought out.
What we can take away from our favorite tales
As Dr. Marter points out, most fairy tales “do not include LGBTQ+ friendly and inclusive storylines,” which is an ongoing issue as film and animated adaptations have done little to remedy that issue. However, there seems to be a slow, but promising evolution in the way relationships, female characters and friendships are portrayed.
For example, Disney‘s Frozen boasts a strong, endearing relationship between two sisters, which significantly overshadows the romantic plot, and indirectly speaks about living with mental illness.
Similary, Maleficient challenges our perspective of a very well-known villain by humanizing the character and adding depth to the otherwise tired and stereotypical jealous older woman in “Sleeping Beauty.” Merida is also the first princess to have a whole story that does not revolve around marriage or finding a prince, which is a great narrative for children to enjoy.
Fairy tales are an important and almost inevitable part of childhood, which is all the more reason why we must pay attention to them as adults. They contain both positive learnings and problematic ideas on issues like female agency, consent and self-sacrifice.
It is important to reflect on these issues and how they may have directly or indirectly influenced our development and understanding of relationships. In doing so, we are more prepared to address these topics with children, so that they can have a better grasp of what these stories say about the world.