Ideal Gender Roles in Fairy Tales
Fairy-tales represent a complex fictional universe with its own concepts of the good and the bad and its own moral values. With children and adolescents being the target audience, tales aim at shaping certain viewpoints and embedding positive virtues. Due to this, the main characters are designed in a way to reflect the ideal features immanent to the representatives of different genders. In addition, as a rule, the traditional gender roles are perpetuated in fairy tales.
The image of the main female character of the fairy tale Cinderella embodies the main characteristic features of an ideal woman, and a potential ideal wife. From the very beginning, brothers Grimm provide numerous adjectives to reflect the inner nature of a young girl: she is kind, honest, sociable, emphatic and willing to help everyone who is in need. When Cinderella grows up, she preserves he kindness and sympathy, and also acquires patience, self-disregard and absolute obedience. It seems that she is deprived of the right to express her own feelings and desires, and the only thing she cares about is the well-being of her family. However, regarding this presentation of the main female character, I agree with Karen Rowe, who states: “tales which glorify passivity, dependency, and self-sacrifice as a heroine’s cardinal virtues suggest that culture’s very survival depends upon a woman’s acceptance of roles which relegate her to motherhood and domesticity” (Rowe). In this sense, most tales reflect the stereotypical vision concerning the character of an ideal wife, who is supposed to be obedient and care first about the family in the first place.
Male characters also reflect certain stereotypical features. “They tend to be royalty, handsome, and ideal in every way” (Patel). They always make the right decisions and get what they want in the end. The same happens to the prince from Cinderella: he falls in love with a stranger and is confident about his choice, desperately trying to find the young woman. Although his actions depend much on the circumstances, he is very persistent and hopeful, and, as in most fairy-tales, his enterprise appears to be successful.
The majority of fairy-tales, including Cinderella, focus on the depiction of ideal relationships between genders. The first and the most spread concept regarding these relationships that has been accepted nowadays as a stereotype is the idea that marriage is an ultimate goal in life. From the beginning of the tale it is demonstrated by the second marriage of Cinderella’s father, symbolizing a widower’s attempt to achieve happiness. Later, when the reader encounters the grown-up heroine, her biggest dream is to find her second half and get married. However, it should be noted that the motives of this idea are not completely clear. On the one hand, it may be Cinderella’s sincere desire to find love; on the other hand, marriage can be treated as her attempt to escape from her family. In both cases, it plays an important role in the life of the fictional girl.
Secondly, this tale supports the idea that the woman’s place is exclusively at home. For many years, it has been accepted that after the marriage females are supposed to be occupied exclusively with the household work. Thus, what Cinderella mostly does during the fairy-tale is cleaning, sweeping or sewing. In case when she does not do her tasks, she faces negative consequences, such as punishment from her mother-in-law, which persuades the readers that it is better to stick to the housework and not leave the comfort zone.
Another interesting detail is that the main female character is depicted as an extremely beautiful person. In fact, “Certain ideals of beauty are paramount in fairy tales” (Patel). Undoubtedly, the appearance of Cinderella plays the key role in the obtaining the prince’s affection. It was her heavenly beauty that caught the hero’s eye and made him dance with her. Prince immediately falls in love with what he sees, without making any efforts of getting to know any character features or moral values of the stranger. Hence, in relationships between genders, the fairy-tale highlights the primary importance of making the first impression by means of the outer beauty and neglects the value of the inner world.
Cinderella also dwells upon the belief that women are weak. “This fairy tale portrays women as people who cannot defend themselves. Thus, they wait for a male figure to rescue them” – states the author of the article “Gender Stereotypes in Selected Fairy Tales” (Cekiso). Indeed, Cinderella does not seem to be the person who can control her own life and defend herself from the offences and mockery of her stepmother and stepsisters. The story hints that the only possible salvation from this miserable condition is marriage. Therefore, the girl passively spends her life in expectance of true love, a man who will save her, instead of becoming an active doer and make at least some efforts to change her situation.
The stereotype of considering men as active figures and women as passive ones is not the only contrast between the genders demonstrated in the novel. If to compare the primary environment of both male and female characters, it is obvious that the representatives of stronger half of humanity are in a much better position. In Cinderella, the heroine’s status resembles the one of a servant. Her clothes are poor, work is hard and her life is controlled by the duty to obey the orders of the evil stepmother and her daughters. From the very beginning, the girl is upset and suffers. In contrast, male characters seem to have a considerably higher status and lower amount of troubles. Thus, the prince is depicted living in a beautiful castle with all conveniences and the only problem he has to solve is where to find his true love.
Another stereotype concerns the belief that men are usually independent in their choices and actions, while women completely depend on men. In Cinderella, the heroine first depends on her family, following all the orders and rules. Later, with the appearance of her true love, Cinderella does not obtain a complete freedom; she simply changes the type of dependence, becoming surrendered by her man. However, such order of life is presented as normal: there are no signs of dissatisfaction with this kind of roles distribution. In fact, Cinderella does not openly display her emotions at all. All her pain and suffering are hidden deeply inside under the everyday mask of pure virtue, she never complains about her poor condition and silently carries on her living. This may have some commonness with the idealized image of a good wife, who always shows warmth and politeness, despite all the storms inside her soul.
Passing from generation to generation, fairy tales have been penetrating societal values for ages. They appear to be the holders of an ideal concept of true male and female personalities that aim at shaping people’s values and priorities. Male personages have been usually depicted as strong, independent and confident, while their female fellows have been mostly endued with kindness, patience and sympathy. The happy end is possible only after finding true love and the confirmation of it by the act of marriage. With the development of modern social movements including feminism, these traditional values have been questioned and criticized. Of course, the main characters of the fairy-tales are often too idealized or may appear to value the features that are now treated as weaknesses rather than virtues. Nevertheless, we should not eradicate these tales from our lives, as they are not strict rules to be followed, but the guiding points that show the path from childhood to grown-up life.