Weekend project: overhauling Snow White so that it is suitable for my daughter

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgDon't worry I'll be back to the course design series soon, but I spent yesterday focused on other things (paper revisions, grant proposals) and I haven't completed the necessary work to get the next post up. And it's Friday, so let's divert to lighter equally serious but different topics.

As the mother of a toddler daughter I've been struggling with the overt patriarchy of the classic Disneyfied fairy tales, in which a stereotypically beautiful damsel in distress is helpless until rescued by a prince. I'd been trying to avoid exposing my daughter to the princess stories (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White) but now the princess-free spell has been broken by those around me, and Minnow is enchanted with Cinderella.
When she first asked me to tell her the story (having heard some version elsewhere), I managed to recast it as being about friendship and being nice to people. Later she discovered an old copy of a Disney Cinderella story book (emphasis on beauty and helplessness), so I am having a harder time telling the story in the way I want to tell it while she's simultaneously exposed to the Disney images.

Browsing the tubes has shown me that I'm far from the only person who's not in love with the Disney princessification of young girls. There's a cool series of photos from The Fallen Princess project , Brigindo's been doing some musing on other classic fairy tales, and even the Dad Labs have taken on "princess parenting." (Take note of that one, Fish, it's by guys for guys.)

All of which is leading up to, Minnow has asked me to tell her Snow White. I've been fending her off by saying that Mommy doesn't know that story, but I'm sure I'm going to have to confront it soon. Can anyone help me recast Snow White as anything but a patriarchical mess of women-on-women violence, domestic servitude, and helplessness?

Your help would be much appreciated.

More like this

Well, Neil Gaiman did an interesting rework titled Snow, Glass, Apples, but it's not exactly suitable for small children...

It's probably not yet suitable for your daughter to read right now, but Terry Pratchett's "Wee free men" is a great book, quite the opposite of the usual story, because it's the prince who's being a)complete use- or helpless and b)rescued by a nine-year-old (who doesn't like fairytales at all, because they're all not logical and the princesses are just beautiful but helpless and always in need of rescue) girl. With a frying pan. If you don't get around telling snowwhite in the usual way, maybe you could tell that story to show another kind of adventure. Or give it to her when she gets into reading, instead of the usual "girl books".

By maschinenbaeuerin (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Very much second Terry Pratchett, but I agree, I don't think Minnow is old enough.

My thought is that you're a concerned parent with respect to these type of things and Minnow likely already understands what you want to really teach her: good values, non-submissivness of women, etc. And the stories, they're just stories. They don't have to become a big deal - especially if you say this is just a story, that there are many different types of stories.

This is coming from a female who knew all the Disney stories, played with Barbies, did ballet etc, and still came out with a phd in mechanical engineering, a healthy body image, and feminist tendencies.

Everything in moderation, even moderation.

There is a wonderful book by a Swedish writer/artist, Pija Lindenbaum, that I see is translated: Bridget and the Gray Wolves.

Story: Bridget is left behind on a day care excursion and has to spend the night in the forest where the Gray Wolves lurks behind the trees. She finds out that she is not the only one that is afraid there, the wolves are not particularly brave... but are good play mates and night company.

She has made more books for children, some of these are translated: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_at_ep_srch/179-9267423-6159940?ie=UTF8&…

Both I and my daughters love the books about Bridget.

...and I forgot to say that I partly agree with Kate, with the exception that it is probably necessary to present a lot of alternatives to the Disney, Barbie, My Little Pony and other narrowing worlds.

This is why I mentioned the books above. :)

Perhaps instead of stumbling upon the dwarves' house and impulsively cleaning it because it is messy, she can start fixing the broken door that allowed her to get in uninvited, and fix the plumbing because the tub was broke and she needed to clean up after her escape. The dwarves can cook her a fancy meal as a thank-you.

Perhaps the stepmother is the SMARTEST in the land, and is jealous of Snow White's intelligence.

Mercedes Lackey. She's written several novels (The Serpent's Shadow is loosely based on Snow White) retelling various fairy tales. A bit much in the vocabulary department for a 2yo, but you might be able to work with it.

Robin McKinley wrote a wonderful retelling of Beauty and the Beast as Beauty. IIRC it was the first book I read to my kids, closely followed by her Newberry Award winning The Blue Sword.

Unfortunately, there's really not much you can do with Snow White unless you go all the way to Beach Blanket Babylon. About the only thing that can be said for the Disneyfied versions is that they're not as creepy as the original, where SW bears several children to Princey while still in a coma! (Ewwwww!) Two is also pretty early to be using stories as bad examples.

As an antidote may I suggest the excellent Paper Bag Princess?

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

There are some great books out there about princesses that are NOT the disney stuff. They worked to distract my daughter from the yucky disney books she encountered. I told both my kids from a VERY early age, "Mommy doesn't want to read that book/see that movie. That story makes it look like girls are not strong enough or smart enough to take care of themselves. I think that's silly and not nearly as much fun as (fill in the blank with the book you want to read/story you wish to tell)." We've used a similar approach with their exposure to toy commercials, fast food, etc.

Here's my list of strong princess books.
1. Princess Pigsty
2. The Paper Bag Princess
3. Cinderedna
4. Princess Smartypants
5. Princess Furball
6. The Barefoot book of princesses
7. The Princess Knight

For Snow White, maybe it could be a story of a girl who's strong enough to leave a bad situation, who makes an amazing group of friends who help her and eventually goes on to a loving, healthy, equitable relationship with the prince?

Instead of Disney movies, try Hayao Miyazaki's, like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, that feature animation with girls who drive the plot and way more imagination than anything Disney could come up with. When your daughter's a little older, Tamora Pierce's books are great for strong women. When I was 12, she rocked my world and they were the very books I had been searching for.

Though I wouldn't hold up the Fallen Princess series as a good example. They have some very serious problems of their own, particularly with Jasmine, which is discussed in detail here: http://www.racialicious.com/2009/06/19/fallen-princess-jasmine-raises-q…

When I was little, I was fond of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. There are a lot of other issues in the books, but at least Dorothy isn't helpless.

Second the Paperbag Princess, and second? third? the Wee free men.

Perhaps a preface that in 'once upon a time' land, girls are judged on their looks, instead of their value as people? That some stories focus a lot on looks, but we (mummy & daddy) try to see the whole person - not just what they look like but how they behave?

IIRC, the wicked witch is jealous of Snow White's beauty. Jealousy about things we cannot control, someone being mean to you and playing tricks can all happen - it doesn't require helpless victimhood.

I like the idea of SW making lots of friends who help her, while she helps them, until the prince comes along.

Perhaps also talk about the 'framework' of many stories: the hero/ine, the supporting role, the bad guy, the conflict, the scary bit, the resolution?

I have no idea if this is suitable for a toddler - just a thought!

Look forward to hearing what you try in response...

My suggestion is that you let your daughter be normal and allow her to read a harmless Disney story! I grew up hearing the normal stories and I didn't have any issues with thinking I needed to be "saved". Why not read her the stories and then as she grows older teach her to be an independent woman through your actions? I find these types of knee jerk reactions to innocent stories utterly ridiculous.

The ordinary princess by MM Kaye was one of my favorites (and mixed themes from a modern and traditional fairy tale). You could also go the Brothers Grimm route - in those they are cautionary tales about disobeying parents etc and 1) much more gory 2) much less happy ending-y.

By hypatia cade (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Second the nomination of Ordinary Princess! And also the idea that the example you set her daily is far more important than occasional exposure to misogynistic stereotypes, particularly if you discuss alternate endings with her. Though not about princesses, Blueberries for Sal and Jan Brett's books feature great illustrations and strong female characters.

By fizzchick (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

The cult of the princess is really hard to avoid. And it *is* worse than when we were kids because of the marketing. It's everywhere on everything. You can even buy a Cinderella basketball, for chrissakes, though I'm sure you would never want to use it for basketball, because that would involve bouncing Cinderella on her face.

We very strictly limited tv and dvds with our kids, and told them "modified" versions of all the stories. But they ended up watching all of that dreck at daycare and school!

By Anonymous (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

I find these types of knee jerk reactions to innocent stories utterly ridiculous.
Humbug. I find this type of reaction to stories invigorating and entertaining!

I was mulling over this very issue a while back. I had planned to do a Snow White story using penguins, and I was struck by how little the title character actually does. My eventual solution (if you can call it that) was to ignore Snow White for the most part and concentrate on the stepmother. Thinking back on it, my version didn't really have a good moral either, other than perhaps "Don't try to kill your stepdaughter, especially not with an increasingly elaborate series of Rube Goldberg schemes, or you'll be sorry".

As others have mentioned it is probably impossible to completely shield Minnow from the Disney princesses. I also feel the exposure is far less benign than it was when most of us were growing up. I think reinventing the stories and offering her alternate stories is an excellent alternative. Perhaps "Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World" by Kathleen Ragan might be helpful.

i second the Barefoot Book of Princesses. i wish i had a daughter to read to... (my son is not even remotely interested in princesses).

actually, the Barefoot Books are very good - as are Usborne Books. vastly superior to the icky Scholastic Books that our daycare likes to encourage us to buy for fundraising.

I haven't read the specific Terry Pratchett book recommended upthread, but strong female characters appear in several other books of his. In particular, Equal Rites, about a girl who goes to school to learn how to use her wizard powers (bestowed on her at birth by a dying wizard who didn't realize she was female).

Also, Shakespeare. Old Will's plays feature quite a few strong women: Juliet, Portia, Lady MacBeth, etc.

And when she gets old enough to deal with murder mysteries, I recommend Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories (but most definitely not Hercule Poirot; M. Poirot has a bad habit of taking logic much too far). Miss Marple always fingers the bad guy, even when the police can't figure it out, just by using her brain.

I don't have any good alternatives for princess-type stories, but I share your revulsion for the Disney versions. They promote the notion of the useless female, which I too find abhorrent, and not at all harmless.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

We tried so hard to limit the princess influx at our house, but guess what Norah got for her birthday? (You know, you were there... Barbies! Dressed as princesses! With sparkles!) While I'm not a huge fan of the old-school princess movies, I've let her watch them, largely so she can keep up with what the other little girls are talking about. We've discussed them, and talked about what Snow White/Cinderella/etc. could have done to save herself faster, or fight back against the evil queen/dragon/etc. I agree with previous posters who have declared everything in moderation - you can't hide from it, so go ahead and let her see it... but you don't have to accept it as is. Question the sparkles. :)

In our house, we're on a big Enchanted kick - the princess not only saves the prince, but she fights off an evil queen who turns herself into a dragon AND escapes from her stereotypical storybook life. It's a little scarier at the end because it's live action, but Norah loves it.

I have a 2-year-old boy (yes, boy) who is also obsessed with Disney Princesses. He isn't particularly taken with the stories themselves (though we have read the short Disney version of Cinderella), he does love some princess figures I bought him - they dance together, and they push each other or fly in the air. Based on seeing this, I think you can introduce the Disney Princess characters with alternative personalities (in my son's play, Cinderella is kind of a bully and gets into fights with Jasmine).

Also, Disney publishes lots of books that include pictures of the princesses without the actual stories. We currently have "What is a princess?" out of the library, and it briefly talks about the "virtues" of the princesses - I think princesses are kind, smart (really!), caring, like to dress up, polite, and always live happily ever after. (I might be missing one there.) Perhaps you could let Minnow indulge in princesses without dealing with their stories.

(For my part, I find that the male characters in those stories are pretty flat. And they don't dress nearly well enough to attract my little boy's attention!)

I think you can not avoid completely these princess and their stories even if you want it (actually their Disney version which is more annoying for me not the story by itself). They are everywhere and your daughter will eventually get them from the surrounding even if you will hide them or alter them in home. We try to provide as much of other stories as well as a complementary measure to our 5 year old daughter. I think the key is not to avoid anything but to educate. If you will try to avoid it, your daughter will find more interest in it assuming that there something worth to know. And I am noticing that my 5 year old daughter is growing out of princess-mania slowly and enjoys many other books as well. I have complied a list of books which we like to read frequently, here it is

Dang -- I forgot Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Not only is Cimorene a delightful princess who isn't about to put up with the roles assigned to her (just a small understatement!) but the whole series makes mockery of the standard fairy-tale tropes.

That a two-year-old can readily pick up on, and stands a good chance of immunizing her against the pervasive messages in a way that more explicit criticism won't.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Since Minnow is a toddler, I'd recommend "The Wolves In the Walls" by Neil Gaiman, which is very much in that age range-- Coraline's pretty good too. Pratchett and Wrede, and also Tamora Pierce's Tortall books (The Lioness and Wild Magic series, and others) are all wonderful, but are more in the young adult/grade school reading level range.

By antistokes (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Try reading her Patricia Wrede's "Enchanted Forest Chronicles".

G-rated, and the starring princess is a competent young lady who "belongs" to a dragon and fends off the wanna-be rescuing knights.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Some of the Disneys are less abhorrent than others (though your tastes may vary, of course). Beauty and the Beast revolved around a strong, independent, intellectual young woman whose idea of romance was being given a giant library (I still swoon at that scene). Sure, the guy fights for her in the end, but as princessy stories go, it's not bad. So you could try getting both Snow White and B&B, and pushing the B&B a bit more heavily...?

Stories have a lot of power, but only as much as we give them. Perhaps you're giving these stories far too much power by trying to avoid/rewrite them. Minnow will eventually realize that the stories everyone else knows are not the ones her mommy told her. And she's going to wonder why and she's going to miss the cultural/social references to those stories. There is a reason those stories are the way they are. They are a part of history. They served a purpose in their time. We have learned from those stories and hopefully many of us have grown beyond those stories. Tell Minnow that. Expose her to all types of stories: the Disney ones and the alternative ones. Let her know what you think about them, all of them. Let her think about them. If she wants Snow White, read her Snow White (though maybe not the dozens of times a day if she asks for that) and while you're reading it, talk about it. I agree with Annie "Question the sparkles." Ask Minnow what she thinks, what she might do in the situations in the story. Get her involved as storyteller. You will not always be there to overhaul the stories for her, so teach her how to think critically so she can do it herself. Yes, I know she's 2.5, but even at that age she understands choices: Clean the dwarfs' house or take that nap and when the dwarfs get home suggest that they all work together to clean up.

Most of all, don't forget to tell her the most important and powerful stories of all, the ones that will carry far more weight than any princess story: yours and hers.

Ella Enchanted is a quasi-Cinderella story, and although it might take a while to read aloud you could always summarize.

Also, in a weird way it may be better to give her some exposure to the traditional fairy tales (I tend to think more traditional is better than the Disney versions, but they both have pros and cons). Then when she gets a bit older, she can read the enchanted forest chronicles (Patricia C. Wrede) and appreciate the subversive streak.
I found them via Chinaberry, which might contain other items to your taste.

Thanks for the link to the DadLabs video - I hadn't heard of them and thought that was a good piece.

I'm a librarian, but a medical one, so this isn't my area of expertise, but I'm going to share your post with some folks to see if they have suggestions.

I'd also suggest Jack Zipes who either wrote or edited a volume of "feminist" fairy tales that were quite good. I don't have the title on me now (moving and everything is packed away) and some of the stories may be for older kids (or adults) but I do recommend it!

Young children will understand the story in the context of your own response to it. Just because some people pull out of the story just those elements that can be read as, "Women are helpless and dependent on men" doesn't mean that you have to. You can read the various traditional versions of the story, including the Disney version, without imposing on modern children morals about women being submissive (there are no willingly submissive women in this story) or being helpless (the women in this story are very active in getting what they want).

I read the traditional story of Snow White to my grandchildren and emphasize those elements that support my own values and view of women. There actually are people in the world who judge others by their looks and try to hurt people they are jealous of. And there are children who are homeless, and families where a child is not loved and cared for. It doesn't seem helpful to try to avoid those issues. In reading stories to the children, I always pause to make a quick remark like, "Oh, that was wrong, wasn't it?" or, "She shouldn't have done that" or "That was a good thing to do because . . . ." I always point out that the Prince falls in love with Snow White because he has heard the story of what a brave and kind person she is.

In this story, we have a powerful family member who wrongly focuses on looks and throws Snow White out because of her appearance. Even a young child can begin to understand that we should not put a lot of importance on appearance, whether it's because we think the person is beautiful or because we think the person is ugly. I point out to the grandchildren that when the "witch" appears, Snow White is polite and kind to her because she doesn't make the mistake of thinking that the woman's appearance justifies being rude or unpleasant to her.

The apple part is a lesson to little ones in not taking gifts from strangers, and the story emphasizes characters helping each other. Snow White is far from helpless. She survives abandonment and being lost in a forest. When she finds a dirty unpleasant house, she isn't serving the dwarves to clean it up; she's taking care of herself. She promptly and competently makes the place over to suit her own standards. But she isn't completely self-sufficient any more than real people are. Snow White, the huntsman, the dwarves, the animals, and even the Prince work together, everyone contributing to give them all a safe and happy life.

But Snow White is not perfect. Her "sleep" is the result of her own foolish choice to take the apple merely because it is beautiful: the stepmother isn't the only one to suffer for making the mistake of judging on appearances.

I 'm an academic librarian, but I used to work in a children's bookstore. There are many wonderful reinterpretations of fairy tales for kids, but my top recommendation for a toddler is The Paperbag Princess. I highly recommend it! http://www.robertmunsch.com/books.cfm?bookid=27. Enjoy!

By Martha Hardy (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Coming back to second robyn's suggestion of Hayao Miyazaki's movies. My Neighbor Totoro is probably the least scary for small children (much less scary than Snow White, which terrified me as a child), and Kiki's Delivery Service is a wonderful story of a girl discovering her strengths. (Kiki also borrows from Western fairy tales; it's not as deeply rooted in Japanese culture as Totoro and Spirited Away are.) And Miyazaki also has a strong environmental ethic in many of his movies. They're beautiful and thought-provoking to adults. (I haven't shown them to my kid, because until recently he's been freaked out by plot. That means he may move straight to movies with fart jokes.)

She's probably too young for this now, but when she's older, try the Inspector Gadget series. The little girl Penny is smart and independent and always ends up saving the day.

Lots of good suggestions here. One of my daughters is a princessy girl, now nearly 8. What I realize attracts her is the glamour--long floating gowns, pretty colours, sparkly jewels, the palace, the power, too. So we had conversations about princesses and using power well. I also have to confess that when she reached the whiny 4's, I said that princesses don't whine and asked her to speak firmly like a princess. It worked well, though had to be repeated often. To the books suggested, I'd add "Princess Stink Toes" which is more serious than its title suggests. I'm all for re-telling stories. Why not? The Disney versions have been bowdlerized from the original grim Grimm's and the Charles Perrault's (which came with morals appended to each story that we wouldn't necessarily agree with). I like the suggestion that Snow White fixed the house. But what I would emphasize in the story is that she found safe harbor. She's a toddler, so then around age 2? A very short rendition is in order for that age. It doesn't need to be more than a few sentences. Once upon a time there was a smart, beautiful kind girl named Snow White. The queen was jealous of her and mean, so Snow White ran away and found some nice little people to live with. (Here you can go on as long as you like about all their little furniture and the foods she ate with them. Kids that age like stories about size of things, big or little, and food. If you're daughter knows colours, you can also talk about the colour of everything.). After her stepmother died, Snow White was queen and she was a good queen and fair and kind. The End.

Wow! What a response. My new weekend project may be rereading this list of suggestions and checking a bunch of them out at the library and on Amazon. I've got no problem reading books "too old" for Minnow so that I can tell her simplified versions of the stories.

And, yes, The Paperbag princess is a favorite of mine. Minnow likes the dragon. Sometimes we tell dragon stories where the dragon gives kids rides and blows bubbles.

I know that I cannot shelter Minnow completely from the stereotypes and cruelty of our world, but I do want to make our home and our story time a place that mainly shows her what the world can be. A place where women aren't judged solely on the basis of skin color, beauty and fashion, where everyone helps with the clean up of messes around the house and in nature, and where people are valued for their ideas and kindness.

This morning, Minnow listened to a CD recording of Little Red Riding Hood twice with rapt attention. Then she changed the CD out to "Free to Be You and Me" and started to sing along. I couldn't have been prouder of my little girl, or of the way I am trying to raise her. Thanks for your help with that important project.

As a non-white individual, I had alot of issues with the colour of my skin because beautiful = white.

Back when I was taking German classes as an undergraduate, I read some of Grimm's fairy tales in the original German. The German version of Snow White uses "schönste", which means "most beautiful" without any overt statement about standards of beauty. This word was translated to English as "fairest", which explicitly refers to skin color. I wondered at the time what that said about English standards of beauty. (Sun tanning did not become popular until sometime in the 20th century.)

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

I appreciate where you're coming from, but I'd also say don't worry too much. I think it's more about the values being taught by the parents than anything a girl might absorb from a Disney story. I loved Disney as a kid (and even as an adult now) - for the animation style and the music and I ended up being a half tomboy and half-geek teenager and adult. IMHO, as long as you don't go around telling Minnow that she has to act like a princess/be pretty/dumb/etc, I think you don't need to worry much.

That said, when she gets older, Patricia Wrede's "Enchanted Forest Chronicles" is the way to go. Love those books. Wrede also has a few short stories from that world that you might be able to adapt into Minnow-level stories.

By Autumnmist (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Marlo Thomas And Friends--I know most of all the stories and songs by heart.

I love Atalanta and how she wanted to see the world before settling down. And there's the one about the Tender Sweet Young Thing. And When I Grow Up (with Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack in the 70s) and so much more.

And admittedly, I do like a lot of Disney movies (Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast), but they also didn't dictate my sense of female roles and abilities. Furthermore, I have a hunch that if Minnow takes after mom, she's guaranteed to have a strong sense of who she is--independent of culture.

I'm also going to have to support the #2/3 responses and also recommend Pratchett for when she's older. In particular, anything with the witches or Susan Sto-Helit tends to have very good female characters, although anything else is bound to have a few as well. The only problem is that one probably won't get them completely until high school at least, possibly college, when I stumbled on them - but you can think ahead ;). Witches Abroad and The Hogfather are my two personal favorites.

The Disney films are at least better than the Disney story books which are usually appallingly written. I would stick with Grimm and the movies. Or retell the stories yourself however you like of course.

Also, I second the comment about not worrying too much. In the heads of small girls its all about wearing sparkles and being the center of attention. They don't develop the slightest intention of doing all (any of) the housework and listening to what men (including Dads) tell them from watching Disney, in my experience. And they even grow out of the sparkles phase if they don't get too much positive reinforcement.

Perhaps some simple changes in the plot would be helpful?

Make the Queen a wrinkling, vain old woman who paints her face to conceal her age who is jealous of Snow White's self-confidence despite having to wear glasses, so the Queen bans her from her favorite hobbies: soldering electronics and chemistry. Upset at this, Snow White runs away to the 7 Dwarves' (White-Hat) Hacker Collective. The Queen is furious that Snow White is flourishing and intelligent, so when a nice young male nerd falls for Snow White the Queen sets out and winds up poisoning his Red Bull. Snow White gets angry and DDOSes the Queen's personal website and vanity blog, then defeats her by throwing a bucket of water on her, washing away all of her makeup and then showing her that she's pretty anyway. With the Queen's confidence restored, the slumbering nerd reawakens and they go on to become the Chief Scientists of the Kingdom.

I might have to actually draw this one.

I wondered at the time what that said about English standards of beauty. (Sun tanning did not become popular until sometime in the 20th century.)

It wasn't necessarily about beauty. It was about money.

"Fair" was a desirable state because it meant that the girl/woman involved was never exposed to sunshine -- which meant that she never worked outdoors. Only the wealthy could avoid sun exposure, so "fair maidens" were those who had led sheltered lives.


Note that the oft-inferred racism is anachronistic: darker skinned people didn't really show up in England in serious numbers until the "fair" standard was very well established. At the time, Mediterranean features were if anything considered attractive.

As for suntans, guess what? Same story. When "working" (especially for women) shifted indoors (office/factory) and the poor practically never saw the sun for weeks or months at a stretch, pallor ceased to be the mark of idle wealth. Instead, a nice "sunburn," especially in winter, became the mark of those who could afford to holiday on the Riviera.

The fact that this favored darker complexions such as those from India, at a time when there were significant numbers of Indian immigrants, is another counter to the "racist" interpretation.

Just plain old class system, it seems.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

#38 Eric Lund,

"Back when I was taking German classes as an undergraduate, I read some of Grimm's fairy tales in the original German. The German version of Snow White uses "schönste""

Did you get to the part where Snow White takes revenge on the evil (now rival) queen by forcing her stepmother's feet into white hot iron shoes in which she must dance to amuse Snow White until she dies in agony.

That's a wedding reception I want to attend.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Sheril @40: "Free to Be You and Me" was a staple of my 70s childhood - I think the "Tender Sweet Young Thing" bit was my favorite, mostly because I didn't see myself as either tender or sweet. Rosey Grier singing It's Alright to Cry and the puppet babies are also excellent. (And now I'll probably spend the rest of the afternoon on YouTube - such happy memories.)

I think the other book suggestions mentioned here are great-- Ella Enchanted and The Paper Bag Princess are probably the perfect answers to Snow White and Cinderella. I love Pratchett, particularly the Tiffany Aching books. I also love Karen Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy, but it's also a YA book.

At 2, I think it's fine if she sees the Disney Princesses and reads fairy tales like Snow White as-is. She's going to be exposed to them at some point anyway, and I think rather than making it verboten, it's best to get it out in the open and just encourage her to read as much as possible, even if some of the stories are silly and don't always reflect your values.

As she grows up, you'll be talking together more and more about how silly some of these fairy tales are and how the presence or absence of a sparkly dress does not indicate any person's intrinsic qualities. Speaking for myself, I grew up during the Disney Renaissance. I was watching Ariel and Belle all the time, but mostly what I took away from it was not "Oh, gosh, I need a man to rescue me" but "good gravy, I want to do nothing but swim around with fish all day and have a huge library all to myself. That looks like a lot of fun." At the same time I was also watching Star Wars and being introduced to Princess Leia, and boy-howdy, does she ever kick butt. Now *there's* a princess role-model.

At any rate, the media we consume when we're young isn't the exclusive determining factor in what our values will be when we're grown.

If you make sure that she's exposed to a variety of different films, music, books, and people, and if you talk to each other about the ideas contained therein, I think she'll be just fine.

If you make sure that she's exposed to a variety of different films, music, books, and people, and if you talk to each other about the ideas contained therein, I think she'll be just fine.

Indeed -- quite a few of us managed to turn out OK, despite it all.

Why, even some of our kids aren't too awful, despite having parents like us. There's hope yet.

dcs, whose youngest had two passages today: 24 years and her MA.
Yes, I'm insufferably proud.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Argh. As a new parent (4 month old son) you've now given me yet another thing to worry about for when he gets a little older, i.e. how to contextualize fairy tales that promote abysmal morals (forget the sexist aspects of Cinderella, which are bad enough -- the central moral seems to be that if your life sucks, the best course of action is sit around and do nothing. Great message, there...)

Gee, thanks a lot. :p

"good gravy, I want to do nothing but swim around with fish all day and have a huge library all to myself. That looks like a lot of fun."
LOL oh my, that sounds familiar.

Another simple solution- my mom said that when she read me many stories she switched the gender of the protagonist to a female. Why on earth should PoohBear be a boy?? I think Cinders the prince being rescued by the brave princess sounds fine.
I can also assure you that I never found it excessively confusing to have "alternate versions" of stories instead of the culture defaults. Perhaps because there already are so many retellings of most of them.

The most interesting take on the Cinderella tale is Ever After with Drew Barrymore as the lead [Danielle de Barbarac]. The story is similar, but told as historical fiction, without the magic and silly animals. Wicked stepmother and stepsister [the other stepsister is OK]. Prince, ball, glass slipper, but a lot of other things happen that don't happen in the Disney version. And Danielle has a lot more strength in her character.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

I just wanted to mention how much I enjoyed the daddy labs video, in particular the expert's mention that princess play is ok for boys too. I'm pretty sure seven year old would be mortified (I suspect he either doesn't remember or, more likely, wishes he doesn't remember) to be reminded of being one of his best buds fellow princesses, when he was three and she was four. I used to trade child care, taking care of four year old princess on a weekly basis. When they weren't playing with our massive collection of Thomas track and trains, they were usually playing princess - and she had a lot of princess and fairy costumes.

I'll have to second the Enchanted Forest series, as well as Terry Pratchett. I remember as a small child having at least one or tow books of Russian fairy tales, which seemed to be a bit less "save me" and a bit more "getting by on your wits and being nice to everyone".

Mercedes Lackey has a number of series about fairy tales, including the "500 kingdoms" where fairy tales are things that happen to you, and you realize how many of them are horrible. (She's also one of my favorite authors for strong women characters.)

Being a princess is all about being in charge and dressed well while you're at it. Put that way it's pretty darn close to some of the bloggers here (Isis). Who wouldn't want that?

By JustaTech (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Since it appears I'm not the only fan of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles [1] I'll point out that the SFBC omnibus editions are pretty easy to find at used book stores and are, like most SFBC editions, really cheap when used.

[1] Actually, $HERSELF and I agree that they would actually make a great TV series. Along with the Chicks in Chainmail, but they're not 2yo material.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

As a new parent (4 month old son) you've now given me yet another thing to worry about for when he gets a little older, i.e. how to contextualize fairy tales that promote abysmal morals

It's not like the fairy tales are the worst examples he'll see. Think of all the glorification-of-senseless-violence that floods our culture.

Which means you might as well start off by exposing him to anti-heroic characters early on, ones who act in ways he'll easily identify as wrong, to establish the rule that the lead character of a story isn't necessarily a good role model [1]. Once you get that across, you can use dang near anything to get a worthwhile message across.

And then there are the utterly excellent stories. May I suggest The Forgotten Beasts of Eld? Strong woman, strong man, both acting outside of traditional gender roles to do good things and where the moral growth of the characters is central to the story.

[1] Interesting how many stories of that sort there are in the Jewish scriptures. I mean, look at the patriarchs. Liars (Abraham), wusses (Isaac), cheats (Jacob), bullies (Jacob's sons), murderers (Jacob's sons again), etc. Never mind that drunk, Noah.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

I have a five and half year old daughter quite enchanted with the world of princesses out there but luckily she is also passionate about strong girls like Pippi Longstockings and Madita. I do read lots of princess and fairy stories (as they are hugely available in the book shops and libraries) but after finishing the story we discuss shortly how the princess could have been solved the problem without the prince. We had no one to discuss like this but we too outgrew the charms of princess lives with time so I have total faith that our daughters will surely be able to solve their problems themselves.

I understand not wanting to share values with which you don't agree, but has anyone studied the implications that come later in life when a child finds that their parent purposely warped stories?

My mother is a child psychologist, and she believed that it was always better to raise me with the truth (i.e., even if she did not agree with the morals in the story - as a strong woman herself, she always allowed me to watch/read the original version of the fairy tales) because she was more concerned with the implications of making up something else, and then what would happen if I saw the original movie or heard the original story with another person? Would I start a big argument that the other individual's parent was wrong and lying about the story, because it was different from what I heard? If I saw the movie, would I stop trusting my own mother with everything because she hid the true story from me?

My absolute two favorite movies growing up were Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. And you know what? I'm getting a Ph.D. in science and I'm in a long-distance marriage. I never picked up the idea that I'm supposed to be a damsel in distress, wait for a man to rescue me, and rely on him for everything in life! (I also never wanted to be a princess growing up, either.)

I understand not wanting to share values with which you don't agree, but has anyone studied the implications that come later in life when a child finds that their parent purposely warped stories?

Folk tales evolve over time precisely in the way we're discussing: people adapt them as carriers of the lessons to be taught to children.

If you were to read the Kinder- und Hausmärchen complete with notes, you'd find that the Grimms were already observing that these tales had changed over time, in most cases from pagan to Christian (to name just one shift.) Other ethnographers have tracked the origins of folk tales back to the original Aryan migration and found common elements in India and Scandinavia.

In recent times, we have Disney. If you were to read the original version of Snow White to a child, she would be horrified (it's nasty!) So no matter which version you present to a child, someday she'll encounter a different one. You may as well make the first version one you pick to suit your agenda rather than defaulting to someone else's (such as the marketing of themed toys.)

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 18 Jul 2009 #permalink

I have bookmarked this post so I can mine the comments in the years to come!

SW, I mostly agree with the commenters that have said that how we lead as parents says more than what Disney stuff our kids watch. I watched Disney movies when I was a kid, too. At the same time, I find that while externally I may appear to be (and am) a strong feminist with a strong sense of herself, internally I find I have to war with myself to not want to be saved, to have my husband take care of me, to seek approval from male colleagues. Are Disney movies to blame? Certainly not entirely -- they are one symptom of the cultural conditioning we all receive as women to not trust our thinking, to take a backseat to others, to serve rather than be served, etc. So, in the same manner I am sure you already parent with Minnow, I will try to temper my daughter's exposure to these things, and do everything in my power to expose her to better messages, and lead by example that there are no limits for women, ever.

Here's one you probably won't come across otherwise: The Princess Who Kicked Butt. When Minnow is old enough to enjoy something very subversive, Angela Carter and Tanith Lee both did some very vivid reimaginings of fairy tales, and Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling put together several anthologies of more. Actually, there will be stories in the Datlow/Windling anthologies that are suitable for a younger age as well, but certainly not all.

whoa... just read that Neil Gaiman link and it's not for Grandmas either! I'll not be sleeping well tonight.

But... speaking of being a Grandma. I have four grandchildren, boys, age 4 and 2 1/2 and girls, age 2 1/2 and 1. Being the poorest Grandma of them all, I look for unusual, hopefully meaningful gifts and I generally look at books first.

What I don't find very often are good books about science. The 2 year olds are fascinated with bugs right now and go back and forth from wanting to pick them up and play with them to stomping them mercilessly, sometimes with the same bug.

I'd like to see more books about science for kids. After learning dog, cat, cow, and sheep why not learn spider, ant, and cricket? Are these books out there and I just haven't found them?

Other good books for kids: "The Maid of the North" and "Tatterhood and Other Tales." Folk tales and fairy tales from around the world with strong female characters. You can read them to little kids, and 9-10 year-olds can read them on their own. I loved them when I was a little girl.

To Disgruntled Julie, I wouldn't worry a whole lot about the kids freaking out when they find out that their parents altered the stories. My parents always did that when I was little- told me that Prince Charming fell for the princess because she was clever and caring (they never mentioned whether she was beautiful or not). At some point I read the books for myself and saw the Disney movies, and I didn't have any big problems with the discrepancy.

Wow, I don't have time to read all of the comments right now, so perhaps someone already mentioned this... but there are Cinderella-type stories in nearly every culture and I found it fun to read some of these with my daughter. Here's at least one bibliography: http://www.uen.org/Lessonplan/preview.cgi?LPid=13676

I'm not saying they are all enlightening examples of girl power (patriarchy is global, after all!), but at least they get around the Disney version and provide some points of multicultural comparison!

If it's any consolation... I have an almost 8-year-old now and she is definitely over the "princess" thing and seems to have emerged from Disney overload relatively unscathed. Oh, and Disney's version of the Little Mermaid story is FAR WORSE than Snow White or Cinderella!

this reworking of cinderella is not for children either --- certainly not before they've started dating, at the very least --- but well worth reading nevertheless.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink