When my eldest daughter was younger, I imagined I was raising a tomboy. She would wear trousers and wildly run around, voicing sounds that my mother called “The Viking’s Battle Cry.” She enjoyed movement and could walk long distances if she chose. Her will was strong and she was never shy to say if something bothered her. When my friends were complaining that their daughters refused to wear anything that wasn’t pink, I proudly presented my own girl in cargo pants and a T-shirt.
However, when she went to daycare and began to better understand things outside her home environment, this all changed. Her character didn’t change, but she now loves wearing skirts and dresses, and nearly everything she owns is pink. At first I fretted over this shift, but then I came around and decided it wasn’t so bad. I indulged her and let her wear her choice of dresses, and that’s fine for me. However, I also try to ensure that there are plenty of female role models beyond the Disney princesses whom everybody seems to want to emulate. Storytelling is a powerful tool to influence and teach children so I’ve come up with a few tweaks to childhood fairly tales to share with my daughter and yours.
1. Change the stories
Stories are not set in stone. Instead, they have been re-written and tweaked multiple times. You can take advantage of this. For example, I changed the Snow White story a bit. In my version, instead of focusing on her beauty, the Queen asks her mirror: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the bravest of them all?” Snow White still meets her prince but instead of getting married they opt to live together and both go to work. And instead of the prince rescuing Snow White with just a kiss, it’s he that falls victim to poison and is rescued by Snow White! In Poland there are stories about princesses being rescued by knights from hungry dragons. How about using that story but tweaking it a bit? Let the princess rescue the prince from the dragon. Or in a different twist let the princess save the dragon from the prince (especially if you love dragons as much as I do!). The possibilities are endless!
2. Keep to the original versions
I haven’t tried this one myself, but Peggy Orenstein, an award-winning writer and author of The New York Times bestseller “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” suggests telling the gory and bloody original fairy tales because Disney does “sweeten” them up. I am personally not in favour of such stories and friends have told me that their daughters are actually afraid of them. So maybe it’s better to wait a while and then offer children the original versions when they’re older. However, there is one story that Disney changed a lot, and is one example where I believe the original story has much more value. I am talking about “The Little Mermaid.” In the Disney version, Ariel changes into a human woman and gives away her greatest talent in order to marry a man she loves. However, in Hans Christian Andersen’s original story, Ariel changes but doesn’t feel well in her new skin. It’s painful for her to walk on her newly acquired legs and she suffers as a result of her choice. Because she does not get her voice back, her prince marries another woman and Ariel dies, turning into sea foam. The message here: Don’t ever change for a man, he will not appreciate it and you will suffer. So, consider original versions of fairy tales, but be prudent about sharing the bloodier bits.
3. Invent your own stories or seek out alternative princess stories
How about writing your own stories? Share the story of a typical girl, who just so happens to share a name with your own daughter, and talk about her day-to-day life or make up a story about a special day. Use these stories to explain life to your daughter. Or maybe tell a tale of a girl who wanted to be a princess or who longed to be beautiful but comes to the realization that looks don’t matter. Seek out alternative princess stories. A personal favourite of mine is Princess Fantaghiro, said to be based on a fairy tale from Tuscany. Fantaghiro, known for her bravery and cleverness, often has to rescue her lover from all sorts of trouble. She’s the active protagonist while he serves as a narrative tool. I loved this story as a child and hope to share it with my children someday.
4. Identify real-life princesses and talk about them with your child
Maybe your child thinks that it’s so cool to be a princess because they don’t seem to be doing anything. They don’t have to clean, they aren’t bothered with chores, and they look beautiful all the time! However, you can show them that the life of a princess isn’t that easy and that they have to work to develop certain skills for their particular roles. Talk about the charity work many of them participate in, or that many princesses study foreign languages so they can properly converse with foreign heads of state and other dignitaries whom they are obliged to meet. Show your daughters how real-life princesses can be role models for multiculturalism. I think the three Dutch princesses, Catharina-Amalia, Alexia and Ariane are good examples of multilingualism amongst royal families since their mother Maxima supposedly speaks her native Spanish with them.
5. Discuss real-life female role models
Princesses are cool, but what about women we meet every day? My mother, for example, is a working woman who loves her job. She is also the primary breadwinner in our family. Despite opting to be a stay-at-home-mom, I knew I could always choose otherwise because of the wonderful example set by my mom. Staying home with my children was a choice I made consciously and willingly. My mother-in-law is also a good influence for my daughter. As a sports teacher she encourages physical activity as an important part of life. Furthermore, many of my daughters’ friends are multilingual and multicultural, setting an example of diversity and openness to cultures other than their own. Role models don’t have to be aristocratic, they’re all around us.
6. Tell Disney stories anyway
I have come to the realization that not all Disney princess stories are as damaging as they’re sometimes made out to be. Many of the tales showcase brave little girls and sometimes the girls are shy and timid. These diverse stories are a great way to highlight people’s varying natures and can be great conversation starters for how we are all different.
Disney stories may present girls in a certain way, but there is so much more to learn about being a girl and a young woman! So I encourage you to look for all kinds of stories and expose them to your daughters. Even stories relating to boys are healthy for girls and help them understand how boys and girls can relate to each other in appropriate and respectful ways. Look for stories from all over the world and about children in different circumstances than your own. In the end I believe that when it comes to fairy tales, diversity is the key to success. The more the better!