A beautiful mermaid falls in love with a human prince. She cuts off her tongue to grow a pair of legs to be with him. But the prince ends up marrying a princess and the mermaid kills herself by jumping off a ship.
A ‘big, bad wolf’ eats an old woman, then disguises itself as her and hides in a house to eat her granddaughter. The little girl then saves herself by killing the wolf.
Judging from their angles, other than cannibalism, treachery and murder, these ‘magical tales’ do not appear to teach children much.
For generations, parents and grandparents have enjoyed narrating these gruesome stories of fathers abandoning children, witches making brew out of human parts and fierce wolves attacking passersby while coaxing, or even scaring, their little ones to eat or go to sleep.
When we are young, some of these misogynist, racist and often violent fairytales fascinate us; partly because we do not then fully understand the negativities in them and partly because adults do not care enough to teach us better, empowering stories.
It took years before light was shed on the fact that these stories were politically and psychologically incorrect for young minds.
Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, all of these tell stories of apparently helpless and vulnerable women being rescued by prince charming who ride on horses and sweep them off their feet.
Consent is one key issue that does not exist in any of these stories, be it the ones in our ‘Thakumar Jhuli’ or the ones in The Arabian Nights. The kings are portrayed as powerful, wealthy men with multiple queens and concubines.
On the other hand, the queens are women with no voice; they are often exploited, treated poorly and abandoned by their husbands. In each of these stories, stepmothers and stepsiblings are super-villains who use dark magic to ruin lives.
When women around the world are rooting for their rights and trying to abolish unhealthy beauty standards, fairytales such as Rapunzel and The Frog Princess are telling children that consent can be disregarded just like that and women can be taken advantage of when they are unconscious.
The lack of women empowerment and the portrayal of strong, independent women in these tales make them inappropriate for little boys and girls all over the world.
Call them old wives’ tales or simply fables, they simply are not good enough in this era of 'metoo' movement and zero tolerance towards misogyny.
However, although brightening dimly, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Some of these ancient fairytales are now being adapted to suit modern times and thoughts.
‘Shrek’ (2001) was perhaps one of the pioneering movies that broke all the nonsense surrounding ‘ugly monsters’, ‘beautiful princesses’ and ‘handsome princes’. Not only did it show that love can happen between any two people regardless of their appearance and social status, it also showed that ‘true love’s kiss’ is all but idiocy.
‘The Princess and the Frog’ movie in 2009 showed the princess to be an African American middle-class girl whereas most princesses are termed as ‘fair maidens’.
The latest adaptation of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ movie in 2017 showed its protagonist Belle as a book-loving girl who is shunned by her society for being educated and for having opinions.
‘Maleficent’ in 2014 was an adaptation of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ that showed none of the bizarre fantasies involving a prince on a horseback to save the sleeping princess.
These changes are remarkable, but we cannot make children watch movies after movies to tell them how women should be treated with respect or how instead of looking for a prince charming, girls should concentrate on their studies and building a career for themselves.
For our young ones to truly learn social and human values, they need to read books such as ‘Madeline’, ‘Matilda’, ‘Little Women’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ where young girls are resilient and in the face of trouble, they fight it out, all by themselves.