Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: How sexist is your favourite fairy tale?

Ariel drastically changes her physical appearance so as to be more attractive ... The price is that she can't speak. No problem, she has nothing of value to say anyhow.  Photo / YouTube
Ariel drastically changes her physical appearance so as to be more attractive ... The price is that she can't speak. No problem, she has nothing of value to say anyhow. Photo / YouTube

Judging by the panicked response you're forgiven for thinking the sky has fallen in but, don't worry, it's still up there. In fact, a teacher in England simply created a lesson plan entitled "Racism/Sexism in Disney" and that agitated a particular set of people who seem unaware that there's a long tradition of critiquing fairy tales and Disney movies.

These people were affronted that anyone would even think to view ancient tales through a specific modern-day filter. Clearly, we should take these weird little stories at face value and ignore the subtext, the not-so-subtle messages, they contain. This lesson plan has been described as "political correctness gone mad" and "cultural Marxism". I think that's an overreaction. What's with all the catastrophising?

As I see it, the intent of this lesson plan is not to undermine Disney in particular or fairy tales in general; rather it is seeking to teach students (aged eleven to sixteen) how to critique and analyse creative works.

It's simply an exercise in how to consider material through different lenses and it's using familiar examples from popular culture to demonstrate the process.

One Tory MP didn't want a bar of it: "Parents will be horrified to think that their children are being brainwashed with this politically correct claptrap." Well, I'm a parent and I'd have no problem if my thirteen-year-old studied this in English or Social Studies. If this involved weeks of study and was presented as gospel, then you could call it brainwashing. If it just occupied a lesson and was offered as one way to look at the works in question, I'd say it's both powerful and appropriate.

This is not how the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education sees it. According to this person, such plans "represent an ignorant, insidious and covert attack on family values and on the ancient wisdom of fairy tales." I've long been suspicious of anyone who espouses family values and I have honestly never heard of "the ancient wisdom of fairy tales" - and nor had Google really until these words were unconvincingly strung together just for this occasion.

Anyway, this lesson plan has created such a ruckus it would be a shame not to give it a bit more oxygen. Because the point that is conveniently lost in all the outrage is that, from a feminist perspective, the examples used do indeed promote, possibly even glorify, a misogynistic world view.

Yes, men are also pigeonholed in traditional tales; they are beasts, handsome princes, dwarves and knights in shining armour. Supporting female characters - wicked stepmothers, ugly sisters and evil queens - are stereotypical, too. No one is saying that these hackneyed character types are positive or uplifting either.

But let's focus on the central female characters. Even a cursory examination reveals that they tend to be beautiful, passive and unfulfilled without a man (which makes them heteronormative as well as antifeminist but let's not go there right now).

Beauty and the Beast:

"The movie says if a woman is pretty and sweet natured she can change an abusive man into a kind and gentle man," says the lesson plan. (The idea that this movie is about domestic violence was also raised in a 2012 thesis entitled "Passively Ever After: Disney's Cinematic Abuse in Beauty and the Beast".)

Cinderella:

This story propagates the belief that women are household skivvies, beauty is all-important and marriage to a handsome prince is a woman's ultimate goal.

Sleeping Beauty:

Female characters don't get much more passive than this. As early as at her christening she is betrothed to marry a prince in order to unite two kingdoms. She's finally awakened from a deep sleep by the kiss of her true love.

Snow White:

According to the lesson plan: "She doesn't mind house work because she is sure a rich young man will soon come and take her away."

The Little Mermaid:

"This one drastically changes her physical appearance so as to be more attractive ... The price is that she can't speak. No problem, she has nothing of value to say anyhow. She is saved by a prince."

- NZ Herald

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Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

Read more by Shelley Bridgeman

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