Are we telling our girls the right stories?

My daughter aged seven is excited every time someone gets her a new story book. Over time her enthusiasm has paled. She once grumbled “All stories are same”, and I tried to reason with her, with some momma jargon that she must inculcate the habit of reading. Of course, it didn’t work the way I expected. Obviously. Now she prefers coloring books over story books!

Are we telling our girls the right stories?

Stories and storytellers make childhood beautiful. Stories in many ways build the base for our character to develop. Stories are the lens through which children see the world, believing it to be real. They trust the storyteller (often parents) not to tell them anything that is false, unreal or a lie. But are we doing our job well?

The Frog Princess, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Princess on the Glass Hill and a million other fairy tales are just that, with hopelessly similar story lines and happy endings.

Have we ever thought, what our daughters (and sons!) learn from these stories about the role of women in society? Do these stories elevate or diminish their perception of self-worth, and capacity to change their circumstances (and/or destiny)?

The horribly stereotypical protagonists are always, I mean always, beautiful, conventional, confirmational, subservient and of course every Prince Charmings’ delight. Their characterization is massively faulty with only two major emotional states of either being sad (before they meet the Prince) or happy (after the prince rescues them from their miserable lives). And yes, their lives are always miserable before they meet the prince!

The women protagonists possess few skills, beyond knitting, stitching, housekeeping (Cinderella does all house chores by herself), personal grooming (Rapunzel is proud of her mane).

They take no ownership of their lives or circumstances and are neither keen nor capable of solving their problems on their own. Their locus of control is almost always external. Cinderella is a victim, of her step-mother and step-sisters’ jealousy and Aurora suffers due to the curse of a witch. The women protagonist waits for a prince or knight to make an appearance and absolve her of her miseries. They are naive, god-fearing, good-natured and ill-equipped to deal with the bigger issues of life. They are entirely dependent on men for their happiness.

The princesses anything but realistic. They are devoid of emotions like anger, jealousy, fear and disgust. They are the conventional good girls who never get angry, never sulk, scream or complain. They lack other dimensions that can make their lives interesting and more meaningful.

The princesses aren’t projected as particularly intelligent or solution-oriented. They lack basic life-skills and are miserable when it comes to protecting themselves and standing up for their honor and dignity.

To make matters worse we call our little girls Princess!

We address our little girls as ‘Princess’ as a mark of affection and special acknowledgment of her value to us. But, in our naivety, we set them up for life and fate similar to the Princesses in the fairy tales. In the process, we make them victims of something called ‘moral framing’.

Framing describes how our responses to situations, including our ethical judgments, are impacted just by how those situations are positioned or viewed. Here, we are talking about how a little girl’s responses and judgments are impacted by situations in the stories narrated to her, how different characters in the stories are viewed – appreciated or rebuked for certain attributes or qualities they possess or portray – by the story teller (or other people in a position of influence). So it is deeper than language or messaging and has a profound impact on how an individual thinks and acts. When we address a girl as Princess, over time she begins to feel, think and act like one. And the only reference of a Princess she has is the ones she has heard in the stories we have told her – distorted, dysfunctional and helpless. Language is a strong activator of a frame. The number of times a frame is established and reinforced, the stronger it gets embedded into our personality. By moral framing, we set our girls for disappointment, failure, and inability to cope with real issues.

Next time you call your daughter a princess, think if you would like her to be one.

We don’t wish our girls to grow up with low self-esteem, do we?

With changing times and roles, our little girls are left confused about their roles and ideologies. On one hand is the “princess in a fairy tale world” notion they grew up with and the other is the “real world”.

Princesses’ stories have the potential to cause low self-esteem in young girls. They have distorted ideas of beauty, body image, and acceptability. It is common for young girls to feel depressed about the way she looks.

Little girls could grow up to be shallow individuals believing in vanity. The parameter of success could sadly be being beautiful and finding the right man. They may not be left with enough motivation to work hard, have an ambition and succeed in life by themselves.

Their ideas of and expectations from romantic relationships are often distorted and far from reality. It is not uncommon to hear young girls fantasizing about a fairy-tale romance, ending in a pre-wedding photo shoot and album, a lavish destination wedding, sometimes extending up to a week, and a never-ending honeymoon in Zurich. They fail when it comes to coping with household chores, caring for aged, rearing children and balancing work with home. The fairy-tale romance takes a nose-dive and crashes as swiftly as it had taken off!

When they join the workforce, they fail to reach the top slots in their workplaces, because they aren’t confident of their abilities, they lack decision-making prowess, cannot negotiate for themselves, are willing to give up too soon and most importantly, because they work with men, who also grew up listening to the same stories, and consider women as lesser mortals. We might turn our girls into underachievers, through the stories we tell them!

Real world, real women, real stories

The world is anything but fairy-tale-like. It’s real. In the real world too, there can be real stories. We may have to look for some. We may have to make some. We certainly do not wish to deprive our girls of stories. We just wish them to be closer to reality and empower them, not distort them.

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Our girls need to be told stories of real women. Strong, independent, opinionated, thinking and empathetic women, who are achievers and have stepped out of their comfort zones to do the unimaginable and achieve the unthinkable. Women who are decision makers, lead from the front, take charge, reach out to people, bring about change in their own lives and in that of others. Women who move mountains and rock a baby to sleep, with equal enthusiasm and ease. Women who deal with life problems like death, divorce, unemployment, illness, abuse and physical disability, and come out as survivors and winners.

We owe our girls, not just the best education, but also beautiful, endearing, inspiring and empowering stories. 

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls: I got this book for my daughter early this week. It is a children’s book packed with 100 bedtime stories about the life of 100 extraordinary women from the past and the present, illustrated by 60 female artists from all over the world.

Watch out this space for a detailed review of the book soon.

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