Many parents are apprehensive about the messages fairytales convey. However, some say that such narratives illustrate important lessons.
According to an article by Elizabeth Danish, fairy tales provide us with what Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey,” a quest that reflects a universal truth.
“The hero’s journey essentially begins with the hero being in a small village or community,” the article stated. “Some sort of catalyst or call to action occurs — often he is sent on a quest, and he will encounter a damsel who will be trapped in a castle or dungeon, usually along with the treasure (often the woman herself is the treasure). The hero will then use his magical item/weapon and his new companions to overcome the enemy, and at the same time, he will undergo some kind of transformation that will bring him new abilities or insight. He will then return to the village he started off in, along with his bounty and the love of the damsel (often a princess), and he will be hailed as a hero.”
The arc of the “hero’s journey” conforms to Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes: a collective unconscious that features characters who appear in our dreams and stories (the old sage, the trickster, the damsel, the hero). This journey can be viewed as a “coming of age” plight that we all must embark upon.
The Telegraph’s 2011 article notes that morality is embedded within fairy tales as well.
“They help to develop imagination and creativity, and they help children understand their own emotional dilemmas in an imaginative way, rather than through direct instruction,” said Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester. “They help children to understand, firstly, the quirks and weaknesses of human behavior in general, and secondly, to accept many of their own fears and emotions.”
In her book, she explains how the dwarves in Snow White demonstrate that despite physical diversity, generosity and kindness can be found.
However, discord surrounds fairy tales, too.
“In particular, the concern is that fairy tales might be a bad influence on women,” Danish notes. “For the women’s part of the story, the heroine stays trapped, often in a tower guarded by a villain or a dragon. This dragon is often believed to represent the woman’s father who keeps her trapped and prevents her from setting out on her own journey. The girl is then forced to wait for her savior — Prince Charming or a knight in shining armor to come and fight the dragon and then free her, so that she can get married in a huge castle and live happily ever after.”
This typical narrative suggests that women need to be saved and rescued by men, which can foster a sense of dependency and inherent insecurity. (On the flip side, boys are taught to play the role of the savior.)
The “woman-needing-to-be-saved” fantasy may also teach young girls to expect marriage and a princess-type wedding. The “happily ever after” ending is unrealistic since life is unpredictable; if a relationship is no longer healthy, it may be time for the couple to part ways.
Furthermore, some studies propose that girls who read lots of fairy tales have lower self-images than others. “This could also be because of the conventional image of the princess — of being slim and beautiful and attracting men from around the world,” Danish writes.
In addition, fairy tales may fuel nightmares; disturbing imagery and scenes may linger and wicked witches can be downright frightening.