It’s sexist, but it scans so well!

// 7 January 2009

A throw away line in this Ellie Levenson column about exposing children to fairy tales and nursery rhymes really rubbed me up the wrong way. Writing in the Independent:

And while political correctness is generally a good thing if it means children are taught that sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are wrong, I am very sad if this stops nursery rhymes from poetic scansion.

So, on the one hand you have stories which are ingrained with racism, sexism and a multitude of other problems.

On the other hand you have a line of verse that scans well.

The idea of sitting there, weighing these things up, offends me.

What Levenson is saying boils down to: “Oh, well, I can see this perpetuates misogyny, but on the other hand if we changed it, the line wouldn’t read so well!”

“That fairy tale is quite racist when you think about it, but it’s such a good read!”

It’s not just Levenson, it’s not an uncommon sentiment. Of course, Levenson (and many others who express similar sentiments) would say that discrimination is very, very bad, I don’t doubt. It’s just interesting where the line is – discrimination is very bad, but not bad enough to justify making a slight change to a nursery rhyme, say?

(Note, I think that ‘original’ versions of fairy tales and nursery rhymes have a place – they’re part of our cultural heritage, and shouldn’t be erased because what they say is uncomfortable. But they need to be presented alongside a critical discussion of the reasons they’re problematic)

Photo by only alice, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Jessica // Posted 7 January 2009 at 3:36 pm

Actually, I think Levenson is quoted a bit out of context here. I do see that her throw-away line is too much, but I don’t think that’s what she intended. I think the sense of the whole article was much more in keeping with Jess’ last paragraph. (The one starting “Note, I think..”)

It is true that there are good stories, with depth and knowledge which are completely stuck in their time. For example, Rider Haggard is racist and sexist (as befits someone writing in 1900 about Africa) and yet his novels contain real value. You just have to remind yourself when the books were written.

Also, could I say that I remember quite a number of fairy stories with strong female characters when I was little. It’s a shame that Sleeping Beauty and the like are the most told now…

Jess McCabe // Posted 7 January 2009 at 3:47 pm

Hiya Jessica – but Levenson was discussing the merits of nursery rhymes and fairy tales for very young children. Which is different than reading critically at a later stage.

Also, all literature and art is completely stick in its time IMHO :-)

Caroline12 // Posted 7 January 2009 at 3:58 pm

I agree with what Jessica has said – there are many stories (including fairy tales etc) whose value is not negated by the fact that they may contain some aspects which we dislike. In fact, these stories can provide a springboard for discussion. As long as they are not the staple diet, and as long as we are able to challenge some of the content, I don’t see any great harm. I certainly don’t wish to see these stories, rhymes etc wiped from our shelves, culture or language, or rendered unrecognisable by a “politically correct” (how I hate that phrase) makeover.

I have a young daughter and I certainly don’t want her to grow up believing that to catch (or be caught by) a handsome prince is the pinnacle of ambition. But I’m not going to censor those fairytales either – just try to balance them with stories which present a different type of female character.

caroline12 // Posted 7 January 2009 at 4:20 pm

Also, while I’ll grant you the sexism argument where some fairy tales at least are concerned, I’m struggling to think of any popular nursery rhymes or fairy tales which are overtly racist. (Apart from the old “Eeny meeny miney mo”, which nowadays I have only ever heard used with the word “tigger” replacing the original, unacceptable word; my children certainly never had an inkling there was another version.) Although I’m sure many may have unsavoury origins, I doubt these would be picked up by children or most adults who tend to take them at face value.

I may be wrong however, and would be interested to hear of examples.

Paulette // Posted 7 January 2009 at 5:48 pm

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness some would argue is deeply racist, but it’s still an incredible piece of literature. Nursery rhymes though?

Jess McCabe // Posted 7 January 2009 at 6:12 pm

Paulette – I’m not arguing that there’s no value in literature which is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. I’d include nursery rhymes in that. We can’t and shouldn’t wipe that from our cultural history – we can’t, it’s going to be with us for a long time, and continue to have an echo effect on our cultures for many years.

In general, it wasn’t the subject of what she was arguing about that got me annoyed, it was the particular balancing act that seemed to be going on, and what it says about the value placed on efforts to combat discrimination.

Carrie // Posted 7 January 2009 at 9:06 pm

Take your point, Jess, but also want to say that Ellie (whom I know slightly) is a fierce feminist and a great writer. She’s running this campaign – http://www.womenarenotstupid.co.uk – about making access to emergency contraception easier.

Anne Onne // Posted 7 January 2009 at 10:04 pm

I haven’t read ‘The Tales of Beedle The Bard’ by J. K. Rowling, yet, but apparently they feature witches with agency. Personally, I like the way people are writing new fairy tales that subert the old ones and add diversity. it’s a good thing.

Also, lots of real fairy tales are creepy and sinister. People tend to forget that the Brothers Grimm, Perrault et al are NOT Disney. By all means, give children whatever (sweet ones, scary ones, cliche ones), but explain them, talk about them. I get why people don’t want to erase a part of their history, I really do. I get that they grew up with something and want to pass it on. But I don’t like the blaming of people who are trying to be ‘PC’ or the implication that they are trying to destroy someone’s culture, any more than the implication immigrants destroy native culture. I’m not saying this particular article/person shows this attitude, but it’s rather common in the way people discuss the PC in general.

Not all fairytales are deeply problematic: some fairytales even feature kickass heroines (I vaguely remember one from my background with a cross-dressing heroine who saves the prince, but I reaally need to find it). There are so many interesting stories from around the world, I think we would be really boring to insist on the ‘traditional unPC’ ones just to keep them up.

But each to their own.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 8 January 2009 at 1:39 am

i dont so much mind obviously old stories, but its when people attempt to set it in modern day and its still the same it bugs me. also i think for me the best thing is to show developments of the story over time. like one origin of snow white, gold tree and silver tree has silver tree being saved by the princes second wife… then at the end he chooses bigamy. lol. but there ARE modern versions written frm the sides of snow white etc and showing the evolution via a variety of stories on different nights changing would be interesting,

chem_fem // Posted 8 January 2009 at 2:15 am

Racist and sexist nursery rhymes definitely have their place if only as an example to children about how racism and sexism exist in society. This discussion ties in quite well with the earlier post on how we would represent our selves as a world on things like the pioneer space probe plaque (which was a really good round up post). I wouldn’t want to give children an entirely sanitised view of the world that is never lived up to, however that must come with parental discussion about why a certain line is racist etc.

If people aren’t always going to speak with children about these issues maybe they are best left out. All of the racist and sexist books I read as a child are a complete shock to be having gone back and re-looked at them. I didn’t realise what was in them at all at the time.

Renee // Posted 8 January 2009 at 3:10 pm

This argument comes down to because something has always been done this way we shouldn’t change it. Traditionalist use the longevity of an item to justify continuing on a trend even when it is harmful to others. I think that this is ridiculous. As a society we are always changing and therefore everything should be open to reanalysis.

Anne Onne // Posted 8 January 2009 at 5:39 pm

Chem fem: exactly. If they’re used to show what the time period was like, and how far we’ve come and still have to go, it’s not a bad thing, but it’s entirely different if people want an excuse to pass it off as being something really innocent or sweet when it’s not.

Eleanor T // Posted 8 January 2009 at 8:18 pm

I’m quite partial to the original version of The Snow Queen, by Hans Christen Anderson. The little girl goes and saves the little boy, and the fact the evil queen is female is actually neither here nor there. After all, it’s the bad goblins who mess everything up at the start and they’re portrayed as male.

I might be biased though – I’ve always loved HCA stories. I blame The Little Mermaid. :)

Also, my sister and I read a fantastic book as children called The Practical Princess. Anyone else read it? Highly recommended, if you can find it.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds