Nursery rhymes, continued

// 17 January 2009

In this guest post, Ellie Levenson responds to my post about her column on fairytales in The Independent

I was surprised to find my article on fairy tales being discussed on The F-Word, not least because the sentence that caused the outrage in Jess McCabe’s post was meant to be a witty aside in mine – I had said that political correctness in children’s rhymes is all well and good but only if it doesn’t mess with poetic scansion.

The typical view of feminism is as a humourless movement. It’s like that joke I think I first read in an article elsewhere on this site: How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer – That’s not funny. So for this reason I was a bit sad that the humour in my aside about poetic scansion was not picked up on.

But more than that, I actually stand by my point that where a story or rhyme is discriminatory the best course of action is to leave it as it is in the original and then discuss the implications of this with the child. So should we tell our daughters feminist versions of Cinderella or Snow White? No, but we should talk to them afterwards about the moral messages and how thing as are today and how to fight discrimination when you or others face it.

Why not introduce politically correct versions instead? Well for two reasons. First because literature is a record of the time in which it is written. We do not remove anti-semitic phrases form Shakespeare or Marlowe, but we do discuss them when studying literature as a way of understanding the values of the time. And second, because life is not all that pleasant. If we pretend that nothing is sexist then girls will get a big shock when they enter the real world and find that actually, sexism abounds. Surely it’s better to tell it how it is and then talk about and encourage ways of changing this.

This isn’t to say don’t sweat the small stuff. I do think that we need to tackle the small feminist issues (being called’love’ or ‘sweetheart’ by male strangers for example) along with the big stuff like discrimination in the workplace and access to abortion. But we must also be realistic and understand that sexism in fairy tales is not only way down the list of battles, but perhaps necessary as a way of preparing children for the many battles that lie ahead.

Comments From You

Rose // Posted 17 January 2009 at 4:54 pm

I agree that they are good ways of discussing ideas that used to be ‘accepted’. But I think this should be part of learning about the history of our culture, and raising moral debate in schools.

On the other hand, I think that children (male and female alike) that are young enought to enjoy hearing/singing them, are too young to fully understand the implications. Besides, I wouldn’t want to raise a young girl on the fear and oppression she will face later in life, nor do I think it beneficial to raise a young boy on the suffering that his gender cause, (either way he takes it, its not going to be good for him).

Sure, past literature should be preserved, it gives an interesting social record, if nothing else. But why not just make up new ones, a record of our current times and social values? Possibly better for the development of our young, and a greater legacy to be past down the generations.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 17 January 2009 at 7:17 pm

The problem is these misogynistic fairy tales are not critiqued but accepted as normal and appropriate ‘gendered behaviour.’ We must not forget how girls and boys learn ‘femininity and masculinity.’ There are many ways but one of the main ways is via fairy tales which reinforces the dominant message girls are subordinate to boys and there are ‘evil stepmothers or ugly women.’ Also, girls are supposed to always be rescued by a prince.

Yes Shakespeare is critiqued for his racism but because racism affects males and females the crtique is not marginalised but readily accessible within mainstream education and studies.

Misogyny, however is focused on females and therefore can be ignored because our culture is male-dominant and male-centered. So, what can be done. Well there are already feminist fairy tale which have changed the structure of traditional fairy tales but they are not widely available.

So, rather than repeating the old mantra traditional fairy tales have their place – we should challenge this assumption and say how such tales reinforce female subordination as supposedly ‘normal female/male interactions.’ The educational system itself does not educate girls or boys about media representation or how ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ is narrowly enforced by media, fairy tales, films, etc. So it is not about political correctness a phrase invented by anti-feminists and used to trivialise women’s and girls’ rights – but rather about making girls and women’s lives visible and seen rather than reproduced and represented from the male perspective.

Racism has been challenged and it is now not so blatant but it still exists. Misogyny however is blatant and praised because it is supposedly ‘ironic.’ So, lets promote feminist fairy tales and for a start take a look at The Great Books For Girls by Kathleen Odean. Odean has a section on feminist fairy tales. There are also other book titles all of which are written about girls who are not depicted as boys’ sexualised commodities but diverse, intelligent and resourceful girls who do not rely ‘on a prince’ but resolve their own problems and difficulties.

Ellie // Posted 17 January 2009 at 8:17 pm

Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’ is an interesting feminist re- imagining of several old fairy tales. Maybe it’s good to have a mix? It’s all well and good to say it’s fine to tell these stories if we discuss their implications, but I’d never discussed the implications until now in my second year at Uni!

Mephit // Posted 17 January 2009 at 8:41 pm

I think that while you may be right that fairy-tales should be discussed properly with children, it’s most often the case that it isn’t, but told as is. These are the stories that are likely to be told at bedtime, when the idea is not to start discussions but help lull the child to sleep. Nor are some parents interested in the issues some of these tales throw up.

I’m in favour of keeping and preserving literature, but where the themes are outdated and/or suspect, it seems right to me to abridge and alter it according to context. So for bed-time reading, updated versions – for times where you wish to discuss the nature of literature and offer critiques, the original material.

For example, I adore the rhythmn and language of some of Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So stories (Eg. ‘The Sing-song of Old Man Kangaroo’ is just fantastic to read aloud), but I skip and change the bits of his work which demand it, in my view.

Jess McCabe // Posted 17 January 2009 at 8:41 pm

I think what’s also important to take into consideration, is that fairytales are fundamentally a different sort of thing than other types of literature (such as Shakespeare).

There is no ‘original version’ of any fairytale – the ‘originals’ or common versions we are all familiar with have already been massively altered and changed throughout hundreds of years. Even then, they have their origin in oral story-telling traditions – i.e. there is no fixed original version of any of what we call fairytales. If we mostly now known fairy tales through specific versions recorded in the 17th and 18th century, even then there have been major changes made.

Therefore, I don’t see any reason not to make further changes, especially in regard to the versions which go in, say, children’s fairytale collections. When studying them later on, of course that’s a different matter. Many nursery rhymes are also part of oral traditions (although admittedly others have fixed historical origins and known authors, which makes them a different case).

I think the point Ellie is made is a good one, too – many people may never reassess the fairytales they hear as children.

Shakespeare, on the other hand – well, most of the time I imagine the first encounter people have with Shakespeare is in adaptations for kids (see above – they’re usually altered too, being full of bawdy jokes, violence and politics!), or maybe school English lessons, when there’s ample opportunity to consider the problematic nature of the plays (whether or not this happens is somewhat a seperate issue!)

Politicalguineapig // Posted 17 January 2009 at 8:44 pm

Frankly, I don’t see why nursery rhymes are taught to children at all (except for einsy weensy spider, which is a fun game.) All the other ones do is encourage children to make fun of other unfortunately named children.

Jess McCabe // Posted 17 January 2009 at 8:45 pm

I should also add that, as I understand it, the idea that fairy tales are for children is quite a recent idea (at least in terms of the history of the stories themselves!)

JenniferRuth // Posted 17 January 2009 at 10:40 pm

It should also be noted though, that folk and fairy tales do fall out of favour. There are many stories that we just don’t hear anymore because their messages/morals do not sit well with the messages/morals that we would like to teach our children. Take the story of Bluebeard, for example. A woman marries Bluebeard who tells her she can enter any room in his castle apart from one. Curiosity gets the better of her (as it would!) and eventually she enters the room, only to discover that the room contains the bloody corpses of all Bluebeard’s former wives. When Bluebeard discovers his wife has entered the room he tries to kill her too. She escapes, but what is the moral of this story? That women shouldn’t be curious because it leads to bad things. No discussion of Bluebeard’s morality ever comes into it. It is *her* curiousity that is that problem, not his penchant for brutally murdering women. Funnily enough, we don’t tend to find this story in childrens books anymore. Yet, it still has value historically.

Second, many folk and fairy tales have already been changed to fit with the times. Cinderella’s step-sisters no longer have their eyes pecked out at her wedding. The step-mother in Snow White doesn’t have to dance herself to death in red hot shoes. Should these scenes have been left the way Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm recorded them?

Thirdly, the very nature of folk and fairy tales is ephemeral. Before they were written down they must have been changed many times over, and they have been changed many times since. The old versions still remain if you look for them, but what is there really to stop us from telling the stories *we* want to tell? What is so wrong with that? If we carry on changing and adapting these stories, then to me it seems very in line with tradition.

Ruth // Posted 17 January 2009 at 11:06 pm


I’m not sure which nursery rhymes you mean. Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross? Ring a ring a roses? Remember, remember the Fifth of November? ‘This little piggy’ toe-counting rhyme? The finger-counting one which I can’t remember right now :-)? How do these “encourage children to make fun of other unfortunately named children”? The only connection I can see to the subject is “Mary, Mary quite contrary” and as the proud possessor of that name among others, I don’t see it as remotely “unfortunate”…

Sorry to say, children are perfectly capable of making fun of each other with no help from rhymes; ceasing to teach them will have no impact on that and in my view, only impoverish their linguistic and cultural resources.

Lauren O // Posted 17 January 2009 at 11:09 pm

I think there is a case for preserving fairy tales in more original forms, but I don’t think you’ve presented it in any convincing way. JenniferRuth seems to have demolished any arguments you might have brought up. We’ve edited out the violence we find objectionable; why not edit out the sexism, too? Fairy tales exist to work out cultural attitudes and transmit morals; why should we continue passing on morals and attitudes that have nothing to do with our society anymore? No one is saying we should burn all the original copies of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. We just may want to tell young children different versions.

I also find it a bit odd that you wasted a paragraph telling us how not finding something that you wrote funny means we’re upholding the stereotype of the humorless feminist. Thanks for the original criticism.

Willow // Posted 18 January 2009 at 12:22 am

Jess is right – fairy tales were adapted by the Victorians for children, reimagined as nursery romances that preached happy ever afters. The extent of this reconstruction on fables and folk tales has probably added to how we see them today – Disney-style, misogynistic and outdated. I don’t think I would ever read a fairy story to my children at bed time – they would probably give them nightmares for a start.

Psychoanalytical criticism of fairy tales sees them as archetypal, disguised or symbolic manifestations of conflicts taking place within the individual psyche, or the process of individuation from innocence to maturity. One example, Red Riding Hood, is a cautionary tale for young innocent girls beginning to explore their sexuality, warning against seductive strangers who can devour them – or rape them. But aagain – not exactly suitable for children! Clarissa Pinkola Estes also dissects the Bluebeard story in “Women Who Dance With The Wolves” in a very interesting way, along the same lines. Maybe it would be more useful for girls who are in their teens, struggling with the weight of social conventions and the construction of acceptable femininity who would benefit then from revised or deconstructed fairy tales, as they are supposedly as much a part of our nattional culture as Shakespeare.b\the boys too might benefit!

Personally, when I have had to deal with explaining fairy tales or the Disney princess bombardment to my very young daughter (indoctrination starts young – they print pictures of Cinderella and Snow White on nappies!) I find it very difficult to do so in any way that she or I find satisying. As she wishes to emulate anything she likes, taking it all very seriously, I don’t see why I should tell her marriage is a happy ever after – that would make me hypocritical, as I’m not married. I think, like Rose, new tales for new times would suit me just fine.

And it seems to be worrying that there is increased interest and popularity of that old type of fairytale. I hated Enchanted – especially the beginning when the dad buys his daughter a book about great women, including Rosa Parks and Virginia Woolf etc, and she turns her nose up at it. The whole movie promotes the pretty princess myth as more seductive than being a modern emancipated woman. That may be a bit off topic, but I really hated that!

Ruth Moss // Posted 18 January 2009 at 7:39 am

I think people sometimes forget when talking about Shakespeare that even some of his plays were based on earlier stories, just updated and changed.

For example, Romeo & Juliet is based on an earlier work called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke, which is itself based on an earlier romance.

People have been updating, amending, abridging and adding works of literature and fairy tales alike for centuries. As JenniferRuth points out, Cinderella’s ending, for example, is less gruesome than it once was!

So in that context, I have no problem with altering fairy tales at all; seems like actually it’s part of a long tradition! I think the originals have their place, which is to be discussed in their historical and cultural context.

Kez // Posted 18 January 2009 at 11:57 am

Politicalguineapig, I fail to understand your comment at all. There are a huge variety of nursery rhymes/action rhymes out there (not just Incey Wincey Spider!) which are a great resource for parents and children.

I’m not sure which ones you are referring to that “encourage children to make fun of others”.

Jane // Posted 18 January 2009 at 12:35 pm

Very interesting discussion. I have to say there are so many great children’s stories out there that I hardly ever read fairy tales to my four year old daughter. She prefers Babette Cole’s wonderful Princess Smartypants. (A princess who doesn’t want to get married ends up kissing a prince and he turns into a gigantic warty toad).

The one that always got me was the horrendous Little Mermaid by Hans C.A. She falls in love with a prince and gives up her voice to grow legs, and lose her tail. She’s told that every step will be like walking on glass but she does it anyway. She has 24 hours to make the prince fall in love with her. She fails as the idiot prince falls in love with someone else. She’s then told if she kills the prince she can return to her former mermaid state. But she can’t do it. It’s a story so full of mysogny I don’t know where to begin. Ugh! And Disney did a very very saccharine version of it – remember. But it always gave me the shivers.

Julianne le Fay // Posted 18 January 2009 at 1:25 pm

Telling children feminist fairy tales does not involve pretending that nothing is sexist. Most feminist fairy tales I’ve read are set in sexist worlds and feature their female protagonists learning to overcome this. E.g. Jeanne Desy’s ‘The Princess Who Stood On Her Own Two Feet’ (found in Jack Zipes’ “Don’t Bet On The Prince” and Alison Lurie’s “The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales”) which features a princess who tries to make a prince love her by conforming to his expectations of feminine behaviour only to find that it makes her miserable. These kind of stories make fun of the silly expectations placed on women by society and show women as strong individuals. They’re also really really fun, so you and your daughters are missing out if you won’t read them!

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 18 January 2009 at 1:29 pm

I should also add that, as I understand it, the idea that fairy tales are for children is quite a recent idea (at least in terms of the history of the stories themselves!)

This is definitely true – just a few weeks ago I was reading JRR Tolkien’s essay on the subject of “Faerie”, and he had quite a lot to say about the way that fairy stories have been done a disservice by being recast as children’s stories – and adults have been done a disservice by being deemed unable or unsuitable to enjoy the imagined realms as opposed to stories and news of the “real world”. The book it’s published in is called “Tree and Leaf” if anyone is interested in it – it also has a rather wonderful tale composed by Tolkien, called “Leaf by Niggle” – although I wouldn’t claim that either the essay or the story are particularly good for teaching feminism.

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 18 January 2009 at 1:38 pm

On a different topic, this idea of recasting the stories in new ways seems to make some sense to me. In fact, one of the ideas that developed in my mind just while reading the OP was that of recasting the characters so that they are all of one sex. (Incidentally, I quite like the double meanings that could be derived from an anthology title: “Gay Fairy Stories”) For example:

In Snow White or Rapunzel, the “handsome prince” is a woman (the dwarfs could be women too)

In Cinderella, Cinders and her stepsisters are men.

And so on.

I am also reminded of the passage in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride that gives the book its title: one of the female protagonists narrates how she taught her young children a folk story called the Robber Groom, but changed the gender of the lead/title character.

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