Reading with "gender on the agenda": Gender Stereotypes in fairy tales


The subordination of women in the society cannot and has not been eradicated by political and legal means alone. Securing the vote and legal equality has not produced an equal societal status for women. In order to achieve this equality other strategies must be employed. Changing this status and overcoming gender inequalities therefore should be the rallying point for feminist groups. Consequently, the first step to be taken is to make women aware that their subordinate status is a product of the meanings associated with “woman” in their societies. For this reason it is imperative to work together towards gender-awareness. It should be realized though that because of the diversity in culture, religion, political leanings, economic status and education, strategies towards gender-awareness cannot be uniformed. Not one strategy is applicable to all women.



Gender and Characterization: finding patterns

Characters are always gendered in children’s fiction. However, gender has never been considered as relevant factor. Children’s fiction is not only found in books, but also in the media. In fact, many of us are most familiar with children’s fiction in cartoons and films. But the most influential of all these fictions are the handed down oral folktales. Since they have been told from generation to generation, they tend to have some sort of historical touch. One does not question them. They are taken as sources of wisdom and truth.


Children’s Fiction

Studies of cartoons shown on television, have found that on the average, the ratio of female to male characters is disturbingly low. The ration of active, assertive, intelligent and interesting characters compared with the support characters such as nagging wives, passive and martyr heroines waiting to be rescued by the knight in shining armour, the finding in favour of the females are even lower. The case is not different with regards to folktales. Findings suggest that the representation of gender as reflected in images on television and folktales have definitely an impact on how children perceive themselves and their potential roles in life. Surveys conducted on the gendered images projected in children’s fictions showed that the proportion of male characters to female was an overwhelming 4:1 and that the more dominant characters were male. This goes to show that girls and boys have fewer strong female characters as role models. Such unbalanced representation of gender roles forms a base for making assumptions, forming preconceptions and prejudices which colour the lived experience.

It is a real challenge for children to search for their role models. It gets even more complicated for girls if we consider a range of representations of domesticity in popular cultural versions of children’s classics.


Reading with “gender on the agenda”

This is a shorthand phrase for the process of reading with a concern for gender issues that affect the writing and reading of texts. For instance, it means paying attention to factors such as women’s relative lack of access to higher education (in previous generations particularly), women’s lower economic status, women’s domestic responsibilities and the conflict between nurturing roles such as motherhood and domestic work (areas which have traditionally been undervalued) and other areas of creative work. Areas of activity which have traditionally been valued highly have also been seen – not coincidentally – primarily as “men’s work”: for example, writing, thinking, making an impact in the artistic and critical domains.

Reading with “gender on the agenda” offers one way of focusing on literary texts. It encourages us to see aspects of the texts and the context of their creation and reception which we might not otherwise notice. It might be difficult to “read gender” at first. It might even seem awkward, or seem to obscure the other aspects of the text. But once one get used to paying attention to gender in literature, it is a bit like wearing a new pair of glasses: suddenly one notices all kinds of things hadn’t before noticed. This enhanced vision does not stop us from seeing what was previously seen. But rather enlarges the scope of vision and intensifies and enriches the experience of seeing or reading.


Beginning with the most basic form of literature such as folktales found in all countries, gender-awareness trainings should be conducted and aim to:

  •  sensitize participants to gender stereotyping in folktales
  •  find out how folktales represent gender and sexuality.
  •  find out who seeks to define gender in folktales: government, religion, media, school, society?

 The trainings should be conceived to answer the following questions:

  •  How do folktales represent gender and sexuality?
  •  Who seeks to define gender? Government, religion, media, the academy, society? What is the  relationship between this process of definition and structures of authority?
  •  How do factors in a particular culture’s composition—be they linguistic, mythical, religious, educational, or social affect the representation of gender in everyday life?
  •  What role do specific social institutions (including marriage, family, and kinship) play in such literary representations?
  •  In what ways is gender fundamental to the process of attitude-building in children?
  •  In what ways do representations of gender in folktales participate in the actual construction of gender identities or norms?



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