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Jewish World Review Dec. 5, 2003 / 10 Kislev, 5764

Betsy Hart

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Consumer Reports

Fairy-tale oppression? | Apparently, some people just don't believe in "happily ever after."

Two researchers, sociologists Liz Grauerholz of Purdue University and Lori Baker-Sperry of Western Illinois University, teamed up to review fairly tales and the impact they have on kids. Their findings? It's not a pretty picture.

"Fairy tales, which are still read by millions of American children, say it pays to be pretty," Grauerholz told the "AScribe" newswire. "It's important to understand the messages our children receive about traditional gender roles, especially during a time when women are encouraged to be independent and rely on their brains rather than beauty."

The researchers looked at almost 170 traditional fairy tales. They found that the five that have been reproduced the most in the 20th century are "Cinderella," "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Hansel and Gretel."

The problem? These fairy tales are filled with stereotypes, like "beautiful = good," which are loathsome to the researchers. In other words, beware — these stories will turn your sons into chauvinists, and your girls into anorexics.

As Grauerholz said, "This continued emphasis on beauty is a way society controls girls and women. Women adopt behaviors that reflect and reinforce their relative powerlessness, which can lead to limiting a woman's personal freedom, power and control." Huh?

Grauerholz suggests you change them if you read them to your young kids. Make Cinderella a man, for instance.

Double huh?

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The full report on the study is in the current journal Gender and Society.

Before we assume these gals are women who just didn't get invited to their senior proms, I think at least on one point they are not so full of bunk.

But first, here's where they are wrong. Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty were not good because they were beautiful, they were beautiful because they were good. Their outer beauty reflected what was true about their hearts. They were kind, trusting, generous, and loving.

Ah, so why should we think that goodness is reflected in physical beauty? Couldn't these ladies be good on the inside, but still look like the princess-turned-ogre in the animated movie, "Shrek?" Well sure. But that awful looking princess would have looked a lot worse if she hadn't had a good heart.

Think about it. We all know wonderful people who are not particularly physically attractive. But, over time, doesn't the fact that we like them so much increase to us their physical attractiveness? In contrast, we know physically beautiful people who are personally or morally unappealing. Over time, doesn't this greatly dull their physical luster?

In any event, in our culture we have a strange love/hate relationship with beauty. We either seek it to the exclusion of all else or we despise it as somehow unworthy. But there's a reason the Apostle Paul wrote thousands of years ago, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about these things". (Philippians 4:8, NIV)

Symmetry, lack of imperfection, smoothness (why do we iron our clothes, after all?) are a delight to the eye. What is wrong with that obvious truth? Yes, these also signify youth, which may be overvalued in our culture. But the vigor of youth is also a wonderful thing — we ought not decide we hate it just because we no longer have it.

This is the issue then: When it comes to youth and beauty, it seems to me we should appreciate the loveliness of these things, and the G-d who created them, whether or not we possess them ourselves.

Instead, in our culture we either worship these things as an end in themselves, or despise, resent or even fear them.

And so we have this strange situation where age-old fairy tales are now seen as a threat to our children and our daughters' "personal freedom, power and control," because of their presentation of youthful characters, particularly beautiful young women. That's a shame.

So then, where might these researchers actually have a point? Not on the question of beauty, but in the fact that the beauties in these tales tend to be acted upon, more than they are actors in their own fates. (Not a surprise, considering when they were written.)

My daughters like fairy tales — sort of — but they just think the beauties are, well, kind of boring. That seems to me to be the right "take." It's certainly a lot better than living in fear of every pretty face one meets.

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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