The Social Functions of Folktales and Fairytales

Updated: Oct 8


Fairy tales can be dated back as far as into the first century. As time went on, a fairy tale would change multiple times reflecting the society and its culture it is being told in. While exploring the variety of fairy tales, each rendition showcases a similar theme of how through society women are categorized and appeared as. Using examples from Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, we will explore how the story of Cinderella has changed between the two sets of writers, what topics of gender roles for women appear, and how Disney followed suit with those themes.


Before there was a “once upon a time” and “happily ever after”, there were countless variations of fairy tales that conveyed morals, social, and/or political lessons through the narrations and characters, whilst displaying the history of a culture. Fairy tales are a common part of a person’s childhood, especially if they grew up in the United States. The Grimm Brothers’ fairytales have served as the foundation for the stories and movies that were recreated from their original form and welcomed into our homes. However, these republished stories have a distinct trend that focuses on the validation of women through beauty, while the men are portrayed as active and violent. Disney films have been the prime suspect that illustrates the changes that fairytales undergone, now featuring stereotypes and more subtle forms of social manipulation. These fairy tales have been tracked to how society sees the roles of men and females, exercising power over women, and maintaining gender inequality. Based on a number of classic fairy tales, such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White”, how have these stories portrayed a representation of how society socially categorized women?

Fairytale stories often involve the presence of magic and mystical characteristics, while folktale stories are stories that have been verbally passed down through generations by word of mouth, typically being timeless fictional stories. Based on where the folk tale was originated from, it can show signs of culture and social functions during that timeframe. People would tell these stories to communicate knowledge and experience in a social context. A similar trait that was seen in a majority of these tales is a gender role presented that women are weak and vulnerable and only succeed when a man intervenes. In “Cinderella”, it is Prince Charming that brings her from rags to riches; in “Sleeping Beauty”, it is the Prince who saves Aurora, waking her up from her wretched curse, ultimately saving the day. These stories, now more popular among children, teach the wrong message.

In Charles Perrault’s tales, he took early European peasant tales and changed them to suit the upper-class society of 17th Century France. At that time, French storytellings were considered important social art. That is why Perrault customized the stories and added new ones, showcasing the difficulties and challenges of his time period. His stories reflected typical French actions and lighthearted humor. His collection was published in the late 1600s, featuring minimal violence but added in a sexual arch, expected in the popular culture of the time period. Our modern tellings of “Cinderella”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Sleeping Beauty” are based on Perrault’s versions. Perrault’s version of Cinderella, she is a “savoir-faire”, having the ability to both act and speak appropriately in social situations, drops her slipper on purpose for the prince to find and marry her.

The story of Cinderella has been around since ancient Greece. It was Perrault who redefined Cinderella in “The Little Glass Slipper” in 1697. There are some scholars who believe that the glass slipper that appears in Perrault’s tale could possibly be interpreted as Cinderella’s virginity. In French, the term “pantoufle de verre” means “fur slipper”. If the slipper was originally made of fur, it would have been a clear metaphor for a vagina; especially when the prince requires a body part to fit it just perfectly. “What they said was very true; for a few days later, the king's son had it proclaimed, by the sound of a trumpet, that he would marry her whose foot this slipper would just fit.” (Perrault, The Little Glass Slipper). However, there are other scholars who believe that Perrault purposefully changed the slipper from fur to glass for this very reason. Instead, representing glass as a prize; in the 17th century, in France, glass was very expensive, making the metaphor work as Cinderella’s prized virginity and only a man of great wealth can afford it.

The Grimm Brothers created a collection of fairy tales over three centuries ago, sparking countries to begin to preserve their oral tellings. During the Romantic period, in the early 19th Century, there was a growing fascination to preserve the culture. After the Thirty Year War, a third of the German population was dead or struggling with diseases. This is when stepparents and early death had been a norm in life for the culture, reflecting in folk tales and setting the stage of The Grimm Brother’s stories. Even though the brothers collected a majority of the tales from German women, they also used writings from Perrault. Many of the stories contained themes of rape or attempted rape by a father to his daughter. That specific theme of a father trying to exploit and violent his daughter was replaced by a “stepmother” character that was often very beautiful and hated her stepchildren. If there was a daughter, which there usually was in the stories, the daughter usually experienced and suffered through witnessing the death of her mother, later becoming the innocent victim of her stepmother.


This plotted theme was seen throughout a lot of the Grimm Brother’s fairy tales.

In their version of Cinderella, “Aschenputtel”, after Cinderella’s mother passes away, her father marries again, this time a woman who already has two daughters of her own, who were mean to the husband’s daughter, stealing her clothes and jewelry, forcing her to wear rags and do work in the kitchen. “And as on that account, she always looked dusty and dirty, and they called her Cinderella” (the Grimm Brothers, Cinderella). Despite them being mean, Cinderella remains in good spirits, regularly visiting her mother’s grave to pray for good to come to her. When the Prince’s ball comes around, Cinderella sneaks there, even though the stepmother told her to know and went without her with her daughters. As the same as the modern-day version, she must return home by midnight and loses her slipper along the way. The prince finds it and proclaims he will marry the girl whose foot it fits. In this version, the stepsisters cut off parts of their own feet in hopes to fit into the glass slipper, trying to fool the prince that they are the girl. However, the prince is told about this trick by two birds who peck the step sister’s eyes out. They end up spending the rest of their lives as blind beggars while Cinderella marries the prince and moves into his castle.

Attractiveness has been deemed to be the most important attributes that a woman can possess in fairy tales. Based on the looks, it can indicate the chances for a happy future. The tales created in the earlier centuries displayed a strong correlation between a female lead and her “beautiful” appearance. The females, normally the main character, were accepting of their lot in life and waited for the prince to come and take control of their future destiny and happiness. In popular stories, there would be an interpretation of some sort of “beauty contest”, emphasizing that the women with the youthful beauty appearance are the ones who will live “happily ever after” and the women that are not beautiful will get the opposite outcome. In “Cinderella”, the evil stepsisters are an example of unattractive women and how they treat the attractive supporting character. The character’s beauty can actually put them in danger and their physical form sets them up for victimization; if the heroine, the main character, is beautiful and good, then the evil character must exhibit opposite physical attributes. The Grimm Brothers’ version of the “Cinderella” tale, where the stepsisters cut off their toes and heel presents the notion that women will go to great lengths just to undermine one another, sending a message to the female readers that they cannot trust one another.

Zipes has first introduced this topic of fairy tales by incorporating the overview of the evolution and how the meanings of the tales have changed over time, depending on what was happening in society. Before the tales were ever turned into films, Zipes has argued that fairy tales were often used to relieve social conflict by describing past experiences to the reader. Throughout history, fairy tales gave some sort of message to the reader, whether it was about a community or an opposition against political figures; whatever the teller wanted to share at the time, they would incorporate it into the plot of their story. Writers like Perrault and Brothers Grimm displayed these messages as their sole purpose of writing their tales. Zipes even accuses Walt Disney of robbing the literary tales that were so highly admired by him.

Normally, in fairy tales, the heroine is described as a beautiful and good character. The evil character in the same story will exhibit the complete opposite in both physical appearance and values; lazy girls and older women are usually generalized as ugly, evil, and will be more than likely to try and take advantage of the heroine. They will show threatening traits towards the feminine ideal.

In the stories, the exception is to follow the beautiful girl through her journey where she will learn a lesson and be rewarded with the ultimate accumulation: marriage. This leaves the reader to believe that if they fall under the correct gender roles, they will be rewarded. “If you are beautiful, you should passively wait, regardless of the situation you are in, for your prince to come and rescue you” (Neikirk, page 39). Through a majority of the fairy tale, the heroine’s beauty is what would drive the plot, not her actions. Expect for the female’s daydreams, the male character is normally not mentioned in the story until later. He would be the hero and/or prince who is handsome and brave. While the women are locked away, the male proves his masculinity by saving her and defeating evil.

When Disney produced fairy tale movies before his passing in 1966, they featured the same kind of formula thriving the story. Similar to the Grimm Brother’s versions, Disney films usually involve a heroine desperately in need of outside help. However, Disney films did not show the same violence or harshness. Instead, it had romantic themes, cheery music, and some comic relief that all followed with the villain dying and there being a happy ending. Disney’s version presented a shiny revision from the unpleasant realities that were previously addressed in the earlier tales. This is because this is what the “paying public”, especially children, wanted during the time. In the late sixties and seventies, there was a rising interest in women’s rights. During the time when the Equal Rights Amendment gained approval in the United States, Disney movies were increasingly criticized. That is when the passive princess emerged in the form of an empowered teenage mermaid who took charge of her own life and did not listen to anyone, including her father. That was in 1989 and two years later, we were introduced to a beautiful bookworm named Belle, who tamed the beast and became the new idol for girls everywhere. This reworking of the female protagonist echoed the, at the time, current feelings about femininity, shaping the attitudes of young female fans worldwide.

Fairy tales today have become full-length animated and even live-action movies. Rather than written stories, this is the new standard. Fairy tales that were written by authors like the Grimm Brothers had a deeper meaning, lessons, and morals that appeared in the text. “If fairy tales have been a social gauge through the ages, then today’s tales suggest that Western society has shifted even further from supporting biblical values and principles to embracing the concept of relative morality and self-sufficiency” (Abler, The Moral of the Story). According to Zipes, fairy tales have served a meaningful social function for both compensation and revelation. They reveal the gap between truth and falsehood in our immediate society.

The assumption that women belong in a specific type of role was created by not only men but women too. Psychologists have performed experiments to study this concept by observing groups mixed with girls and boys. They would ask the groups to write the words “female” and “male” and then list job occupations and personality traits for those genders. Secretary, assistant, and housework would be categorized under the word “female”, meanwhile, under the word “male” occupations such as a lawyer, and CEO would appear. In the personality traits, dominant traits fell under the male said and comforting traits were considered feminine. This showed that this culture viewed women as soft and in need of support. This is most likely due to the books and movies we grew up learning from and idolizing the characters. After taking a closer look at the themes and characters that appear in these children stories created this shift in ideas. There are stories that support the idea of capable women, yet those are not the ones that are popularized.

Through the ages, the causes and effects have been consistently at work. A fairy tale has always been influenced by society, becoming a mirror into our society at that moment. From traditional oral tellings to the written literacy tale, to now films, fairy tales are carried by the new medium to be passed on to the next generation. Only to be changed yet again to reflect the future society and include an influential message.


References

  • Abler, A. (2008) The Moral of the Story. https://www.vision.org/visionmedia/society-and-culture/moral-of-the-story/153.aspx

  • Bascom. W. (1954) Four Functions of Folklore. The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 67, No. 266 pp. 333-349

  • Carthy, J. Folklore in the Oral Tradition, Fairy Tales, Fables and Folk-legend. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.

  • Grimm Brothers. Aschenputtel. 1857

  • Neikirk, A. Happily Ever After, or Whatever Fairytales Teach Girls About Being a Women.

  • Perrault, C. The Little Glass Slipper. Paris, 1697.

  • Zipes, J. Breaking the Disney Spell.

  • Zipes, J. (2012) The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Chapter 1: The Cultural Evolution of Storytelling and Fairy Tales: Human Communication and Memetics. Princeton books.

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