Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty not the “Fairest” Anymore: The Role of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Fairy Tales

Vivien Chen's picture


          As lighthearted and innocent as children’s fairy tales may seem, you may find subliminal cultural messages prominently rooted in them – tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty (to name a few) have served to legitimatize the dominant gender system by highlighting the importance of the feminine beauty ideal. Children’s fairy tales have been around for hundreds of years; however it is interesting to note that only a select number of them have been reproduced. According to the article, “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales,” Cinderella, Snow White, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), Little Red Cap (Little Red Riding Hood), and Hansel and Gretel constitute more than two-thirds of all reproductions (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz, 720). The findings (in the article) suggest that feminine beauty is a dominant theme, and that tales with heavy emphasis on feminine beauty are much more likely to survive. This concept behind the evolution of children’s fairy tales seems counterintuitive, especially since one would assume that because women in society presently stress the importance of self-independence and economic stability, the feminine beauty ideal would become a less important factor for them. To continue, I will analyze the importance of the beauty ideal (in society) and its prominent role in the survival or reproduction of children's fairy tales by exploring the extent to which women beauty predominates in these tales. This will hopefully give us more insight on the significance of feminine beauty in culture and lead us to discover the impact that certain time periods have on the focus of feminine beauty in these children’s tales.


          Even in a world where individuality, personal freedom, and stability are much more emphasized, “beauty, or the pursuit of beauty, [still] occupies a central role in many women’s lives…” (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz 712). Adolescent girls and women believe that beauty is a major means in acquiring a higher social status and self-esteem. Alan Mazur, author of “U.S. Trends in Feminine Beauty and Overadaptation," suggests that, “Men place a more importance on the physical attractiveness of women than women do on the physical attractiveness of men. As a result … women are under more pressure to conform to an ideal of beauty”(281). This pressure is also attributed to the vast amounts of images and growing media popularity which promote the desirable shape, color, texture and language of beauty.  The results of conformity are the effects of completely artificial representations of women, and thus “real persons become only flawed imitations of the perfect image”(Callaghan xii).


          In addition, this “perfect image” of women that Callaghan mentions can date back to hundreds of years. However, I am not so much interested in the origins of the beauty image of women, but rather I am more interested in the beauty images portrayed in children’s fairy tales as a potential origin of gendered messages concerning feminine beauty. It would be completely understandable if fairy tales were the origin of the pressures women face today in conforming to the specific ideal of beauty, since children’s stories are a major source by which children assimilate culture (Bettelheim 1962). Essentially, young girls who read these novels are reading about princesses who achieve vast riches or marry their “prince charming" simply because their beauty makes them stand out from the rest.


          Research shows that fairy tales written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were intended to teach girls and young women how to become domesticated, respectable, and attractive to a marriage partner (Zipes 1988a, 1988b). According to Baker-Sperry’s and Grauerholz’s findings, 94 percent of the Grimms fairy tales acknowledge physical appearance, and the average references per story were 13.6. In one story, there were 114 beauty references to women. For example, in one tale, The Pink Flower, a maiden is described as “so beautiful that no painter could ever have made her look more beautiful”(Grimm and Grimm, 286). Other references to beauty are prevalent, such as the uses of “fairest” and “handsomest.”


          Just as important to note is the extensiveness to which the image of ugliness is referred to as “evil” in these tales. While beauty is often rewarded, lack of beauty is punished, and Baker-Sperry’s and Grauerholz’s article shows this by using the tale Mother Holle as an example. The story begins by describing the widow’s two daughters: one is “beautiful and industrious,” while the other “ugly and lazy”(Grimm and Grimm 1992, 96). The beautiful and industrious daughter later gets showered with gold because Mother Holle believes she deserved this by being so “industrious.” On the other hand, the ugly and lazy daughter did not turn out to be as fortunate. As she started working for Mother Holle (she had made an effort to work hard and obey her that day), she was not showered with gold. Because of this, the daughter disobeyed Mother Holle and lazed around for the next few days until Mother Holle was tired of her disobedience and led her out the door, where then a big kettle of pitch (hot asphalt) was poured onto her. Moral of the story: don’t be ugly so you can avoid hot asphalt being poured onto you. To summarize, these few examples emphasize the ideal of feminine beauty in children’s fairy tales; the number of references to beauty cannot go unnoticed and therefore serves as a profound model or example for the “perfect image” young women try to conform into.


          Of the 168 tales analyzed by Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz, 43 of them have been reproduced in children’s books or movies, and the most frequently reproduced tale is no surprisingly: Cinderella (with 332 reproductions [based on data from the year 2003]). According to researchers, they found the majority of the “surviving tales” contained the most references to women’s physical attractiveness, which feature characters described as “young, beautiful princesses.” For example, the average number of references to women’s physical attractiveness in the tales reproduced is 2.11 – this is more than twice the number in non-reproduced tales: 0.93 (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz, 720). For men, physical handsomeness and appearance are not significantly related to a tale’s reproduction - again, this finding correlates to the heavier pressures placed on women (than on men) to obtain beauty, and therefore women are more willing to conform to the preconceived notions of them.


          With this in mind, it is time to question and analyze the role of society on the number of reproductions produced. According to Baker-Sperry's and Grauerholz’s data, the vast majority of tales were reproduced in the latter part of the twentieth century. For example, before the year 1900, the average number of reproductions of Cinderella was 46; between the time periods 1901 and 1960: 5 or 6; between 1961 and 1980: 42; and between 1981 and 2000: 227  (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz, 722). This upward trend is described as “undoubtedly linked to efforts to boost consumers;” in fact, they suggest this emphasis on female attractiveness “operates as a normative social control” over women. The article argues that during times when women have gained a greater social status, we should expect a larger increase in reproductions of tales that focus on women’s beauty; and because of this, society feels more inclined to implement social controls over women. This would thus explain the increase of the presence of feminine beauty in children’s fairy tales. If this were in fact true, then women’s increase of independence and economic status do not lessen the reproduction of fairy tales; rather, they would threaten society and the reproduction of fairy tales (that reinforce the feminine beauty ideal) would increase.


          This may be the case, however, even though the number of reproductions has increased each year, this does not necessarily mean that people are more inclined to read them. In fact, a study conducted by Lisa Belkin shows that parents would prefer not to read fairy tales such as Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood to their children. Instead, according to a poll conducted in February of 2010 by Dr. Richard Woolfson, the top bedtime story is The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Lisa Belkin suggests that parents are beginning to realize certain fairy tales are emphasizing and promoting gender stereotypes (of women), going against what we have been trying to dismiss and break the barriers of for so many years. Parents view Rapunzel, as too dark of a tale that allows a poor girl to be locked in a tower, and who is only rescued when she “lets down her hair” for prince charming. Some parents also reject Cinderella, which they believe to be  an “outdated” tale because Ella is forced into a gender stereotypical role of a female character doing house chores (Belkin, Are Fairytales too Scary for Children?).


          With these findings in mind, does this mean that parents recognize society’s changing perspective of women? And if so, does that mean they are adapting to these new outlooks by changing the types of literature they read to their children? Research would suggest this is so. Also, literature and media also conform to society’s changes as well; for example, the recent Shrek film series (based on William Steig’s picture book Shrek!) is one of the very few children’s films that does not equate beauty with happiness. Instead, a beautiful maiden lives “happily ever after” after she is transformed into an ogre. Films like these (although rare) challenge the value and meaning of women’s beauty, and are foundational to the retellings of fairy tales. I also want to mention that beauty is not the only reason certain tales have survived. Much of the success of tales is also because they correspond with the present economic, social, or cultural position of that time. As you can see, the evolution of literature, more specifically the evolution of fairy tales and of the feminine beauty ideal predominated in them, allows us to see how tales adapt to our ever-evolving society. And who knows, maybe someday there will exist a “Princess Charming” who rides a mighty horse into the woods to rescue her own Prince from the evil  warlock.


Other Works Cited

Baker-Sperry, Lori, and Liz Grauerholz. "The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children's Fairy Tales." Gender and Society 17.5 (2003): 711-26. 12 Apr. 2011.


Bettelheim, Bruno. 1962. Uses of Enchantment. New York: Collier.


Callaghan, Karen A. Ideals of Feminine Beauty: Philosophical, Social, and Cultural Dimensions.          Westport: Greenwood, 1994. Print.


Grimm, Jacob and Wilheim Grimm. 1857. Children's and Household Tales. Berlin: R. Dummler.   1992. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Translated by Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam.

Patterson-Neubert, Amy. "Experts Say Fairy Tales Not so Happy Ever After." Purdue News Service. 11 Nov. 2003. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. 

Zipes, Jack. 1988a. The Brothers Grimm. New York: Routledge. _____. 1988b. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. New York: Methuen. ______. 1997. Happily Ever After. New York: Routledge. 


Anne Dalke's picture

Moving Beyond the Old Fairy Tales

Paul and I taught a first-semester writing seminar for many years, which served as prelude and warm-up to our current work on the Evolution of Stories. We always started Questions, Intuitions, Revisions: Storytelling as Inquiry with a series of fairy tales, followed by Anne Sexton's Transformations of them (do you know these great poems?!), and then by Bruno Bettelheim's analysis of how they function, psychologically, for children. Along the way, we had our students 1) write a story about their own life of learning (make it particular); 2) re-compose it as a fairytale (make it archetypal); 3) analyze that fairytale (make it critical). So although our focus began with traditional stories, it moved fairly quickly into revising them. The point of telling the old stories, and interpreting them, was to name their limits, and go beyond them.

In that context, your own VERY thorough (!) project lingers much too long, for my taste (and the general inclination of this course), in the world of what "was," not spending enough time yet in the arena of "what might be." I certainly, and enthusiastically, acknowledge the acuity of the critique you offer here, building on the work of the many critics who have pointed out the gendered nature of fairy tales. I'd also nudge you to look @ some of the fascinating material coming out of disability studies now, critiquing the use of disabled characters to figure evil (from Disability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction: "the disabled person is ubiquitious, used as a metaphor for...evil").

What I'd like to see much more of is an elaboration of the gesture you make @ the very end of your project, towards the question of "how tales adapt to our ever-evolving society."

As well as a location of you, Vivien, in the story you tell. Why do you, in particular, care about this question, in particular, and where do you sit in relation to it?