Fairytales have been in existence for centuries, serving as a vehicle for cultural transmission as they are passed from one generation to the next. Although the general principles and morals inlaid within the core of each story remains unchanged, the context in which they are presented changes over time. Although many appreciate the role fairytales play in society, the messages delivered through these stories can be detrimental and unfavorable, instilling skewed morals in the minds of children. The story of Cinderella, and fairytales in general, are harmful to children because they set unrealistic relationship standards, create unreachable beauty standards, and contribute to gender stratification.
Most fairytales begin as oral traditions, passed down from parents to their children, not only as a form of entertainment but also as a vehicle for a certain message or moral. Society often neglects to recognize the instrumental role that fairytales have played in the transmission of culture. “These tales, which have come to constitute a powerful cultural legacy passed from one generation to the next, provide more than gentle pleasures, charming enchantments, and playful delights” (Tatar 230).
Fairytales allow members of a society to instill in their posterity the values, ways of life, and mores that they hope will be carried on, but one must question whether these principles affect society in a positive or negative manner. “Whether we are aware of it or not, fairy tales have modeled behavioral codes and developmental paths, even as they provide us with terms for thinking about what happens in our world” (Tatar 229).
As children grow older, they may forget exactly what happened to Rumplestiltskin, Pinocchio, or the goose that laid the golden eggs, but the impactful messages delivered by such fairytales will not fade. Even through adulthood, those who listened to these stories as children will maintain a firm grasp on the cultural ideals delivered by their favorite fairytale characters, but in many cases, these ideals are immoral and unfavorable.
Through the centuries, thousands of fairytales have been created and told, but the story of “Cinderella” has stood unwaveringly as the most recognizable and most commonly discussed. The story’s plot follows the endeavors of a hard-working young girl, overshadowed by her snobby stepsisters, who ultimately becomes the finest lady in the land after impressing the finest prince in the land at the royal ball. Many claim that “when we read ‘Cinderella,’ we are more fascinated by her trials and tribulations at the hearth than by her social elevation” (Tatar 233), but the readers can not help but note the overwhelming importance of social status in the story.
Readers easily relate to the hardships Cinderella faces and take comfort in knowing that her hard work pays off in the end when she finally meets her prince, but one must simultaneously question why Cinderella needs a marriage to a prince in order to find happiness. “The real magic of the fairy tale lies in its ability to extract pleasure from pain,” Tatar claims, and in this sense, readers who relate to Cinderella’s agonizing feelings of being undervalued and overlooked may feel gratification in knowing the fairytale has a happy ending for the hardworking girl (231). The core of the “Cinderella” fairytale, though, lies in values that may be harmful to society.
Fairytales set unrealistic relationship standards by deluding young girls into thinking that their Prince Charming is out there. By getting their expectations too high, fairytales leave women dissatisfied when they realize that they might not meet their perfect guy. When young girls imagine a fairy tale ending for themselves, they are ultimately disappointed with their relationships. Elizabeth Danish of the Health Guidance Organization says that “Another problem that some might find with fairy tales is that they are often far removed from reality.
Many women end up waiting out for their man that fits the image of ‘Prince Charming’ and who will ride in on a steed and rescue them – whereas the reality is often a beer-guzzling sports fan.” She goes on to say, “This is all the stuff that eventual mid-life crises are based on, and drumming home an ideal of what life should be like could in this sense be a bad idea.” Unrealistic expectations contribute to discontent lives and unhappy relationships. These expectations, which are perpetuated by fairytales, lead to a lessened standard of living and general dissatisfaction with life. When someone is raised with the ideal of finding happiness through a prince charming, their standards are shattered when they can’t find that person.
Cinderella is also harmful by creating unreachable standards of beauty. Victoria Wellman of the Daily Mail references Dr. Heinstein, a child psychologist, who says that “traditional stories like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella promote the idea that if a girl is pretty enough and has fancy clothes and shoes, she find love and popularity.” She continues: “These kind of messages, she says, have a huge impact on a girl’s self- confidence and make it hard for children to understand as they grow up, that intelligence, generosity and passion are more important values.” These fairytales teach young people that beauty and attraction are the important values in life, which creates a superficial society. In the particular fairytale of Cinderella, the fairy godmother is needed to make Cinderella look presentable for the ball. There was an underlying theme that Cinderella needed to be rich and beautiful in order to win the Prince’s heart, putting emphasis on beauty as a necessary attribute.
Another way in which fairytales contribute negatively to societal wellbeing is by acting as an underlying force of gender stratification. In the case of Cinderella, strong sexist ideals dominate the story, especially in the sense that Cinderella can not be happy without a man. The basis of her happy ending is a marriage to the finest prince in all the land, a man desired by every girl in the kingdom (Perrault). Cinderella’s motivation for marriage is not founded upon the principle of love but rather upon the idea that the only way to be happy is by marrying a man for his title. In this way, fairytales serve as a disempowerment of women by implying that rather than having ambitions of their own, they should seek social elevation through marriage.
Fairytales center in the sexist ideal that a woman should sacrifice her own goals to find happiness in the love of a man. Although modern culture seems to be shifting toward gender equality, fairytales continue to stray from this concept, declaring that a woman needs a man in order to find her “happy ending.”
Fairytales like Cinderella also portray women in a materialistic and superficial perspective. These stories exaggerate the importance of clothing and physical appearance in the way a woman is perceived. The story of Cinderella portrays the pretentious values of society, for the way society perceives the princess is based entirely off the attire she dons. Cinderella is treated as a peasant when dresses as one and treated as a princess when she dresses as one (Perrault). In his version of Cinderella, Perrault uses each character’s natural physical beauty as a representation of her disposition and uses each character’s clothing as a representation of her social status, a concept is reflective of the pre-Enlightenment values of 17th century France in which aristocracy is based upon wealth and social elevation.
Stories like Cinderella inspire young, impressionable girls to develop the goal of becoming a princess, and in the mind of such a naïve youth, being a princess means being “perfect.” In recent years, censuses and surveys have revealed that young girls feel an overwhelming pressure to be thin, pretty, and what society considers the perfect female. In this way, fairytales tighten the meaning of feminism. Despite cultures advances toward equality for men and women, “at Toys ‘R’ Us, aisles of pink baby dolls, kitchens, shopping carts and princesses unfurl a safe distance from the “Star Wars” figures, GeoTrax and tool chests” (Orenstein).
These gender stereotypes are only strengthened through fairytales like Cinderella. Gender roles are reinforced by the princess culture telling girls that they need to conform to a certain way of acting if they want to find their prince charming. These gender roles are harmful because they restrict both girls and boys into not being themselves, but a projection of what society thinks they should be.
Global culture has undergone undeniable advances toward the creation of a society in which men and women can experience equality. Despite these advances, though, men and women tend to conform to altered roles in society, and these differing roles create variation in influence, status and prosperity. Fairytales and the influence surrounding them influence the overwhelming power of gender stratification. The severity of gender stratification and cultural discrimination against women is continuously contributed to by seemingly innocent fairytales which parents pass on to their children without considering the possibly disadvantageous consequences.
So when it comes to fairytales and their impact on society, it is apparent that they have a detrimental effect. Not only do they create unrealistic standards of both relationships and beauty, but they also reinforce negative gender roles. Cinderella was reliant on her Prince Charming for happiness and she was seemingly only able to win his love through her appearance. This is the type of message that should not be transmitted to children through a supposedly innocent story. Society needs to strive towards letting individuals become who they want to be instead of being an unoriginal cut out. Fairytales should be about instilling core values instead of superficial ones. So at the point where fairytales such as Cinderella are perpetuating harmful ideals, it is crucial that we discontinue such dangerous traditions.