Why study fairy tales? There’s little doubt that fairy stories are fantasies; but this doesn’t mean that they are inconsequential. In this module, we will approach fairy stories as representations, as widely circulated stories that reflect shared cultural values. They are entertaining, and they are also pedagogical, which is to say that they are texts that teach listeners and viewers something about the world. Fairy tales teach us what a community believes to be the difference between good and bad. Fair tales tell us what behaviors are acceptable, and what behaviors are unacceptable. They are stories that represent the values and norms of our society.

As you might imagine, the questions that we ask in WGS about fairy tales involve the way that they function to shape stories about gender. One of the most common feminist observations about fairy tales – and especially fairy tales that are aimed at girls – is that they are driven by a fantasy that emphasizes true love as the only route to happiness. This is a world in which love conquers all, in which young girls await charming princes, and in which marriage is not only sought after but also unequivocally the route to happily ever after. Stories like Cinderella and Snow White tell stories about the transformation from girlhood to womanhood through the figure of the “perfect girl” (see Birnie Henke et al).

The perfect girl is a passive player in the story, her actions do not drive the narrative forward, her hopes and dreams are wrapped up in romance. More recent introduction of figures like Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, and Mulan have provided representations of figures who are more headstrong, independent, and autonomous. Even more recently, with women characters in Frozen, Brave, and Moana, femininity in Disney (and Pixar) is represented as self-aware and headstrong; the heterosexual closure that characterized the earliest Disney films is displaced by representations of autonomous womanhood.

We certainly can’t lose sight of the fact that fairy tales, and especially princess tales, are not only stories—they are also commodities, which is to say that they are stories told by a corporation to children and their parents. We might enjoy the movies and the merchandise associated with them, but it’s not the goal of corporations to tell stories that are realistic, just, or thought-provoking. The goal of most corporations is to provide a product that not only sells, but sells well, and that brings consumers back again and again.

But why Disney? Disney is the world’s largest entertainment corporation. For most of the twentieth century, and now in the twenty first century, Disney has been a major and significant source of mass media storytelling. Significantly, much of Disney’s storytelling has been aimed at children; in this lesson, we’re examining the stories that Disney has produced specifically for an audience of girls. As we’ll see, the stories for and about girls have changed in the last several decades. Disney’s storytelling practices have responded to broader cultural shifts and, indeed, the demands for representations of girls and women that reflect a wider vision of femininity.

Of course, the stories that Disney media tells about gender are always also stories about race and class. To start off this lesson, let’s listen to a podcast from Bitch Media. In this podcast, feminist journalist Sarah Mirk talks to public scholar Walidah Imarisha about her research and teaching on the ways that class and race are depicted in Disney films. The conversation between Mirk and Imarisha is focused on Disney’s racialized, classed, and gendered representations of animals. Before you listen to the podcast (or read the transcript, which is also available when you follow the link), be sure to watch the short clip from the 1941 animated Disney film, Dumbo (it’s embedded in the Racial Politics of Disney Animals article). Dumbo is the story of a baby elephant trying to find his way in the world with the help of a wizened and only slightly older mouse. In the scene reproduced on the Bitch Media website, you’ll see the reactions of a group of crows to Dumbo’s unusual ability to fly.

Bitch Media,
“The Racial Politics of Disney”

Listen Time: 14:07 Minutes

Feminist scholarship on fairy tales has transformed enormously in the last twenty years, and much of this has to do with the transformation of fairy tales themselves. As we reflect on contemporary fairy tales, we ought to be wary of the tendency to say that fairy tales were once limiting and are now empowering for girls. Our approach here is to be both critical and creative in our analysis of cultural artifacts, including Fairy Tales. To be critical in this context is to pay attention to the cultural work that a specific film or story performs. It’s tempting to say, for instance, that the blockbuster film Frozen is “good for girls,” or better for girls than Snow White because of the strong women role models it offers. Our goal ought to be to pay attention to the stories that Frozen offers to its viewers—young and old—about gender, race, and sexuality.

Although the contours of modern fairy stories are beginning to expand, the most enduring stories for girls are marked by a happy heterosexual closure. These stories alone do not propel girls toward heterosexuality, but they certainly contribute to the overarching cultural story that love, happiness, and fulfillment involve—and perhaps revolve around—finding a perfect boy.

BIG IDEA: Compulsory heterosexuality

For the American lesbian poet and theorist Adrienne Rich, heterosexuality is best understood not as a form of sexual desire, but as a social institution. What she means by this is that heterosexuality is a social practice and indeed a social expectation.

Rich’s theory of compulsory heterosexuality points out that heterosexuality is a social institution that requires every woman to consent to patriarchal domination. Within kinship systems where heterosexuality is required and expected, every woman is connected to a man who, by virtue of the distributions of power within patriarchy, holds power over her. Moreover, Rich argues that within compulsory heterosexuality, women’s central bonds are to husbands and children rather than to other women. Rich introduces the term “lesbian continuum” to describe a wide range of relationships that are denied within strictly patriarchal social systems that require heterosexual kinship. On one side of the continuum are lesbian sexual bonds, and on the other side women’s homosociality. The big idea with compulsory heterosexuality is not just that women are prevented from lesbian existence, but that women are prevented from meaningful relationships that do not include men.

This is a theory that Rich put forward around the 1980s, at a time when non-hetersexual relationships were generally hidden from public view, gay and lesbian marriage was not recognized by Canadian government, and sexual orientation was not yet legally prohibited from discrimination. Today, although there may remain inequalities and social stigma around non-heterosexual relationships, it’s difficult to argue that heterosexuality is “compulsory.” A more frequently deployed term to describe the force of heterosexuality in contemporary Western cultures is heteronormative.

A heteronormative view of society and sexuality assumes that heterosexual experience is broadly shared by all members of a group. It places heterosexual relationships—sexual desire and love between women and men—at the center of attention and treats lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and other non-heterosexual forms of desire as deviant. Heteronormativity is at work when we need to look especially hard to find representations of lesbian desire in popular culture. It’s also at work when we assume that a cisgender woman’s partner is a cisgender man, or when an acquaintance asks about an opposite-gender partner without imagining that we might be queer, lesbian, or gay. When cultural theorist Michael Warner introduced the term heteronormativity in the early 1990s, he wanted for readers to think not only about the ways in which heterosexuality is taken for granted, but how social norms associated with heterosexuality become the social norms against which all members of a social group are measured.

From a heteronormative perspective, ideal relationships take the form of romance between straight masculine men and straight feminine women who marry, live monogamously, and parent straight children. Insofar as heteronormativity provides guidelines for both sexual desire and gendered identities, it contributes to patriarchal social formations and is sometimes described by feminist scholars using the term heteropatriarchy.

Finally, with the rise of queer theory and activisms, it is increasingly clear that a dualist approach to sexuality (in which people are either gay or straight) is simply inadequate to describe the incredibly varied ways in which sexuality is experienced. And yet, if we look at the stories that are most frequently shared with children, heteronormativity abounds.

Fairy tales are texts that teach us about the world. They teach us specifically about the nature of love, the patterns of romance, and the routes we ought to take to find happiness. Certainly, princess stories have changed dramatically over the past hundred years or so, but many remain structured around a fantasy of true love, which is characterized by “love at first sight” and the notions that love lasts for ever, that love is fated and inevitable.