One of the issues Orenstein touches on is fairytales. She points out that Disney’s Princess line is based on fairytales but they are actually watered down and pinkified versions. But the original fairytales themselves seem questionable – she wonders whether she wants her daughter dressing up as the Little Mermaid who gave up her voice to get a man.
However, she later quotes Bruno Bettleheim’s seminal work on fairytales and how the original stories, their blood and gore included, provide important lessons for kids in a way that they easily internalize. Her own reading of Grimm’s fairytales with her daughter provides mixed responses. Her daughter laughs off the gore in some, but is turned off by it in others (such as stepsisters eyes being pecked out).
I had always kind of assumed that I would read my child fairytales since I had grown up on them. However, I myself read the Grimm’s version of the tales much later and found them quite trying – antiquated language, and at least my book had only text in a small font. The whole joy of fairytales seems to me to be colourful pictures because at the age at which fairytales fascinated me, I liked picture books. I think I read different versions of the tales, since we got quite a few storybooks as gifts. I’m not sure if my psyche suffered from not reading the original but I frankly don’t see myself reading anything that gory to my child (like apparently Snow White’s stepmother was invited to her wedding and then made to wear hot iron shoes and dance until she died!)
Now I wonder if I’d bother with them at all, Bettelheim’s reccomendations notwithstanding. I guess I would if someone gifted them to me. On the one hand, it would be weird if my kid had no clue about Cinderella or Snow White (I wonder though if boys take to these tales in the same way as girls) or at least of different versions of the tales from the Disney-packaged one. On the other hand, the handsome prince as the ultimate goal at the end of most tales is kind of overemphasized in these tales. Again, confusion.
Orenstein also objects to how many of the modern-day princess books seem to be “pro-girl” and “anti-boy”. In the example she cites The Paper Bag Princess the princess dumps the ungrateful prince and skips off into the sunset alone. Somehow, this message worries Orenstein too and strikes her as somewhat Thelma and Louise. “I want my girl to do and be whatever she dreams of as an adult, but I also hope she will find her Prince (or Princess) Charming and make me a grandma,.” She says. Really? Why? It seems amazing to me that someone who has thought about these issues as much as Orenstein has still clings onto this one version of happy-ever-after.
The fact is that girls are going to be bombarded with the finding-your-prince-is-the-holy-grail-of-happiness narrative anyway, so is the odd counter-narrative really going to pull a child in the opposite direction and ensure a lonely future. Why does not finding that special ‘one’ necessarily mean a lonely future anyway? Here I think Orenstein needs to take a good long look at her own convictions and prejudices.
She also questions books which introduce ideas such as “girls can do anything they want” at a time when some girls like her daughter don’t even know they can’t do anything they want. Again, it’s hard to predict when girls will start getting the message that they can’t do anything they want but unless the world drastically changes, sooner or later they will. At which time, it might help if ingrained in their mind is a story – as powerful as the Happy Ever After With Prince one – of girls who did do everything they want and who had the approval of the narrator of that book at least, and hopefully the mommy who read the book, they might not accept the irrational constraints of society so easily.
When I was growing up, there wasn’t much choice in terms of literature for kids. No wonder, then, that so many of us grew up on Enid Blyton, our fantasies filled with picnic hampers of sardine sandwiches and scones (both of which don’t hold a patch on a good samosa, if only I knew then) and British idealisms. Recently, I downloaded a whole lot of my Blyton favourites and found that I’m unable to read them. I cringe at some of her attitudes – how the girls help mummy in the kitchen while the boys work in the yard, for example, how foreigners were caricatured in the boarding school books, how people who were darkskinned when they appeared were always slightly dangerous and wild, but ultimately revealed to be goldenhearted (sometimes). And I wonder, would I introduce my children to these books? Sure, there is a wealth of imagination there. I myself gleaned much of my value system from them – telling the truth, a sense of ‘honour’ but God knows what else too. Now though we have alternatives – there’s Harry Potter, for one, which though not perfect transgresses stereotypes a lot more than Blyton and also provides a workable value system.
It seems like there are many more alternatives for children’s literature available in India itself. Would it be possible to ditch Blyton altogether? What about fairytales?