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Teaching about fairy tales

(25 Posts)
kickassangel Mon 26-Nov-12 02:00:56

Oh yes, I do like the older versions, and also some of the modern re-writings, but the 'mainstream' versions of stories give me the chills.

The groups of classes I teach will be a mix of very switched on independent young ladies who will have a LOT to say and some typical 'jock' types who will have only half paid attention to anything that included pink/girly stuff anyway.

I am hoping that this will be interesting, and that those 'jock' types will have some new ideas planted.

It's amazing how much fairy tales are a part of collective conscious. Even students I teach from different countries (There's a mix of US, UK, Korea, other European countries) will all know these stories, so they are a useful tool to attach lessons to. I also like how they are so very simple but can be very complex in the messages they send.

I mean, Little Red Riding Hood - what's THAT all about? Keep your eyes open cos Grandma could just be a wolf who talks?

scaevola Sun 25-Nov-12 23:32:51

I think going for one of the nice early versions (like the one where the ugly sisters were rolled down a hill inside a spiked barrel) could be good. Also the picture book version (Ella's Big Chance?) where she jilts the prince to elope with her best friend Buttons.

MooncupGoddess Sun 25-Nov-12 23:23:24

Really interesting points by qumquat and rosebud about the role of women in fairy tales. I'd never thought this out before though I've always loved the ones where the heroine has to go on a quest, like East of the Sun and West of the Moon (OK the quest is to save her husband, but it's still a great story).

MooncupGoddess Sun 25-Nov-12 23:20:45

I'm not sure fairy tales have ever been meant to be realistic, have they? Yes, the gender stereotypes grate but they tell us so much about our ancestors and the cultures we're descended from, and they're mostly very cleverly and economically structured for maximum narrative satisfaction.

EvilTwins Sun 25-Nov-12 23:08:20

Have a look at Sondheim's "Into The Woods", which uses characters from a few fairy tales and puts them together. Act 1 follows the usual fairy tale stories, then Act 2 is after the "happily ever after..." Cinderella is one of them, also Rapunzel, Snow White & Sleeping Beauty. Only 2 princes though... It pokes fun at the stereotypes but has an empowering message at the end. Cinders leaves the bastard, by the way.

Oinkypig Sun 25-Nov-12 23:05:12

I hate Disney and all the rubbish princess stuff that goes with it, but I don't find fairytales that bad. I think if they are taken in the historical context of when they were written the characters aren't too bad. You can't really take a Disney interpretation of a fairytale, call it a fairytale and use it in a lesson. To me it's two different discussions.

OnwardBound Sun 25-Nov-12 23:02:52

You need to read this book -

It is one of the most insightful and stunning additions to feminist literature.

I think it will help you in clarifying a powerful female centred message re the old fairy stories [completely opposed to Disney mush]

rosabud Sun 25-Nov-12 22:57:32

Oh dear - now don't shout at me because I do like fairytales! NOT the pink princess variety and I am not denying the stereo-typing and all of that. BUT there is something very endearing in their simplicity and their place in our culture and history. One thing I love about them is that on one level they are simply good yarns that engage us from a very young age, on another they are allegorical and on yet another they cover all the "big questions" about love, death, honesty, dishonesty, altruism and villainy which are the mainstays of human experience. So on the one hand they are stories that unite us all culturally, yet on the other hand they are worthy of study by academics and people like the OP who can use them to teach very complex subjects about ourselves and our society. I think they are a little bit like Bible stories in that way - think how many levels you can study Noah's Ark on, from children's story to in depth insight into human responsibility and spirituality.

Hi-jacked by Disney but definitely so much more than pink princesses!!

kickassangel Sun 25-Nov-12 22:25:42

I have to admit that I don't like them either, and will be trying to make students see the stereotyping that goes on in them.

I am on a mission to get rid of the 'I want to be a pink princess' culture. Just one step at a time.

ashesgirl Sun 25-Nov-12 21:23:07

Rosabud, yes I was thinking about the male characters too, falling into stereotypes.

I guess I just don't like fairytales full-stop!

Surprising how popular the traditional ones still are today.

rosabud Sun 25-Nov-12 21:05:32

Yes, I agree with you. However, I think the point about fairytales is that they are very simple stories and, in that sense, are full of cliche and stereo-type. The male characters are also stereo-typed, heroes, villains, weak fathers etc etc (but, of course, beause we live in a sexist patriarchy they are more positive stereo-types than those reserved for women) Please don't think I am advocating fairytales as great role-models but essentially they ARE about women (apart from Jack and the Beanstalk, I can't think of any other male fairy-tale leads). I think, on one level, that fairytales reflect the double edged "sword" of how women are viewed in our society - as something fascinating and interesting but also as something to be feared and, if possible, tamed into a "happy ending."

Interesting that the greatest modern fairytale which subverts the stereotypes, 'Shrek,' also manages, despite the very strong female character it therefore creates, to take the lead away from the female and give it to the male.

I just know that you are all now going to think of lots of fairytales with a lead male!!

ashesgirl Sun 25-Nov-12 16:32:27

Yes Rosabud, but aren't they all playing into stereotypes - the evil stepmother, the beautiful, vulnerable princess who gets rescued to a better life?

Really is it any better that women are the bread and butter characters when these stereotypes are played out?

ashesgirl Sun 25-Nov-12 16:30:14

What to do when your young child wants you to read fairy tales? Sorry if this takes you a little off-topic, OP.

I hate all the ones where a girl is attacked or rescued or just wants to marry a handsome prince. And of course, she is always stunningly beautiful.

kickassangel Sun 25-Nov-12 00:34:51

The problem is that Cinders is held up as such an iconic role model. Who wants to scrub and drudge just in the hope that the prince will arrive and carry you off. I also really hate the idea of love at first sight. Very dangerous to keep peddling the idea of 'zing' then you're hitched and happy ever after.

rosabud Sat 24-Nov-12 22:14:42

One thing I do like about Cinderella, though, is that it is all about women!!! Women weild the power in the story (the fairy godmother and the evil stepmother), women forge their own relationships with eachother (stepsisters & Cinders etc) The prince, even in the Disney version, plays a very samll role. I know it's essentially mysogynistic in that she relies on a man for a happy ending and all the other obvious things BUT the interest of the story lies in the fact that all the main characters are women and how they interact with eacother. A bit like modern soaps, too, think of your favourite soap and it's more than likely to be a couple of lead female characters that first spring into your mind. So the message in a lot of fairytales is that, yes men are "good" and heroic and save the day - but women are the real bread-and-butter characters of interest around whom life essentially revolves.

Funnylittleturkishdelight Sat 24-Nov-12 19:38:32

kickassangel the part in 'little red cap' where the grandmother throws the bible at the wolf and it doesn't help is great for symbolism- as is the fact that the woodsman has to come and save her and uses scissors (female domestic tool) to cut up the wolf is another great symbolic point.

You're making me want to write a SOW on fairy tales now!

kickassangel Sat 24-Nov-12 19:13:36

Thanks for these - I think it will be interesting to look at the Disney version, then compare that with earlier ones that are different, and make them realise that the modern versions are just made up b-s.

qumquat Sat 24-Nov-12 17:17:29

I appreciate eg Molly Whuppie still ends in a marriage, but the way it gets there is so different to the Disneyfied fairy tales we know. Marriage as success in fairy tales links to economic security for women, just as in Jane Austen, Molly goes from being an abandoned, starving child to marrying a prince and arranging for her sisters to also marry princes. The focus on food at the wedding reception highlights the reason the wedding was a success for Molly.

Second the votes for Angela carter and marina Warner. Love folk tales!

qumquat Sat 24-Nov-12 17:07:24

There are plenty on non-mysoginistic fairy takes. Fairy tales were originally told and passed on by women, it was when men started recording them that the rot set in, then Disney weighed in last century and made it worse. Look at some of the tales recorded by Joseph Jacobs eg. Mr fox and Molly Whuppie. Mr Fox is part of the Bluebeard family of stories but the woman uses her brains to save herself and expose her husband. The message is very much to tell toung women not to trust smooth talking men who keep secrets from them. Molly Whuppie is part of the Tom Thumb/ Hansl and Gretl family but again the main character is bright and gutsy girl who saves her family and wins her 'prince' (who is an incidental character at the end) by feats of bravery. Look also at The Seal Woman. These are very old tales, not amended in any way, the interesting question for me is why they are not at all well known.

I am fascinated by folk tales. Look at the work of Joe Winston on using them with drama in the early years for nuanced moral education (he's a drama education specialist and folk tale enthusiast). Look at Bruno Bettelheim 'the uses of enchantment' for a Freudian analysis of folk tales- you wont agree with it all but it really makes you think about why we love them and what purpose they serve. I am concerned your aims seem to be anti-folk tale in general, please teach the students about the purpose they served in a pre-literate society where starvation was a constant and real threat.

If you want to focus on Cinderella please also look at the Grimm/carol Ann Duffy version Ashputtel. It would be interesting to compare and discuss why this was not the version which became best known.

Fwiw I teach my kids to look at things from a feminist perspective, maybe it's easier when working in a girls' school.

Funnylittleturkishdelight Sat 24-Nov-12 17:01:28

How about using an extract from Angela Carter? Marina Warner has done some fascinating writing on fairy tales. If they're very ables, then that might be a appropriate source.

When looking at disney and family representation with my a level group, we use disney princesses, and I use the much circulated image of all of the disney princesses with their roles summarised as a starting point of debate. Loads of good stuff online rating the disney princesses on their ability to have agency and personal freedom.

Maybe explore the connotations of the words 'princess' and 'hero'?

kickassangel Sat 24-Nov-12 16:53:13

Thanks for that. That's exactly what I mean about the dangers of believing any of the Disney crap.

I have started writing a modern version of Cinderella where in fact she's just a moany teenage bitch. By the end of it, she's got the prince, the nice house, and her step sister won't talk to her. And guess what? She suddenly realises that she's a teenage pregnancy statistic with no hope of going to college or getting a good job.

I'm going to use this to blend into the writing section. Students will have to use 3 of the character types, and draw a modern version of them, then write a story about them. I haven't finished the story yet, but will show them how to plan, write, redraft etc using this example.

Acepuppets Sat 24-Nov-12 16:39:05

Funny you should be teaching this - I work with early years children and use fairy tales a lot to develop reading skills etc. Anyway I wrote this about what Cinderella did after she got married -

Hope it can be of use to yousmile

kickassangel Sat 24-Nov-12 16:32:35

I'm allowed to talk about gender inequality (we do whole days on the issues of equality), but where it strays into any kind of political arena - so if we started talking about the recent elections and how each party acted towards women - I would be on dodgy ground.

That's why I need to be a little wary - these are G&T kids in the US so it's a possible topic. In fact, I'm in the state (and close to the city) where a woman was reprimanded for using the word 'vagina' in the state govt. (She then performed the Vagina Monologs on the state senate steps).

That's why I want to use fairy tales. It keeps the ideas abstract rather discussing recent politics, and there have been several media analyses of them so I have some media theory to refer to. Also, the stereotyping is so blatant, that even those kids who have very 'pink is for girls' type mind-set will probably get what I'm trying to teach, although they may not agree with it.

Cinderella absolutely makes me cringe. The only saving grace is that she wore blue to the ball (and we can have an interesting discussion about that). I actually prevented dd from watching it as I think it's bordering on dangerous - meet your prince once and marry him to get a happy life - how many marriages are based on that and then fail?

Anyway, I am able to teach at GCSE level pretty much, as they are bright kids who can deal with academic stuff well, but I'm hoping to use some 'easy' material to tackle some difficult ideas.

Funnylittleturkishdelight Sat 24-Nov-12 15:20:37

You're not encouraged to teach about gender inequality?? We have it in the curriculum!! Especially when we look at language development.

When I've taught fairy tales to the same age group, I've taught very low ability- so used the story 'the practical princess' to compare the old fashioned fairy tales about the values portrayed in these old stories.

I'll have a think. I've also done a lesson where I showed them different versions of little red riding hood- and then analysed the difference between the different versions and the symbolism involved? I used Roald Dahl's poem version which they all liked best!

kickassangel Sat 24-Nov-12 15:12:39

I'm putting together a unit for teaching 13 year olds about fairy tales. Now, it can't be overtly feminist as I am meant to be a-political at school, BUT I can point out inequality (I know, how fucked up is society that it's a good thing to teach about racial equality, but a bad thing to talk about gender equality)

Anyway - my plan so far is.
1. Look at the history/background of fairy tales and their key ingredients.
2. Teach about Propp's theory of characters, and discuss if fairy tales really do use them, and how acceptable/realistic these characterizations are.
3. Watch 'Cinderella' and deconstruct it. I have some smart kids, they will see the misogyny in it.
4. Then watch a modern version of the movie, see how the characters have changed, or if it's still just as unbelievable.
5. Discuss why these stories are still so popular, what do we get from them, should they be phased out etc.
6. It then becomes a writing activity for them, so a lot less under my control, and more about writing skills than discussion of theory.

I am thinking that the discussion around Cinderella and the characters - maiden in distress etc could be very informative and eye opening.

Anyone want to throw in any ideas or concerns?

I hate Cinderella with a passion, but I suspect most of my students will as well. I also suspect that looking at the depiction of teenage girls in the modern one will create some very heated discussions. There are some very strong independent girls in the classes, but also some girls and boys who have the whole 'girls should be girly' lesson rammed down their throats by parents (mirrors and fur trim in their lockers ffs, boys allowed to watch football while the girls help to cook for Thanksgiving)

Let me know your thoughts.

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