Recent research shows that girls start getting the message that they're less than equal when they're children. So kudos to actress and mom Kristen Bell for calling out one of the most insidious sources for this kind of messaging--children's fairy tales. Bell, best known as the voice of Anna in Frozen and as the star of the TV miniseries Veronica Mars, loves to snuggle up and read bedtime stories to her daughters, five-year-old Lincoln and three-year-old Delta.
But when she's done, she doesn't just tuck them in and turn out the light. She has a brief discussion with the kids about the lessons, good or bad, you can learn from a fairy tale. Take "Snow White," a Grimm brothers tale that has, of course, become a beloved Disney classic, and which Bell targeted in a recent interview with Parents magazine. In the story, Snow White is a princess who has been keeping house for seven male dwarfs while hiding from her wicked stepmother who envies her beauty and intends to do her harm. But when the stepmother shows up disguised as a hag and offers Snow White a poisoned apple, she eats it and falls into a death-like sleep. She's saved when a handsome prince comes along and kisses her, the only thing that can bring her back to life.
There's a whole lot that's wrong with this story, so every time they read it, Bell dissects it for her daughters. "I look at my girls and ask, 'Don't you think it's weird that Snow White didn't ask the old witch why she needed to eat the apple? Or where she got that apple?' I say, 'I would never take food from a stranger, would you?'" When her daughters answer "No!" Bell figures she's doing something right. She also asks Lincoln and Delta if they think it's weird that the prince kisses Snow White while she's asleep and without asking her permission first--another no-no. Does she also question the fact that Snow White's entire worth seems to come from her beauty and housekeeping skills? Bell doesn't say, but that might be a good next step.
Keira Knightley bans Cinderella.
Bell is not the only movie star to put some thought into the messages her daughters might be getting from classic fairy tales and popular culture. Keira Knightley, known for her role in Pirates of the Caribbean and currently starring in Colette, told Ellen Degeneres that the Disney movies Cinderella and The Little Mermaid are banned from viewing by her three-year-old daughter because they don't reflect female empowerment. In Cinderella, Knightley said, "She waits around for a rich guy to rescue her. Don't! Rescue yourself, obviously." Not to mention the fact that her entire future rests on having smaller feet than anyone else.
The Little Mermaid is forbidden--even though Knightley likes the music--because Ariel gives up her voice to the villain Ursula for a chance to meet the prince she's fallen in love with from afar. "I mean, the songs are great but do not give your voice up for a man. Hello?!" Knightley said. The original Hans Christian Andersen story is even worse. In it, the mermaid not only gives up her voice but has to endure horrific pain whenever she walks or dances on her human legs, which she does a lot. And when she fails in her quest to prevent her beloved prince from marrying someone else, she dies.
Is it better to talk to your daughters about how fairy tales and the movies made from them portray women, or better to ban them outright? There are arguments both ways, but I'm in favor of discussion because parents can't always control what content their kids are exposed to when they visit friends or even at school. And once you start paying attention to the messages classic children's stories and classic movies deliver about women's place in the world, it's hard not to start seeing those messages everywhere--in sitcoms and children's books, and cartoons, and on and on. Getting your daughters to see those messages to might be the best first step toward protecting them.