A few years back, I found myself spending time with the four-year-old daughter of some friends. We stretched out on the living room floor with a couple of tiny plastic figurines and a long-necked stuffed animal to amuse ourselves.
It interested me when she picked up one of the figurines and placed it on the back of the animal, announcing, "This one goes here." She then picked up the second figurine and placed it on the animal's head, announcing, "This one goes here."
Curious, I pressed her for an explanation.
"Because," she said, "this one is the boy and he goes up here; and this one is the girl and she goes down here."
Even more intrigued, I pressed her further: "Why does the boy go up there and the girl down here?" Her answer came as a complete shock.
"Because the boy is more important."
Where did she come up with that? Her parents certainly were not teaching her to think that way. But it was very clear that, in some innocuous way, she had "learned" at this tender age that little girls are not as "important" as little boys. How?
A newly published study suggests that one answer might be right under our noses-in the pages of our children's favorite fairy tales.
Lori Baker-Sperry of Western Illinois University and Lori Grauerholz of Purdue University recently studied 168 Brothers Grimm fairy tales to determine how the authors treated the issue of "beauty." Their study revealed that fairy tales send strong messages about the feminine beauty ideal, which can inhibit young women who feel they do not match this ideal.
"Children's media can be a powerful mechanism by which children learn cultural values," Baker-Sperry said in a news release posted on the Western Illinois University Web site. "Through the proliferation of fairy tales in the media, girls (and boys) are taught specific messages concerning the importance of women's bodies and women's attractiveness. We are concerned that messages of how looks can label a person as good or bad is harmful to children."
The study, entitled "The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children's Fairy Tales," was published in the October 2003 issue of Gender and Society. It found that beauty or ugliness was mentioned in 94 percent of the fairy tales, mainly in relation to female characters. In the "Cinderella" fairy tale, for example, beauty in women was mentioned 114 times, while the appearance of male characters is mentioned less than 35 times in each tale.
"Boys don't get the message as much that it's so important to be handsome," Grauerholz was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article. Although most of the princes are handsome, she noted, "there are not continual references to it."
Admittedly, the study did not focus on whether men or women were more "important"-the lesson my four-year-old friend had somehow learned-but the researcher's findings certainly suggest that fairy tales reinforce many gender, racial, and socio-economic stereotypes.
The study found that beauty was most often linked with goodness in the children's stories, while ugliness was commonly associated with evil (Snow White's beautiful, but evil, stepmother being a rare exception). Beauty was also linked with economic privilege.
"From early childhood, girls are read fairy tales about princesses who achieve vast riches simply because their beauty makes them special," Grauerholz said in a news release on the Purdue University Web site. "That's a powerful message that can inhibit young women who feel they do not meet society's expectation of what it means to be attractive. . . . It's important to understand the messages our children receive about traditional gender roles, especially during a time when women are encouraged to be independent and rely on their brains rather than beauty."
The researchers said that some people have questioned whether pervasive references to beauty are harmful. They argue that powerful messages about beauty may compel some women to engage in harmful behaviors, such as developing anorexic or bulimic eating habits, or seek beauty at the expense of other activities or careers, such as competitive sports or jobs that are not viewed as feminine.
"This continued emphasis on beauty is a way society controls girls and women," Grauerholz said in the Purdue news release. "Women adopt behaviors that reflect and reinforce their relative powerlessness, which can lead to limiting a woman's personal freedom, power and control."
Fairy tales can also have a negative impact upon children of color. A few months before this study came out, a colleague told me about the young daughter of a friend who had astutely observed that all of the princesses in the fairy tales were white and most had blonde hair and blue eyes. She also had observed that her own Asian skins tones did not match that ideal. Thus, before this young girl had even entered kindergarten, she had already deduced that she was somehow inferior to other girls who do meet that ideal. That's a powerful, inhibiting message that is being hard-wired into the data banks of young female brains.
Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz allude to this problem, noting the lack of minorities mentioned in the fairy tales they studied.
"Fairy tales are important historically because they provide children with information about a certain period," Baker-Sperry said in the Purdue news release. "What they don't do is provide positive images about groups who are not white, middle-class or heterosexual."
The researchers do not advocate the elimination of fairy tales, but instead urge parents to help their children critically evaluate the messages in the stories.
"We don't discourage children from reading fairy tales, even with these misleading stereotypes and failure to include minorities," Baker-Sperry said. "But we strongly recommend parent or adult interaction while children read or view fairy tales."
"I intentionally read fairy tales to my four-year-old daughter to expose her to these issues," she said. "And we talk about what's real and what's just a story. Even at four she's able to separate what real women can do and become from those portrayed in the fairy tales."
The researchers also applaud more modern fairy tales, like the 2001 animated film "Shrek," which defy stereotypical roles. Although following a traditional fairy tale format, this story features a beautiful maiden who lives happily ever after despite being transformed into an ogre.
About 43 percent of the Grimm Brothers fairy tales have been reproduced in children's books or movies. Five of these fairy tales-Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel-make up about two-thirds of all reproductions.
"The pervasiveness of fairy tales in our society, through books and movies, suggest that there are many opportunities for these messages to become internalized," Baker-Sperry said.