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Ep 5: Reframing Our Fairytales

Listen to the full episode here:

Episode Notes:

A summary of our podcast discussion of Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill (2018).

  • This week we’re talking myth and magic and Fierce Fairytales, Nikita Gill’s collection of poems and flash fiction on fairytales

  • Nikita Gill, is no stranger to fans of instapoetry, and she’s been a National Poetry Day ambassador in the UK, written six books, and two plays. She’s also the most followed poet in the UK, and has been a speaker at literary festivals and events as well as at a TED Talk in the year 2020.

  • So many of us had these stories read to us at bedtime when we were 4 or 5. These classic or traditional fairy tales continue to be extremely popular all over the world
  • Research has shown that children have internalized stereotypes of masculine and feminine roles by the time they enter kindergarten. And there’s a lot of evidence for how much the fairytales we tell children play a major role in this gender role development and socialization

  • Most women in fairytales tend to be passive and submissive, while it’s the men who perform the action. For example, Snow White stays in her castle until the huntsman tells her to run away into the woods
  • Also, why is that that women who have power, such as the witch in Little Mermaid, the Queen in Snow White, and even Goldilocks, why is it they always do bad things?
  • Studies have also shown that even the illustrations in fairy tales teach young children about what’s good and bad – they can’t read, but even young children can look at the pictures and identify which are the good characters – the beautiful, slim and youthful-looking ones, and the bad people, who tend to be depicted as ugly and obese. The fixation on beauty is something that children pick up subconsciously when they read these books.
  • What’s worse, fairy tales tend to depict people as caricatures, very black-and-white characters that lack nuance and subtlety. Which is where Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairytales comes in! In this collection, she’s taken many of the original stories and given them new context. And her princesses are not girls who are delicate and naïve, who cannot do anything to help themselves.
  • But simply being beautiful and marrying a prince doesn’t make you happy, especially if the prince marries you only because you’re a princess
  • Gill’s stories have powerful messages of self-confidence and self-belief, and work to remind us that true love begins by loving ourselves. That’s an important thing to note when we live in a world that constantly tries to undermine our confidence. Girls go on Instagram and they immediately feel they will never be enough, because who can compete with all the photoshopped, staged perfection you see there?
  • And to be clear, it’s not only girls who are affected by this need to be seen as a worthy member of society. As we’ve mentioned before, boys are equally at risk of being stereotyped and told to play a certain role in order to fit in and to be validated by their peers. Nikita Gill’s book also addresses how boys are equally affected when we expect them to always play the hero’s role, and we don’t allow them to be in touch with their emotional side.  

  • There are many passages in the book that also address how boys are equally vulnerable to trauma, and are also victims of these unrealistic expectations of society. We don’t allow boys to cry, or to show that they are affected by emotional stories, to talk about how they feel.
  • Two Misunderstood Stepsisters is one of the stories in this collection, which looks at the perspective of Cinderella’s stepsisters. These two don’t even have names in the original stories, they are only ever called the “ugly stepsisters”. So Nikita Gill talks about the way we demean other women by calling them “ugly”. This story’s message is so important, because it talks about the way girls feel so much pressure to be beautiful that when they don’t fit society’s beauty standards they begin hate themselves.

  • Highlights how important it is to give girls stories in which they are encouraged to believe in their own abilities and skills, instead of always giving them stories that emphasize how important it is to be well-behaved, to avoid risk and to aim to for perfection. No wonder so many women and girls suffer from social anxiety and a lack of self-confidence.
  • Researchers have found that girls’ self-confidence is equal to boys until the age of 12, but that it drops by 30 per cent between the ages of 12 – 14. 

    Because girls are always told to be careful and are not encouraged to be as active and open to new experiences as boys are, they become less and less open to risk and failure as they go into their teen years.

  • Many girls develop social anxiety as they go into their teen years, first, because their bodies are flooded with estrogen, which heightens emotional intelligence and curbs risk, and secondly because they are at that vulnerable age when parents and adults around them increasingly warn them about the importance of good behaviour.
  • It also doesn’t help that in Asian culture there’s so much pressure to do well in academics and to be accepted by society. So most girls never get out of their comfort zone, and they never take any risks or try different things beyond what their parents and teachers ask them to do. That’s all very well and good in your school life, that drive to get everything right is why girls generally do better than boys at school. But that means outside of school girls are less able to cope with new situations, and that gives them a great deal of anxiety.
  • One of the nicest things about Gill’s book is that she understands so much of this anxiety, and if you read this collection, it’s actually pretty uplifting, she’s got so many positive and necessary messages in there
  • Gill is an Asian woman as well, having grown up in India, so she would definitely have experienced what it’s like to tell girls they are less than, and less valued than boys.
  • While it’s not the first fairytale retelling, and there are plenty of choices out there if you’d like to read updated and modernized versions, one of the great things about Fierce Fairytales is how approachable her language is. Reading this book, you can see why she’s so popular on Instagram, where she posts a lot of her poetry. Also, it’s a great way to start the conversation about what kinds of stories we need to read, and why it’s so important that we take these old tales and renew them for today’s world.

  • The book features bite-sized narratives so you can read a little or a lot at a time
  • It also features her own illustrations
  • A book like this shows us why it’s so important to think about the things that we’ve read: instead of accepting the stories we’re told, we should take the time to examine them – think about why Gaston became who he did, how the ugly stepsisters felt about being called that, and why Sleeping Beauty was doomed because her parents didn’t try to teach her better.

Book Summary:

Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill (2018)

Genre: Poetry / Fairytales

Fairytales are some of the earliest stories we tell children, and these stories form some of our most fundamental frames for understanding social behaviour. Yet we inadvertently condition both boys and girls to accept simplistic and often problematic ideas when we fail to question the fairytales we tell.

Nikita Gill poses questions that help us to look beyond the mental shorthand that is often encoded in stories like these: what if we consider Jack’s mother’s abusive behaviour, what if we stop to think about what we are doing when we dismiss Cinderella’s stepsisters as ugly; what are the lessons we can learn from Ariel’s experience?

In this episode we talk about the way the stories we tell about women and girls help to form our ideas about gender behaviour in society, and why we need new perspectives that go beyond the black-and-white narratives we all grew up with. Gender biases have a tendency to endorse the traditional feminine ideal or to view women in idealized, overly romantic terms or as delicate creatures who require protection. This helps to perpetuate and reinforce  stereotypical traditional gender roles that describe, for example, men as strong and women as weak. Not only are boys and girls learning about sex roles from what they are reading, boys in particular learn that part of being a boy is discriminating against girls, and girls are learning that only boys do interesting and exciting things. Fairytales are especially egregious in the promotion of gender bias, as they are tales handed down from times in which gender roles were especially rigid. As they are given the labels of ‘classic’ and ‘traditional’, these are often materials parents encourage children to read.

Buy the book:

Kinokuniya Malaysia

Google Play Books (ebook  / audiobook) 

Suggested Further Reading:

The Girl and the Goddess: Stories and Poems of Divine Wisdom by Nikita Gill 

Nikita Gill’s vivid poetry and beautiful illustrations have captured hearts and imaginations–but in The Girl and the Goddess, she offers us her most personal and deeply felt writing to date: an intimate coming-of-age story told in linked poems that offers a look into the Hindu mythology and rich cultural influences that helped her become the woman she is today.

The Confidence Code for Girls: Taking Risks, Messing Up, & Becoming Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self by Katty Kay, Claire Shipman, JillEllyn Riley and Nan Lawson

Girls can rule the world—all they need is confidence. This empowering, entertaining guide from the bestselling authors of The Confidence Code gives girls the essential yet elusive code to becoming bold, brave, and fearless. 

Packed with graphic novel strips; appealing illustrations; fun lists, quizzes, and challenges; and true stories from tons of real girls, The Confidence Code for Girls teaches girls to embrace risk, deal with failure, and be their most authentic selves.

Classroom Materials:

Discussion questions:

1. Write out a brief summary of your favourite fairytale. Can you describe the personality of the main characters of the story? What are the admirable or detestable traits of each character? 

2. Can you name some fairytale characters that act differently from traditional gender stereotypes? What are their admirable / detestable traits? 

3.  Give some examples of gender stereotypes that fairytales perpetuate, eg. that girls are damsels in distress that need to be rescued by a heroic prince as in Cinderella or Snow White, or that fortune favours boys who are bold and boastful and audacious.

4. Does the appearance of the characters affect your opinion of them? Do you think we should judge a person by their physical appearance? 


Classroom Activities:

a. Write an essay of 500w of a character in a fairytale and why OR

b. Write an essay of 500w of a fairytale ending that you would like to change.

5. Are women molded in today’s age to please society? Eg. Little Mermaid gave up her voice in order to have legs.

– Do you think today’s girls, because of education and all the exposure to feminism on social media helped women and girls become more aware of things they need to do for themselves? (self-love and value)

6.Boys and men have to do certain things to get validation from society. They are told to play the hero role and that being emotional or showing any emotions (ex: cry) is not an option. They are also not even allowed to talk about their feelings.

How do you think this affects men and boys growing up with these expectations?

7. Cinderella – Ugly Step Sisters (no name in the original version, hates themselves for not being beautiful and different from society’s standard of what beauty is. Are girls and women pressured in to being beautiful? And does that affect how they look at themselves? Wether they are valuable or not in society?

-Do you think only appearances matter in a person? What other aspects or quality makes a person? *ask boys and girls 

-Do you parents ask you to act/behave a certain way when you go out?

-Are you told to be polite, obedient?

-Are you told to be less active and be careful all the time either in sports or in the way you conduct yourself?

– Do you think there is an internalized gender stereotype in our country? Eg: India – prefers sons instead of daughters 

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