Community Update

World Pulse Toolkits Available!

At World Pulse, we recognize the need for ongoing learning—for you and for your community! Our toolkits are all available here.

We are especially excited to share our signature Citizen Journalism and Digital Empowerment Curriculum. Start learning today!

FAIRY TALE ADDICTIONS -by Shaheen Sultan Dhanji

Few nights ago, my friends and I were sitting at a lounge overlooking the Toronto harbour, enjoying the evening Autumn breeze. There was a table next to us, three women and two men, heavily engrossed in discussion on ' what is beauty and the image of barbie models'. Hence, the birth of this thought ..Think of fairy tales, and your mind immediately envisions helpless damsels with “golden”— not blonde — hair, waiting for their Prince Charming. Cases in point — Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

However, the original fairy tales that we heard were actually a different ball game altogether. They began with Hans Christian Andersen, and the Grimm Brothers, and were not as sugar-coated as they are today. In fact, they were, for the most part, rather gruesome. Take Cinderella for instance. The one I actually heard as a child was a nice, neat little story — poor girl, mistreated by stepmother and sisters, meets Prince Charming, forgives sisters and mother, and lives happily ever after.

The original version by the Grimm brothers? Not so pretty — the birds that took care of Cinderella poked out the sisters’ eyes and blinded them at the end of the fairy tale!

And then there’s The Little Mermaid. Unlike what Disney would have us believe, she died at the end of the story, unable to deal with the loss of her beloved prince.

However, what is perhaps most important here is to realize that fairy tales are meant for children. They read them during their formative years, and the opinions they form, do, to an extent, mould their mode of thought in the future. What, then, are the thoughts that they are being shown?

For one, there are two types of women. The helpless sorts, who can not do anything on their own, and need a man, in the guise of a saviour, to put them out of their misery. Cases in point here: Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. After all, what stopped Cinderella from leaving her stepsisters and mother, and telling her father the truth? Better yet, why couldn’t she have gone to the prince herself? Why rely on magic to wear beautiful gowns and then only attain her prince?

And then of course, there is the clueless Rapunzel. After all, couldn’t she have cut her own hair, made a rope and run off? Why wait for the prince? (incidentally, in the original version of Rapunzel, our fair-weathered maiden has twins from the Prince all without being married to him!)

The other type of women — with the exception of a rare, kind fairy godmother — is the evil woman, obsessed with material possessions and beauty. Cases in point: the stepmothers in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella.

Finally, there are the evil witches. You won’t find many evil warlocks or wizards in fairy tales. And while on the subject of witches, why weren’t Hansel and Gretel reprimanded for eating someone else’s house down? Surely good manners dictate that you at least ask someone before starting to chew on their roof. no?

Why is it that all these women are either pretty and clueless or evil and clever? Can’t they be pretty and clever? Or perhaps average looking but interesting and fun? Solve that, and you have the answers to all the gender equality questions we face today. Why blame it on TV when there is ample proof that the stories we heard in our childhood reinforced certain beliefs?

But to be fair, the men are also reduced to objects. Their role in life, it seems, is rescuing fair maidens and marrying them without getting to know them first. (I guess arranged marriages and fairy tales have quite a bit in common then).

Or, on the other hand, they are spineless, dim-witted people who are unable to make any decisions of their own. (Snow White’s and Cinderella’s fathers believe their second wives instead of siding with their daughters.)

And ultimately, it seems that the most interesting characters happen to be evil. For example, the wolf who tries to eat Red Riding Hood (she is later “rescued” by the woodcutter) has much more of a personality than Red Riding Hood, who appears to be a bit of a half-wit.

Of course, there are also some obvious symbols in fairytales that one can not overlook. Jack “cuts” the beanstalk, and thus the giant dies — castration. Rapunzel’s mother, prior to giving birth to her, develops a “craving” for the fruit in the witch’s garden — pregnancy. Rapunzel, in the original Grimm version, has twins which is perhaps the reason the witch cuts her hair since it represented chastity. Additionally, at puberty she was locked in a tower — to “guard” that very chastity. Meanwhile, Snow White eats the apple and goes to sleep, resembling Eve in paradise who eats the apple and is thus banished from Paradise.

Similarly, there are many resemblances to drug use/addiction in fairy tales. Rapunzel’s mother is addicted to the cabbage (incidentally called Rapunzel) in the witch’s garden.

Some analysts have also pointed out that the word “bean” actually meant cannabis and, therefore, Jack climbed the “bean”stalk, up, up, to the “clouds” and managed to recover his three treasures. After that, he promptly quit by cutting down the beanstalk. Simply put, he smoked some weed, which clouded his thinking and that, in turn, helped him determine his priorities.

There are definitely many underlying themes in fairy tales. But perhaps what is needed now is another set of fairy tales, or perhaps re-revised ones, in which Red Riding Hood kills the wolf herself, Rapunzel cuts her hair, makes a rope and escapes the tower all by herself. Or, one where Hansel and Gretel say hello to the witch, have tea with her and ask her to kill their wicked stepmother. Now, that would be quite fun! --ssd

This story was written for World Pulse’s Ending Violence Against Women Digital Action Campaign.

World Pulse believes that women's stories, recommendations, and collective rising leadership can—and will—bring an end to gender-based violence. The EVAW Campaign elicits powerful content from women on the ground, strengthens their confidence as vocal grassroots leaders, and ensures that influencers and powerful institutions hear their stories.
Learn more »


jadefrank's picture

Living in fairy tales

Hi Shaheen,

This is an interesting look into the history of fairy tales. I agree that today's fairy tales are far too perfect and paint women in a helpless, yet beautiful light, and that we all need a prince charming to rescue us. My boyfriend's niece is obsessed with the Disney princesses. When I read these stories to her, I desperately want to shout, "You know, life doesn't always have a happy ending. Women don't need princes to rescue them - we can rescue ourselves!"

Have read Wicked, or an other Gregory Maguire books? I love his twist on fairy tales!

Thanks for this post!


Dear Jade, thank you for your comment. Yes, we can rescue ourselves, indeed!
No, have not read Wicked -- shall do this in the near future.

Keep in touch!



Nusrat Ara's picture

A different take . Loved it.

A different take . Loved it.


Nusrat, glad you enjoyed it.

Keep in touch!



jodelight's picture


I loved this entry. Very clever and oh so witty. I agree with many of your observations. Speaking of fanciful stories and faraway places...
Alice in Wonderland! I know it's not an old fairy tale, but it definitely has some of those alter-reality elements that you were talking about, as in Jack in the bean stalk.
Anyway, thanks for the fun, interesting, witty article.
Look forward to hearing more!


SSD's picture

Thanks Jody!

So Glad you relished the piece. Jody!

Cheers, Shaheen


Iffat Gill's picture

Interesting read

This was a very interesting read. Thanks for sharing this.

Iffat Gill

SSD's picture


Rose, thanks for your comments on both pieces.

Your work sounds interesting -- would like to learn more about what you do in Multan. I shall be going to Pakistan within two months.

Shaheen Sultan


Natalya Rutchyk's picture


the fairy tales create image of Good People as defenseless and coward! but it is not the standard, certainly not in our time! we have to take care of others and OURSELVES and be able to defend ourselves! in fairy tales a good and kind person becomes a victim of evil society and may be the meaning of that is - even naive, nice people can oppose the society's evilness and win!!!hopefully!

SSD's picture


I just saw your message now - though dated in 2012 ! Oh, wow !

Thank you for leaving your thoughts and reflections for many of us to ponder further and make wise choices regarding our lives and of society.


ddegarm's picture


What a wonderful commentary on the lives of women. We often seek the protection and illusions provided us through fairy tales and forget that we are strong and capable women who can confront danger in many different ways. I would like to read some new fairy tales and introduce them to the women and girls in my family.

“Women have a special capacity to lead us to a more peaceful world with compassion, affection and kindness. And there is no more important time for that than this moment.” - Dalai Lama

SSD's picture

Spot on !

I just noticed your comment today (even though it is dated in 2012 !), sorry for the long delay in responding. Nevertheless, it is truly wonderful to read your expression. Indeed, I agree with the energetic voice in your message.
Thank you so very much, dear Ddegarm ! Stay blessed.


Kara-Amena's picture

The Devil's Advocate

Wow Shaheen - what an interesting analysis! You didn't actually have this discussion overlooking the Toronto harbour, did you? I remember all these stories from my childhood, but don't remember being adversely affected by these poor female role models. I wonder how often these fairy tales are shared with children today. My sons are 17-25 and fairytales were not a big part of their childhoods. There were some incredible children's movies in the 90's (when they were growing up) - ones that featured strong female roles and ones that I thoroughly enjoyed viewing with them. Ones that I probably would not have seen if I was not raising kids at the time. If you haven't seen these movies, you should check them out.

The newest one is BRAVE - which I haven't seen, but was happy to see being advertised and wished I had some young ones at home for an excuse to see it. There's MULAN, POCAHONTAS, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ANASTASIA, just to name a few. And many more with really strong female supporting roles.

My husband is convinced that t.v. and advertising is full of images of what he calls the "dumb white male." Of course, once he mentioned it, we notice it all the time. It seems a show or commercial is not complete without the depiction of at least one dumb white male.

Anyway, I enjoyed your perspective! And love your humor! In a way, the view represented here also reminded me of your recent blog post, Two Moths Dancing in a Flame (which I loved!!).

Beshak Shaheen!!

Peace and blessings,


SSD's picture

My apology

Dear Kara-Amena,
First, I am, truly sorry for such a long delay in responding. I do not know why but I just now noticed your comment alongside other two people's comments that were from 2012 !

Your thoughts, impressions and reflections shared in your message are meaningful and rather significant. Yes, my dear, I surely had this conversation sitting by the harbourfront ! There was a table next to ours and they were talking about gender issues, thus, my post gave birth here !

And, well, your husband certainly has some valid points, indeed !

I noticed you have mentioned my post 'Two Moths Dancing in a Flame' -- oh, dear, you reminded me of a time when I used to blog at WP - my blog Bloodinkdiary -- that blog had met its' fate. Thank you for relishing my poem and this article, means much to me. Hope you pardon my long and overdue reply. Sorry, meri dost !
Love and light.


Magazine »

Read global coverage through women's eyes

Letters to a Better World

Letters to a Better World

Community »

Connect with women on the ground worldwide

womenspace's picture

CAMBODIA: Ordinary Women Can Make a Difference

Campaigns »

Be heard at influential forums

WWW: Women Weave the Web

WWW: Women Weave the Web

Programs »

Help us train women citizen journalists

World Pulse Voices of Our Future

World Pulse Voices of Our Future

Partners »

Join forces with our wide network of partners

Nobel Women's Initiative

Nobel Women's Initiative