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Fairytales Have Brainwashed Us To Not Recognize Abuse
5 Ways Fairy Tales Brainwashed Women Not To Recognize Abuse

Jane Gilmore explores misogyny and harmful messages in classic fairy tales that brainwash us into not recognizing abuse.

Did you know the underlying themes in fairy tales brainwash women and girls to not recognize abuse? 

Fairy tales are, of course, a staple of many childhoods, offering stories of magic, adventure, and often, (apparently?) love conquering all. However, a closer examination reveals an unsettling undercurrent: these tales inadvertently lead women and girls to not recognize abuse. 

This episode is Part One of Anne’s interview with Jane Gilmore

Part One: 5 Ways Fairy Tales Brainwashed Women Not To Recognize Abuse (This Episode)

Part Two: The Double Standards Confining Women In Fairy Tales

The Five Ways Fairy Tales Brainwash Women To Not Recognize Abuse

1. The Damsel In Distress Syndrome

Fairy tales often feature a damsel in distress, rescued by a prince or male hero. This trope subtly suggests that women are dependent on men for their salvation, often enduring suffering from an evil woman until a man resolves their situation. This narrative reinforces the notion that women should be passive and patient, even in abusive scenarios, awaiting rescue rather than taking action.

2. Glorification Of Sacrifice And Suffering

Fairy tales often glorify characters, particularly women, who endure hardship and experience abuse with grace and patience, suggesting that suffering is noble and leads to a happy ending. This dangerous message can lead individuals to believe that tolerating abuse is virtuous and a necessary path to true love or happiness.

3. Romanticizing Situations Where Women Don’t Recognize Abuse

Some fairy tales romanticize relationships that are abusive from the start. Characters who engage in stalking, kidnapping, or other forms of abuse are frequently depicted as men who despite these negative somehow change throughout the ordeal, which never happens in real life.

4. Lack Of Consent And Autonomy

The theme of lack of consent runs rampant in many fairy tales, with female characters often having little say in their fate or relationships. This lack of autonomy and consent is a form of psychological abuse that teaches women and girls to accept a passive role in their personal and romantic lives.

5. The Redemption Of Abusers

Fairy tales frequently conclude with the redemption of the abuser, suggesting that love can change abusive behavior. This narrative is harmful and unrealistic, as it can encourage individuals to stay in abusive relationships under the false hope of changing their partner.

In this episode, Anne interviews Jane Gilmore, a writer, speaker, and feminist, about her new book titled Fairy Tale Princesses Will Kill Your Children. Jane explains that the book was inspired by her realization of the deep misogyny and harmful messages present in classic fairy tales, particularly those aimed at young girls. What are the unhealthy themes in fairy tales that condition s to not recognize abuse?

  • Women are often pitted against each other
  • Non-consensual acts painted as desirable
  • Stripping of women’s agency and promoting silence as virtuous
  • Fairy tales often portray women as threats and villains, not men
  • Women are responsible for fixing violent men with love and servitude 
Five of the Ways Fairy Tales Brainwash Us To Not Recognize Abuse

Why Didn’t I See it? How Beloved Fairy Tales Betrayed Us

Anne (00:00): I have Jane Gilmore back on today’s episode. We interviewed her a while back. I hope that you got to listen to those episodes. They were incredible. Jane is a writer, speaker, and feminist. Welcome back, Jane.

Jane Gilmore (00:18): Thank you, Anne. It’s so lovely to be here.

Anne (00:21): Your episodes are incredible. I love talking to you. Jane’s back on today to talk about her new book, fairytale Princesses Will Kill Your Children. I love the title of that, the Little Mermaid is one of my personal nemesis. Let’s talk about this new book and how it helps women understand how fairly tales teach women not to recognize abuse. Jane, what gave you the idea that this book needed to be written?

Jane Gilmore (00:55): Well, I’m living in Melbourne and we had such a long lockdown during the first part of Covid, basically two years we were in and out of lockdown. You start just going into really weird places when you’re at home that long. I watched the Snow White movie on the Disney Channel. I haven’t watched it since I was a kid and haven’t really paid much attention to fairy tales since, they were horrific.

This is a children’s movie, for little girls and the misogyny is so deep, but it is more than that. It is this idealization of women being not just helpless and submissive, but actively participating in other people abusing them. I am thinking, oh, this is just because it’s old. This is not what they really like.

Why Do Fairy Tales Teach Us Not to Recognize Abuse?

(01:45): I started looking into them and the five stories that I chose for this book. Which I retold along with an essay about Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. But when I really start looking into them, it is so clear that these fairy tales teach women not to recognize abuse. Snow White is about making other women the enemy. Beauty is obviously about consent.

Cinderella is about women’s unpaid labor that, not just uncomplaining, but enjoying our manipulation to serve mostly men. The Little Mermaid is about staying silent in the face of somebody diminishing you constantly.

Anne: So many women go through this and desperately need support, which is why we have our daily, online Betrayal Trauma Recovery Support Group.

Jane: Yeah, women do need support to see how these themes affect their daily lives. In Beauty and the Beast is coercive control, if you love him enough, he will turn into your handsome prince. This angry, dangerous, violent man just needs you to love him more. And if he doesn’t turn into your handsome prince, it’s your fault for not trying harder.

5 Ways Fairy Tales Brainwashed Us When We Were Girls To Tolerate Abuse As Women

Analyzing Misogynistic Themes In Classic Fairy Tales

(02:48): And that’s what these fairytales are about teaching women and girl not to recognize abuse. They’re telling little girls that the way to be a good woman, a proper woman, a fairytale princess, is the defining characteristic of what they call unselfish.  Which is to not ask anything for yourself, to not think that you deserve respect, kindness, agency, money.

To even ask for those things, to even want those things,even if you don’t ask for them, makes you morally culpable. Oh, aren’t they pretty? And they get the handsome Prince and everybody gets married and lives happily ever asked her, and isn’t that wonderful? The underlying message is that, it is wrong for you to want anything for yourself, including self-respect.

Anne (03:36): I have so much to talk to you about and so many questions. I want to tell a quick story of a friend of mine who finally divorced her first abuser. She started dating and she met this man and she told me how wonderful he is and how great he is, and his ex was just such a gold digger. 

I said, “Whoa, what? Okay, red flag there, right? You’ve got another abuser on your hands.”

Challenging The “Tales” About “Gold Diggers” And Ambition

And he said, “She’s such a gold digger, she just wanted me for my money.”

Then she says, “Because he has a lot of money, but I don’t care about that. That’s not what I’m interested in. I just want a good relationship.”

They went on a trip and he said, “Get anything you want, what would you like to buy?”

(04:23): And she said, “Oh, no, no, no, I’m not like that. I’m not into your money like your ex, I don’t want anything.”

She thought she had a great trip and he was so kind and nice and that everything went really well.

I said, “He’s already groomed you to say that you don’t want money or need anything. And if you marry him, you realize you’ll be like, Hey, I’m going to the grocery store. And he’ll be like, what again? You just married me for my money, like my ex, he’s setting you up for this.”

Of course, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I should have kept my mouth shut.

I said to her,  “If you’re going to continue dating him, if he says that again, what would you like? Say, oh, I want this and buy something expensive, something that’s like 150 bucks, not super expensive, even if you don’t want it, if he says get anything you want and then you get something, try it out. See what happens.”

Examining Gender Stereotypes And Dynamics In Relationships

I said, “Never ever say I’m not a gold digger. I’m not like that.”

Say, “Oh, that makes sense that your wife wanted a roof over her head in groceries. Most women do. Yeah.”

Jane Gilmore (05:39): To me the warning sign is always, if you take the word that they’re trying to get you to prove that you’re not like gold Digger is a perfect one. Is there a role equivalent? Is there a word that can apply to any gender? Because if it’s just about women, it’s tying into, are you a good woman? 

Are you not like other girls? Are you going to prove to me that you can be all the things that I can use to manipulate you? And Gold Digger is such a good one because in men that’s called ambition and it’s a good thing.

Anne (06:07): The other one is that she said the same woman, his ex never gave him any sex.

I said, “Anytime a man says that to you, this is how you respond. You say, oh, I’m glad that she did what she wanted to. I love it when women do that.”

Jane Gilmore (06:40): Yes. There is a study that found women become less interested in sex, the longer a relationship goes on. If you flip it around and go, what if it’s men become less sexually appealing in a relationship? In the long term because they do less to earn your respect, trust, joy, sense of fun, and your desire. 

You are constantly on edge and afraid. Nobody feels sexy when they’re walking on eggshells all the time.

Themes That Don’t Recognize Abuse Found In Fairy Tales

Somebody is saying to you, ‘This is your fault. You are not interested in sex, you are not trying hard enough.”

They are not taking any of the blame, this is our relationship and we share in what goes on here. Again, massive red flag.

Anne (07:37): As you studied all these different princess fairytales, what were some of the overarching themes that you saw?

Jane Gilmore (07:51): I was a bit surprised about some of them, not because they were shocking, but because I didn’t realize how deeply embedded they are in this fairytale princess myth. One of them is this constant idea that men are not responsible for anything really, that the villain is always other women. They are not teaching women to recognize abuse.

The wicked stepmother, the wicked stepsisters. The man is either the prize that you get for being unselfish, the handsome prince, or he’s the father who has no responsibility at all.

Every fairytale princess, her mother dies when she’s a baby except for a sleeping beauty. And the mother doesn’t come into the story at all and the father is the king who might send people out to run a mission or something, but he’s never responsible for his daughter. He marries another woman because of course he couldn’t be expected to bring up a child on his own.

We Need To Recognize Abuse

Anne: When I wrote The BTR.ORG Living Free Workshop, I want to highlight that we’ve all been exposed to these types of myths our whole lives and what we can do to get them out of our heads. Women have really enjoyed the analogies in Living Free and how it’s replaced these societal scripts that caused everyone not to recognize abuse.

Jane (08:40): Yeah, it takes a long time to dig through all this stuff. The evil stepmother becomes the villain and there is no point in the story where the men who make choices that affect women’s lives have any responsibility for those choices. Snow White for instance, the original story by the Grimm Brothers is shocking. Snow White is seven years old in the story. She’s a seven year old child.

She’s taken off to the woods by a hunter under orders from her evil stepmother and the hunter is ordered to kill her. In the original story, he’s supposed to cut out her heart and lungs to take back to the evil stepmother.  If she can eat them she won’t show visible signs of aging, the most wicked thing any woman can do is visibly age and still expect to have a place in the world.

(09:31): Snow White is seven she finds the Seven Dwarves. She immediately takes on all their domestic labor. She sings songs about how wonderful it is that she gets to do all the work to look after seven men and how much she loves it. Next, she’s poisoned by the evil stepmother and they think she’s dead. They put her in a glass box and a handsome prince comes past and sees a dead child in a glass box. All of this glorifies when women and girls don’t recognize abuse.

The Abusive Conclusions Of Fairy Tales

He says, oh, ‘That’s beautiful. That’s mine. I want it.” The Seven Dwarves immediately recognize, of course he’s a rich, powerful man, he should have the beautiful dead girl that he wants. Then he says to her, “Brilliant, you’re awake. Now you can be my wife.” And she says, “Thank you. Yes, I’d love that.”

That’s the Snow White story. And that is the one that I rewrote. I didn’t change the plot at all. I just rewrote it to point out all these things about just, wow, little girls and little girls still dress up as Snow White. They want to be like Snow White.

This idea that other women are the thing that is going to put young girls in danger, which we know is just not true. I’m not saying that other women don’t have their problems. They absolutely do. We can get into all kinds of discussions about that, but other women are not the threat to your life. Other women are not going to commit the kind of abuse against you that your male partner will.

Nowhere in the fairytale Princess’s story is the handsome prince ever the problem. The story ends when they get married and the marriage is never a part of the story. It’s why the mother dies at the beginning of all of fairytale Princess stories because marriage and children and the relationship itself is not the fairytale princess myth.

The myth is to be good, beautiful, submissive, kind, and unselfish. Do everything you can to prove how much you deserve a handsome prince, then your story ends. Women are being told not to recognize abuse and be quiet about it.

Fairy Tales About Women That Set Women Up Not To Recognize Abuse

Anne (11:24): What’s interesting, it’s almost like that’s where the man wants it to end, right? He’s like, “If I can set this up and be like, okay, you’re beautiful, you do all the domestic labor, you don’t have a voice. I am your savior and I can do no wrong.” 

We end there with marriage, he owns you and you have to do whatever he says because of coverture laws. You’re literally his property, back in the day when these were written, and you’re my domestic slave. That is a happy ending for him.

Jane Gilmore (12:00): These are the stories that we all grew up on, and it’s not even just the Grimm brother stories, which were horrific. The Disney stories, Disney Plus has over a hundred million subscribers. If I’ve got little kids and I’m saying, “Okay, God, I just need an hour to myself.” Put them down in front of the electronic babysitter. I know it’s not ideal, but we’ve all done it. 

Come on. And you think, well, the Disney Channel, they’ve got to be safe there. Then you have a look at Sleeping Beauty, which in the quintessential fairytale Princess, Sleeping Beauty is the first published one I could find, from Italy in about 1500. Her name is Talia, Talia has the Curse to make her fall asleep.

​​(12:50): It’s not a handsome prince, it’s a king from a neighboring country. Comes in and finds her asleep, looks at her. He tries to wake her up, and fails. He impregnates her. Now we know what the word for that is, right? That’s rape. Rape. That’s rape.

If You’re Not Teaching Consent You Are’t Teaching Women To Recognize Abuse

She eventually wakes up after she’s had twins. She is so delighted to find that while she is unconscious, she is impregnated by somebody she doesn’t remember and has babies. He meanwhile has forgotten about her, and this is specifically in the story, he remembered her and came back presumably to do it again.

Jane Gilmore (13:28): Yeah, yeah. Finds her and the babies. She says, “How wonderful to meet you. Finally, the father of my children, I’m in love. Let’s get married.” He says, “Okay, sure. There’s just a bit of a problem. I’ve already got a wife, but nevermind. Let’s go back to my place and we’ll find the wife and I’ll kill her and then we can get married and everything will be fine.”

The original story, called Sun, Moon, and Talia, it’s available online. It’s not under copyright anymore. They go back to his place, he tries to kill his wife or he says he’s going to kill his wife, but then she tries to kill Sleeping Beauty first and the children because

Anne (14:02): She’s the bad one, not him.

Jane Gilmore (14:04): She’s the evil one, not him. He’s the hero of this story. She fails in her attempts to kill Sleeping Beauty and the children, she does this by telling the servants to kill the children and serve them up to Sleeping Beauty and the King as dinner. The servants say, “Maybe we won’t kill and cook the babies.”

No, they tell the king. He sets his wife on fire and burns her alive, and then marries Sleeping Beauty and they live happily ever after. Such a cute story.

Anne (14:35): This is horrifying

Sleeping Beauty’s Teaches Women Not To Recognize Abuse

Jane Gilmore (14:37): So bad. And obviously Disney sanitized this a lot because we would never let our children watch that movie.  Essentially it’s the same story. She’s asleep, she sleeps through her entire story. This is how much agency that story wants to give women. 

You are unconscious while we tell your story. Handsome Prince comes in, kisses her while she’s asleep, which is Disney’s version of rape, and she wakes up and, oh, my handsome prince, how wonderful. Let’s get Married. That’s her story, the idea that a woman needs to be conscious, talking, having a personality, having ideas, having thoughts, having feelings, and desires for a man to fall in love with her is abhorrent.  

Sleeping Beauty must be unconscious for the Handsome Prince to want her, is all the agency that is given to little girls in this story.

Anne (15:31): I love your stuff, Jane. You are so smart. You say it and I’m like, “That is so good. Why didn’t I think of that?” Love it.

Jane Gilmore (15:40): Honestly, this is how I spent most of lockdown, reading through these stories thinking, what does that mean?  Where does it come from?  That’s the original story that comes from, WOW.  That was my pandemic experience.

Anne (15:53): It is shocking. Disney tries to be inclusive and modern and whatever. When the new live action Beauty and the Beast came out with Emma Watson. I thought, surely they have fixed this, to not be so absolutely terrible. To fix the Stockholm Syndrome part, which it’s not a thing. 

Women are just trying to survive. They’re not falling in love with anyone. Surely they have fixed this, but it is exactly the same as their cartoon.

Modern Adaptations Still Don’t Recognize Abuse

I thought, what is happening? Did they not notice? In my head, I have it rewritten so it works perfectly so that they could fall in love and she not be coerced and or abused and or treated badly, and it would make sense. I couldn’t believe that they did the same thing over again. 

They seem like they’re trying to be committed to not being misogynists. I just couldn’t wrap my head around that. What year did that come out, 2017, that’s almost after #metoo.

Jane Gilmore (17:06): I had exactly the same reaction when I watched it because Emma Watson’s surely going to fix all this. Right? I had exactly the same reaction as you. It is absolutely a story of control and abuse in both of them. He’s so angry and he’s punching walls around her and he’s terrifying her. 

The solution for this is for her to love him more, do more to turn him into the handsome Prince. He has no responsibility at all to change his behavior. That’s up to her. If she loves him enough, his behavior will just magically change, but he has no responsibility at all. 

That’s the story Beauty and the Beast is telling women.  When a man is so angry and violent around you, that you are genuinely terrified, even before he’s physically violent. Then it is your responsibility to try harder to please him. When I started going into these stories, as I said, I watched the Snow White movie, and I was just so horrified by it that at the time, I wasn’t planning on a book or anything just for my own satisfaction.

Reimagining Fairy Tales Through a Feminist Lens

(18:29): I had to rewrite it. And then because I get obsessive about these things, I couldn’t let it go. And I started looking at some of the other movies and I started rewriting them as well, but I couldn’t.  When I got to Sleeping Beauty, I couldn’t rewrite the same plot.

I could not write a story about a woman where she is unconscious throughout her story. I changed it, and I am far from the first writer or feminist to ever do this. There’s a long and very glorious history of feminist rewriting fairy tales to point out how horrific they are. I wanted to show what women’s stories can be like if they’re not that horrific.

Sleeping Beauty, I actually just went, okay, I’m going to do the full feminist fantasy. What would the Sleeping Beauty story be if it was written by Women for Women about the sort of lives, in an ideal world, that we wish we had?

(19:20): I went to the full extreme of the Snow White story, which I rewrote according to the Snow White plot. Just to point out how horrific it is, and that is a whole lot of fun. It felt redemptive. I felt I’d taken control of it. The next one I did is Beauty and the Beast, and I went back and forth between rewriting it so that she had a good outcome, a good story. 

Rewriting Fairy Tales to Undo the Brainwashing

I thought how do I write this so that she has a good, equal, respectful, and happy relationship? In all of these fairytale stories, the prize at the end for the Fairytale Princess is marriage, is a man, is a relationship. There are so many other things that women want, that we do, that we work for, that we take pride in.

This is the reality of that violent, controlling, abusive man. Yes, I should actually write this and then I should publish it. People may disagree with it, they may not like it, they may not read it, that’s fine. Let’s do more and put them out into the world.

(20:19): There are so many stories about the Happily Ever After endings, and I didn’t want to write another one. I rewrote a couple of them with a happy ending that didn’t relate to having a good relationship with a man. It is about other things that women can want, but with Beauty and the Beast. I thought maybe I do give her the ending of the relationship, but a realistic one of what a relationship actually looks like. When you start with a man who’s frighteningly angry at the beginning, who is controlling and abusive fairly early on, and then you get married.

What does that relationship actually look like? How does that really end? It does not end happily ever after. There’s just no way that relationship ends happily. That one took me to some pretty dark places actually, and I was a bit hesitant about publishing it. It ended the way I know too many of these relationships do.

How Little Mermaid Teaches Us Not To Recognize Abuse

(21:20): This is when I start to think, actually, you know what? I really do need to publish these because this is the point of what I’m doing, pointing out what these fairytale princesses are telling little girls and young women about what they should expect from their lives, what they should hope for, what they should plan for and dream of.

This is the reality of that violent, controlling, abusive man. Yes, I should actually write this and then I should publish it. People may disagree with it, they may not like it, they may not read it, that’s fine. Let’s do more and put them out into the world.

Jane Gilmore (21:58): Next, I went on to The Little Mermaid and I watched the Disney movie, which is all very cute and awful. Then went back and read the Hans Christian Anderson version, the original story.

If you want to be truly horrified, read the Hans Christian Anderson story. 

It’s an entire short story written to tell women to keep quiet. If you are in pain, stay silent. If you are bleeding, don’t upset people by telling anyone about it. In the original story, they cut her tail to turn it into legs, and every step she takes feels like she’s walking on knives.

She leaves a trail of bloody footprints behind her with every step she takes, but she smiles and dances for the handsome princes because that’s what he wants her to do. It’s whole message is for women to be quiet and not recognize abuse.

Sometimes It Seems Healthy, But If You Look Closer It Still Teaches Women Not to Recognize Abuse

Anne (22:54): Wow. Can that be interpreted? I mean, I’m not trying to justify the story. Like I said, the Little Mermaid is my nemesis, I don’t like it. In the original version, could that be interpreted to say it’s going to be painful to you if you try to change for a man? Or is that not, that’s not how it could be interpreted.

Jane Gilmore (23:14): Oh, look, I wish that was the case. I wish I could say yes. I wish I could say yes, and that’s what we’re aiming for here. No, it’s absolutely about women. You will experience pain in trying to change for a man, and that will only work if you stay silent about it, and eventually he might love you.

The interesting thing in the Little Mermaid, is he falls in love with somebody else who’s a proper woman, a real woman. She  can praise the handsome prince and agree with him and laugh at all his jokes. The little mermaid kills herself. I swear to God, this is what happens in the original story.

She throws herself off the side of the ship and angels come to her and say, it’s okay because you chose to die rather than cause pain to the handsome Prince and his new bride. You get to live as a sort of spirit guide for the next 300 years, and if you do enough, you will eventually go to heaven. That’s her salvation for failing to win. The handsome Prince is 300 years of silent, unrecognized servitude to the world to earn her place in heaven. People don’t recognize abuse in this story.

Modern Attempts Don’t Stop the Abusive Foundations

Anne (24:26): Like a nun. Yeah. If you can’t get a husband, then the next best thing you can do is do service to the world in another way. Yes, whatever we do we must not recognize abuse.

Jane Gilmore (24:35): Yes, but you have to die so that nobody can see you or hear you doing it. You do it as a ghost. It’s staggering. This is the Little Mermaid story. Now, obviously, again, Disney sanitized it and it has the happy ever after ending.

Anne (24:50): Well, even the Disney version is just awful. You have to give up your voice for a man to like you. He falls in love with her.  My kids, they hear me say this stuff, right? 

They’re like, “Mom, why do we always have to talk about misogyny? Why can’t we just watch a movie?” And I say, “Because it’s blatant. I have to point it out to you.” Anyway, they loved at the end of the new one, the one that just came out where it says years later. Did you notice that?

Jane Gilmore (25:21): I haven’t seen that one. I was honestly reaching the point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. I’d done these five stories and I’d literally watched dozens and dozens of Disney movies.

Trust, Respect, And Support

Anne (25:31): Totally, totally. In the new one at the end, instead of getting married, she can talk and they don’t get married. I mean they don’t want to recognize abuse, from the past version. Then, spoiler alert, it says years later. You assume that they’ve gotten to know each other and then they decide to get married.

Jane Gilmore (25:52): Again, marriage is the happy ending and they’ve tacked on this little bit at the end.

Anne (25:57): Exactly. My kids thought it was really funny. They were like, “Yeah, right, just throw in, years later, and it solves everything?” They were being really sarcastic about it. It is better.

Jane Gilmore (26:08): Because it’s not the story, that’s not the getting to know somebody and the developing a relationship of trust and respect and happiness and support. That’s not the story.

Anne (26:18): That’s boring, and you cover that in years later. It seems these fairy tales are made not to teach women to recognize abuse, black screen. That takes two seconds. Jane and I are going to pause the conversation here. We’re going to continue our conversation next week, so stay tuned.

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