LIFESTYLE

Can You Be A Feminist Indian Parent And Let Your Child Read 'Sexist' Fairytales?

Five mothers talk about feminism and the fairytale conundrum.

05/06/2017 11:06 AM IST | Updated 07/06/2017 9:45 AM IST
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Most feminists will agree that the popular English fairytales we have grown up reading reinforce negative stereotypes of women being weak-willed, impressionable, and constantly in need of rescuing by a handsome, rich prince. So no surprises that they are a bone of contention among feminist parents all around the world. Like them or hate them, there's no way to eliminate their influence from the popular culture being consumed by kids daily. In such a situation, how does a feminist mother reconcile her beliefs with their omnipresent influence? We asked five mothers who identify as feminists about how they deal with the fairytale and feminist conundrum in their families.

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Tanya Chaitanya. Tanya is the editor-in-chief of Femina and has a 4-year-old daughter.

We read everything. Right from newspapers to magazines to storybooks, and even my research papers. I think kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for and have immense capacity to grasp new ideas, which is why it's important to be mindful of what we're feeding their minds with.

I make sure that all our princess stories have alternate endings and I ask her to help me with how those stories should end. So when we talk about Cinderella (whom she adores), we discuss her designing and seamstressing skills. Then we discuss how she could start a fashion house and the prince could be an investor in it.

I remember her questioning why Snow White was considered beautiful and if her fair complexion had anything to do with it.

Recently, Snow White (who has a mirror that talks about who's the 'smartest' of them all) decided to stay back with her animal friends in the forest because she's an activist and convinces the prince to start a sanctuary. I remember her questioning why Snow White was considered beautiful and if her fair complexion had anything to do with it.

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Fairytales are by no means the only stories available to us. History is full of stories of brave men and women. Rani Lakshmibai, Joan of Arc, Begum Hazrat Mahal, pilot Amelia... The list is endless. I first heard about Rosa Parks from my dad at the age of eight and she instantly became my hero. But Trina, my daughter, is not too impressed because she expects her heroes to have special powers.

Which is my big crib; where are the women superheroes? In the absence of an adequate woman superhero, we've created our own: Trinayani, who slays evildoers, loves animals, believes in equality and has only one superpower (when she wants to get even with someone she tickles them through telepathy).

Humour for kids works wonders, and that's another major gap.

Even though Richa Jha and Karadi Tales are trying hard to come up with stories for kids from the Indian milieu, the number of books available are still too few.

Rashmi Deshpande

Rashmi Deshpande. Rashmi is a travel professional and has a 2-year-old daughter.

I think it's very important to observe your child and understand what stories they are interested in hearing, instead of what stories we want to tell them. If you listen, you'll know what changes you need to make to their story-telling routine.

My daughter doesn't really know what a princess or prince is, yet. But she can tell you about all kinds of construction vehicles... from JCBs to road rollers. So our stories tend to be more about construction projects and drivers who rescue kittens, and since she sees me and her grandmother drive more than her dad and granddad, she has no problem seeing herself as one of those drivers.

I also think that we, as parents, are limited by our understanding of what constitutes children's stories. Most of us immediately think of British or American fairytales or Hans Christian Anderson-type stories. You have to ask yourself, are these really the only ones available? Did I look hard enough?

There's a gold mine of regional language stories out there. So many regional stories are about animals and have music and songs in them.

There's a gold mine of regional language stories out there. So many of them are about animals and have music and songs in them. She loves them. Other than the Three Little Pigs and Red Riding Hood, I don't think we've told her too many "traditional" children's stories. There are several publishers in India that regularly release amazing collections with gorgeous art and wonderfully inclusive stories, where disabled kids are protagonists and you'll never find a singular narrative in their books. They're layered and nuanced, perfect to give your child something to think about.

We may not find them stacked in the Crosswords we visit, but publishers like Tara, Tulika, Katha, and Pratham — most of which have been around for 20 years or so — offer bi-lingual books that tell modern as well as traditional stories using indigenous art forms, experimental narratives and simple things like flip books, so your child can make up her own stories instead of having to think the way you want her to.

Kiran Manral

Kiran Manral. Kiran is a novelist and communications specialist and has a 13-year-old son.

Stories leave a very powerful impression on the minds of the children hearing them, but they aren't limited to what they read or what we read to them. My son doesn't read much, despite my best efforts, but he's still constantly consuming stories — in the form of cartoons, pop culture, what he hears people talk about, and, of course, books.

I ask him why the boys are sitting back and being served, while the girls are skittering around being obsequious.

I'm constantly calling out stereotypes in whatever he sees or reads. So it could be a cartoon where the girl character is organising the refreshments and the food (Japanese cartoons have an immense patriarchal overhang in them). I ask him why the boys are sitting back and being served, while the girls are skittering around being obsequious.

When he was younger, I did tell him fairytales, because he's more of a listener than a reader. I think I was vindicated when he asked me (and he was rather young at the point) why Rapunzel didn't cut her hair off and climb down the tower long before the prince came into the picture. The questioning and curiosity hasn't waned.

I had to work really hard to convince him that it was completely okay for him to cry, and that boys and girls both should cry when they felt like it.

Even when you editorialise and create your own versions when the values don't reflect yours, some of the stereotypes will still manage to seep through. Two that my son picked up were that 'boys don't cry' and the 'mard ka bachcha' trope from Bollywood films. I had to work really hard to convince him that it was completely okay for him to cry, and that boys and girls both should cry when they felt like it.

While the situation is by no means ideal, there's a lot of interesting stuff coming up which pushes boundaries, especially by imprints like Duckbill and Tara.

Lalita Iyer

Lalita Iyer. Lalita Iyer is a journalist, blogger and author, and has a 7-year-old son.

I believe that the way kids respond to literature is a direct reflection on how they are brought up. I've never had a problem with the lessons my son has learned from the stories that surround him — including fairytales.

I think fairytales are given an unnecessary rap for being regressive, sexist, politically incorrect and whatnot. But they're so much more than that. They're about friendship, ambition, relationships, humour, silliness, self-discovery, presence of mind... There are all kinds of values to be learned from them. The question we ought to be asking ourselves is why we're convinced our kids will only interpret things the negative way. That tells us something about ourselves and the preconceived ideas we're passing along to our children.

The most impressive thing about Cinderella to my son is how good she is at recycling.

My son has grown up seeing feminism in practice at home. In his mind, everyone in the house has to do some work for the house to run smoothly. So when he reads Cinderella, he doesn't relate it to his mother or the female gender, he sees her as any other person in his house — his father, grandmother, me, himself. The most impressive thing about Cinderella to my son is how good she is at recycling. He's very fond of fashion, so he loves that she can design and make beautiful dresses from old curtains.

When I left my son to his own devices, I saw that he was instinctively gravitating towards strong women characters. His literary heroes have always been women.

Initially, I used to worry whether the stories were too dark, with all the witches and evil queens; or painted the world in black and white. But then I realised I was getting in the way of my son's relationship with reading. We don't give our kids enough credit. We curate too much. When I left him to his own devices, I saw that he was instinctively gravitating towards strong women characters. His literary heroes have always been women — Pocahontas, Dora, Doc McStuffins, Princess Sofia, and now Hermione.

I think that when we call out things we think they shouldn't learn, we're restricting their thoughts. My son once pointed this out to me — Cinderella's prince was actually a comically foolish man.

Bookstores are disappearing, libraries are dwindling and parents are constantly trying to steer kids toward reading for knowledge, not for the pleasure of reading.

I think there is absolutely no dearth of wonderful books for kids. What's missing is the space and time to browse. Bookstores are disappearing, libraries are dwindling and parents are constantly trying to steer kids toward reading for knowledge, not for the pleasure of reading.

Sonali Gupta

Sonali Gupta. Sonali is a clinical psychologist and has a 7-year-old daughter.

We never consciously tried to manage our daughter's reading or tell her what she should be questioning or learning from it, it happened organically. In our house, we discuss everything, and everyone gets heard. She also sees her father and mother doing housework equally, so within the home at least, she's exposed to almost no gender stereotypes.

With Three Little Pigs she decided that the wolf should not have been put in the stove because it is important to learn to forgive and everyone deserves a second chance.

When she was about four, I told her Rapunzel's story. Rapunzel's helplessness really bothered her, so my daughter decided that what should have happened is Rapunzel should have kicked the witch and run to her parents and told them that the witch was trying to take her. Basically, she'd extrapolated the lesson I'd taught her while explaining good and bad touch, and that you must always tell mama or papa if a stranger tries to do anything to you, and applied it to the fairytale. I was stunned. It just showed me how agile a child's mind is, when allowed to roam in all directions and make all kinds of connections.

I want to surround her with positive reinforcements, for the times she crosses paths with fat-shamers and other petty people.

Lately, she's become very vocal about her thoughts on fat-shaming. She's always been an extremely petite child and recently, she put on a little weight and someone must have said something. It bothered her so much that she wrote an essay on how it is thoughtless, hurtful and no one should have a right to tell someone that they are not pretty. I could see that so many of her thoughts were shaped by the discussion we had about Iman, the Egyptian woman was flown from Egypt to Mumbai for weight loss surgery.

My experience with my daughter has made me realise that what kids see in their primary environment is the most impressionable story in their life.

Of late, I've become more careful about buying her books. She's growing older, becoming even more observant and doing a lot of decision-making about how she feels about things. One of the most fantastic books I've ever come across is Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls, which is filled with stories of seriously inspiring women without over-identifying with them. My experience with my daughter has made me realise that what kids see in their primary environment -- the home -- is the strongest, most impressionable story in their life. It's the only one you really need to focus on.

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