It’s a fairly established point of view that we can use children’s literature to challenge enduring stereotypes. I’ve spent years working in Early Years education trying to do just that…seeking out the books where girls are empowered and boys love reading. Now in my own writing I try to ensure that my characters are positive and challenge the expected. Yet one thing I have not really considered is the concept of age in children’s stories, especially traditional fairy tales.
The recent IBBY conference entitled “Happily Ever After: The Evolution of Fairy Tales Across Time and Cultures” explored this theme in detail and threw up some surprisingly new ideas.
The key-note speaker, Professor Vanessa Joosen, kicked off the day with an exceptionally detailed study of how age is presented in classic and modern fairy tales. Despite many post-modern rewritings that aim to tackle existing stereotypes, casual ageism still remains unchallenged.
Women in classic fairy tales fare badly but old women do even worse
Through her detailed analysis, Professor Joosen demonstrated that although there has been a shift in female empowerment, this does not affect the way older women are presented to the young. The “literary crone” is still funnelled into the very limited static role of the witch or someone seeking to regain their lost youth, for example the character Gothel in Walt Disney’s “Tangled”. This “mirror stage” of life is described by Kathleen Woodward as the time when our real, youthful self is hidden inside our body – something that had many in the audience nodding in agreement! This midlife point is still presented as a time of crisis; the youthful female character moves away from the search for love and marriage and the conflict between age and youth is perceived. An interesting interpretation of “Hansel and Gretel” suggests that the stepmother’s desire to get rid of the children is to stop time – essentially preventing herself from ageing in comparison to the youthfulness of the children.
Yet not all old people play supporting roles in fairy tales. Outside of the western traditional tales, some glimmers of alternative viewpoints can be found. in Japanese traditional tales older characters often take the protagonists role, thus taking away the focus on beauty, marriage and children. Professor Joosen referenced “The Tongue Cut Sparrow” as a good example. Equally she argued, in some re-writing of traditional tales such as Emma Donoghue’s “Kissing the Witch”, older characters are portrayed as providing intergenerational collaboration – bringing wisdom and standing up for the younger characters. However, even here the older characters are not permitted other strong emotions like anger.
It wasn’t all despair for the older character however and some writers are consciously challenging this most stubborn of stereotypes; try this for starters: “Snow White turns 39” by Ann Sheldon.
©Chez l’abeille 2017