by Andrea Chmelik
Having two small children, my attention is yet again directed to children's stories and fairy tales. For the past two decades, memories dedicated to this subject matter were safely stored in the basement of my brain, covered with a layer of fairy dust.
I grew up with classic tales by Grimm brothers mixed with folklore from my birth country of Slovakia. These stories were my guiding light and a moral compass through early life. If you misbehaved, bad things happened. If you made the right choices, then fate repaid you in happily-ever-afters. Rereading these stories in my mid-30s, I am both shocked and humored by brutality displayed throughout. Villains cut into pieces, drowned or burnt alive, children locked up in dungeons, and creepy little creatures blackmailing parents into giving their daughters away in marriage. Are we sure these shouldn't be R-rated?
Take Hansel and Gretel. A brother and a sister abandoned in the woods, their breadcrumb trail that was supposed to lead them back home (to the parents who were trying to get rid of them, let's not forget) eaten by birds, their encounter with a cannibalistic witch, and finally them shoving the lady into the oven so that she could burn alive. (How many years of therapy for those kids? I asked once. "None, they are German," my German friend responded.)
But my real problem is with the "beautiful maiden" stories. In them, brave young men of different social standings overcame obstacles to win the love of pretty girls. They traveled thousands of miles. They slayed dragons and solved riddles. They had skills. They endured curses, blisters, cuts, and bad weather. They had determination.
Back when I was little, however, I mostly identified with the maidens. After all, they were girls — a grown-up version of myself. Their feet were tiny, their skin was luminous, their hair was long and shiny. They had beauty.
They also had patience, waiting in dark towers. And perseverance, doing all the chores. And mercy, responding to evil with kindness. These were traits worthy of admiration, I was told, and that was fine.
Yet the princes didn't know this. The only thing they knew about the ladies when they set to rescue them was that they were stunningly gorgeous. Snow White was essentially in a coma when the prince saw her for the very first time. He was enchanted by her looks, not by her housekeeping expertise or her killer recipes. One glance at her and he decided to take her home to his castle, regardless of her unconsciousness. Set it in today's real life and you have a college rape story instead.
Cinderella escaped her fate of a slave thanks to her small feet. Rapunzel got attention because of her voice and her hair. Briar Rose was yet another unconscious young woman kissed by a stranger. In these tales, beauty represented the goodness of women. Beautiful orphans were beautiful inside-out. Ugly step-sisters were ugly inside-out. I'd love to say that this had no effect on me growing up, but how could it not? All of my female role models achieved their success by being pretty. And that success didn't go further than getting married and having children.
I was strong, fast, and pretty good at riddles, but those were the qualities of boys, not ethereal fairies that I inspired to be. I was a long-limbed clumsy creature with an ambition to change the world one day. One day when I wouldn't be so tall and so awkward. We could be heroes, I thought, watching the little mermaid give up her voice, transform her body, and agree to torturous physical pain in order to win the heart of the prince who quite honestly didn't really give a shit.
In the end, I couldn't stop getting taller, just as I couldn't stop wishing I would. Today I'm 5'11" (most definitely not six feet tall like my husband insists I am) and my shoe size is 10 or 11. It took me a while to realize that what I was lacking in my life was not beauty, nor skills, but female role models who could slay dragons and free themselves.
For that reason, today, I'm choosing different books and different heroes – both for my children and myself.
P.S.: And really, Snow White, how many near-death experiences does it take to stop accepting random gifts from strangers? Seriously, girl.
Andrea Chmelik is a writer and a stay-at-home mom. Transplant from Slovakia, she enjoys the perfect weather of California's central coast and the wine selection that comes with it. Her other hobbies include cats, fiery conversations, and excessive Facebooking.