The perpetuation of gender stereotypes in nursery rhymes and fairytales
By Olivia Leahy – Volunteer writer for not only pink and blue
In the words of Akeena Ann George, “Fairytales are often the very first kind of literature that young readers are acquainted with” – the same can be said of nursery rhymes being the first kind of song that young children learn the lyrics of . Therefore, their importance to children’s first understanding of the world and society cannot be undermined. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes are also often “the first place where children first encounter the difference between ‘male’ and ‘female,’ making them some of the most influential pieces of media a person will digest during their childhood . Unfortunately, it won’t surprise you to know that fairy tales and nursery rhymes continue to perpetuate gender stereotypes and condition young children into thinking that out-of-date gender norms and practices are the accepted behaviour of the society they live in.
Our CEO and founder Clare Willetts often gets asked about how to tackle the onslaught on gender stereotypes in the media young children consume: namely fairy tales and nursery rhymes. The reality is that it’s really hard to avoid them, especially if children are consuming this form of media outside the home, like at nursery, school, or at other people’s houses. Raising awareness and educating children is really key to avoiding them taking these stereotypes that are constantly surrounding them in fairy tales and nursery rhymes as fact. You may feel that the lyrics in nursery rhymes or underlying themes in fairy tales go over children’s heads and they don’t absorb them, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Children are incredibly perceptive from a young age, so being aware of the stereotypes they are fed through nursery rhymes and fairy tales is really important.
Aren’t Nursery Rhymes Just Silly Songs?
Nursery rhymes are some of the first song lyrics children will learn off by heart: from nursery, to play and music groups, to the homes of relatives and friends, adults are constantly singing nursery rhymes to children, and they are learning the lyrics. Nursery rhymes are extremely vital, academically, to children as they are a formative part of their education in terms of vocabulary, music, rhythm, memory, pronunciation and more; they also help “in developing certain images in the impressionable minds of children,” and this is where we run into some problems . Nursery rhymes are passed down through generations, so what was acceptable to say fifty years ago, obviously may not be fine today. If some of the first pieces of media from which children start to piece together the world in their heads perpetuate stereotypes, then very quickly, pretty much unconsciously, they will believe that that is how the world should be.
Context is also a huge issue surrounding stereotypes. As adults, we are able to contextualise words and lyrics, and realise when they are and are not true or factually correct, and when they are made up for the sake of rhyme or rhythm. Children do not yet have that ability. The historical context in which a nursery rhyme is created is also very significant to its meaning, and again this is something an adult can consider and appreciate, but it’s something that completely goes over a child’s head. According to Dr Bethany Cook, “knowing the origins to the rhyme can definitely change the meaning of the words. The problem lies in the fact that babies/ young children aren’t able to appreciate the history in its relation to current culture norms. They take the words literally.”
Let’s take the nursery rhyme What Are Little Boys Made Of? You and I both know that little boys aren’t made of “snails and puppy-dog tails,” just as little girls aren’t made of “sugar and spice, and everything nice.” Apart from the fact that this nursery rhyme is pretty much one-hundred percent gender stereotypes, young children will really believe that girls are only made of nice things, meaning they have to be nice and sweet. Children will also believe that boys are made of gross things, so will accept that boys are just naughty or messy. It’s so destructive. As adults, we can appreciate that the nursery rhyme is old-fashioned and very 19th century, as we know of the cultural norms of the time, but children do not know this. Cultural context is clearly important here.
The portrayal of women in nursery rhymes is – you guessed it – completely gender stereotypical, and in some of the worst kinds of ways. Women are often “repeatedly compared with flowers, ornaments and all the things that are beautiful and delicate,” or they are seen as silly, weak and mentally unstable, or like in Mary Mary Quite Contrary, they are seen as both . Other frequently used motifs are the mother or the carer: in Miss Polly Had A Dolly, Miss Polly had a dolly, while the doctor was a man. In many nursery rhymes, “girls assume the role of mothers, caring and nurturing … while boys are seen playing … There is hardly any poem that talks about the reversal of these roles.”
The gender stereotypes verge on dangerous, when in some nursery rhymes male dominance, and even violence is normalised scarily easily and sweetly. What this does, is “perpetuates the encoding of the male worldview (with males at the top and in charge) into the fertile minds of babies and young children.” Let’s look at the nursery rhyme Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater . The lyrics literally portray a man who locked his wife away so she wouldn’t leave him: what on earth does that say to children? The song goes “Peter Peter pumpkin eater, had a wife but couldn’t keep her; he put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.” These sentiments are horrifying. The normalising and trivialising of domestic abuse and male dominance is terrifying, yet it is something children would sing along to and unconsciously absorb as something that is acceptable. (We’ve written a blog post all about gender stereotypes encouraging violence towards women – click here to read it).
Surely we Know that fairytales are fiction?
I’m afraid fairy tales don’t hold up well under scrutiny either; it is not news that fairy tales continue, even into the twenty-first century, to centre a woman in distress with a man coming to save the day. One of the many reasons why this is so alarming is that “fairytales supposedly portray worlds that are better than our own, as they reflect the ideal. However, in fact the typical gender stereotypes portrayed in fairy tales are inappropriate and one-sided portrayals, in a way that is especially concerning for women.” So, fairy tales are quite literally teaching children that in an ideal world, women shouldn’t save themselves, they should be saved by men; that in an ideal world women are weak, beautiful, gentle people who are not the protagonists of their own lives/ stories.
You only have to flick through a few of the most famous fairy tales, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel to name just a few, to “find that the female characters are portrayed as weak, domesticated slaves who are dependent on men to ‘rescue’ them. … The male character holds the key to power, wealth and strength. … In later life stages, [this] becomes the stepping stone for domestic violence and gender violence.” It also teaches young boys that they have to be the ones saving people, that they have to be strong and brave, that no one is going to be there to save them. Fairy tales not only breed sexism, but they also perpetuate toxic masculinity, the impacts of which cannot be ignored (click here to read our post on toxic masculinity and men’s mental health).
Femininity is a toxic motif in fairy tales: “most fairy tales enforce the idea of ‘femininity’ and its necessity in order for a woman to have a good, secure life.” The idea of necessary femininity in order to be secure is horrifying; this notion teaches girls that in order to have a good life, they must be beautiful, graceful and pure. This couldn’t be a more destructive sentiment. Women who are not these things are punished in fairy tales. The portrayal of witches is one such example: the witch is usually ugly, mean, conniving, all because she is unmarried, unconventional and outspoken. The other female trope, the evil stepmother, is evil because she is scheming and out for herself – could she really just be a woman who has had to fend for herself, who’s had to protect herself from men, who’s had to support herself? The women in fairy tales who are not the heroines, fall short of conventional femininity, and thus are punished for it. Again, what image does this paint for young girls?
Later this spring, there is going to be a new Disney adaptation of The Little Mermaid. While some are excited for this live-action remake, which has shown some progression by casting a black actress as Ariel, I’m a little hesitant to show enthusiasm. In the original, “Ariel gives up on everything to win the love of her life. She even loses her voice. Here, the voice symbolically stands for the ability of a woman to stand for herself. Why do we need to teach our girls that love can be won by giving up on self-love?” I only hope that the remake addresses this huge flaw in the plot, and that Ariel realises that her voice is more important than the love of a prince.
Ultimately, fairy tales paint an idealised picture of a world that puts women down, and celebrates the dominance of men. In the words of Alice Neikirk, “fairy tales have never been bedtime stories; in this day and age, they have morphed into a very effective means of exercising power over women and maintaining gender inequality.”
The future, for fairy tales at least, seems brighter; the problematic gender stereotypes within them hasn’t been lost on publishers today. Reworked fairy tales have recently been released, rewritten by current authors, to make them fit for purpose in this society. This comes in the format of “four rejigged fairy tales in the form of Vintage Children’s Classics’ new Fairy Tale Revolution series, which sees Bluebeard, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and The Ugly Duckling revisited by Malorie Blackman, Rebecca Solnit, Jeanette Winterson and Kamila Shamsie.”
Similarly, Ladybird Books have brought in sensitivity readers to reexamine some of it’s fairy tales; according to the Telegraph, “handsome princes – and beautiful princesses falling for them at first sight – have been deemed problematic by sensitivity readers advising on on offensive content, due to the privilege given to physical attractiveness and heteronormative romance.”
There is also huge scope to use fairy tales and nursery rhymes as learning opportunities for children. We can use them to discuss topics in an age appropriate and accessible way, by asking children questions about the tale or song. We can also play with the fairy tales and nursery rhymes themselves, which is especially important for non-readers. By changing the storylines or swapping out characters, you can show children that stories are not set in stone, and that there are always ways to change the normative narrative. We have to remember that there are some good lessons in fairy tales and nursery rhymes, like don’t go off with strangers, don’t lie and be kind to name a few morals, so we don’t want to get rid of them completely – they just need adapting. There is hope that children’s media will soon be free from gender stereotypes, but it does feel like there’s a long way to go. If you’re interested in addressing gender stereotypes at home, be sure to check out our resources page, as well as our selection of children’s books.
Did you know that we offer talks about shattering gender stereotypes for companies and businesses? Well, now you do! Check out our talks page to find out more, or get in touch with us via our contact page.
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    https://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/blog/waiting-for-her-knight-gender-stereotypes-in-fairytales
  https://feminisminindia.com/2020/07/21/nursery-rhymes-gender-stereotypes-reflections-of-a-bigoted-society/
  https://doctorbethanycook.com/nursery-rhymes-a-perfect-example-of-the-perpetuation-of-sexism-in-society/
  https://allnurseryrhymes.com/peter-peter-pumpkin-eater/
  https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/12/roots-of-discrimination-cultivated-in-our-education-system/
 https://hilo.hawaii.edu/campuscenter/hohonu/volumes/documents/Vol07x07HappilyEverAfter.pdf – p38