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Fairy Tales and Disney princesses: How far have we really come with inclusion?

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki is a parenting writer and a mom to three wild boys who keep her on her toes (and occasionally make her question her sanity). With over 15 years of experience in the parenting industry, she has more tips and tricks than Mary Poppins on speed dial. When she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can find her sipping on coffee, hiding in the bathroom for five minutes of...
Created on Oct 30, 2023 · 5 mins read
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Looking back on my childhood, I can’t shake off the beautiful and magical allure of fairy tales. Each night was an adventure, taking me on incredible journeys through enchanted forests, mystical castles, and far-off lands. The heroes were brave, the villains were cunning, and the princesses were as graceful as they were beautiful. As a kid, I was spellbound. The imaginative worlds conjured by these tales were my playground, and they played a crucial role in shaping my early understanding of life, society, and my own identity.

Fast forward to the present, and I’m a mum to three energetic boys. The fairy tales that once occupied my thoughts have made a comeback, but I see them through a different lens now. With a deeper understanding of their themes and their potential impact on young minds, I’ve begun to question: How have these timeless tales evolved to fit in with our growing consciousness about the importance of diversity and inclusion?

We’ve all grown up with the typical imagery in fairy tales: damsels in distress waiting for a handsome prince to rescue them, kingdoms where everyone looks, talks, and acts in the same way. In recent years, however, we have witnessed a phenomenon where traditionally animated characters are being portrayed in a more diverse way. Some feel that these changes are unnecessary or that they somehow diminish the essence of the original tales. Yet, it’s important to recognise that the purpose of such changes is to reflect the world as it truly is – diverse, vibrant, and beautifully complex.

As our society evolves, so have these stories. Now, our princesses are strong, independent, and decisive, and they’re more diverse than ever before. They come from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and lifestyles, offering a richer, broader perspective for our children.

The significance of this evolution isn’t limited to the realm of fantasy. It echoes the shifts we see in the real world, where we’re continually striving to challenge stereotypes, break down barriers, and celebrate diversity. And as parents, it’s our job to ensure these conversations about acceptance and inclusivity extend beyond the bedtime stories and seep into our everyday life.

The tales of brave princes and beautiful princesses aren’t just stories; they’re tools. We can use them to spark conversations with our kids about the stereotypes they may propagate and how these compare to the real, diverse world around us. Talking about why the princess doesn’t always have to wait for a prince to save her or why the knight can show his emotions can reinforce the importance of gender equality.

Moreover, discussing the backgrounds of different characters can raise awareness of cultural diversity. We need to challenge and break away from stereotypes tied to specific countries or regions. We’ve all come across them in some form or the other: China being represented by pandas, Japan by martial arts, and Africa by wildlife. While these elements are a part of their respective cultures, they do not encompass the entirety of their identity. It’s equally important to represent the world in its true, diverse glory. We need to dispel stereotypes about different countries and regions. Our children should appreciate the richness of different cultures and the interconnected nature of our global community. Using resources such as culturally diverse books, global-themed games, or films set in different parts of the world can serve as excellent tools for this purpose.

By diversifying the kind of content our children consume – educational shows, films, and toys that depict different countries and cultures in a realistic manner – we can broaden their understanding of the world. Engaging our children in these discussions can encourage them to question, understand, and appreciate the beauty of our diverse society. These stories can become a springboard for them to navigate the world with a more accepting and open-minded perspective.

However, talking about inclusion isn’t enough; we need to show it in action to make it a tangible reality for our children. The stories we narrate should mirror the real world – a diverse place filled with people of different shapes, sizes, colours, abilities, and backgrounds. By ensuring representation in our stories, we’re shaping our children’s perceptions of the world and affirming that diversity is normal.

We’ve certainly made progress, but the path towards inclusivity is long, and there’s plenty more ground to cover. Our storytelling needs to expand to represent a broader spectrum of society. We need to include stories of different family structures, acknowledging that not all families look the same. We need tales about characters of varying socio-economic backgrounds representing the entire fabric of our society, not just a privileged few. Traditional fairy tales often depict characters within a binary gender system, but we are now more aware of the spectrum of gender identities that exist. It’s important to introduce this concept to our children in a thoughtful and sensitive manner – our conversation and representation about inclusion must encompass people of all gender identifications.

The conversation about inclusivity doesn’t stop at the stories we tell our children. It’s an ongoing dialogue that extends to all aspects of their lives. Think about children’s clothing, for example. Why do boys’ clothes typically have trucks, dinosaurs, or superheroes, while girls’ clothes have princesses, flowers, or sparkles? Why can’t a girl love dinosaurs, or a boy adore flowers? By breaking these stereotypes and providing a wider range of choices, we can give children the freedom to express their individuality.

Toys can also be a powerful tool to foster inclusivity. By providing dolls of various ethnicities, action figures with different body types, and games that encourage various types of play, we can broaden our children’s understanding and acceptance of diversity.

While we have come a long way in promoting inclusivity, we’re still on a journey. As parents, educators, and consumers, we have the power to shape the narrative of the stories we share with our children. In doing so, we’re not just telling stories; we’re setting the stage for the future. Our goal is to raise a generation that values understanding, empathy, and respect for all. This isn’t just a fairy tale ending; it’s a reality we can and should strive for. And, in my opinion, that’s the most magical narrative of them all.

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