In my Psychology of Women class, I like to deconstruct stereotypes in multiple ways. I start with biological sex, and sexual orientation. Then, I move to gender roles, and start from the ground up, beginning with the likes and dislikes that we are subscribed as children, the colors we wear, the activities that are encouraged to engage in. I also go into ethnic and cultural stereotypes but that is a whole other monster to attack. One of my favorite lectures as part of the process is called “Survival of the prettiest.” It takes a close look at the pop culture fairytales and compares them to the original versions of those stories to understand what they were trying to convey to the general population at the time.

I begin the lecture with the telling of a common fairytale, and have the students summarize it. I then ask what the moral of the story was. I then tell them the original version, which can differ greatly from the version that they are most familiar with, and look closely at what values were being given to young people at the time the story originated. Even though cultures evolve and change, if they are predominantly patriarchal, the values that we pass onto our children may largely be the same. Analyzing the tales we tell for the real meaning that we are telling them is of great importance.

My students react with laughter, awe, and even horror and disgust at the retelling of their favorite childhood tales. I show a clip from the Disney movie that corresponds with the story, and comment on how the story may have been modified and changed from the original version. Some are close to the original, such as Cinderella, aside from the talking mice. Others, like Frozen, about two sisters who empower each other, is completely different than the original, which was about a magical queen with an icy heart who had gnomes throw her suitors of a cliff to their deaths.

One of the most vastly different ones that was the first motion picture made, Snow White. She was a princess who was being plotted against by her jealous stepmother. It was a story of female competition, in which the older woman was threatened by a younger woman’s youth and beauty. In a culture that valued women for their looks and fertility, it is not surprising to see that kind of petty behavior. However, in the original story, Snow White was a shapeshifting fairy who took the form of a human girl, about nine years old, and cast a spell on anyone who tried to harm her. She enchanted the men around her to become queen, and only her adoptive mother, the queen, could sense that Snow White was deceitful and tried to stop her. She had a sexual relationship with each of the seven dwarves an object of desire the prince who marries her, for he only wanted her for her beauty (She was under the sleeping curse when her saw her and was therefore dead which implies that the prince is a necrophiliac). The original story showed that a woman could use her sexual power to manipulate the men around her to get what she wanted. This is not a lesson that we would want to pass on to young ladies today!

In the retelling and mass marketing of the stories through the minds and image processors of Disney, we can see a clear pattern of the stories in which the female characters evolve from being naïve, dependent ingenues to determined, intelligent, and willful young women. Other characters react to these newer heroines with frustration, anger and seek to contain and control their thoughts and their power. These ladies are not deterred, whether it is Princess Jasmine or Merida saying no to and arranged marriage, or Tiana building a business from the labors of her own hard work and skills.

In the latest incarnation of a Disney princess, that they poke fun of in the movie (if you have an animal companion and you are on a journey you are a princess) is Moana, who leaves her island and everything she knows to save her people. She fares all kinds of weather and struggles to believe in herself as she moves into uncharted territory. She is a huge contrast from the Little Mermaid, who left everything she knew and changed what she was in pursuit of a man. In the original story, the little mermaid does not receive true love back from the prince, who treats her like a pretty object and marries someone else, leaving her to die and turn into seafoam when the spell breaks. My students are the most devastated when hearing this story.

I crush many childhood fantasies with this lecture, but it is important to let young women know that they are worth more than their appearance and youth. We are worth more than what our uteruses can put out, literally. A woman is capable of much more than sweeping a room, dancing in a ballroom, and finding her true love. She can fill a room with those who wish to hear her speak, she can lead an army, and she can run an entire empire. We must teach girls that they are just as competent as boys and can be all that they want to be, and more. They too can run the world and make it is world a better place.

Our culture’s modern storytellers, being writers, television producers and movie studios, know that if they are to be successful, they must cater to females. This is why they are marketing female led movies, such as princesses who claim their power, female scientists, spies, activists, rebels, leaders, and superheroes that fight for justice. The stories reflect the changing times and the consumers desire for something new and better, especially for their daughters. It is no longer survival of the prettiest, but survival of the smartest, strongest, and the most spirited. We must no longer ask the mirror on the wall about being the fairest, but about the best version of ourselves that we can be.