Fairy Tales & Gender Formation

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Course overview

Fairy tales continue to be objects of fascination in contemporary culture, adopted for fashion spreads, alluded to in music, rewritten for all ages, and reimagined for television and film. Responding to this cultural preoccupation, this course explores how fairy tales inform gender formation as they prepare children for the sexual, marital, and familial relations of adulthood. Fairy tales are characteristically instructive, and the lessons they contain provide insight into cultural values, gender roles, and attitudes towards sexuality. We will read classic and contemporary versions of fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast to explore how these lessons change across cultures and over time, reflecting varying attitudes about personal development and social responsibilities.

While the fairy tales we study will seem familiar, even ubiquitous, the childhood versions you know best have been declawed and Disneyfied, and both the dark, violent “original” versions and modern retellings that return the tales to adult audiences will likely shock you. As we examine these familiar and defamiliarized stories, we will explore the following questions: What do the classic narratives tell us about their historical and cultural context, particularly in relation to social values, gender roles, class status, ageing, family dynamics, and marriage? What do narrative differences in a fairy tale reveal about social and cultural differences among countries such as France, China, Ireland, Ghana, and India? How do contemporary revisions reframe gender identity, sexuality, and interpersonal relationships? What aspects of the centuries-old tales do contemporary revisions critique, and what elements do they preserve? And what do the retellings seek to teach us about personal identity and our relationships to others?