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Folk and Fairy Tales in the Classroom (Part 4) - gender, sexuality and politics

This four-part blog started as a lecture that I was invited to give at the Robert Musil Literature Museum, Klagenfurt in Austria . I have tried to maintain the accessibility of the original lecture in this written version, but have developed the argument, providing more in-depth analysis and extending the references to include more theoretical perspectives.

So that it is not too much of a read in one go, I have broken the article down into four sections and will post them in turn, as each part is completed:

Part 1 - Introduction

  • Story reading or storytelling?

  • Little Red Riding Hood – a short case study

  • Sticky Stories – and what makes them stick?

  • The Hound Gelert – a short case study

  • Developing a critical approach to folk and fairy tales

  • Whose culture – race, ethnicity and religion

Part 4

  • Whose culture – gender and relationships

  • The role of folk and fairy tales in the life of the child

  • Conclusion

Developing a critical approach to folk and fairy tales

In the fourth part of this Blog on folk and fairy tale in the classroom, I continue with a critical approach to traditional tales. Having already considered race, ethnicity and religion in Part 3, I move on to consider gender in folk and fairy stories, and then the relevance of these stories to LGBT+ people and the implications of this for the classroom. In the final section, I shift the focus to the political contexts from which folk and fairy tales spring, and their relevance to children.

The following introduction to the idea of a critical approach to folk and fairy tales is from the opening of Part 3 of this blog. If you are already familiar with this section, you may wish to scroll down to the next: ‘Whose Culture - Gender and relationships’

Our priority in the world of children’s books should not be to promote ideology but to understand it, and find ways of helping others to understand it, including the children themselves. (Hollindale, 2011: 36)

In Part 1 of this blog (CLICK HERE), I discussed whether we should revise folk and fairy tales so that they

cannot be seen to legitimise various forms of child abuse (where abandonment, forced marriage, murder, etc. are seen as simply the way that the world is), or be employed as a means of explaining suffering away (if you are good, then everything will turn out well). ). I cited Zipes’ (1995) concern that we should reframe traditional stories so that we don’t promote malign messages about children’s worth, but I then went on to explore how Winston (1998) provides a corrective purely revisionist approaches, suggesting that taking a critical stance to story ensures that the classroom is a place in which socially-destructive messages (whether implicit or explicit) can be challenged (something that Zipes also advocates). Paulo Friere, the Brazilian philosopher, is often regarded as the founding thinker behind what has been come to be called ‘critical literacy’, stating (in his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed), that when a reader takes a critical stance, they ‘move beyond passively accepting the text’s message to question, examine, or dispute the power relations that exist between readers and authors’ (1997 (1970): 14). Like Friere, Hollindale (in the quote which heads this part of the blog) refers explicitly to children reading texts, but what both of these writers have to say about taking a critical stance is as relevant to the story told as the story read, and it is the potential for folk and fairy tales to be examined critically in the classroom that I intend to explore here.

In pursuit of the classroom being a place in which children are encouraged to be critical, Johnston and Rogers (2006) suggest a series of strategies:

Strategies to enable readers to ask how a text might have been otherwise:

  • comparing different versions of the same event,

  • rewriting texts (adding, deleting, or rephrasing),

  • role-playing.

Strategies to expand readers’ social imagination:

  • imagine why the author made particular choices

  • how someone else might fill in the gaps differently;

  • what the author imagined people would know or think;

  • how someone in a different time or place might think differently;

  • the perspective of someone not represented in the text.

Summarised from Johnston, P. and Rogers, R. (2006:17)


Whose Culture - Gender and Sexuality


Returning to Johnson and Rogers’ (2006) strategies above, if we ask ‘how someone in a different time or place might think differently’, the way in which gender is both defined and (on the whole) fixed in traditional stories is in stark contrast to the values of gender equality that we as teachers are expected to espouse in the classroom, particularly (although not exclusively) in relation to the aspirations of women. Whilst in the last 25 years, there have been many publications of what are sometimes referred to as post-modern[1] fairy tales, Gilbert’s perspective on the way in which stories shape children’s understanding of gender is a powerful one:

It is through fictions or stories that our understanding of gender is constantly made and remade and acquires [a] factual status. Stories play a powerful role in the construction of femininity and masculinity and are firmly implicated in the construction of social meaning.

Gilbert, P. (1994: 28)

One could argue that shifts in representation mean that such a ‘construction of femininity and masculinity’ is less toxic than in the past, but I want to provide two short anecdotes that expose why the issue of gender in folk and fairy tale remains an important area of discussion:

  1. I was working with a group of post-graduate student teachers who were tasked with presenting a teaching and learning sequence that would expand children’s comprehension of a text. The group chose to plan for children in Year 1 (5-6 years old), and work with a version of ‘Cinderella’ that was ‘traditional’ in the sense that it had the characteristic elements that most people would associate with that fairy story: beautiful young woman, handsome prince, weak father, cruel stepmother and stepsisters, fairy godmother, transformed pumpkin and mice, glass slipper, a ball, and a clock striking midnight[2]. At the end of their presentation I asked the students to reflect on how their activity dealt with gender roles and whether it promoted a particular model of femininity. One of the students looked at me with horror, and cried, ‘But they [referring to the children] are only five years old!’

  2. On another occasion, I was looking at the book display that a student teacher had created on the theme of fairy tales, while on placement in a Reception class (4-5 years old). I noticed that the only image of an adult woman on the cover of any of the books was a simpering Princess Jasmine, who was leaning against a bare-chested Aladdin on the front of the Disney version of this story from the ‘1001 Nights’ collection of middle-eastern tales (see Figure 1). It is to the student’s credit that, when I asked her what the display said about women, she was horrified, and the display was changed quickly.

These two anecdotes represent very different responses to the portrayal of gender in fairy stories. I wonder whether the first response, that the children were too young for it to matter, was not only grounded in a limited understanding of how sophisticated the thinking of young children can be, but also was a manifestation of what Zipes (1994) refers to as ‘mythologization’, the process by which a particular version of a fairy story becomes accepted as part of culture, (something discussed in Part 3 of this blog CLICK HERE). In other words, to challenge the use of this particular, and established, version of Cinderella was to question something that was almost holy. How different, then, the response of the student working with younger children in Reception, whose moment of clarity was significant enough to be burned into my own memory.

Gender role in traditional story (and particularly fairy story) has been a fertile ground for study by authors such as Marina Warner (most notably in her 1994 seminal text, ‘The Beast and the Blonde’). Similarly, there are feminist adaptations of some of the most well-known European tales, most famously by Angela Carter who took and reframed them in ‘The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’ so that female characters were portrayed as strong and autonomous women – it is her version of Little Red Riding Hood, ‘The Company of Wolves’, that was the basis of the 1984 film of the same name. Thanks to pioneers, such as Warner and Carter, awareness of gender stereotyping has to some extent become mainstream (whatever the reaction of the student mentioned above), and, as noted in the previous blog, even the Disney corporation has made some effort to ensure that its recent film representations are less bound to fixed gender roles. For instance, characters such as Merida (from the 2012 film ‘Brave’) are strong and independent in their approach to life, something that contrasts greatly with earlier Disney princesses whose very passivity was the means of attracting male heroes – men who could save them, or sort out their problems. Before being too gushing, however, about the shift in Disney’s representation of gender, we do need to remember that this multinational corporation is making decisions that are good for business by responding to the zeitgeist; as Zipes observes, ‘[m]ost important for Disney and other producers of fairy-tale films was the manner in which they could ‘hook’ children as consumers …because they wanted to control children’s aesthetic interests and consumer tastes. (1997: 9).

In the classroom, it is important then to be able to discern stereotyped gender roles and representation. In the second part of this blog (CLICK HERE) I introduced a method of identifying the underlying themes in story through asking six questions:

  • Who is the story about?

  • What do they want to do/achieve?

  • What makes them want to do/achieve this?

  • If they succeed whom will it benefit?

  • What/who is working against them?

  • What/who is working for them? (Greimas and Courtés, 1979, summarised in Daniel, 2012)

Even the briefest of analyses of tales such as ‘Cinderella‘ will reveal that the answer to the question, ‘What/who is working for them?’, is often beauty (which is defined in narrow terms such as being ‘fair of face’) and a characteristic domestic obedience and passivity. Indeed, Maria Tatar suggests that ‘[s]upernal beauty and down-to-earth hard work are linked to create the fairy-tale heroine's passport to success (2003, p118). Of male protagonists, she observes that they ‘must routinely submit to character tests and demonstrate compassion’ (2003, 116).

Just as Angela Carter challenges gender roles in her adult tales in ‘The Bloody Chamber and other stories’, Babette Cole questions traditional perceptions with her books for children, ‘Princess Smartypants’ and ‘Prince Cinders’ (see Figure 2).

More recently, Vita Murrow’s collection of postmodern adaptations, ‘Power to the Princess’, emphasises the strengths of women, and, as if to highlight the contrast between these and other popular versions of the tales, Julia Bereciartu (the illustrator) has chosen to create images that have a clear kinship with those of Disney’s films (see Figure 3).

Such postmodern adaptations of fairy stories provide a helpful balancing of the fairy story tradition away from fixed ideas of gender role, they do rely on knowledge of more ‘traditional’ versions of the tales to make their point. While Zipes is clear about the danger of a diet of unreconstructed stories which concretise oppression, he recognises that ‘it is important…[for] children to hear or read a classical tale that they are 'supposed' to know, according to society's standard-bearers, even though I personally may find the tale sexist, racist, or abusive to children in some way… They must recognise that people thought differently in the past and set great stock by establishing a certain tradition and way of life (1995:17). Similarly, as already noted, Winston (1998) makes the point that we should take a critical approach to traditional and fairy stories, rather than restricting the classroom diet to stories that are more palatable to liberal society. This approach to questioning stories helps us to question assumptions about gender that focus on the qualities that Tatar and others have identified.


A trickier area to critique than gender, in relation to folk and fairy tales, is that of sexuality. Since the middle of 2019, there have been sufficient public tensions in the UK about the development of a curriculum that is inclusive of LGBT+ people for the Department for Education to provide guidance for schools that face disruption (CLICK HERE). Whatever the difficulties around embedding the recognition of LGBT+ lives in the primary classroom, however, schools in England will be required to introduce inclusive 'Relationship and Sex Education' from September 2020 (CLICK HERE). A necessary part of this shift towards acceptance of LGBT+ relationships will be giving children access to appropriate texts, and, when such texts are not published, taking a critical stance to the literature that is available and exploiting the flexibility that oral storytelling provides to reshape narratives.

It is, of course, unsurprising that homosexuality is not referenced in European folk tales when Europe was culturally Christian, and Christianity (for most of its history at least) has been antagonistic to same sex love (although there are stories in which gender is more fluid than would perhaps be expected). Continuing with the theme of contemporary postmodern recasting of fairy stories, there have been attempts to create modern tales which include LGBT+ relationships, such as ‘King and King’ by De Haan, L. and Nijland, S. (2002) (see Figure 4), but these are unlikely to gain traction with children in the near future unless (for example):

  • a large corporation (notably Disney) creates a film in which the celebration of a same sex relationship features in the resolution of a story

  • well-known fairy tales, adapted to include same sex relationships, become part of a popular reading scheme

As much as, from a personal perspective, I want to see a range of children’s texts that normalise LGBT+ relationships and identities, it remains important to avoid recommending texts for the classroom based on their inclusive agenda alone. A quality book, no matter how worthy, will require the reader to interpret both text and illustration, be well-expressed and have layers of complexity - addressing of gender roles, and/or including members of marginalised communities, is simply not enough.

In the meantime, it is possible to adapt folk and fairy stories, and I have done this in some of the adapted folk tales in my storytelling set ‘From Tinker to Thief’ (CLICK HERE) However, despite any personal inclusive agenda, I created this set of stories for adults, rather than children, and have included a parental warning on some of the videos. This raises an uncomfortable question for me – where are my child-friendly stories that include LGBT+ relationships or characters? A question I am unable to answer at present. Tensions about the appropriateness of including same sex relationships in stories for children are not going to go away quickly, and one has to ask whether adapting traditional tales such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to ‘Beau and the Beast’ is going to be effective – I suspect that we will have to wait and see whether feminist reworkings of traditional tales (such as those found in ‘Power to the Princess’) will demonstrate sufficient traction in children’s minds and imaginations to make a difference to how they perceive gender, to have any idea whether this is an approach that is going to make a difference to the visibility of LGBT+ people and their relationships.


While (at the time of writing) citizenship education is a statutory requirement for secondary schools in England, primary schools are only provided with non-statutory guidance that includes the statement that children should be prepared ‘for an active role as citizens’ (DfE 2015). While children can be prepared ‘for an active role as citizens’ through activities across the curriculum, and by engagement with the life of their school and local community, literature (both print and oral) models ways of acting and being that are layered throughout any story that is shared. In the opening of Part 3 of this blog, I quoted Peter Holindale, and I return to him here with a slightly longer quote:

It might seem that values whose presence can only be convincingly demonstrated by an adult with some training in critical skills are unlikely to carry much potency with children. More probably the reverse is true: the values at stake are usually those which are taken for granted by the writer, and reflect the writer's integration in a society which unthinkingly accepts them. In turn this means that children, unless they are helped to notice what is there, will take them for granted too. Unexamined, passive values are widely shared values, and we should not underestimate the powers of reinforcement vested in quiescent and unconscious ideology (2011: 39).

It is these ‘passive values’ that we have been considering in relation to race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality. However, each of these categories can only be considered a social issue because of the unthinking way that we (as a society) have accepted certain norms, norms that include some people and exclude others, have given power to some people and withheld it from others. The acceptance of these passive values is built on underlying social structures, and so, in this final section, I want to look at what folk and fairy tales have to say about the body politic, if anything, and what that means for their use in the classroom as we prepare children ‘for an active role as citizens’.

Jack Zipes (2012, 2006a, 2006b, 2002) has written extensively about the development of literary fairy tales from their origins in folk stories. He has traced the stories from expressions of ordinary people’s desire to better themselves (something that they regarded as only possible in the feudal age through the intervention of superhuman powers) to more romantic ideas of betterment achieved through the striving of an individual. But between these two points, we see little in relation to communal action, or concern with social change.

If we return to the final two of the six questions that I have suggested as a means of supporting a critical approach to folk and fairy tales (see Part 3 CLICK HERE):

What/who is working against the protagonist(s)?

What/who is working for the protagonist(s)?

we can see that democratic engagement is not regarded as a viable means of changing world in traditional tales. Beyond supernatural intervention, women achieve advancement through (to return to Tatar’s words) ‘supernal beauty and down-to-earth hard work’ (2003: 118), while men ‘must routinely submit to character tests and demonstrate compassion’ (ibid: 116).

Although many literary fairy tales come out of the Romantic period, they look back to a feudal context which, according to Zipes, both prevents them questioning the static nature of class, and also suggest that the only means of moving-up the social ladder is either magical intervention or the revealing of a noble nature. For a British reader, Zipes’ negativity towards what he regards as ‘the arbitrary power of monarchs’ (1995: 212) is an interesting, and conflicting, observation: Zipes is an American and lives in a republic, while we continue to live in a monarchy (albeit a constitutional one). Although the role of the monarchy is not expected to be taught in primary schools (unlike for Key Stage 3 (11-13 years old) for whom it is part of the statutory citizenship curriculum), primary children can hardly be unaware of the monarch, particularly when royal buildings, regalia and events resemble popular fairy tale representations (the latter being shaped around the former). As subjects of the crown in the UK, we may not wish to suggest that our constitution can be reduced to ‘the arbitrary power of monarchs’, but there is space to present alternative ways of being with children. There may be little in folk or fairy tales about social engagement beyond the individual being kind or charitable, but it is the role of the ‘individual’ that needs to be understood in relation to traditional stories, rather than collective action or social intervention. Remembering Johnston and Rogers’ approach to developing criticality, and that folk and fairy tales usually come from times when class structures were more explicit than today, we can ask questions about ‘how someone in a different time or place might think differently’ (2006: 17) and ensure that we tell and share stories in which people work together to create change, and that advancement is not solely about the individual.

Discussion, then, of the socio-political values implicit in fairy tales is complex. There is certainly an arbitrariness to the way in which many people (including monarchs) rise to power, but a critical stance invites us to question all systems of power, not just those with which we are least comfortable. Taking a fatalistic approach to the political content of traditional tales is not a political philosophy that I want to own, and accepting that there will always be ‘the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate’[3] is to ignore the potential for individuals to challenge injustice and the status quo – which brings us back to our earlier discussion of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality.


Over the four parts of this blog I have explored the multiple meanings that can be read into folk and fairy tales. In the end, the argument comes down to the need for teachers to maintain a critical stance towards any text that we share with children (including traditional tales), and not assuming that, simply because a version of a story is familiar to us, it’s influence will be wholly benign. Returning to Bruner’s words (which give the title to this four-part blog) story is ‘the coin and currency of culture’ (2002: 16), and the very familiarity of folk and fairy tales can prevent us from seeing the passive values embedded in the cultures that such stories promote: values about how society should be ordered, and who should be included (and by implication, who should be excluded). As Marina Warner eloquently states, ‘Children are not likely to be committed to a certain way of thought; they can be moulded, and the stories they hear will then become the ones they expect (1994: 410).

One solution is to ensure that we only share narratives that embody justice and respect for all. This sounds a very worthy approach, but it ignores the way that traditional stories are embedded within our broader culture and media. In addition, it also shies away from the vital work of teaching children to be critical readers and interpreters of the messages that bombard them from all sides. Better then, I would suggest, to work with stories that may present unpalatable attitudes to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, and the state itself, and to question the forces that are at work in the narratives, and ask children to reflect on alternative ways of being.

[1] According to Bacchilegam, ‘Postmodern revision is often to-fold, seeking to expose, make visible, the fairy tale's complicity with 'exhausted' narrative and gender ideologies, and, by working from the fairy tales' multiple versions, seeking to expose, bring out, what the institutionalisation of such tales has forgotten or left unexploited (1997: 50).

[2] In fact, these elements are specifically associated with the version in Histoires ou contes du temps passé by Charles Perrault and published in France in 1697

[3] This line is from a verse of the well-known Anglican hymn, ‘All things bright and beautiful’. Although an Anglican Christian, who has sung the hymn on many occasions, I have yet to sing this verse which has strong Calvinist overtones:

The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate.

References for Part 4

  • Bruner, J. (2002) Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

  • Carter, A. (1995, 2006) The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. London: Vintage

  • Cole, B. (1997) Prince Cinders. London: Puffin

  • Cole, B. (1996) Princess Smartypants. London: Puffin

  • Daniel, Alastair (2012) Storytelling across the primary curriculum. London: Routledge

  • De Haan, L. and Nijland, S. (2002) King and King. New York: Tricycle Press.

  • Department for Education (2015) Citizenship. Available online: CLICK HERE (accessed 22-07-20)

  • Friere, P (1997 (1970)) Pedagogy of the oppressed (Rev ed) Bergman Ramos, M. New York: Continuum

  • Gilbert, P. (1994) “And They Lived Happily Ever After”: Cultural Storylines and the Construction of Gender. In Haas Dyson, A. and Geneshi, C. (eds) The Need for Story: Cultural Diversity in Classroom and Community. Urbana IL: National Council of Teachers of English, pp124-142

  • Greimas, A.J. and Courtés, J. (1979) Semiotics and Language, An Analytical Dictionary (trans) L. Crist, D. Patte, E. McMohan II, G. Phillips, and M. Rengstorf, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1982)

  • Hollindale, P. (2011) The Hidden Teacher: Ideology and Children's Reading. Stroud: Thimble Press

  • Johnston, P. and Rogers, R. (2006) Critical Literacy/Critical Teaching: Tools for Preparing Responsive Teachers. Teachers College Press

  • Murrow, V (2018) Power to the Princess: 15 Favourite Fairytales. Minneapolis, MN: Frances Lincoln Children's Books

  • Tatar, M (2003) The Hard Facts of the Grimm's Fairy Tales (2nd edn.) Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press

  • Warner, M. (1994) From The Beast To The Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. London: Vintage

  • Winston, J. (1998) Drama, narrative and moral education. Abingdon: Routledge Falmer

  • Zipes, J. (2012) The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press

  • Zipes, J. (2006a) Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. Abingdon: Routlegde

  • Zipes, J. (2006b) Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis

  • Zipes, J. (2002) Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (revised edn.) Lexington KY: University Press of Kentucky

  • Zipes, J. (1997) Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry. London Routledge

  • Zipes, J. (1995) Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives. London: Routledge

  • Zipes, J. (1994) Fairy Tales as Myth - Myth as Fairy Tale. University Press of Kentucky

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