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Let It Go: Why We Need To Change the Stories We Tell

Let It Go: Why We Need To Change the Stories We Tell

By Tara O’Sullivan

Stories are powerful teaching tools.

Our brains, research tells us, are hardwired to understand and learn from stories; that we instinctively are drawn to the messaging, and we internalise and “get it” is a most basic human trait. Stories are our earliest form of learning.

But if this is the case, we need to change the stories we tell our children. We keep indoctrinating each new generation of girls and boys, at least those in the West, with stories that define particular, very narrow gender roles that in today’s world simply do not belong.

Think of it – of all the “classic fairy tales,” those bedtime stories we love to read to our little ones in the hope that not only would they drift off to sleep, they would also instil in them values, a passion for reading and nurture a vibrant and historical imagination.

I’m talking Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and a whole heap of other ‘classics’ that do our young girls and boys a huge disservice.

Take Cinderella for example. I recently saw a video showing this story but merely changing the gender. Now it’s the story of a young boy mistreated by his evil stepfather and evil stepbrothers. After his fairy godfather magically transformed the boy, he goes to the ball and meets and falls instantly in love with the dashing young princess only to make a midnight dash sans a shoe. Naturally she must pursue the owner of the shoe and her heart and so ensues a search of the kingdom for the foot and its owner that the shoe fits. Lo and behold she does, the lovers are reunited and are destined to live a happy and fulfilling long life together.

Somehow that just doesn’t work and is not something we’d read to our little ones – boys or girls. Yet substitute a princess for a prince and somehow we happily read it repeatedly to our girls. Not only that, we gladly let them spend endless hours watching the story played out in bold, bright colours, clearly establishing for them at that most impressionable young age, that girls are for saving and boys are the saviours.

And just when you might be about to say but hey those stories are ancient, things are different today we get this report.

A study carried out by The Guardian and Nielsen, the market research company, on the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017 revealed:

  • Lead characters were 50% more likely to be male than female
  • Male villains were 8 times more likely to appear than female villains
  • Over the course of each book characters who spoke were 50% more likely to be male
  • Male characters outnumbered female characters in almost half the top 100 stories

Even when the characters aren’t human, females don’t fare any better.

Whenever an author revealed a creature’s sex, it was 73% more likely to be male than female. And the males were more typically embodied as powerful, wild and potentially dangerous beasts such as dragons, bears and tigers, while females tended to anthropomorphise smaller and more vulnerable creatures such as birds, cats and insects.

Lauren Child, the current Children’s Laureate, has this to say about girls’ roles in modern books and movies: “If boys get the starring roles in books – both as the good and bad protagonists – and girls are the sidekicks, it confirms that’s how the world is and how it should be. It’s very hard to feel equal then.”

While all this might seem a tad depressing, I can’t help but think of the phenomenon that was Frozen. Yes, that movie with the singing snowman and not one but two female leads who not only speak, they sing and dance and all while making around $1.2 billion at the box office. The sequel is due to have Elsa fall in love with a woman. The first openly gay princess may actually happen before 2020! And in the meantime, we have to buy our girls books like the wonderful Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

Yesterday it was International Women’s Day. I usually dread this day.

I fail to see how gathering up all the women who work for your company and posting a trite “We couldn’t do it without you” is empowering. In fact, it’s condescending and patronizing. Imagine if we collected all the people of a particular ethnic or racial group and took a photo of them and said the same thing! This would never be an appropriate social post. But somehow, on International Women’s Day, it is ok to corral all the females, take a picture and post some platitudes.

Well, no more.

I believe with all the current #MeToo movements, now more than ever, we need a new message. We need to tell new stories that teach right from the very beginning that women and men deserve to be treated and represented equally. For all of us.

Tara O’Sullivan is the Chief Creative Officer at Skillsoft.

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