| Snow White (top) and Barbie
Fairy tales like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty give children the harmful impression that “it pays to be pretty”, say American social scientists.
The stories contain so many damaging stereotypes that they are as harmful as the lurid sexual images contained in many popular music videos, they claim.
Parents should not “throw the books away” but discuss the plots and characters with their children and consider whether they are telling their daughters to seek beauty at the expense of their education and careers.
The researchers congratulate the makers of the film Shrek, in which a beautiful maiden lives happily ever after when she is transformed into an ogre.
Liz Grauerholz, associate professor of sociology at Purdue University in Indiana, says stories such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella concentrate on looks, particularly female beauty.
“From early childhood, girls read fairy tales about princesses who achieve vast riches simply because their beauty makes them special. That is a powerful message which can inhibit young women who feel they do not meet society’s expectations of what it means to be attractive.”
“With my daughters, who are nine and 11, I am very aware of the messages I am giving them. I do not want them to think they are valuable just for their looks.”
Prof Grauerholz and Lori Baker-Sperry from Western Illinois University studied 168 fairy tales written in the 1800s by the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm. Nearly all referred to physical appearance, with an average of 14 such references per story. One in five of the stories linked being ugly with being evil.
The five most retold tales were Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.
The research, published in the journal Gender and Society, was described as misguided by Robert Whelan, the director of the campaign group Family and Youth Concern.
He said: “The message that these fairy tales contain is not that you need to be pretty but that you need to be good. That is why they appeal to the deepest human instincts. “The story of Cinderella says that you may be wearing rags, but if you are good, you thrive.”
“I am much more worried about the Barbie doll and the impression little girls are given that they should be very slim and wear make-up.”