I used to study children’s literature in university. I learned that in many children’s stories, girls are often portrayed as passive and compliant, with a tendency to follow the rules and to do what they are told. They are often shown as being dependent on others, and are often rescued or protected by male characters. This can reinforce the idea that girls are weaker and less capable than boys, and that they need to be looked after in order to be safe and happy. To counteract this, I started looking for examples of strong, independent, and empowered girls in children’s stories.

Recently, I posted a series of questions on my WeChat (one of the biggest Chinese social media platforms), asking everyone: “In the stories you read when you were young, what were the girl characters like? Were there any girl characters who challenged traditional gender roles and expectations? What do you think of these girl characters?”

I was expecting characters like Pippi Longstocking or Mulan to be mentioned a lot. But the first response I received was from one of my highschool friends, and many of my other friends agreed with her.

She said: “When I was in elementary school, I read a lot of stories from books such as Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Brother Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Looking back, what impressed me most was that all of my friends and I didn’t like traditional heroines such as Snow White and Cinderella. Instead, we really liked evil characters like the witches and the Queen with the magic mirror. For some reason, we were more drawn to villains in fairy tales than princesses.”

Her answer sparked my curiosity. I, too, read a lot of fairy tales as a child, and when I read stories, I remember being totally fascinated by the mysterious castles, secret curses, and fantastic animals. I realized that I was not particularly drawn to any princess character either. I guess one of the reasons is that many fairy tale princesses are depicted as passive and one-dimensional, with little depth or development. On the other hand, evil characters or even the story backgrounds (curses, spells, animals, etc.) are often more complex, unusual and interesting than princesses. 

If we think about it, evil characters often challenge traditional gender roles and expectations. In many fairy tales, the princess is the victim who needs to be rescued by a prince. This reinforces the idea that girls are weak and helpless, and need to be protected by men. In contrast, evil characters are often shown as strong and capable, and are not limited by traditional gender roles!

There could be another reason that evil characters are often more relatable to girls than princesses. Girlhood in real life is way more complex than what those good princesses experience in the stories. Many girls can identify with the feelings of anger, jealousy, and resentment that are often associated with evil characters. In contrast, the perfect, innocent, and passive nature of many princesses can make them seem distant and unrelatable. Additionally, girls may also experience feelings of isolation or loneliness, which can be similar to the feelings of isolation and loneliness that are often associated with evil characters in fairy tales. 

If I could travel back in time, I would go back to the 2000s and tell my friend that I think they are really cool. Forget about sweet, innocent princesses, how cool is it to think about the power and ambition that those evil female characters possess, and to show the world the complexity of girlhood?!

-Yuwen Zhang
Girl Museum Inc

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