“Who doesn’t want to be a princess?” asks Sowmya Rajendran in her Girls to the Rescue (2015), “A princess can have whatever she wants… How can that possibly be a bad thing?”
All literature is informed by the context in which it is written, and fairy tales are no exception. From their literary roots as far back as the fifteenth century, fairy tales have been actively employed to condition children according to the mores and conventions of their respective societies. It wasn’t until the late twentieth century, however, that the fairy tale discourse began to be criticized for its taught constructed gender roles. Why is this important? Perhaps because, as Rajendran notes, these princesses in Western fairy tales are, essentially, “mega bores”, who spend their whole lives waiting – to be saved, to be protected, to be married.
This portrayal of the docile, biddable woman in fairy tales is representative of a far larger problem. Children are constantly being hardwired for life, and what they absorb at such young ages affect their outlook, their beliefs and their abilities for the rest of their life.
Rajendran, reading traditional fairy tales to her daughter, was alarmed by what she realized she was teaching her. How can a girl be expected to grow up to follow her every dream, if she’s told from her infancy that she cannot and must not, but should, instead, wait for the right man to do it for her? So, she made up her mind to rewrite these tales by asking herself a simple question: “now what would any red-blooded girl with brains do in such a situation?” Girls to the Rescue, consequently, is a masterpiece of irreverent humour, and impatient women with strong hearts and an even stronger will, who refuse to be cowed by convention. These princesses take their destiny into their own hands, and rebel against any form docile obedience that is pushed upon them.
In traditional fairy tales, women took up one of three roles: the good and beautiful ‘princess’, the cruel and wicked rival (step-mothers and witches), or dead. Rajendran, in her tales, utterly oversets these tropes, and every one of her female characters is strong and independent. Rapunzel’s mother is a successful astronaut on her way to the moon, while her father is the one who locks her in the tower for disobedience. Cinderella’s sisters repeatedly try to involve her in their plans and are exasperated by her refusal. Sleeping Beauty’s mother just wants to be left in peace to write her book on plant-life. Mothers are too busy having careers and lives to simply die at childbirth, and be pushed conveniently out of the way.
Interestingly, Rajendran’s tales focus on problems that children, and adults, might recognize and relate to within our contemporary Indian, and global, society. Sleeping Beauty’s parents haven’t the smallest wish to have a child, but are constantly pressured and bullied into having one, despite having other dreams. The princess from The Frog Prince is forced to kiss frogs everyday because that is how the women in her family have always found a prince. Snow White is shamed and isolated for her paper-white skin by a superstitious society with set notions of beauty. Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is married to the Wolf, who bears all the signs of a physical and sexual abuser. Rapunzel’s father cares more about her appearance than her capabilities and interests.
Yet, every one of these women finds ways to combat these struggles and take charge of her own fate, and create her own happily ever after that doesn’t necessarily involve a man. The child is had, but the dream achieved despite her. The princess kills every frog so that she will never have to kiss one again. Snow White eats an apple of knowledge to become the wisest queen of all (and gets an attractive shadow-black man to look pretty beside her in the bargain). Grandmother kills her husband to escape from his abuse, to Red’s relief. Rapunzel slices off her hair and uses it as a rope to escape from her tower. No tale is left to a morose ending; no girl is left behind to suffer.
Rajendran’s moral (if moral it can be called) is quite simple. Dreams require hard work and determination, and any girl (or boy) who has both, can do anything that they set their mind on.
There is no room for a binary morality of good and evil, girl and boy, compliance and wickedness in her tales. She writes for young girls like her daughter, and young boys who would rather not be stuck in heroic roles pressured by unrealistic expectations of toxic masculinity. They are tales aimed at helping girls and boys achieve their dreams, recognize and address problems, and maintain healthy relationships (that are not necessarily romantic). Outstripping the out-dated and patriarchal morals of traditional tales by leagues and miles, Girls to the Rescue truly is an essential read for any child.
Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee is the author of The Body Myth (Unnamed Press /Penguin India 2019) which was shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live First Book Award. Her work has been published and featured in Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Vogue India, Out of Print, TBLM, and Bengal Lights, among others. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore, India. Rheea has an MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts.