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Evanston author analyzes fairy tales through feminist lens

Cinderella may have been a fairy tale princess but it’s a myth that she lived happily ever after.

That’s the contention of author Anne E. Beall, Ph.D. in her thoroughly-researched and highly-entertaining sixth book, “Cinderella Didn’t Live Happily Ever After.”

Evanston author Beall, who holds a Ph.D. in social psychology from Yale and is the founder and CEO of Beall Research, Inc. in Chicago, came to that conclusion after carefully analyzing 169 fairy tales.

The concept for Beall’s new book germinated when she was having a bad day.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to escape in some fairy tales and go into a world where everything ends up happily ever after,’” Beall related. “I started reading the Grimm fairy tales and I started noticing some patterns.”

Because she is a researcher, Beall decided to explore the patterns that she was noticing in fairy tales.

“I started coding every single Grimm fairy tale that had a human being in it,” she said. Beall worked with three staff members at her company to enter the data she discovered and perform statistical analysis of it. That part of the project took over a year.

“I saw some patterns that I had not observed and some patterns that I thought I was seeing,” Beall reported.

“What mostly surprised me in the fairy tales was that powerful women are rare,” Beall said. “And when they do occur, they’re largely evil. Powerful men are largely good. That sends a real message to children from an early age. You can’t trust powerful women. All the powerful females are particularly nasty to children.” They tend to be stepmothers or witches.

Beall was also surprised to learn that among the fairy tale characters, queens were the most sad and they weren’t particularly powerful because they were often victimized.

A princess who becomes a queen has it rough because of those factors and because other women are jealous of her.

Beall also observed that in fairy tales, princes choose their brides because they are beautiful and that seems to be the only trait that princes care about.

She noted that the fairy tales can affect the way people are perceived. “You may tend to see women as passive,” Beall said. “You may not take a lot of initiative because you’re waiting for somebody to save you. You may be waiting for marriage to be the thing that makes your life better.”

And if you don’t find that person to change your life, Beall contemplated, it’s possible “to feel you’ve failed.”

With all of the lopsided values ​​within them, it’s easy to question why people have been reading fairy tales for hundreds of years but Beall has a theory.

“I think they deal with a lot of the issues that we deal with as human beings,” Beall explained. “They deal with victimization. They deal with issues of children being abandoned by parents. They deal with common family dynamics — stepmothers for example.”

Beall’s writing style is lively and segments taken from fairy tales as examples of the patterns she observed make fascinating reading. The last pages of the book contain charts of the patterns that Beall and her staff codified for those who enjoy statistics. Even if that’s not something that would normally attract you, it’s still fascinating studying them.

You will learn that 79% of the powerful characters in fairy tales are male while only 21% are female. When it comes to vanquishing evil, men are the heroes 81% of the time to women’s 19%.

A surprising aspect of fairy tales is that “they were largely the province of women for many years,” Beall revealed.

“Fairy tales in France were actually a salon thing where upper crust women would write these tales and share them. The Grimm Brothers actually collected these tales from women largely.”

The Grimm brothers did rewrite the tales, though, often making the women more passive and the evil women more evil.

Despite the biases within them, Beall isn’t trying to discourage people from reading fairy tales. Instead she hopes people will explore them through a more educated lens.

“I would want parents to think about the fairy tales that they share with their children, the movies that they take them to, and think critically about them and about what hidden messages they may be giving to their daughters and sons,” Beall said. “I also think there are collections of fairy tales out there that are really great that have very strong female heroes that are worth taking a look at.”

Myrna Petlicki is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.

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