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Chris McGovern’s Christmas book choice: Grim fairy tales from the feminist front line


Read this text from Amazon Books and answer the question that follows:

‘The definitive book of the year in our house, for both parents and offspring’ – Maggie O’Farrell, Guardian Books of the Year

‘Absolutely beautiful – get one for yourself and one to inspire a woman in your life’ – Stylist

‘In an ideal world, not only would mothers read this aloud to their daughters, but teachers would read it to schoolboys’ – Sunday Times

What if the princess didn’t marry Prince Charming but instead went on to be an astronaut? What if the jealous stepsisters were supportive and kind? And what if the queen was the one really in charge of the kingdom? Illustrated by sixty female artists from every corner of the globe, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls introduces us to one hundred remarkable women and their extraordinary lives, from Ada Lovelace to Malala, Amelia Earhart to Michelle Obama.

Empowering, moving and inspirational, these are true fairy tales for heroines who definitely don’t need rescuing.

Question: When is a fairy tale not a fairy tale?

Answer: When it is a fairy tale told by Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

‘Right on’, fashion-following, virtue-signalling commentators from the growing battalions of the politically correct do not agree. Channel 4 News, for example, has launched the latest promotion of this new feminist manifesto. The public service news programme wants us to celebrate a victory over the traditional fairy tale. The grounds for celebration, it seems, are that traditional fairy tales are male-dominated and conservative and, therefore, bad. ‘New’ fairy tales are feminist and modern and, therefore, good.

This is how Channel 4 News introduced its report on December 18:

‘Are you sitting comfortably? Maybe you shouldn’t be. For this book of fairy tales challenges every stereotype of young girls as little princesses dressed in pink. Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is a book meant to inspire and empower, with profiles of a hundred extraordinary women across history from Cleopatra to Malala. The authors were told they’d never get the book off the ground, but managed to launch one of the most successful literary crowdfunding appeals ever.’

Not much to get upset about here, one might suppose. After all, what’s not to like about stories of inspiring females from history and from around the world? True, Aung San Suu Kyi might not be everyone’s idea of a role model these days but a blind eye appears to have been turned towards her inclusion. The Guardian’s review did admit that the despised Margaret Thatcher was included but added that ‘this is a minor gripe’. It praised the book for its ‘lyrical fairytale lilt’.

Reviewing for The Times, Esther Walker, too, is unhappy about the inclusion of Britain’s first female prime minister and opines that her story ‘seems to have been written with gritted teeth. I am not sure “rebel” is the word for impeccable cultural conformism.’ No complaints, though, about the inclusion of Coy Mathis, the American transgender girl who won a case to use the girls’ toilets at her school.

What struck Melanie McDonagh of the Evening Standard was the publication’s ‘resemblance to the collection of saints stories I had as a child, with precisely the same edifying and didactic purpose.’

It is true that many of the women and girls included in this publication do make inspiring role models – for everyone. To recruit them, though, for a war on traditional fairy tales and as a vehicle for demeaning the opposite sex is both misguided and mischievous.

The premise of the book, as Channel 4 News stressed, is that traditional fairy tales involve the rescue of princesses by princes, females by males. Is this true? Beyond Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, not many fairy tales really represent the world in this way. On the contrary we are as likely, if not more likely, to have heroic girls saving boys.

The Snow Queen is the story of how Gerda saves Kay. In Hansel and Gretel it is Gretel who saves Hansel by shoving the witch into oven. Beauty of Beauty and the Beast ends up saving both her father and the Beast. The girls are the triumphant male-saving heroines, too, in The Frog Prince, The Wild Swans and The Iron Stove.

Traditional fairy tales represent an accumulation of traditional wisdom about the world that, from the point of view of children, we dispense with at our peril.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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