Are Fairytales Adapted To Suit Changing Rites of Passage?

Are Fairytales Adapted To Suit Changing Rites of Passage?

Rites of passage are key transitions in life based on age, gender, religion and other things. Losing virginity, first menstruation, sweet 16, graduations, bar mitzvahs and many more are all rites of passage. A lot of the older fairytales and folk tales bring up the mentioned rites of passage in the stories that were told to explain rites of passage. Fairytales were used as basic instructions on survival, civilization and rites of passage.

Jack Zipes states, “what the fairytale does – and it does more efficiently and effectively than any other genre – is represent basic human dilemmas in tangible metaphorical forms that reflect how difficult it is for us to curb basic instincts. Fairytales are all about basic instincts and genetic evolution within a civilizing process”

The typical signs and signifiers of a fairytale to the modern generation is with princesses, castles, princes, fairies, magic and happy endings. Although a lot of the original fairytales have rape, murder, drug use and other darker messages, which are hidden using metaphors. Are fairytales supposed to always be happy or is there a point when our coming of age brings us to the reality that there perhaps aren’t happy endings and shows us a lot more reality. Young people can dream of being a king or princess and that there will be a happy ending whereas after the coming of age the darker side of these fairytales and the reality of what actual life is like can be seen.

Fairytales originally used to be told in groups by folk and were part of a way for younger people to learn about rites of passage such as puberty etc. Often with the folk tales having deep meanings that would explain the rites of passage that children were about to experience. Have fairytales been manipulated so that the important messages aren’t in the modern adaptations? Walt Disney got hold of such fairytales and changed the perception of them, often manipulating the original fairytales to portray his own thoughts and take away the morals and meanings that the original fairytales had. In older fairytales the stories were often narrated from a female point of view and were about women, however Disney changes the message in a lot of their remakes of the classic fairytales and makes it clear to his viewers that a woman’s life is meaningless without a man. For example; in Disneys version of Snow White there is a prince that saves her with a magical kiss however in old tales of Snow White there is no prince. In the Brothers Grimm version the coffin is jarred, which dislodges the apple, stuck in her throat. One time one of them opened the coffin, lifted Snow-White upright, and said, “We are plagued the whole day long, just because of such a dead girl,” and he hit her in the back with his hand. Then the terrible piece of apple that she had bitten off came out of her throat, and Snow-White came back to life”. Since Disney, these meanings have possibly changed. With Disney telling fairytales differently to how people used to be tell them, adding a more ‘American’ way, allowing young girls to believe that only success or happiness can be achieved if there is a man involved.

Because of Disney, girls believe that will grow up to be princesses, Disney doesn’t often portray the women in their fairytales to be intelligent or strong but still have a happy ending, however in fairytales that existed before Disney, for example the Little Red Cap by Brothers Grimm women are portrayed in a different way. In the Brothers Grimm version the girl is smart and outwits the wolf to survive. This taught the message that anything could be overcome if a girl was smart or strong. This fairytale has been seen to have deeper meanings to do with the girl being raped and the struggle women have of being objectified by males. This would have been a fairytale told to younger girls to teach about the rite of passage of puberty and losing virginity, as the girls would grow older the girls would become more objectified by men. “As long as I live, I will never by myself leave the path, to run into the wood, when my mother has forbidden me to do so.” Also this important message at the end of the story would have stuck with the girls to follow the same orders that their mothers give.

Disney shapes women to meet Walt Disney’s standards of how women should behave, rather than portraying the strong and clever females that are visible in the original tales.
Pamela O’ Brien believes “While Disney‘s animated films have adapted to cultural changes, their continued representation of traditional gender roles indicates that the films do more to reproduce than change existing social structures” (156) This shows that Disney has changed fairytales to suit other cultural changes but still feminizes women. Showing that some stories are being told to suit a rite of passage that Walt Disney believes civilization should take.

Another fairytale that could relate to rites of passage could be Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. The story is about two young sisters, one of which is tempted by the Goblins in the forest to buy their fruit, however the girl has no money so offers a lock of her hair and “a tear more rare than pearl.” This sister then becomes addicted and grows ill until her sister goes back to the goblin market and almost sacrifices herself to save her sister. This fairytale could be seen as a sister lead into temptation and prostitution in order to feed her drug addiction, but her sister saves her from her death in the end.  This fairytale relates to rites of passage of losing virginity but also would have taught younger women to stay strong and not be tempted.
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.” This is at the end of the fairytale and proves as another example that in older fairytales a man doesn’t always rescue the damsel in distress and that if women are strong and stand together then women are just strong as any man could be.

Bluebeard is a fairytale that could be seen as similar to one of Disney’s adaptations because there is a damsel in distress and who is saved by men. However these men aren’t her knights in shining armour, these men are her brothers. Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is based on Bluebeard and bears a similar story but instead the woman is saved by her mother. This is another example of how fairytales change to relate to different time periods and different social groups or cultures.

Fairytales have all been told differently throughout time depending on what the situation of cultures or social groups are in. Fairytales all hold relations regarding rites of passage or help to explain some rites of passage, however depending on the era and place fairytales explain the rites of passage differently. As each religion, culture group, social group has it’s own rites of passage and ways, then stories are going to fit into relation to how that group expresses them.


Carter, Angela (1979). The Bloody Chamber. United Kingdom: Gollancz.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm (1857)”Rothkäppchen,” Kinder- und Hausmärchen, gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm, 7th edition, vol. 1 (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung)

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm (1812) “Sneewittchen” Kinder- und Hausmärchen, 1st ed. (Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung), v. 1, no. 53, pp. 238-50

O‘Brien, Pamela Colby (1996):. ―The Happiest Films on Earth: A Textual and Contextual Analysis of Walt Disney‘s Cinderella and The Little Mermaid: Women’s Studies in Communication 19.2 :156

Perrault, Charles (1697). Histoires ou Contes du temps passé : Bluebeard. Paris: Barbin

Rosetti, Christina (1862), Goblin Market and other Poems:
Cambridge: Macmillan 562-567

Zipes, Jack (2006). Why Fairytales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC


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