when i was a kid, i had a pretty nifty collection of story books. i loved reading, and on each of my birthdays, at least one of my numerous relatives used to give me a story book. whether it was a book with those colour illustrations on one side with the story printed in huge thick black letters on the other side, or those small satisfyingly thick books with fine print, books were an obsession with me. and so I got to thinking about the stereotypes we feed our children.

the heroines are almost always pale, slender and wilting uselessly from atop a tower, waiting for a hero to come and transfer them from the captivity of a witch’s tower to the captivity of a castle. it seemed all they were capable of doing, was languishing. if i remember right, one of ‘em even opted to wait a hundred years than lift a finger and help herself!

the tales gently and inexorably instilled those stereotypes in our heads: be figure-conscious, fairer is more beautiful. also, if youre a woman, be helpless. be inert. show no initiative – above all, never try to change or help your circumstances.

i think the most damaging tale for a kid to read, is probably cinderella. cinderella didn’t want to tell the prince she was poor, because a prince couldn’t marry anyone other than a (beautiful) princess. read into another caste. read into even a different socio-economic strata. same principle. but that’s not all - the prince who loved cinderella enough to rummage through his entire kingdom for her couldn’t even recognise the love of his life until she was dolled up again to match the glam image in his head. only when she was in her evening finery did he propose to her. moral of the story: if you want to find your prince and live happily ever after, appearances are everything.

those were the english stories – of our native folk tales, sita was depicted as the picture of paralysing virtue, solidly bolstering the stereotypes of Virtuous Wife, Obedient and Helpless Woman and - this gets me the most - the Husband’s Property, to be exchanged, stolen and shifted around like loose change. (the Ramayana is separate-post-worthy so im skimming over it for now!)

so there we have it. all the young women were this insipid, uninspiring kind. the ones that actually did something, were the evil old hags. the witches, the shrews, the mantharas – if a woman had a spark of intelligence she would promptly cause untold trouble and strife in the kingdom!

one gasps and turns to “alibaba and the 40 thieves” for support. (there’s patriarchy for you by the way – margiana saves the day, and what do they do? they name the story after the man!) but alas, a clever woman just isn’t as acceptable as a pretty dimwit. so while margiana fades into obscurity to the extent of her name changing from version to version, jasmine (Aladdin) lives on....