Nikita Gill’s book of fairy tales reexamines fairy tales and begs readers to look closer at the stories they grew up with.
Think about what you learned from the fairy tales you heard growing up. Scratch beneath the surface of those grand tales of bravery and everlasting love and you’ll see the gender stereotypes, moral lessons, and a very black and white worldview.
Nikita Gill wants nothing to do with any of that. Instead, the Instagram poet and author wants you to reexamine the fairy tales you grew up hearing and reading.
That’s the point of her new book — Fierce Fairytales: Poems & Stories to Stir your Soul — in which she dismantles the gender dynamics and stereotypes in the childhood fables that have, for centuries, gone unchallenged. When Gill revisited stories she’d loved watching on Disney VHS tapes like a “proper ’90s kid” — stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Hansel and Gretel — and read them through the lens of adulthood, she was disappointed.
It was the way that Snow White and Sleeping Beauty framed consent that sparked her urge to begin reclaiming and rewriting these narratives. If you don’t recall: both of these fairy tale princesses are fast asleep when they receive their true love’s kiss.
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“Looking back I felt like, ‘What?’ This doesn’t seem right. There is no idea of consent!” Gill tells Mashable. “This is not something I want to just read to my children as is. It’s full of quite harmful messages.”
“We are teaching young people to respect themselves and take responsibility for their own choices and decisions.”
Gill didn’t want to just accept these narratives just because she used to love them. She wanted to turn them on their heads, turn them into tales about people being brave on their own terms, honest about their trauma, and vulnerable just like the rest of us. Tales she would want her future children to read.
In Gill’s fairy tales, everyone is their own fairy godmother: Sleeping Beauty is wide awake, and Cinderella’s mother begs her daughter to stand up to her abusers. Gill wants Tinkerbell to be allowed to be angry and Hercules to be able to cry. The moral is always the same: you must be true to yourself.
“By taking back these stories and rewriting them for a post-#MeToo generation of young people, we are teaching them to respect themselves and take responsibility for their own choices and decisions,” Gill said.
A lot of fairytales are ancient and many people probably take these 250-year-old morals with a pinch of salt. But, according to Gill, some of the stereotypes put forth by old fairy tales are still very much perpetuated today. The narratives we expose young children to play a big part in how we teach them to view the world, who we praise and who we chastise, Gill says.
Take the perfect damsel in distress, the beautiful woman waiting passively in a dire situation for a man to come and save her. But, is this trope really one we want girls to grow up believing in? Shouldn’t we be teaching them to be their own saviours?
“We need role models that show that women can not only look after themselves, they can have flaws and they don’t have to be perfect.”
“I don’t know a single girl who didn’t read fairy tales when they were young, and we are all influenced by this idea that a prince is going to come and save us,” Gill said. “The idea is that someone will come and save you from your life and your problems, and that that saving is marriage. That is such a harmful thing to perpetuate for young girls.”
The women in fairy tales, Gill argues, are often perfect, both morally and physical, but they are never in control of their own lives or fates.
“We need role models that show that women can not only look after themselves, they can have flaws and they don’t have to be perfect,” said Gill.
One of the darker poems in the book, “Hunger: The Darkest Fairy Tale,” deals with another aspect of that very idea: that women are taught to long for physical and moral perfection. “Hunger” doesn’t take place in the magical fairy tale-sphere, but rather, it deals with eating disorders and body image, something Gill herself has struggled with.
“You remind yourself,
‘Hunger is not my friend,’
‘Hunger is not making me stronger ’
‘Hunger does not love me.’
A helpless chant as it rips through your brain.”
The relationship between women’s bodies, food and hunger has been a trope in literature for centuries, just as striving for thinness has long been closely tied to the feminine ideal. On Instagram — a platform where Gill has 458,000 followers — pro-eating disorder communities are common, as they slip past the AI set in place to protect users from harmful content.
“Eating disorders are things that are pushed to us as a magical things, and girls believe the narrative that disease is what’s going to make them fairy tale-like and beautiful”
Gill included these very real issues – eating disorders and body dysmorphia – into her book of stories set in the magical realm to prove a crucial point about the values and norms we’re taught in real life. Just as you can rethink what was presented to you in fairy tales, you’re allowed to reexamine the messages the real world sends you as well. Such as the idea that being thin is the only valid form of female beauty, that the only route to beauty is through hunger.
“Eating disorders are things that are pushed to us as a magical things, and girls believe the narrative that disease is what’s going to make them fairy tale-like and beautiful,” Gill explains. But as women, we are free to take control over that narrative.
“As women […] hunger is something we’re told is actually good for us. But we can choose to villainise it, to have hunger be the bad guy,” says Gill.
It’s not just the female characters and stereotypes that are problematic. The men in the fairy tales, the Prince Charmings, are also up against it in the realm of fairy tales. In Gill’s retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack is a victim of abuse who only uses the magic beanstalk to crawl away from his demons.
“Men aren’t strong and stoic all of the time. These hyper masculine characters come out as a reaction to trauma of what they faced,” says Gill. “People are flawed, and they suffer. This kind of retelling will make people look deeper at the characters that they have been introduced to.”
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By rewriting and reclaiming the fairytales, showing how to look differently at what was given to you, Gill is hoping it will inspire people to reclaim their own narratives. Her message is that your life is yours to shape. That we are not passive in our own trajectories.
“Take charge of your life, fix your life, and do whatever you can to deal with what has happened to you,” said Gill said. “We are all influenced by the idea that a prince is going to come and save us. That someone will come and save us from our life and our problems. But the truth is we all need to grow up and save ourselves,” she said. “Write your own fairytale, and, regardless of your gender, empower yourself.”
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Finally, Gill would like to offer an opposing narrative to the happily ever after trope, the idea that we need castles, dragons, and witches to be magical. She’s proposing that the real magic, the real stuff of fairytales is in human existence itself; in love, compassion, human resilience, and beauty.
That humans are capable of connection is the true “sorcery,” Gill writes in the poem “For the cynic.”
“And somehow you still
that magic does not exist,
that fairy tales aren’t real,
that way people
find each other
at just the right time
at just the right moment
isn’t the most powerful sorcery,”
“I’m a strong believer in the fact that every single one of us have the capacity to be magic in everything that we do,” Gill says.