Some fairy tales are sexist. Some are not.
If you can, get a copy of “Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments” translated and with an introduction by Jack Zipes. This is a wonderful collection of classic French fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Good Little Mouse, The Yellow Dwarf, etc.)
In the introduction Zipes points out, “In addition, since the majority of the writers and tellers of fairy tales were women, these tales displayed a certain resistance toward male rational precepts and patriarchal realms by conceiving pagan worlds in which the final say was determined by female fairies, extraordianarily majestic and powerful fairies, if you will.”
Many fairy tales started out as stories written for adults. The stories in this book were mostly written by members of the French court. Some of the best known fairy tales are by Charles Perrault. Even though he believed (as far as I can tell) that men were better than women, he didn’t hate women. And his stories often contain a powerful female fairy who runs things. After all, who has the real power in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty?
The section on Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy is my favoite. Her stories aren’t as popular today as Perrault’s, but if you’ve read The Blue Fairy book, you’ve read some of her stories. She was a very interesting woman, who didn’t like the absolute power King Louis XIV and his ministers had. In the introduction to her stories Zipes says, “Mm. d’Aulnoy did not like constraints. In particular, she did not like the manner in which women were treated and compelled to follow patriarchal codes, and as we know, she did not even stop short of abetting execution or murder of men she considered unworthy or tyrannical.”
I think one of the reasons little girls have always loved fairy tales is because female characters have such a large role in them. Prince Charming may have wealth and power, but the story is about Cinderella.
In the end, what counts is what you think the story means. When I see Sleeping Beauty I see a powerful queen who dominates her husband to the point that he gives her permission to murder his daughter. The daughter is then helped by powerful female fairies. The truth is, the men in this story aren’t that important. Sure, the prince has the power to wake Sleeping Beauty up, but only because it’s part of the spell created by the queen. Maybe if she’d picked a different spell he would have been required to juggle Christmas puddings!
If you consider The Little Mermaid, even the Disney version, the mermaid is the one who has all the adventures and grows as a person. The real sexism is that she takes huge risks just to win the Prince’s heart. And in the end, there’s some reverse sexism there, since she falls in love with him because of his looks!
But since you’re writing a paper, I’ll give you a little unsolicited advice. If your teacher thinks all fairy tales are misogynistic, slant the paper that way. If your teacher would enjoy the idea that many fairy tales are masked feminism, go that route.
To wrap up I’ll say I loved fairy tales as a kid, still read them now, and I’m a feminist.
Good luck with your paper!