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Teaching boys to rescue damsels in distress doesn't spell the end of feminism

By Susannah McFarlane 2 min read
Wednesday, January 22, 2020

When did rescuing become such a bad thing, something to discourage in our boys?

The stories we tell and read to our kids are important. The lessons we teach them on our knee or curled up in bed are the ones that shape their thinking about the world and their place in it. Stories help us show our children the way to go, the way out of the woods, the way past the wolves, how to stay on the straight and narrow path, and to see the danger behind the tempting candy.

I love fairytales. I loved them as a child and I loved reading them to my kids but, increasingly as I read them out loud, I would find myself wanting to change them, to make them a little more the stories I wanted my son and daughter to hear. So I would tilt the tales. That "tilting" turned into Fairytales for Feisty Girls. I tweaked our "once upon the time" to keep them up with the times.

Rapunzel cuts her own hair and uses it to zip line out of the tower and to freedom; Cinderella and the Prince get on like a house on fire but she still hocks the glass slipper to fund the purchase of an animal sanctuary. With these tales and others, I reimagined the old to help shape the new—but not too much. I didn’t want to throw the story-telling baby out with the bathwater.

I think Cinderella is not just a great fairytale but one of the most important stories we can share. Ella (her real name, the "Cinder" having been added by the mean step-sisters) chooses kindness over revenge. Faced with the cruelty of those step-sisters, Ella does not return evil for evil but, rather, chooses to turn the other cheek. If that’s not strong I don’t know what it is. It’s Martin Luther King-style kindness that packs a punch: servant-like submission is a strength if it’s a choice.

"Have courage, be kind," is the exhortation of the tale. Hard to think of a better message to our girls—and boys.

Kindness is perhaps becoming a forgotten skill.

In a time of selfies, selfless and serving is a rare commodity. And not just for girls: I wasn’t finished with kindness as I turned my attention to the boys and Bold Tales for Brave-Hearted Boys.

I didn’t want to put princes out of a rescuing job because, actually, when did rescuing become such a bad thing, something to discourage in our boys? We all need to be rescued sometimes and risking yourself for the safety of another is one of the most selfless things we could ever do.

But, just as the girls needed to have a bit more fight, the boys needed to have a bit more feeling. After all, what would be the point of all that dragon-felling and tower-climbing if the princes didn’t have an emotional, let alone an empathetic, thought in their heads?

I wanted my tales to show today’s boys that brave means big-hearted, not just big biceps. Choosing not to fight but rather to forgive is a strength that should be celebrated and encouraged—and may just save a life in the sometimes dangerous "grown-up" male world of hotel punch-ups and king-hits.


Read our review of Susannah's book in 3 books for kids who want to change the world.

Susannah McFarlane is the bestselling Australian author of Fairytales for Feisty Girls and Bold Tales for Brave-hearted Boys.