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January 03, 2019

17-Year-Old Ariana Gupta’s New Age Fairy Tales Prove That Feminism Has No Age Limit

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

Analysing the flaws in some of our much-loved fairy tales, the class 12 student created modern-day, empowered renditions of Disney’s beautiful and subservient princesses

“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl fairer than all the dames in the land”. “Once upon a time, there was a princess whose hair shone like spun gold.” Almost all the fairy tales that were fed to us like religion during our childhood began with superficial descriptives that reduced the women in them to mere objects of beauty. Romantic fantasies such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were invented in order to instil good values in children but the morals for boys and girls were very different. Boys were portrayed as valiant charge-takers who came in, slew the metaphorical beast and rode off into the sunset with the damsel. The female protagonists, on the other hand, were expected to be kind, gentle and docile throughout the story besides having the countenance of Aphrodite herself and wait patiently for the prince to come to their rescue. Belle may have attempted to flip this stereotype on its head in Beauty and the Beast by reading in her spare time and falling in love with the personality of Beast before restoring him to the prince with her love, but it remains to be seen how the story would have turned out if the roles had been reversed and a handsome prince encountered a hideous monstress.

In short, our favourite fairy tales are sexist. Prince Charming wanted to marry Cinderella after one dance which clearly indicated that he was infatuated by her looks, Snow White had to rely on true love’s kiss from a passing prince to come back to life, Sleeping Beauty had to wait a century for the prince to rescue her from the dragon, The Little Mermaid had to give up her voice, her tail and her entire kingdom to be with the man she loved…. you get the drift. 17-year-old Ariana Gupta was enlightened to this at a very early stage in her life. Having loved fairy tales just as much as any other girl when she was young, she read and reread the classics and their various renditions until she had an epiphany while perusing Nikita Gill’s poemsIt made Gupta realise that in placing the princesses on an unreachable pedestal during her childhood, she had relegated them to the pages of lore instead of imbuing them with life. Thus was born New Age Fairy Tales, her attempt to transform seemingly perfect characters into strong role models for young kids. In the recently published book that Gupta illustrated herself, each princess sets out to combat a prevalent social issue faced by girls in a patriarchal Indian society.

We spoke to the precocious feminist about her new book and the idea behind it….

When did you first start writing?
It was at the age of six. I don’t remember what I wrote but my mother tells me that I used to read fairy tales and make up my own stories using broken English. Most of my early writing was for short essays that I had to submit as part of school projects. As a child, I always liked poetry more than stories. Whatever the form, writing was and still is very personal to me. I use words as an outlet for my emotions just like my art. One of my earliest recollections about writing was a poem I penned about saving tigers titled SOS – Save Our Stripes that I wrote when I was 10.

What was your favourite fairy tale while growing up?
I thought Cinderella was the most magical story of them all and I knew the tale word for word because I had watched the Disney movie so many times. It taught me that no matter how bleak things might look, there’s always hope and that good things happen to good people. Cinderella inspired me to be hardworking and nice. As a child, I was also fascinated by the fancy ball gown and the fairy godmother’s magic. I also stand guilty of dreaming of my Prince Charming before I grew up and realised I had been conditioned to want a man to take care of me.

When was the first time you realised you were a feminist?
I wouldn’t narrow it down to just one incident but I think the Nirbhaya rape case in 2012 had a lasting impact on me. I was only 11 at the time and didn’t really understand much but I knew that a woman had been hurt and it made me realise that women in our country weren’t as safe as the men. I remember asking my mother, “Why don’t we ask boys to be more careful and respectful? Why are all the restrictions placed on the girls?”

There was another incident with my physical education teacher when I was in school. I enjoy football; I might not be very good at it but I still get a kick out of playing the sport. I asked one of my PT teachers if the girls in my class could form a team and she retorted with, “Oh, but football is for boys, why don’t you play something else?” That infuriated me. It was the first time I encountered such a stereotype and it was even more disturbing because the teacher in question was female. Back then, I blamed her for being biased but I soon realised that it wasn’t entirely her fault; she had been brought up this way. In fact, we are all conditioned to behave in a specific way in the face of certain situations. In my case, the more stereotypes I encountered, the more my belief in feminism strengthened.

Where did the idea for New Age Fairy Tales stem from?
Back in 2015 — when I was in the 9th grade — I came across a poem by Nikita Gill which revolved around how toxic the age-old fairy tales were. It got me thinking and when I went back and looked at those fairy tales I had loved so much as a kid through a new lens, I realised how sexist and condescending they actually were. It moved me to such an extent that I felt the urge to take action. Back then, I didn’t have the right idea or the appropriate outlet. In early 2018, as part of my design portfolio for college applications, I decided to do a photo project with classic fairy tale characters who would propagate new messages. I created a series of posters where I got four of my friends, including myself, to dress up as traditional fairy tale characters but completely changed the morals of those stories. I made The Little Mermaid about body shaming, Cinderella about the wage gap, Snow White about combatting colourism, Sleeping Beauty about women saving themselves and Beauty and the Beast about appreciating intelligence. As I sat in my room surrounded by the work I had created, I realised that the posters could be turned into illustrative stories for little children. I’ve always believed that we should catch them young because children are more receptive than adults and introducing them to feminism would work better when they were still impressionable. That’s how New Age Fairy Tales was born.

The initial teaser for the book involved a few of your friends posing as the princesses you’ve mentioned in your book. Where did the idea for that come from?
I’ve always loved portrait photography and wanted to do a creative shoot for a very long time. A lot of my artwork revolves around women and I wanted to dedicate my art to the women who inspire me. Fairy tales were a huge part of my childhood and I decided to merge both concepts together. I dressed my friends in sarees and created a set of 5 posters which then became the inspiration for the book. This worked out really well because on the day of the launch I asked them to cosplay as the princesses so that the kids could meet them and get their autographs. It felt like our own mini Disneyland where the fictional characters came to life and interacted with fans.

Were there any initial hurdles that you had to cross since this was your first book?
To be honest, it was a fairly simple process. I finished writing and illustrating the book within a month and got a sample printed to give publishers a fair idea of what the final copy was going to look like. I was really busy with school work so my father took the responsibility of pursuing publishers into his own hands. He performed all the functions of a perfect agent and managed to get the Write Place on board. After that, we just waited for the day of the launch to see how the book would fare and the general audience reception.

Many people visualise feminists as abuse-hurling, bra-burning women and tend to associate the word with ‘just a bunch of angry girls’. Did you get any of that?
Yes, I did. People are still very scared of the word because they don’t understand its meaning. I was even advised against mentioning the word ‘feminism’ in the book because it could have potentially affected sales. Many people were not ready to accept my version and accused me of destroying the timeless tales with my feminist ideas. That didn’t deter me. In fact, all the negative reactions made a strong case for the point I was trying to prove. If feminism is taught to kids at the right age, they will grow up to be responsible adults who respect each other and are proud to be called feminists because they know it’s not a dirty word. 

What have been some of your favourite reactions to New Age Fairy Tales?
One of the parents I met was a little sceptical about her daughter’s interest in the book since she had read and loved the old fairy tales. She wondered if it meant that her daughter would turn into a ‘feminazi’, as the internet refers to radical feminists. When her daughter read the book, she accepted the new characters and enjoyed the book. Eventually, her mother read the book and realised the importance of the present-day princesses who didn’t need saving. She sent me an email telling me how resistance is actually in our heads than in the real world. 

The second one was when a mother told me how her two-year-old daughter couldn’t read the text in my book but she made up her own stories by looking at the illustrations and discussed them with her two-year-old cousin. It was rewarding to know that even those offshoots were very feminist in nature. Another one was when a 9-year-old came up to me and said that after reading the book, she felt motivated to pen down a story herself and even ended up writing her own version.

What comes after New Age Fairy Tales?
I’ve been selling my artworks that are centred around women empowerment since April. You can find them at Crossword stores or on ariana.co.in. I enjoy writing poetry and would love to dabble in spoken word too. I might work on another book that teaches children about consent and sexuality and opens the discussion for sensitive topics. For now, the board exams are my priority.

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