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Rebel Girls: Meet the authors who’ve redefined fairytales in the gender debate

Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, creators of the viral video Cinderfella and the book Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls, talk about the need to rewrite fairytales from an unbiased perspective.

more lifestyle Updated: Jun 27, 2017 20:11 IST
Henna Rakheja
A still from the viral video Cinderfella, which narrates the story of Cinderella through a male protagonist.
A still from the viral video Cinderfella, which narrates the story of Cinderella through a male protagonist.(Facebook/RebelGirls)

Remember the If Cinderella Were A Guy video that recently went viral? It shows a boy, who is often beaten up by his stepbrothers, and sweeps and cleans all day. One night, he goes to the royal ball with the help of his fairy godfather, and leaves behind one of his glass loafers while running back from the palace as the clock strikes midnight. Then the princess sends out a palace servant to find Cinderfella, and of course, the glass loafer fits. The creators of this video, who are also the authors of the book Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls, are California-based writers Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo — and together, they have been dismantling long-held beliefs about what boys and girls, men and women, should be like. Switching gender roles in fairytales — this is done in a very non-judgmental way — is a simple and quick way to convey the message.

Their book, Rebel Girls, is a crowdfunded work that has set a record by raising more than a million dollars and has sold half a million copies till now — it is being called one of most funded original book in the history of crowdfunding! The target readers of Favilli and Cavallo are children, but the rich illustrations that accompany the short biographies of the world’s most recognised women are equally appealing to readers young and old.

“Princesses typically need a prince, a brother, or a hunter to be saved,” says Favilli. “They’re never in charge of their own destiny. So they send out a very demeaning message to young girls.”

Cavallo adds, “The [Cinderfella] video got a lot of shares, which was exciting. It seems like it resonated with a lot of people and made them think about gender roles in fairy tales.”

Authors Francesca Cavallo (L) and Elena Favilli (R).

While fairytales rarely have a strong female character, the real world has plenty of women who have made a huge impact on society. Rebel Girls tells their stories.

Children read the book Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls.

From pharaoh Cleopatra to the warrior queen Lakshmi Bai, from fashion designer Coco Chanel to boxer Mary Kom, extraordinary women populate this book. The 100 stories include that of former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama; novelist Jane Austen; artist Frida Kahlo; and tennis champion Serena Williams. Alongside their short biographies are their portrait illustrations created by 60 female artists from around the world.

Children’s media productions lack diversity not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of race, sexual orientation, and religious background. Our stories show examples of real women who achieved extraordinary results in every field imaginable - Francesca Cavallo

The parameters for choosing the featured women were clear in the mind of the authors. “We wanted to feature women from as many countries as possible, because children’s media productions lack diversity not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of race, sexual orientation, and religious background. Our stories show examples of real women who achieved extraordinary results in every field imaginable. They are a tremendous source of inspiration because they encourage young girls to explore, learn and dream without limits,” says Cavallo.

An illustration of the artist Frida Kahlo along with her short biography.

Explaining the need to include illustrations, Favilli adds that it wasn’t just because they were creating a work for children, but also because “media tend to represent women in a very narrow way, [and] for us it was important to showcase that femininity comes in many different ways, and that there is not only one way to be a woman, and a rebel girl!”

The idea of making a video based on the book’s concept came to them because, says Cavallo, “Stories are what humans are made of.”

Favilli explains, “As kids, we understand ourselves and the world around us through stories. The stories we have told girls so far offered them a very narrow representation of who they can be. The illustrations accompanying those stories have offered them an even narrower representation of the way they should look like. This reflects in a lot of self-doubt and the feeling of being constantly wrong, which plagues girls in school first, and later in the workplace. Studies show that girls start having less self-confidence than boys in first grade, despite having better grades on an average! We feel the time has come to start changing the narrative around femininity.”

Telling a child to do or not to do something ‘because you’re a girl’ or ‘because you’re a boy’ is a very harmful message, because it places on them expectations that don’t have anything to do with how they feel personally about something

Is the word ‘rebel’ used to indicate that girls shouldn’t be brought up as docile? “These stories are for both boys and girls,” say the authors. “We chose this title because we believe that focussing on one gender does not exclude the other. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they grew up in a world where boys didn’t find something demeaning just because it reads ‘for girls’ in the title? Telling a child to do or not to do something ‘because you’re a girl’ or ‘because you’re a boy’ is a very harmful message, because it places on them expectations that don’t have anything to do with how they feel personally about something. It forces them to think about what is expected by society from them as girls or boys, and this is not the kind of thoughts that we should put in children’s heads.”

An illustration and short biography of The Bronte Sisters — Charlotte, Emily and Anne, poets and novelists.

The authors say that it is important to change perception right from childhood and “it’s important for girls to see female role models”. Favilli adds, “It helps them become more confident and set bigger goals for themselves. We’re both in our early 30s, we’re female entrepreneurs, and we know first-hand how hard it is to succeed, to be considered, to be given a chance. Research shows that by the time girls reach elementary school, they already have less confidence in themselves than boys. That is why changing the narrative early on is so important.”

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