Fairy tales are usually read to kids and end happily ever after. But a group of students are using fairy tales to encourage dating and newly married couples to have kids earlier.
— The Straits Times (11 Feb ’13)
My favourite part about this introduction is that it (unintentionally?) implies that these new “Singaporean fairytales” don’t end happily ever after — which, y’know, is probably the truth, but also probably not the angle they were gunning for.
When news of this project first hit my corner of the internet, my reaction was that of mild amusement. Given the incredulity of the idea that stories written by a bunch of students would actually do anything for the fertility rate, and the multitude of problems already inherent in conventional fairytales, I couldn’t take it seriously enough to muster more than a curiosity as to how the Three Little Pigs could be adapted for populationist propaganda.
Now the website is live, and my bemusement has turned into something far less benign.
Before any of you jump down my throat for going after a bunch of well-meaning undergrads, I’d like to say that of course I believe these students meant no malice by any of this, and that they’ve undeniably put a lot of effort into it. None of the criticism of their project should be read as an attack on them. But good intent does not magically erase the ability for words & actions to cause offence (and to be called out for it), and given the media attention & government funding this has gotten, this goes way beyond the scope of an ordinary school project. It’s fair game.
Okay? Okay. Now I give you:
THE TOP 5 WORST SINGAPOREAN FAIRYTALES
[as objectively evaluated by this one very distressed Singaporean]
#5 — ALADDIN & JASMINE
I’m going to start with pitching this at a pretty low level, because that seems to be the approach the website’s taking here too: sex will make you feel better, you guys.
Sex will make you feel better.
While I’m all for promoting more orgasms — especially for women — I feel that if you need to be told by an adult fairytale (and not even in the R21 sense of “adult”) that sex feels good, (a) you really shouldn’t be thinking of fertility or having babies just yet, and (b) the government has bigger problems re: public awareness than just fertility. (We do have pretty shitty sex education.)
This idea that lack of romance = lack of babies is ridiculous. If nothing else, I’d want to avoid bringing a child into the world based on idealised notions of coupledom, family & parenthood as far as possible: dinner plans can be romantic, but the decision to have a kid needs to be so much more than that. The belief that if only S’porean men (and specifically men, of course, because naturally the onus is on them to buy the roses) were more romantic, we’d all be queuing up to have their babies… no. We are not all just one lavender-scented bath away from being persuaded into motherhood. Someone’s even managed to make it a race issue.
Even if it were true that the declining birth rate is causally related to a decline in “romance,” is it really the role of a public campaign to try to reverse this? (Oh and trust me, non-S’porean folks reading this in disbelief, the government has tried. Oh how they’ve tried.)
#4 — THREE LITTLE PIGS
The thing about this tale is that it actually touches on a core concern of S’poreans, regardless of their thoughts on having kids — i.e. absurd home prices — but then… ends with a parable about clubs and sperm-killing alcohol? I don’t. Yeah.
I did have in mind a mini-commentary about the infantilisation of men, sexual objectification of women (everyday sexism even in a drawing with three pigs, really?!), and the general assumption of the hedonism of my generation, but I can’t bring myself to dignify this with a properly critical response, because it is clearly just confused. Maybe it was all the alcohol.
#3 — SCARECROW
Give me a man who likes big butts and I’ll give you two who don’t. While we’re at it I’ll give you three men who aren’t really arsed about women’s arses at all (boobs are great), four who like other men, and maybe five who like women for their– oh, I don’t know, personality and personal compatibility? This isn’t to say anything about the proportionality of men’s preferences but just… are we still at that stage where we’re allowing biologism to pass as fact? Are we still buying into the idea that people are just born a certain way and then stay that way forever & ever?
(I can’t find any studies verifying a correlation between big butts & human fertility, by the way. That Google search descended into horrific territory pretty quickly.)
I’m just gonna put it out there that as a woman, I, too, know nothing about “women.” I know things about specific women in my life most times, and even groups of women sometimes, but I struggle to find a pithy way to sum up all there is to say about eh, 3.5 billion people in the world or so.
Pro tip, Scarecrow: all you need to know about women is that they’re people.
#2 — ALICE
Thank you for the reminder that my development as a human being is still seen as of secondary importance to my biological fertility as a female. Oh us stupid, selfish women.
This “extended adolescence” that is talked of so dismissively here — this period of “[flying] around rash” and youthful foolishness and Thought Catalog — this is the start of people’s adult lives. It’s when women start to figure out who they are and what they want in their lives, whether they’re educating themselves or starting new careers or yes, starting a family. You don’t get to carelessly disregard this stage in our lives as an “extended adolescence.” It’s not aimless adolescent experimenting that will go away once we “settle down.”
And you know why it’s a recent phenomenon? Because not too long ago, women literally didn’t have the right to do any of this. Laws kept us out of schools and workplaces, patriarchal norms kept us home, and the lack of contraceptives kept us pregnant.
I deeply, deeply resent the juxtaposition of a woman’s holistic development to her cyclical child-bearing capacity, akin to reducing women’s lives to those animal life cycles we learn about in primary school. We’re not selfish teenagers simply ignoring this so-called “biological cost.” We’re recognising and asserting that our worth as people goes far beyond that.
#1 — GOLDEN GOOSE
Unlike Alice, this one isn’t even subtle about it:
“prized for her eggs”
Helpfully accompanied by facts about female infertility.
But it’s about biological fact!, you say. You can’t deny that women’s fertility declines with age.
Yes, true. But I also don’t have to use language to place value judgment (“rusty and old”) on the various stages of a woman’s life, or imply that her worth (“prized for her eggs”) is contingent on such. I also don’t have to focus exclusively on women.
But men are judged for their fertility too!
Yes, exactly that. We need to stop doing that.
I am, primarily, confused as to what this website aims to achieve. Sometimes I think they are too:
The “fairytales” (really just very, very brief sketches) don’t appear to have a core theme, and sometimes don’t seem like much more than a way to make a (cringeworthy, I’m sorry to say) joke or a half-hearted attempt to allude to some of the government’s attempts to boost fertility. They don’t effectively characterise — or satirise — anything, and certainly do very little to assuage the Very Real Concerns that people have about these Very Real Issues.
Stripping away the complexities of “what it takes to start, live and be a family,” I run into problems even if I try to boil it down to just talking about fertility, which is one of their stated aims.
GET YOUR FACTS RIGHT
The section titled “Facts Explained,” which contains information about fertility, is probably the section of the site I find least problematic. It’s neatly & attractively organised, and doesn’t try to hide information behind any of that “fairytale” waffling. (Nevermind that the link between this page and the main fairytales bit is tenuous at best.)
But sources are scarcely cited. Where did they get these statistics from?
Most of the information sounds credible enough at face value but the earlier quip about men being attracted to big butts betrays a dangerous disregard for truth from a group that purports to educate the public, and careless mistakes do little to boost confidence:
Moreover, it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. The (unverifiable) facts are just stated, not explained; presented without context or understanding, it reads like a Twitter “fact” generator. Why is it that being underweight leads to lower sperm counts? How do we know what we know — empirical experiments, or theoretical understanding? Human biology, and the study thereof, is far more complex than this bullet list would have you believe. This is not the kind & quality of information you want people to be basing their life decisions on.
GET YOUR TONE RIGHT
It is possible to write scientifically & objectively without losing sight of humanity & sensitivity. In talking about humans, you cannot forget that you’re talking about people. If you really want to make fertility more accessible and relatable, you cannot talk about it like it’s divorced from people’s real bodies & lives.
You can talk about bulls impregnating cows, maybe, but I’m gonna add this to the list of tips for Scarecrow: women don’t appreciate being described as “impregnated.” (Or actually, maybe not. Maybe you do. No judgment.) Let’s just take it that it takes more sensitivity to talk about human bodies than it does farm animals’, okay.
Try this instead: “A 40-year-old man can take almost 2 years to conceive a child with a partner, as compared to 4.5 months for a 25-year-old man.“
(Rewriting that has made me realise there’s more problems with this “fact” than simply its tone: what does “can take [x time]” mean? Are these average figures, or medians, or bounded limits? “Scientific” writing is not synonymous with clarity or objectivity.)
Another note on tone: the bias on this site is bleeding out of every possible corner.
It does throw us a bone at the end — conceding that “starting a family is a personal choice” — but there is a very big difference between these two attitudes:
“Here are two equally valid sides, and we’re going to tell you more about one side ’cause that’s the one we prefer but eventually it’s up to you.”
“Here’s the right way and we’re going to tell you about it; if you decide not to do it it’s fine, but just don’t say we didn’t give you a choice.”
No prizes for guessing which one this project’s clearly expressing.
GET YOUR AUDIENCE RIGHT
Fertility is not an inherently inaccessible concept to most: it’s taught in secondary school syllabi, and my little brother learnt about reproduction in kindergarten. But the team has got it right in identifying that fertility as practical knowledge — as applied to something as deeply personal & important as bringing a child into the world — requires more nuance and sensitivity than biology classes.
But: fairytales? Really?
You’re necessarily talking to adults here. Human fertility is an adult concept. So talk to adults like adults: they can take it. And if you want them to seriously consider being responsible for another human being, they’d better be able to take it.
Now I’ve saved the best for last, as taken from their “About Us” page:
Singaporeans aren’t just “choosing” to not “have it all.” That’s pretty extraordinarily insulting. They either cannot, or they simply reject the idea of your “all.”
More often than not, you really just can’t have it all. Life is about priorities & trade-offs; it’s not a mere matter of moving some stuff that gets in the way of achieving Complete Adulthood. These fairytales barely begin to scratch the surface of the overwhelming decisions Singaporeans face when considering these trade-offs and do little to provide them with the information they need to help them with that. I’m as much a fan of public education & awareness as anyone else, but it’s hard to see this project as much more than baseless propaganda.