Some things about fairy tales we know to be true. They begin with "once upon a time." They end with "happily ever after." And somewhere in between the prince rescues the damsel in distress. Of course, this is not actually the case. Many fairytales omit these essential words. But few fairytales in the Western tradition indeed fail to have a beautiful, passive maiden rescued by a vibrant man, usually her superior in either social rank or in moral standing. Indeed, it is precisely the passivity of the women in fairy tales that has led so many progressive parents to wonder whether their children should be exposed to them. Can any girl ever really believe that she can grow up to be president or CEO or an astronaut after five viewings of Disney's "Snow White"?
Bacchilega (1997, chapter 2) chooses "Snow White" as a nearly pure form of gender archetype in the fairytale. She is mostly looking at Western traditions and focusing even more particularly on the two best known versions of this story in the West, the Disney animated movie and the Grimm Brothers' version of the tale. However, it is important to note (as Bacchilega herself does) that the Snow White tale has hundreds of oral versions collected from Asia Minor, Africa and the Americas as well as from across Europe. These tales of course vary in the details: The stepmother (or sometimes the mother herself) attacks Snow White in a variety of different ways, and the maiden is forced to take refuge with a number of different kinds of unlikely protectors robbers, assassins, giants, and fairies as well as those adorable Disney dwarves (Bacchilega, 1997, p. 29).
Each version of "Snow White," no matter how different the surface details, shares several factors in common that are central to the way gender is described and used in so many Western fairytales: The heroine has a wondrous origin, she is innocent, she is persecuted at the hands of a jealous older woman, she is apparently killed (or dies) and she is then resurrected (Bacchilega, 1997, p. 31). The most striking of these elements is female jealousy, because while it is certainly not essential to the plot, it is a ubiquitous element of these stories.
Fairytales, like other commonly performed cultural texts, must be seen in some sense as methods of instruction. We tell stories to our children to entertain and amuse them, to ...
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...bmissive. When the princess gets tired of dealing with all the terribly obnoxious princes that her parents keep sending to her in an effort to get her married off, she turns Prince Swashbuckle into a gigantic warty toad. "And when the other princes heard what had happened to Prince Swashbuckle, none of them wanted to marry Smartypants... and so she lived happily ever after (Cole, 1986, p. 29).
And in the recent film version of "Cinderella," ("Ever After"), the orphaned girl saves herself both through physical bravery and by preaching socialist principles to the aristocracy. When the prince finally realizes that he wants to marry her and that she may be in terrible danger, he rushes off to the castle of the villain only to meet the heroine just after she has vanquished the villain herself. "What you thought I needed to be rescued?" she asks, thereby completely rewriting her gendered role.
Bacchilega, C. (1997). Postmodern Fairytales: Gender and Narrative Strategies.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
Cole, B. (1986). Princess Smartypants. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Rohrich, L. (1970). Folktales and Reality. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.
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