We grew up listening to fairy tales; these are indeed, 'tales as old as time.' The words, 'once upon a time' brings memories of princess, witches, and magic. But, there are many aspects of fairy tales that are problematic. Every fairy tale has the same and clichéd storyline, a prince saves a girl, they fall in love, and finally, they live ‘happily ever after.’ The origin of many folktales can be rooted back to pre-historic populations, existing thousands of years ago. Their findings indicate that these fables were passed down orally before being written down. (Nanda 2014) The main aim of these fairy tales was to reflect the culture and societal norms of the era they were published in. These tales were collected by two famous storytellers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the eponymous Grimm Brothers. These fairy tales when re-read present ideas that are problematic, they represent female characters poorly and box them with characteristics of traditionally feminine roles. Female characters are presented either as good or evil, while never being both. Fairy tales establish clear binaries where the ‘good’ female character is generally submissive accepting of her circumstances while waiting for the prince to save her from distress and take control of her life.
‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ is one of the most famous fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers that left an imprint on almost every child. The story begins when a queen pricks her finger on a needle. She wishes for a child who is as red as blood, as white as snow and as black as wood. Her wish gets fulfilled, but the queen tragically passes away. The king married another, and she becomes the stepmother to the child. But the stepmother’s heart is full of envy for the beautiful child, Snow White. The resentful stepmother hires a huntsman to kill Snow White and bring her lungs and liver as a proof. The huntsman takes her into the woods to finish his dastardly deed. But he is struck by her loveliness and decides to disobey the stepmother and doesn’t kill Snow White. The stepmother takes matters into her own hands, she schemes and almost succeeds twice in killing the girl. However, every time, Snow White is saved. She tempts Snow White with a poisonous apple, after consuming which Snow White falls into slumber. Snow White is then rescued by a handsome price whose ‘true love’s kiss’ breaks the curse of the stepmother. They celebrate, and the stepmother was forced to step into hot iron shoes and dance until she drops dead. (Grimm and Grimm 1812)
Fairy tales subtly promote the idea that there is always a prince who rescues a princess. In Snow White, she is shown as a character who is only defined by her looks; the story focuses on her innate goodness, she is given minimal characterization outside of this. The seven dwarfs save Snow White the first two times when the stepmother tried to kill her. The last time, she was saved by the prince who swept in and the apple was dislodged from her throat. This story portrays that the actions of the male character are vital in protecting the female character, Snow White manages to beat the stepmother only with male assistance.
Snow White portrays the stereotypical gender roles in society at that time. Females are portrayed as dim and passive. She manages to win over the dwarfs and obtain their protection only by proving that she can “cook, make beds, sew, wash, and knit, and keep everything clean and orderly.” (Grimm and Grimm 1812) This again ensures that her worth is measured by how she maintains their home and her performance of household tasks. Another example would be the queen in most scenes is either sewing and staring into her magic mirror. She needs constant assurance from the mirror on her being the ‘fairest in the land.’ Anything other than these is believed to be beyond a woman’s capability. (Nanda 2014)
The outward appearance of the female protagonist is the most critical thing in a fairy tale. The prince falls for Snow White because she is the fairest on the whole land. Ambition has no place in fairy tale world. If a woman has a purpose and is powerful, she is viewed as an antagonist. Stepmothers and witches are the evilest characters in a fairy tale, and the reason for this evil characteristic is confined by their envy for the heroine's beauty. Snow White’s mother wanted her daughter to be as white as snow, as red as blood and as black as wood. The stepmother intentionally attacks all these elements sequentially. She attacks the white element by attacking her breath with lace, black element by attacking her hair with a poisonous comb, and the red element by attacking her blood with the toxic apple. (Doodson 2010)
Snow White has been rewritten with a feminist perspective. In the movie adaptation, Snow White and the Huntsman, the protagonist is independent and doesn’t need anyone else to take care of her. She somehow figures out a way to save herself from the stepmother. Unlike the original story, she is not fooled by the stepmother. Fairy tales are usually some of the first stories a child hears. (Neikerk 2010) All these stories are now being recreated with more nuanced ideas of gender roles. These stories shape not only the child’s behaviour but also their values and their understanding of societal norms. The world will be free of all stereotypical notions if men and women co-exist. A world where there is no difference between men and women can lead to happily ever after.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. 2005. “Little Snow-White”. Retrieved from https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm053.html.
Nanda, Silima. 2014. “The Portrayal of Women in the Fairy Tales."
Doodson, Lisa. 2010. How to be a Happy Stepmum. Retrieved from happysteps.co.uk.
Neikerk, Alice. 2010. “Happily Ever After”.
Grimm, Jacob Ludwig and Grimm, Wilhelm Carl. 1812. “Grimm’s Fairy Tales Snow White”
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