In a previous article, we started to see if and how fairy tales are biased against women. Our next heroine Snow White has only one claim to fame, that she is white as snow. As always, evil is in the form of a woman – the archetypal stepmother. Her father, the king, seems to have no say in the matter and is as usual, absolved of any guilt or complicity. In some versions, he is conveniently dead. You know the story: Snow White’s stepmother is insanely jealous of her. She looks into her magic mirror and asks, “Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Usually, the mirror says, “Yourself,” but the day the mirror replies, “Snow White,” she decides to do away with the child so she could be ‘the fairest of them all.’ She packs her off with a huntsman with instructions to take her into the forest and kill her. But Snow White is so beautiful, the man is unable to bring himself to kill her. He just leaves her in the forest to fend for herself. [if !supportLineBreakNewLine] [endif]Snow White gets taken into the home of seven dwarves who care for her. In turn she keeps house for them. The stepmother realizes she’s been conned and decides to do the job herself. She takes a poisoned apple to Snow White, who promptly eats the apple and dies. When the dwarves return they mourn their dear Snow White and put her in a crystal cask unwilling to bury her. Just in time, a prince wanders there to behold the most beautiful lady he has ever seen. He falls in love and the dwarves tell him the tale of how she came to be there. In one version, the prince lifts off the glass case and kisses Snow White, whereupon she springs to life. In another, the Grimms' version, the servant who is carrying the cask trips and the bit of poisoned apple lodged in her throat pops out, thereby reviving her. There is joy all around and the prince takes her to his castle to be married. The Grimms’ version has the evil queen following her to the prince’s castle but she meets a bad end.
Black and White
As a children’s story, this tale presents us with a black and (quite literal) white plot – an evil and aging vamp against a fair and good heroine. First, the obvious problem of "white skin is beautiful." Perhaps it makes sense for the culture it comes from, but for others where the normal is a shade of brown or black, this is a dangerous, self-eroding idea.
Also, I hate the automatic and sinister linking of "not-so-pretty" with evil and "fair and beautiful" with good. There is something to be said of course, for the face being the index of the mind (or heart!) but such partiality to form seems to underlie the extreme worship of youth and beauty, a malaise of modern cultures.
The Magic Mirror
To me, the story revolves around the magic mirror. At a deeper level, the mirror is really society that reflects us back in all our deficiencies and presents us with an ever-moving ideal to match up to. The stepmother is really every woman, painted black for the sake of fiction. She isn’t evil, she’s only used to being the fairest in the land. Until pretty Snow White grows up and upstages her. The stepmother is driven to desperation because being fair meant so much to her. Like Rapunzel who was tied down by her golden hair, the stepmother is a prisoner of her beauty and fair skin. Her beauty is her curse because she made it her identity, like so many today who struggle in vain to preserve forever the first blush of their youth, thereby missing out totally on every wonderful aspect of growing older. And to make matters worse, she had a personal critic in the form of the magic mirror, passing judgement on her each day.
The deepest flaw in this story is that instead of denouncing the stepmother’s quest for beauty as a false ideal, the story only reinforces it by rewarding beauty as identity. The huntsman is captivated by Snow White’s beauty. The dwarves wonder at how lovely the girl is. And Prince Charming instantly falls in love with the fair maiden in the casket. And Snow White becomes a queen (another false ideal, let’s save it for another day) just because she is white as snow. There is nothing in the story that gives us an idea of her character, will, aspirations, judgement. Nothing beyond skin. Just as Cinderella had to dance like a dream and have really tiny feet and Sleeping Beauty had to, well, just sleep pretty. Beauty wins love and lives happily ever after simply by being beauty. That is such a skewed moral! Imagine the pressure on our girls - "be beautiful and you'll win love." And the damning corollary, "If you haven't found love, it means you simply aren't beautiful enough."
A recurring fairy tale theme is that the villain is female. Conveniently, the only villain here is the evil stepmother. Every saviour is male. The huntsman who takes pity on Snow White, the dwarves who protect her in the forest and the prince who saves her from an ordinary life are all men. No Moral Canvas
There is another sly angle that I find very interesting. In fairy tales where the heroine has to live with other men for a while – between escape and rescue – those ‘other men’ are usually made impotent in some way. Here, Snow White lives under the protection of seven men, but they are dwarves. In Rumpelstiltskin, the man who really saves the heroine’s life by spinning straw into gold (and thus the one to whom she should technically be beholden) is conveniently an elf. This is to make sure that there is no room for the hero to doubt the virtue of the heroine. She is not given any stretch of moral canvas to discover her own self.
It might not seem like much in a one-off story, but if these themes are reinforced through the majority of popular stories that children hear, you can be certain it creates a warped worldview for them, whether they know it now or not.
A version of this appeared in Infinite Randomness.