LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

“Snow White” and the Not-So-Antiquated Notions of Femininity and Sex

on January 24, 2013 7:19am

Many fairy tales portray two women at odds with each other: a virtuous, innocent young woman being victimized by a cunning, ambitious older woman. We are meant to root against the older woman who can think for herself and the naive (usually blonde) young woman wins every time. This is especially evident in The Grimm’s “Snow White,” where a dark, evil witch attempts to kill the pure, young girl so that the witch will once again be the fairest woman in all the lands.

When we read fairy tales, we write off these disturbing notions of ideal femininity (innocence and virtue over ambition or wit) because of the social norms of the time that they were written, but Disney is still creating movies with these two dichotomous feminine roles and women who are eternally childlike, obedient and one-dimensional are beating out women who are ambitious and daring even today. The entire time I was reading “Snow White,” I imagined Taylor Swift (who won over both Lady Gaga and Beyonce at the Grammy’s in 2010) in my head.

snow white stars

There is still that deep dichotomy in modern culture and it is used to oppress women through a sexual double standard, establishing extremely rigid rules for female sexual behavior while allowing male sexual behavior to range from abstinence to promiscuity without similar social judgment.

The wide appeal of Taylor Swift seems a desperate attempt to infuse our increasingly socially liberal country with a palatable conservative ideology by means of a complacent, repressed feminine ideal. The insistence on conservative role models over the often-criticized oversexed women of pop music means girl-bashing boy-crazy rain-soaked anthems sung by a woman valued for her “purity” over her intelligence or even her talent.

While we like to believe that these “antiquated” notions about the ideal woman are, if not gone, at least being challenged today, we still find ourselves dressing up as Disney princesses and humming Taylor Swift songs under our breath. We still root for the girl in the bleachers over the cheerleader.

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2 responses to ““Snow White” and the Not-So-Antiquated Notions of Femininity and Sex

  1. Abigail Davis says:

    I like the argument you presented in this blog. The idea that people today wear a more accepting face for deviant natures and yet still secretly cherish the innocent and pure is absolutely true in some forms and is really applicable to some groups of society on a whole. Your example of Taylor Swift versus Lady Gaga/Beyoncé was spot on and I thought of a few myself while I was reading. One that immediately came to mind was Glee on Fox. In this show there are many occurrences of pure untried girls who are at odds with a more experienced and jaded girl, usually a cheerleader.

    One such relationship is shown by Rachel. Rachel is now a talented young freshman trying to find her way in New York, all wide eyed and innocent. Her counterpart is Cassandra, a boozy washed up performer who now bitterly teaches dance to rising stars. Their relationship can be truly seen as a reincarnation of Snow White and the Queen. Rachel is a talented young woman with the world before her and all of the chances and opportunities to succeed at her feet. Cassandra is forced to watch and in fact teach this young woman who so clearly represents her lost youth, talent, and opportunity. Rachel and Cassandra frequently face off about Rachel’s lack of sexuality, talent, and experience. A rivalry springs up as Rachel attempts to prove herself worthy of success and Cassandra attempts to discredit Rachel while demonstrating that she is still a vital talent.

    The viewer of the show is meant to rally behind the doe eyed protagonist but it’s hard to when she presents such a bland one dimensional character in comparison to Cassandra’s world weary, overly sexed and embittered woman. Rachel is portrayed as the epitome of talent, innocence, and youth which is why we are meant to rally behind her. The young viewer is meant to identify with her and try to follow her image. This championship shows that society is happy to put forth a talented, innocent youth as the ideal woman just as it puts down women who have world experience and perhaps aren’t as “pure” as Rachel. Is this a real view that we want our society to support? While yes we should prize everything Rachel is there is also nothing wrong with prizing the traits Cassandra embodies.

  2. This blog post represents many problems that I have also had with this Disney ideal of how femininity should be represented. Continuing this idea, it becomes evident that sexual promiscuity in these classics is not only unacceptable, but it is fuel to further the belief that men are able to do as they please, and women are held to a certain standard of remaining childlike, naive, and Daddy’s little princess. Consequentially, women must remain that way until a nice, bright, and charming prince comes to sweep the princess away to happiness and everlasting contentment.

    Women in fairy tales are supposed to be obedient, but a point that I find extremely interesting is to whom they have to be obedient to. In the story of Little Red Riding Hood, her sexual promiscuity by jumping into bed with the wolf in The Story of Grandmother shows that when girls disobey their moral obligations of acting innocent and virtuous, bad things will happen. More specifically to the idea of obedience, though, this harsh reality is evident in a plethora of Disney Princess classics. Pick a princess, any princess at all, and see what you find. Jasmine from Aladdin? She had no mother, was obedient to her father, and ends the movie with her father transferring his control over her to another man. Ariel had no mother, as well, yet she also winds up with a new man in her life at the end of the film. Belle, yet again, had no mother and her loyalty goes from her father to the Beast. Snow White also did not have her mother, and the only maternal figure she did have was her wicked step-mother who is hardly Mother of the Year material. And in case you were wondering, Snow White also ends the movie with her Prince by her side. The same goes for Cinderella, Pocahontas, and even Mulan. Women as strong maternal role models are nowhere evident in any of the Disney princesses. A woman’s loyalty is always to her father and by the end of the movie, her loyalty is given to her husband. What does this say not only about our society, but also what girls have as an example of this so called ideal femininity?

    Women are not represented as strong guides, but merely a daughter who then turns into a wife. Disney’s lack of portrayal of feminine leadership is not only disheartening but sets up many young girls for failure, because Prince Charming is not always waiting on his white horse ready to whisk the Princess away to her very own happy ever after. And while this may seem cynical, what other emotion is there besides bitterness when the female race is viewed in fairy tales and Disney “classics” as a mere accessory to a man. This may be a man’s world, but as James Brown so eloquently stated, “it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl” (Brown, 1966).

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