LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Fairy Tales: Depicting the Development of Female Gender Roles

          For centuries, fairy tales have permeated many cultures and societies. While these tales often served to entertain children and/or teach them morals, they also serve as reflections of the societies and time periods in which their numerous versions developed, spread, and were transcribed. In particular, the evolution of many tales follows the development of gender roles and expectations of the societies in which they originated. This can be seen in how many popular tales have adapted over time and are depicted in popular culture today.

            In many traditional fairy tales, female characters fell into a dichotomy, filling the role of the heroine or the villain. The heroine was a depiction of the ideal young woman: beautiful, compassionate, youthful, calm, and often naïve. The female villain is depicted as older, often a mother figure (or stepmother), who is cunning, jealous, and downright malicious. This could be seen in tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” both of which featured a young, beautiful, virtuous young woman at odds with a malicious, jealous stepmother. This dichotomy reflected the common conceptions of women during the time that they were told and transcribed, as women were valued for their beauty, youth, and virtue, while ambitious, scheming, outspoken women were seen as tainted, inappropriate and improper.

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Cinderella startled by her stepmother’s reflection as she comes up behind her.

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Snow White and her stepmother disguised as an old beggar.

            With the dawn of filmmaking in the 20th century, fairy tales began to appear in a new medium, and eventually became wildly popular. In recent years, we have seen a resurgence of this wild popularity in many different forms, such as film, television, and music, and in adaptations that reflect modern depictions of gender roles. For example, in the 2012 movie Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White, though similar to film adaptations of earlier films, is depicted as much stronger, outspoken, and motivated, as the audience sees her suit up in armor and fight for the kingdom that was rightfully hers. In another adaptation of “Snow White,” Mirror, Mirror, also released in 2012, the audience watches as an in-control, and clever Snow White feeds her stepmother a poisonous apple originally meant for herself. These films are just a few examples of contemporary adaptations of traditional fairy tales, with more outspoken, clever, and go-getting modern heroines that are much more reflective of the typical woman in our American society today.

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Fairy Tales: Symbolizing What’s Relevant

Fairy tale origins arguably display a clearer sense of a historical period and its ideological traits of highest importance better than any other texts.  The symbolism masked behind stories of regular, everyday individuals encountering unusual situations or magic can explain to a reader vividly the state of the specific society and its social structures.  It was stated throughout our text’s introduction at various points that fairy tales were often used as an oral tradition in which families and close-knit groups would gather round to alleviate the anxiety of a stressful work day while simultaneously entertaining each other and teaching valuable lessons to children about morals rooted in fantastic stories of similar characters encountering magical creatures and adventure.  Maria Tatar also warned readers to not become too preoccupied with uncovering symbolism seemingly blanketed across various generations as said symbolism could fluctuate in its relevance to a specific culture or time period due to differing interpretations and relevance.  This specific facet of the tales interested me in that many occurrences and resulting lessons may remain stable through various generations although readers will find that characters will symbolize the most important aspects of the specific time period from which the text was gathered.

Maria Tatar stated in her novel The Classic Fairy Tales, “Some versions of Little Red Riding Hood’s story or Snow White’s story may appear to reinforce stereotypes; others may have an emancipatory potential; still others may seem radically feminist.  All are of historical interest, revealing the ways in which a story has adapted to a culture and been shaped by its social practices.  The new story may be ideologically correct or ideologically suspect, but it can always serve as the point of departure for debate critique, and dialogue” (Tatar XIV).  The classic tale of “Snow White” by Brothers Grimm tells the story of a young, beautiful girl who falls victim to the jealousy of her father’s wife.  The evil queen plots to end the girl’s life so that she may remain as the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, but ends up falling victim to Snow White’s clever plan to punish her for her wrongdoings.  Despite this, Snow White seems to maintain her sense of beauty, dignity, and, most importantly, purity throughout the story, which was representative of the expectations of women, and more specifically, young girls, of the time.

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Walt Disney’s interpretation of the classic Brothers Grimm character

In our contemporary society where issues of equality—whether it be gender, racial, sexual, etc.—reign supreme in the realm of social significance, we find that fairy tales are being recreated in the vision of authors who support the changing ideologies.  A more modern Snow White developed by Rupert Sanders in his film Snow White and the Huntsman displays a courageous young female who doesn’t necessarily adhere to societal rules or roles.  She wears armor rather than dresses as she fights monsters and beasts until she eventually returns to the kingdom to murder the Queen and reclaim her thrown.  This is obviously a result of a society shaped by feminist views and gender equality as the main character serves more as a strong and independent heroine rather than a damsel in distress.  I feel that this is one of the most crucial interpretations of Tatar’s novel that we can gather—fairy tales are classic tales passed on through generations but cannot remain unchanged as they gather cultural relevance and are shaped accordingly based on the need for certain lessons of morality incorporated into the upbringing of that society’s youth.

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Rupert Sander’s vision of Snow White depicted by Kristen Stewart.

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Women in Fairy Tales: Heroines or Damsels in Distress?

A simple story can tell us much about life long ago. Fairy tales are often looked at as a source for histories of several cultures. In folklore, one can see societal views, rituals, common practices, as well as gender roles and the appointment of duties or qualities to a certain sex. Snow White tales are prime examples of a fairy tale that tells us much about gender roles and what is expected of women embedded in the tales’ plots. These tales remain popular despite their implications and are often referenced in popular culture, often in movies and shows such as those made by Disney and the TV series Once Upon A Time.

Though there are many versions of the Snow White tale, such as “The Young Slave” and “Lasair Gheug”, the tale depicts Snow White as the ideal woman: innocent and kind. The queen, though malicious, should be admired because of her cunning and plotting. If one puts her thirst for revenge aside, the queen can be seen as having an extraordinary mind, in direct contrast with Snow White who is described as a “dumb bunny” by Anne Sexton. .In the story, Snow White is still revered as perfect despite her blind trust and disobeying of the dwarfs’ orders of not opening the door. In addition, in some variations of the tale, upon arriving at the dwarfs’ house, Snow White is allowed to stay as long as she cleans up after them. Due to the implied thoughts on women in the tales, it surprises me that such a tale remains popular (i.e. the famous Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). In an age where a woman’s rights are emphasized and gender roles defied, it is interesting to see such archaic views still popularized. Despite Snow White’s weak character, in the series Once Upon A Time, Mary Margaret who is Snow White, acts as the protagonist and perhaps strongest character on the show. In the series, she slays dragons and rescues her husband Prince Charming on several occasions. Perhaps this is a modernized variation Snow White, in which she rescues herself and depends on no one, thus reflecting contemporary views on women.

Disney’s Snow White clearly embracing her helplessness.

Once Upon A Time’s Mary Margaret (Snow White) with a bow & arrow obviously taking things into her own hands.
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