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Fairy Tales & Gender Roles

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Essay title: Fairy Tales & Gender Roles


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 help lure them into sleep at the end of the day, to drive away boredom and crankiness. To effect these ends, we might tell them stories about almost anything at all, especially to young children, who desire really only the sound of an adult's voice and to be held by adult arms.

But in fact we use the stories that we tell children, and especially those that we tell over and over, to instill messages, to teach cultural norms, to establish the roots of what we hope will be proper behavior as the children grow up. Fairytales are a form of propaganda. The traditional fairytale almost always reflects (and therefore works to reproduce) the power relations of patriarchy; its rigid sexual patterns teach that fear and masochism are tenets of femininity and all of the symbolic inversions that occur are not chances to upset the standard patriarchal hierarchy but are instead ways of maintaining it (Bacchilega, 1997, pp. 50-1).

To return for a moment to "Snow White," the fact that women are presented so often as the oppressors of other women (or girls) is an essential aspect of fairytales, for it is an essential aspect of any patriarchal culture. One of the great questions for contemporary feminist scholars has always been, if women do not want to live in a sexist world, then why do they not raise their sons differently? Given that women are in almost all cases the primary caretakers of both sons and daughters, surely a determined generation of mothers could raise up an entire generation of sons who would behave very differently than their fathers had done in terms of treating women as equal partners.

Precisely because of this potential power that women have as mother to change the gender relationships by the way they raise children, there is a great deal of emphasis on teaching children proper gender roles from very early on. This includes everything from how they are dressed

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