“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all.” If this line made you smile and took you to that very fairy land which you would often visit when you were a kid, then I
must warn you right away. The information that follows may just rob you off your pretty goody fairly land because I’m going to mercilessly pop a few bubbles and then unveil some truths.
The above quoted line is from a very famous fairy tale ‘Snow White’ and this dialogue is said
by the antagonist of the tale. To begin with, let’s ponder upon the statement a little. So basically, here we have a woman who is asking for the sanctity of her beauty from a mirror
(which is an inanimate object) and emphasises on being the ‘fairest of them all’ (competing
with all the fellow homo sapiens of her gender, which is absurd). Here, if anyone is able to
tell me that being ‘fair’ is not being ‘just’ but fair on the standards of beauty, no rewards for
Digging a little into the history of fairy tales which used to be those folklores laden with morals which were transferred from one generation to another by word of mouth. It is only
until Guttenburg invented printing press in 1440 that two Italians namely Giovammi
Franceso Straparola and Giambottista Basile decided to print these stories for the first time
to assimilate the folktales of various regions of the world.
This information is to affirm that it was a fairly easy task as almost all places of the world promoted similar kind of ethics and morals.
Now since I think we’ve had a fairly decent beginning, I’d now talk about our ‘ideal’ dear
princesses. I began with the step mother because it is generally convenient to hear negative
about a negative character than to think lowly of those characters which we have always
Google says that Disney’s top favourite daughters are Cinderella, Snow White, Belle, Ariel
and Sleeping Beauty. Listing the common characteristics of all these women is that they are
unequivocally docile, beautiful, truthful, kind and compassionate. Also, three of them are
mother-less which makes us pity them and gladdens their devilish step moms. How beautiful is it to think of these women who are white as snow, whose lips are as beautiful as rose petals and whose beauty in general is coveted. Also not forgetting the fact that all these beauties are fragile, irrational and if I may take a little liberty with my words, downright stupid.
In all these folklores women are the protagonists and major antagonists. They are either good to the extent of self-harm to comfort others or bad to the limit of being cannibals.
Scholar Kay Stone notes, “Heroines are not allowed any defect, nor are they allowed to
develop as they are already perfect.” One must not forget what the definition of perfection
is for women in Patriarchal societies. I would like to affirm the same with some examples from the famous fairy tales and their different versions across the world.
In the French version of Cinderella, her beauty is defined by taking into consideration how ugly her step sisters are. She is called 100 times more beautiful than them. Universally, Cinderella is the good hearted victim who makes no decisions of herself and merely follows along. This is evident from the fact how it is the mice who helped her to make the dress she initially made. I fail to understand her gullibility where first she adheres to her step mother, then her step sisters and then even the little mice are smart enough to show her the path to her freedom for which she was crying.
Also Cinderella is kind to her abusers, holds no grudges, no ambitions and no emotions. Her character leaves me in the conundrum of her either being supernatural or inhumane. She is ultimately rescued first by the fairy godmother and then the Prince Charming who otherwise has no other role to play than to rescue the docile princess.
This woman is unintelligent but fret not, she is beautiful and that compensates for it all. The story unfolds with the beautiful queen who questions her mirror as to who’s the fairest of all the women in the world. The mirror tells her that she is the most beautiful until it discovers her seven year old daughter and says, “You my queen is fair, it is true but little Snow White is thousand times fairer than you.”
The mere comparison with a child incites the woman so much that she wants to kill her. Here I really doubt the mirror’s intentions who sees a woman in her thirties just as he sees a child of seven. I am referring to the mirror as he always speaks in a manly voice and had the mirror been a woman, she would’ve never acknowledged anyone else’s beauty but hers (so says the fairy tale tradition).
The queen tells a hunter to kill the child and bring her child’s heart and lungs so that she can
cook it and eat. This signifies that a jealous woman can go to the extent of being a cannibal
if she has to get something she desires which altogether not only shames the natural
emotion of jealousy but also portrays an ambitious woman in a fairly negative light. This is
because the protagonists weren’t ambitious ever. Snow White is a confused being who even
after being warned by the dwarves, opens up the door for the queen. No she isn’t naïve as this happens not once but thrice which proves that she is downright stupid and lacks common sense.
The Italian version of the story is the most interesting. The princess, after getting her finger pierced by the spindle, goes into sleep and the king (her father) puts her in one of his country’s mansions. After good many years a king passes by and sees the most beautiful woman. He carries her to bed, “Where he gathers the first fruits of love” and leaves her there to go back to his kingdom. After 9 months, she gives birth to a girl and a boy named Sun and Moon. Upon seeking milk, one of the infant accidentally sucked her finger and broke the curse. After sometime, the king comes and takes his wife and kids along with him and they live happily ever after.
I’m not sure if you noticed but I’d like to draw your attention towards the fact that before living happily ever after she bore kids and before bearing kids she was Raped. Legit RAPED. Now I wonder if we are able to see the gravity of this problem in veil which is normalised in
such a romantic fashion that something as heinous as rape is made to look so beautiful as it
is the reason why they have a happy and loving family now.
Do we now realise how all these fairy tales promote the image of an ideal woman who is
docile, submissive and needs to be rescued all the time due her incapability to do the same? What is even problematic is that till date we feed our kids with these very tales and instill in them that idea of perfection which requires a girl to be good and patient all the time. This
has serious repercussions on women’s psychology as they are continuously made to repress
the feelings of sadness, hatred, revenge and jealousy.
Psychologist Marie Louise Von Franz voices a similar concept and says that fairy tales can be interpreted like dreams, in a Freudian way. They tell us to repress our desires and goals.
The psychological effects last very long. In 1975, folklorist Kay Stone published an interview
with a 29 year old woman who admitted, “ I remember the feeling of being left out in fairy
stories. Whatever the story was about, it wasn’t about me. I knew there was something
wrong with me, and not the fairy tales.”
It is high time we start teaching young women that being ambitious, sad and possessive
about certain things is normal and the ideas of perfection are completely subjective. Not
always only is a witch the one who feels angry. The idea of being godlike all the time
works well only for imaginary princesses because princesses in real life if learn household
chores, should also learn to hold a sword. Who knows they if they fight for themselves they
might be able to be somebody else’s saviour as well. Gone are those days when princesses
were docile, now everyone should for a change try being like Mulan and break the gender stereotypes. Educated people must take onto themselves to break free from these stereotypes coated with honey.
Allow me to be a little dramatic with this one. Women of the world, unite and sing along:
Mirror mirror on the wall,
don’t you speak about my looks at all.
Spare me the sermons and trust me when I say,
None needs your opinion ‘Coz I know I’m beautiful in my own way.
– Priya Sharma
Edited by Mrinaal Datt
Read more about them here.