Snow White is a German fairy tale that was first published by The Brothers’ Grimm in 1812. It tells the story of a beautiful girl named Snow White who is constantly hated by her jealous stepmother. Many gender stereotypes are embedded throughout this fairy tale that teach young girls about the role that they are expected to play in society.
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One gender stereotype that is presented in Snow White is that it is a women’s duty to be the homemaker. This is established after Snow White arrives to the dwarfs’ cottage. The dwarfs tell Snow White that “if you’ll keep the house for us, cook, make the beds, wash, sew, and knit, and if you’ll keep everything neat and orderly, you can stay with us…” (Grimm, 184). It can be seen that Snow White is forced into the role of a housekeeper, she does not take on this role instinctively. To this, the heroine replies “Yes…with all my heart” (Grimm, 184). This infers that not only are women supposed to cater to men but it should be something that they should have the desire to do.
The concept of feminine beauty is a theme that is prevalent throughout the entire story. According to the article, “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales,” fairy tales such as Snow White suggests that “beauty, or the pursuit of beauty, [still] occupies a central role in many women’s lives…” (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz 712). Characters such as the wicked queen are evidence that this statement is true. All of the Queen’s actions, her attempts of murdering Snow white, are centred on the pursuit of beauty—particularly the pursuit of becoming the most beautiful. This suggests that beauty is something that women are meant to compete for and that they should do anything necessary to achieve it. As a result of not being the most beautiful, the Queen begins to hate Snow White, “her hate for the girl was so great that her heart throbbed and turned in her breast each time she saw Snow White” (Grimm, 182). This not only implies that women should detest anything or anyone that is better than them, but it also shows how the concept of beauty can corrupt women. The Queen allows her hatred for Snow White to control her, so much that it “grew so dense in her heart that she no longer had any peace, day or night” (Grimm, 182).
Despite this, the standards of beauty are not set by the women themselves but by men. The Queen is seen appearing in front of a magic mirror several times throughout the story, which may suggest that women are vain. It is the mirror, which represents the male perspective, that ultimately decides the standards of beauty as well as who is the most beautiful woman. By doing so, the mirror is seen as having great control over the Queen as she would do anything to gain his approval. When the mirror would claim her as being the most beautiful it “would make her content, for she knew the mirror always told the truth” (Grimm, 181). This proposes that women can only be happy if men think that they are worthy of being called beautiful.
Beauty is also portrayed as a source of power for women in society. The Queen’s first attempt at murdering Snow White is through the huntsman. This in itself may opine that women use men in order to acquire what they want. Snow White is able to evade being murdered by the huntsman, “since she was so beautiful, the huntsman took pity on her” (Grimm, 182). This conveys the idea that beauty enables women to manoeuvre their way out of difficult situations. The idea that beauty allows women to get away with virtually anything is also presented in the fairy tale. Evidence of this can be seen when Snow White finds a cottage in the forest. Without permission she enters the cottage, helps herself to food and wine and then falls asleep in one of the seven beds. Naturally the owners of the cottage, the seven dwarfs, were furious and surprised that someone had been there. Upon seeing Snow White’s beauty however, “they were so delirious with joy that they did not wake her up” (Grimm, 183). This reveals that various rules do not apply to people who are beautiful.
Beauty also enables women to acquire love and marriage. The Queen’s third and final attempt to kill Snow White is when she gave her a “deadly poisonous apple. On the outside it looked beautiful—white with red cheeks. Anyone who saw it would be enticed, but whoever took a bite was bound to die” (Grimm, 186). The apple is a symbol for women’s ‘true’ nature. It suggests that women are beautiful on the outside, but evil and malicious on the inside. It is while Snow White is ‘dead’ from the poisons of the apple that she acquires the interest and love of a prince. Snow White didn’t have to do or say anything in order to get the prince to fall in love with her. When Snow White awakens, the prince tells her: “I love you more than anything else in the world…I want you to be my wife” (Grimm, 188). The prince is able to fall in love with Snow White unconditionally based solely off of her beauty.
The apple also symbolizes sexuality and love. “In many myths as well as fairy tales, the apple stands for love and sex in both its benevolent and dangerous aspects” (Bettelheim, 212). The white portions of the apple represents love that is pure and safe. This is why the step-mother chooses to take a bite from this portion of the apple when Snow White asks her to prove that it is safe to eat. The red portion of the apple represents the dangerous aspects of both love and sexuality. As is stated in the book “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,” the red part of the apple “evokes sexual associations like the three drops of blood which led to Snow White’s birth, and also menstruation, the event which marks the beginning of sexual maturity” (Bettelheim, 213). After Snow White gains the evidence that the apple is safe to eat, she eagerly takes a bite from the red part of the apple and falls into a coma. This insinuates that although she may think that she is ready for sexual maturity, it is evident through her actions, that she is too immature and naïve. She cannot be awoken from her slumber, and therefore become sexually mature, until enough time has passed.
Throughout the story, Snow White is seen being tempted for things that are fairly dangerous. Her temptation, especially for the apple, contains religious connotations. A number of parallels can be drawn between Snow White and the female character Eve in the biblical creation story of Adam and Eve. In the biblical story, Eve gives in to her temptations and eats a red apple from the Tree of Knowledge. By eating a fruit that was forbidden, Eve becomes aware of sexuality and lust. Both Snow White and Eve have been prohibited from engaging in their temptations from male figures. The male figure who forbade Eve from eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge is God whereas Snow White was forbidden by the dwarves. The fact that male characters tried to stop the women from acquiring knowledge about the world of sexuality and lust infers that men want women to remain pure and innocent. After succumbing to their temptation, both women are also punished for being disobedient. Eve is banished from the Garden of Eden and Snow White falls into a coma. This in itself teaches young girls about what they shouldn’t know or be aware of, and if they decide to explore these aspects of themselves, they will be punished for it.
The theme “good versus evil” is explored in Snow White through the use of contrast between the protagonist and the antagonist. Snow White represents all of the ‘good’ aspects of femininity such as youth, beauty and obedience. Whilst the Queen, the story’s antagonist, represents all of the negative aspects of femininity such as age (this can be seen when she transforms into an old hag), ugliness, power, vanity and jealousy. Directly contrasting these two characters portrays two extreme representations of women (the good and the bad). This suggests that women can either be good or bad, not a mixture of the two.
Nature imagery is used along with contrast in order to establish these two very different representations of femininity. In the story the Queen is isolated from nature; she is associated with the supernatural and death. In contrast, Snow White is always associated with nature throughout the tale, even before she was born. The story opens with Snow White’s mother pricking her finger with a needle. As she watches “three drops of blood” (Grimm, 181) fall onto the white snow she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window frame” (181). Even the very factors that sparked her mother’s desire for her involved components from nature. Snow White also has a good relationship with animals. When Snow White was running through the forest, “wild beasts darted by her at times, but they did not harm her” (182).
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