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Patriarchy and the Subjugation of the Feminine in Fairy Tales


Submitted By davepilk
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Fairy Tales, a modern staple of the nursery, represent much about the culture which tells them, for in fairy tales we find not just the fantasies of childhood but the realities of society. So much more than just nursery stories, fairy tales provide the backdrop for the development of a child’s psyche by simultaneously stimulating his imagination and “at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems which perturb him.” (Bettleheim in Tatar 270). Just as Oedipal conflicts and narcissistic dilemmas are navigated amid the fantasies of these tales, it is in the same manner that fairy tales till the soil on which the budding individual develops as a gendered and socialized member of the culture in which he lives. Folk stories, and more modernly, fairy tales, serve to influence the collective and individual unconscious in gender roles and gender identities. In examination of the various treatments of classic tales we can identify a running theme of subjugating the feminine in the service of patriarchy.

Fairy tales are a specialization of folk lore, similar to myths and quests in that each subclass identify and reinforce gender roles. Hero stories accentuate the bravery and skill of the young boy who identifies with them but simultaneously reinforce that boy’s understanding of how to relate to the feminine (in many such tales the feminine is relegated to a helpless beauty he must rescue). Similarly, fairy tales, “by producing the female subject as complemented and completed by her relation to a male partner,” allow patriarchy to “naturalize sexual identity, masking the cultural construction of the feminine, thereby continually reproducing women in a subordinate position.” (Ebert) While we can recognize the voice of patriarchy in the motifs of these time worn tales, it is specifically how these tales are assimilated by the unconscious that perpetuates and reinforces gender expectations and limitations.

One of the prevailing representations of women in fairy tales is that of the triple goddess; the maiden, the mother and the crone. Perhaps a vestige of the oral lore when “wives’ tales” represented feminine conflicts from a feminine perspective, this archetype remains in fairy tales. The evolution of this icon is a caricature of the feminine, punctuated with exaggerated demeanors. The maidens are beautiful, kind, genteel, and as Gilbert and Gubar point out, “childlike docile and submissive.” (Gilbert and Gubar 292). An prime example is Grimm’s Snow White who at only seven years old is “as beautiful as the bright day and more beautiful than the queen herself.” (Tartar 83). The persecuted heroine must endure trials of character, temptations of the flesh and undue suffering at the hands of her tormentor the Queen. As is so often the case in fairy tales, we see the theme of woman against woman. Because the persecution is inflicted by a step-mother or similar caregiver, this is the conflict which drives the heroine from her family, delivered from bondage by the handsome prince who falls in love with a beautiful dead girl in a glass coffin. Or as in Perrault’s “Donkeyskin” where the heroine captures the prince’s heart with “the beauty of her face, her lovely profile, her warm, ivory skin, her fine features, and her fresh youthfulness” but most of all “by a wise and modest reserve that bore witness to the beauty of her soul.” (Tartar 113).

The first person experience in Fairy tales is that of the heroine and, just as in hero stories, it is obvious whose perspective these tales are told from and therefore who their intended audience is. Just as every little boy identifies with killing the dragon and saving the princess, every little girl identifies with the representation of herself and how she should be. These representations of the idyllic woman are absorbed by the unconscious long before conscious development of the self begins and behave as a baseline of desired attributes and behavior.

In fairy tales the plot is propelled with strong juxtapositions. The desirable maiden lies just beyond the looking glass of the fairy tale’s mother. Mother is a very complex character in fairy tales. She is an amalgam of how patriarchy frames the feminine, good or bad. The young mother, an evolution of the maiden, is supplanted by the wicked stepmother or the jealous aunt. This older woman is treacherous, cunning, and cruel, “a woman of significant action.” (Gilbert and Gubar xxx). Typically this transition is a literal one, the good mother dies and is replaced by her antithesis. To see an evolution of this transition from the good mother to the bad mother one could look to Perrault’s Cinderella story, “Donkeyskin”. The queen mother is said to be “so charming and so beautiful, with a disposition so sweet and generous, that he [the King] was prouder about being her husband than about being king,” a marriage which was “full of affection and pleasure.”(Tatar 109). A “nasty illness,” however, attacks the mother, “ending her days of joy.” (Tatar 109) The pure and verdant spring of youth gives way to the bitter autumn of middle age. This caricature is of a decidedly different kind of woman, the pre-menopausal woman. Rife with mood swings and fits of temper, her illness is one which naught can be done to “arrest the fire started by the fever and fueled by it.” (Tatar 109). This is the jealous mother, watching her vanity fade as her bitterness grows. In her dying hour the queen extracts a self-preserving promise from the King that he marry only if he meets a woman “more beautiful, more accomplished, and more wise than I am.” (109). Confident in her own qualities, the queen is convinced that the promise, “cunningly extracted, was as good as an oath never to marry.” (Tatar 110). Actions have a very causal relationship in fairy tales and the extracted promise takes root as a delusion in the king’s mind that only his daughter is more beautiful, accomplished and wise as his dead wife. Thus, the onset of the maiden’s torment is at the hands of her own mother.

Often it is only the crone that is exempt from the pitting of woman against woman in fairy tales. The fairy godmother of “Donkeyskin,” Grandmother of “Little Red Riding Hood,” and the fairies of Basile’s “The Young Slave” represent the protective and nurturing side of woman. The crone is a surrogate for the supplanted good mother. It is this post-menopausal woman who poses no threat to the maiden, who by virtue of the wisdom of experience is the chosen guide and protector, for only a woman who is no longer in potential competition for a man’s attentions can be trusted to provide countenance to our protagonist.

In Angela Carter’s rebellious treatment of Little Red Riding Hood, “The Company of Wolves”, the archetype of the crone is artfully crafted as Rosaleen’s moral compass. Carter’s “Granny” is a multidimensional representation of the evolution of Gilbert and Gubar’s “woman of significant action.” Granny knows well the dangers of the wolf but remembers none too well the temptation of him; Granny never strayed from the path or spoke to charming and dangerous wolves. Granny’s wisdom betrays her bitterness with patriarchal oppression; from her castigations of the village priest to her warnings of men who are “hairy on the inside” and “eat” young maidens.
If, as Bettleheim suggests, fairy tales provide a way for children to relinquish childhood dependencies, gain a feeling of selfhood and of self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation, then it should also be recognized that the model of self which fairy tales present to children is one which is particular to patriarchal exaggerations of the female archetype. (Tartar 271) Upon examination of certain fairy tale motifs it is clear how the oedipal dilemma is navigated by the unconscious. As Bettleheim observes, “a little girl wishes to see herself as a young and beautiful maiden - a princess or the like – who is kept captive by the selfish, evil female figure and hence unavailable to the male lover,” the evil female figure representing mother and the male lover representing father. Bettleheim’s observation yields something more too, Bettleheim’s assertion acknowledges the way in which fairy tale’s portrayal of the feminine is assimilated by the unconscious as much as the navigation of the oedipal dilemma.

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