Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Problem with Fairy Tales

The Millions has a piece about three contemporary adaptations of Snow White.

From the story...

In the fairy tale, Snow White is the innocent, lovely virgin while her stepmother is a jealous, wicked older woman. In Block’s “Snow” the mother is not a powerful and wicked witch, but a pathetic figure. She gives up her child because she does not “know what to do with her” and sits “crying in the garden” while the child screams. However, when she sees Snow with the gardener she returns with poisoned apples and tries to kill her daughter. Snow White is still cast as the blameless girl, and her mother is still jealous and deadly.

Gaiman’s “Snow Glass Apples” appears to be a subversion but is actually just a reversal of roles. Snow White is the preternatural, consuming villain; the step-mother is the victim. Gaiman’s inversion seems to question the traditional binary opposition of good girl versus wicked woman, but he has simply transposed the good and evil roles, making Snow White the wicked queen in everything but name. The tale is still one of good female against evil female. Gaiman cannot break out of the mythic framework to imagine the women as anything other than binary opposites.

The myth is truly subverted in Donoghue’s “The Tale of the Apple.” While at first the roles are again simply reversed, the two women are eventually revealed as allies. The stepmother tries repeatedly to reach out to Snow White but it is Snow herself who makes the final decision to return to the castle, bringing the two women together. It is Snow White and not the stepmother who has the power as she succeeds where the stepmother has failed, but she uses this power to bring an end to their antagonism.

The myth suggests that there are only two courses available to women: being beautiful and loved, but powerless; or being powerful, but hated and ultimately destroyed. By continuing to write the characters in these binary roles, writers are failing to confront the woman-against-woman message underlying the myth. Donoghue’s subversion suggests a way out of this bind, by letting the characters elevate themselves above this shallow jealousy.

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