Friday, March 23, 2012

Gilbert and Gubar on Snow White

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have a fascinating essay on the Grimms' version of Snow White (I think the upcoming movie versions must be keeping this fairy tale on my mind...) in which they analyze the main images of the tale as evidence of men's idealized version of woman. Some of their information they derive from Bettelheim, like Snow White and the Stepmother being two versions of the same person, which I don't think you can necessarily assume. But as with many fairy tales, you could interpret it many ways, and at different times in your life, to apply to various situations.

Bess Livings

The Stepmother Queen is linked to her mirror, and Snow White to her glass coffin. The Mirror indicates that the Stepmother is "driven inward, obsessively studying self images as if seeking a viable self." The Mirror is the most narcissistic image, although the authors of the essay refer to Bettelheim in stating that the voice in the Mirror must really be the King-the man of the story who pronounces judgement on the women and rates their beauty. According to this interpretation, the King is really the driving force of the plot and the women in it are really victims of his whims and preferences, although the King doesn't even appear in the plot.

Snow White, according to Gilbert and Gubar, is "childlike, docile, and submissive, the heroine of a life that has no story." And though she is supposedly the opposite of the Queen, who is obsessed with her appearance, the objects with which the Queen successfully tempts Snow White are those having to do with beauty and cooking-a set of tight laces, a comb, and an apple. "From the point of view of the mad, self-assertive Queen, conventional female arts kill." (Although I might disagree on lumping the apple into female arts-it represents food more than cooking to me, and everybody eats, regardless of gender. However, the apple does reference the very famous image of Eve being tempted by the serpent in the garden of Eden, thus linking it once again to distinctly female temptations.)

Snow White, already represented as the ideal woman, then becomes a motionless corpse in a glass coffin-powerless and on display. The Prince even begs the dwarves to give "it" to him, not "her." From this the essay concludes that man's ideal woman is this version of Snow White-"she is an object, to be displayed and desired." In some cultures this notion is more true than others.

Kay Nielsen

Gilbert and Gubar see a sad future for Snow White. Given that her whole life she has been valued only for her beauty and compliancy, it seems only inevitable that one day, she will be surpassed in beauty by the next generation. Like Anne Sexton's poem, these authors see the story as a never ending cycle, where Snow White is destined to become the next wicked Queen, willing to do anything to preserve her own status and beauty, but who will inevitably fail.

For the above reasons, many women dislike this fairy tale. Along with Cinderella it appears to be one of the most blatantly sexist of fairy tales. Yet I think it serves as powerful food for thought which is very applicable even in modern society. It's unfortunate, but men still judge women by their beauty. You know who also judges women by beauty? Other women. Sometimes women are the hardest on themselves than anybody else. Though we might not like to admit it, we are all shallow to some extent-yet sometimes our judgements on ourselves and others are so subtle we don't even realize it. We need obvious wake up calls, such as a fairy tale with disturbing images, to remind us how fleeting beauty is and that life is so much more than first impressions.

Sometimes when we realize how image obsessed our culture is, the temptation is to get depressed and bitter. It would be really nice if people started judging us by who we are and not by outward things, but in reality that's probably not going to happen just by wishing it. However, you can make a change in yourself-become aware of the times you tend to rate yourself or others against unrealistic standards. What if we applied the same zeal to improving our character and integrity that we do to maintaining our appearance? What if we started genuinely caring about other people's souls? If we let ourselves become defined by things that don't really matter and over which we have no control, we will continue the sad cycle-today you may be Snow White, but before too long you will become the Wicked Queen.

I'm not saying it's wrong to care about appearance. In fact I think it's healthy to appreciate beauty and to desire to be attractive. I believe every woman has her own unique beauty (and men their unique handsomeness) and our job is not to discredit it but to open ourselves up to finding more beauty in more places-outside of narrow Hollywood standards. Find the beauty in someone's smile and personality (yours included!) as well as their face or figure-those are things that won't fade with age but will actually become more precious.


  1. Thanks for posting on this! It's one of my favorite fairy tales specifically because of all the various symbolism and the idea that the Wicked Queen is actually a sort of Christmas Carol version of Snow White herself - in the future of course - if she takes the same path. Where are the essays from? A book? I can't find anything online. Thanks again.
    Once Upon A Blog...

  2. The essay is found in Maria Tatar's book, "The Classic Fairy Tales." Glad you like the post! I've followed your blog for a long time and am so honored you read mine!

  3. Thank you for posting this very insightful entry! I am writing an essay about how women are portrayed in fairytales and I really like your insights here - would it be alright with you if I cited this entry on your blogspot as a source for my essay? If you would allow me to do this I would appreciate it very much!

    If I am allowed to use this entry as a source, how should I cite your name (as you are the author of this entry)? Please let me know.

  4. M Colet-what an honor!

    If you want to cite something from the first half of the most, you may want to get a copy of Maria Tatar's "The Classic Fairy Tales" and read the essay yourself-the authors explain it a lot better than I do! But the last three paragraphs are my original thoughts. If you email me at, I'll give you my full name.

    Your essay sounds fascinating! I'd love to hear your thoughts as well!

  5. It might seem cruel and dumb to think of women as pretty objects.It's true that a patriarchal society foster and supports this kind of ideology, but to make things changes women are the ones who should change first, and they have been, no doubt about it. But there are many who still are subdued by the obsessive idea of eternal youth and beauty. Let alone all those cosmetic companies, and women mags getting richer and richer with their anti-aging tips and products.I believe people can make revolutions.