Saturday, August 18, 2012

Thoughts on Gender Roles

"In fairy tales the primary task for women is bearing children, and childbearing was often fatal; whatever other power women had lay in youth and beauty."

So says Roger Sale in Fairy Tales and After. Indeed, many fairy tales begin with the wish of bearing a child-Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, The Juniper Tree, and the Russian tale Kip, the Enchanted Cat. And nearly every fairy tale in some way illustrates a woman's desire to be beautiful, if nothing else than featuring a protagonist who is not only beautiful, but usually the most beautiful. But nowhere is this desire more clearly seen as a powerful driving force than the Queen in Snow White. And if anyone thinks that feminism has made this kind of envy a non-issue I would have to strongly disagree with them; the desire to be beautiful is still a very real part of modern life. However, I think that we have as a society moved beyond the point of only finding value in a woman for her ability to attract a mate, then bear and raise children.

What about men in fairy tales? Sale's words (emphasis mine): "Older men in fairy tales usually are dutiful, stolid people, restricted to work, food, and small pleasures. But because their power was not primarily a sexual power, men in fairy tales seldom develop an envious murderous passion against younger men, because whatever power men have does not erode with time." Sale was discussing Snow White here: as many have noted, and what I think makes Snow White one of the most haunting tales of all, is the fact that Snow White is basically destined to become the Queen one day, or as Sale says, she and the Queen "are the same person at two different stages of life."

W.C. Drupsteen

I wonder if, as a culture, we still see women's power as primarily being sexual, despite the progress we've made and the addition of powers she has. You don't have to watch t.v. for very long to see a woman being objectified in some way. Every woman battles with cultural pressures as well as her own instincts; even the strongest occasionally struggle with self-doubt, largely coming from fears of how she is being perceived.
I don't have any particular conclusions to draw from all this, just some food for thought. But one thing I think is very interesting, and would definitely influence how we draw conclusions from gender roles in fairy tales-in Bengt Holbek's essay "Hans Christian Andersen's Use of Folktales," he discusses a study he did collecting folktales in Denmark, and the differences he found between those told by men and women. "Men very consistently preferred tales with male protagonists, whereas woman gave approximately equal attention to tales with male and female protagonists." I almost wonder if males are somehow more universally understood. A male friend of mine who is a writer once told me he found girls hard to write, but I don't know if girls would find boy characters hard to write (but I don't really write fiction, so feel free to correct me). I always found it just as easy to identify with a male protagonist as a female one, but do men struggle to fully relate to a female character?

1 comment:

  1. Very well said, "Snow White and the Queen are pretty much the same person in different stages of life." And I agree that modern times has not done away with the pressure on women to be physically beautiful.

    In my experience, almost consistently, women find it easier to write for both genders than men do. that's also something to consider when you look at the great authors: they tend to be able to write for both sexes pretty effectively.

    As a "writer" myself, I believe that women have a natural empathy that men *tend to* lack, or at least that it comes more naturally to them. I think a lot of men do struggle to identify with female characters, for this reason.

    Interesting post, enjoyed it very much. c: