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Saturday, November 06, 2004

Sister punishing

The tale of "Snow White" is an interesting one from a symbolic point of view. If you strip away the magic and the mystery, you have a very simple story of two women struggling for what both view as a limited commodity--male approval, be it in the form of the dwarves, the mirror, or the prince. The interesting thing about the story is it is easy to sympathize with both the princess and with the queen, depending on how you look at it. Both can be seen as perpetrators of and victims of sister-punishing, a behavior that pretty much all women know very well and cannot claim with a straight face to be innocent of. Sister-punishing is when one woman, in her quest to garner male approval, steps in on behalf of male authority and punishes a misbehaving woman so that the male authority doesn't have to do it. It's the feminist version of calling someone an Uncle Tom.

The best essay I've ever read on the meaning of the story "Snow White" is in The Madwoman in the Attic, a book that may be a little bit thick but is just brillant. I'll be spinning off some of Gilbert and Gubar's theories here, just so you know. The main thing to remember is that in fairy tales, all characters can usually be seen as fractures of the same Self, especially in stories about struggles between family members like "Snow White" is. Snow White and her stepmother are the same woman at different ages--reread the original story in Grimm's Fairy Tales and this will jump right out at you.

Anyway, the favored reading of the story is a version of sister-punishing we've all experienced. Snow White cannot help that she has the traits that make the mirror love her--she is young, sweet and beautiful but only because she is. She didn't cultivate these traits to hurt her stepmother, but the stepmother doesn't care. She is jealous and is going to punish Snow White for having the things she does not have. Everyone has been abused by a jealous person, so this interpretation is pretty easy to swallow. So why do we find ourselves symphatizing with the queen?

Because it's hard to shake the feeling that lurking underneath the surface of this straightforward story is another story of sister-punishing that goes on all the time but is rarely acknowledged. Maybe it's not that the queen is jealous, but that Snow White, in an effort to curry men's favor, hurts and humiliates the queen. Maybe Snow White stands in for the male authority that wishes to punish the unruly queen. Maybe Snow White gives men the excuse--must protect precious Snow White--to punish and hurt the queen for her real crime of being unruly. The Disney version upholds this version well, where the dwarves go crazy and kill the queen on the say-so of Snow White, but mostly because they want to and were just looking for an excuse.

But remember, the queen and Snow White are the same person. Now that the queen is dispatched, Snow White will not live happily ever after. Without a wicked queen to contrast herself with, her petulance and demands and opinions will become more obvious and before long, she will be the new wicked witch.

This all came rushing back to me when I read about the professional sister-punishers at IWF have released a document applauding the fact that women's vote has come back into line with men's. The IWF and the Concerned Women of America both fancy themselves to be Snow White to the wicked feminist queens. And it works--they are routinely showered with approval from conservative men who like that these women both fight the naughty women for them and also give them an excuse to go after feminists. They don't fight the feminists for themselves, say the anti-feminists. They are protecting real women from the scary, wicked feminists who want to give them freedoms that their delicate natures cannot handle. (Perfect example--the anti-feminists who say abortion on demand hurts women because it alienates them from motherhood. Aw.)

But IWF and CWA are falling for the same trap we fall into when we think of Snow White and the queen as different people. These groups think of their interests as completely different from the feminists, but they are so blinded by the need for immediate male approval that they don't see their interests are exactly the same.

When Snow White aligns herself with male characters who disdain the queen for aging, she is only hurting herself. Because no woman is exempt from aging, except in death, a fact that is brought to the reader's attention in a most agonizing way by the glass coffin. Death is worse than aging, and finally Snow White is rescued, but only to be returned to her inevitable march towards being the wicked queen she used to hate.

The IWF and CWA are set to self-destruct. If they manage to do what they want to do, which is wipe feminism off the face of the planet and send all of us back to our kitchens, they will have done it to themselves as well. Without scary feminists to compare themselves to, they will be the loudest, most opinionated bitches around and the men will turn on them as well. After all, if the goal is to make sure every female vote reflects her man's will, what's the point of having women vote at all?

Of course, they know they have a good thing going. Feminists aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Women like their independence, their right to vote without being told who to vote for, after all. They realize that as long as the evil queen is alive they can continue to be Snow White.


Blogger Elayne said...

When you cited sisters the first thing I thought was "she's going to talk about Snow White and Rose Red," a fairy tale I've always liked. I've always thought of the Snow White tale you're citing as cautionary tale of the dangers of power and particularly of vanity, not of becoming aged. Interestingly, the annotations to the link I just supplied mention that the jealous antagonist was originally Snow White's mother, not stepmother.


Blogger Amanda said...

I always liked Snow White and Rose Red,too.

In fairy tales, mothers and stepmothers are the same person for symbolic purposes. The change signals a change in the age of the protagonist and a desire to rebel, not an actual change in the person. In some of Grimm's fairy tales, they switch from referring to the female parent as mother to stepmother without even explaining where the first mother went. They don't have to--it's the same woman, but now instead of nuturer, she's an obstacle.


Blogger mythago said...

Fairy tales like "The Goose Girl" are about sister-punishing. "Snow White" is not about competition between Snow White and her stepmother as much as about the stepmother and the dead mother. Snow White isn't going to grow up to marry the queen. She's a vestigate of the previous queen, and a threat to the primacy of the stepmother's children.


Blogger mythago said...

Er, "marry the king," that is.


Blogger Roxanne said...

Not too much to add, really. This is a great post.

I've seen countless occassions of Sister Punishing in the workplace, but never really thought about it in literary terms.


Anonymous Beta Candy said...

I think there are many meaningful interpretations of Snow White, and the ideas you outline provide some great food for thought. I do see the story as being about women competing for the approval of men, and this is a battle I've seen all too often in real life. Competing for approval rather than accomplishment is normal for siblings, but when grown adults continue to behave in this fashion, they put themselves at a severe disadvantage.

Your example of the ICF and CWA is perfect: by fighting each other instead of working together, these women are missing the whole point of the struggle. They're chasing their tales instead of accomplishing, and that's exactly what the power structure wants, because it thins the playing field quite a bit.


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