A Better Happy Ending: Femininity in Fairy Tales

When fairy tales were first introduced in popular culture, adaptors manipulated the original female folklore characters in order to give the populace ideas of ideal feminine behaviour.

Due to the lack of female storytellers, the “assertive, confident, and courageous” (Zipes, “The Tales” 80) heroines from the original stories were diluted. More recently, the changing role of women in society has also caused a change in their portrayals in fairy tales. The earlier alterations in representations of females served to give the populace ideas of what femininity should be; the recent changes occur to mirror what femininity has become. The depiction of female fairy tale characters evolved from dependent to independent as women’s importance and roles in society changed in the same way. In the early 1800s, when women were condemned to domesticity and dependence, the Grimm brothers collected a variety of tales from different cultures and time periods and created their famous book of fairy tales.

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Familiar tales such as Snow White, which originated in Germany, were included and altered to their liking. In one such alteration to Snow White, Snow White’s Evil Stepmother – with whom we are all familiar – was originally Snow’s birth mother; the Grimm brothers made her a stepmother so that children reading their stories wouldn’t be frightened of their own mothers. Another reason for changing that aspect of the original story was the fact that motherhood was the most important role for women during the 1800s. An additional ideal female characteristic implemented in the stories, which is still evident in modern society, is superficial beauty. A negatively planted idea of femininity in Snow White is the Evil Queen’s desire to be “the fairest in the land” (Grimm 184), and the fact that she would go to any lengths to destroy anyone who was more beautiful than she.

This aspect of the story incites a still relevant beauty competition between women. The ideas about women in these fairy tales reflected and magnified society’s views and expectations of women. While society encouraged the passive female stereotype in the 1800s, people began to protest against it in the 1900s. In 1937, Disney released the animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which exhibited the already established role for women of ideal beauty, wifehood, motherhood, and housekeeping.

The movie was an adaptation to Grimm’s Snow White, sometimes called Little Snow White. Disney adapted the story so that Snow White was a young woman rather than a young girl. The company also rewrote the Evil Stepmother as the Evil Queen, to remove “family conflict from the surface of the tale” (Tatar 24). Snow White was a rather passive character. While the seven dwarves – the men of the household – went to do their work, Snow stayed in the cabin and cleaned and kept up the house (with the help of her animal friends, of course).

By the mid-1900s, women became sick of this expected duty, and a large number decided to speak up. They wanted to have the same opportunities as men without any expectations to be domestic or submissive as they had been depicted for so long. With the already conquered battle for women’s rights to vote in the 1920s, other movements such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Presidential Executive Order prohibiting bias of 1967 accomplished a reevaluation of traditional views of women’s roles in society. Although an abundance of women’s rights activism was present, Disney continued to produce animated films that stayed relatively true to the familiar fairy tales; still exploiting the idea of domesticity and passivity, with a few exceptions, in their female protagonists. As time progressed, the active struggle for equal rights and views between genders was more or less resolved in the world, and eventually the media followed suit.

By the 2000s, there was an established equality between men and women. Women were no longer explicitly expected to be a domestic wife, mother, or housekeeper. Recently, there have been film and television adaptations of Snow White, depicting her as a strong and independent woman. Once Upon A Time is a television show in which the fairytale characters we are familiar with are trapped in our world by a curse enacted by the Evil Queen from Snow White. Along with displaying these characters as modern-day people in a land without magic, the show gives us backstories and insight farther into the characters than we have ever seen before through flashbacks to the Enchanted Forest. The show gives a backwards timeline of memories, digging further into the characters’ pasts with each episode.

In the first episode (Kitsis, Horowitz “Pilot”), we see the iconic scene of Snow White in her glass coffin, and Prince Charming kissing her awake. But their declarations of, “You found me,” and “I will always find you,” suggest that they had a relationship prior to the awakening. In the third episode (“Snow Falls”), we see how Snow White and Prince Charming meet. Snow is a thief, living in the wilderness, on the run from someone or something. She robs the Prince’s carriage, and he runs after the thief, thinking it a man.

Snow tackles him to the ground, and he is surprised to discover that she is a woman. At this point, the Prince is arranged to be married and the two have no romantic intentions, let alone friendly ones. In this episode, Snow gives the Prince his nickname, “Charming,” as a taunt. Throughout the show, their relationship develops into a friendship, and they eventually develop feelings for one another. This portrayal of how Snow White and Prince Charming meet and their relationship leading up to the iconic scene drastically contrasts either of the previous versions of the story: the Grimm version, in which the Prince finds a beautiful, comatose girl and decides to carry her away so that he can look at her for all eternity; and the Disney version, in which the Prince stumbles upon a beautiful, comatose girl and kisses her awake.

In Once Upon A Time, the two are not strangers once the iconic scene takes place. While the previous versions show that a man can take a woman as his wife just because he finds her beautiful – “a folkloristic vision of the ideal bride” (Tatar 146) – this modern version shows that women are of equal value of men and must be respected and treated as human beings. Charming falls in love with Snow because he got to know her, not because he simply looked at her. Society’s views of women have changed from defining a woman superficially to understanding that there is substance beneath the surface. There is a drastic change in the depiction of female characters’ motivations, and even more backstory is added to these characters in order to ramify them beyond what they seem to be.

In the original and Disney versions of Snow White, the Evil Queen wants Snow to be killed because she is jealous of her beauty. In Once Upon A Time, the Evil Queen, Regina, wants revenge on Snow White for betraying her. The writers did incorporate much of the original story, such as the queen’s bloodthirsty desire to rip out Snow White’s heart, but they expand on it. Before she was the queen (let alone evil), when she was about 17, Regina saved a 10-year-old Snow’s life from a runaway horse. The two became friends, and Regina confided in Snow about her secret love for the Stable Boy and told her to keep it a secret because she knew her mother wouldn’t approve.

Not knowing any better, Snow told Regina’s wicked mother, Cora, about the relationship, causing Cora to rip out and crush the Stable Boy’s heart, killing him in front of Regina (“The Stable Boy”). Her mother then forced her to marry Snow’s father, the King. From that day on, Regina blamed Snow White for the death of her first love, holding a grudge that has yet to be resolved on the show. Eventually, Regina used her reign as Queen to do everything in her power to make sure that Snow White’s happy ending was stolen from her, just as she had stolen Regina’s. This Evil Queen has much more substance than the original, vain character. Although some might think that Regina’s grudge was unreasonable or blown out of proportion, it is equally as easy to sympathize with the Queen – to see her as a human being with human feelings and a broken heart.

The women of fairy tales have evolved quite drastically, with their writers creating depth and illustrating them as human beings rather than pretty faces with vain motives. Along with creating depth within the original fairy tale characters, the creators of Once Upon A Time came up with an additional female character to contradict everything that the original fairy tales depicted women to be. This new character, named Emma Swan, is Snow White and Prince Charming’s long lost daughter, and the Savior or White Knight of the Enchanted forest. She is destined to break the curse that keeps the fairy tale characters trapped in our world. When thinking of traditional fairy tales, one would picture a White Knight as a man – the show has Emma Swan break these gender boundaries. Even though her bloodline technically makes Emma a princess, she is nothing like what we expect a fairy tale princess to be; before her knowledge of the curse, the leather jacket and boot-wearing girl worked as a bail bonds person.

Pairing together non-traditional women’s roles in both the modern world and the fairy tale realm into this one character really emphasizes how the illustration of women has progressed, and how society no longer finds it shocking for a woman to take on such roles. Studying the progression of female fairy tale characters helps prove that ideas in society and ideas presented by the media mutually affect each other. While the 1937 version of Snow White displays the ideals for females in 1937 and prior, modern-day princesses such as Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan, and now the reimagined daughter of Snow White encompass everything that women have strived for in their struggle for equality by not adhering to gender-specific roles. The development from passive and weak to dynamic and strong fictional females mirrors the progression of women in real life from submissivity and domesticity to independence and outspokenness. Just as fairy tale characters have affected and continue to affect women’s roles in society, women’s roles in society have also affected the way fairy tale characters have been, are currently, and will be interpreted as time goes on.