Feminist News

Happily NEVER After – Fairy Tales Make Sad Girls

This article addresses myths perpetuated to keep heterosexual women disempowered in western society. In this article the word “woman” refers to all those who identify as heterosexual, adult and female unless, otherwise stated. Equally, the word “man” refers to all those who identify as heterosexual, adult and male, unless otherwise stated. In no way does this article imply that all those who identify as “male” or “female” are heterosexual or cisgender.

This post is my attempt to exemplify the problem of the divide-and-conquer tactics employed by the patriarchal hegemony to keep heterosexual women in a constant state of fear of, and competition with each other. The vilification of older women in the media plays a major role in this, but it’s by no means the only player. By analyzing a postmodern take on the classic fairy tale, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” I will show how we are all screwed by the patriarchal model of female and the set of behaviors it sets up to demarcate femininity. We women, yes, even the younger ones, need to be able to recognize these patriarchal “divide and conquer” tactics when we see them, because we all have to deal with them, or their consequences, sooner or later.

So, have you seen the movie, “Mirror, Mirror” with Julia Roberts? When I watched it, I have to tell you, I was appalled!  Why would Julia Roberts, presumably a highly intelligent woman, actively work to disempower her sisters, young and old? Why? I just don’t get it.

If you have read any of my other blogposts, you will know what I think of fairy tales. Fairy tales are basically tools for cultural control, employed to keep heterosexual women firmly entrenched in the disempowerment zone of this still-patriarchal society. We women agree to perpetuate these forms of disempowerment, because we have been indoctrinated by the very same myths, into believing that the only way to really be “feminine” is to let men have power over us. We buy into the dream of being “rescued” from our miserable lives (dominated by an evil or crazy “older” woman), by a muscle-bound prince riding on a big shiny steed, or Ferrari. Let’s have a closer look at this, because despite the fact that the “rescue” roles are reversed (and this is definitely a step forward), the other part of it seriously degrades and disrespects the efforts of post-menopausal woman to retain their sexuality and their power, and simultaneously teaches young women to be afraid of them and to disdain them, which is exactly what disgusted me in “Mirror, Mirror.”

Firstly, I will point out that women have three physical stages in their lives, whereas men have only two and I do not exclude transwomen here, because they will feel the same social effects just by visibly aging. The female stages are: the girl (pre-menstrual years), the woman (menstrual years), and the crone (post-menstrual years). The male stages are: the boy (pre-puberty) and the man (post-puberty).

Fairy tales, as they were written by people like the brothers Grim, also act to disempower boys, but that is best kept for another post.

The point here is, once he has made it through puberty, a man is a man for the rest of his life, and he could theoretically, go around rescuing damsels and fathering children (cis men) until the day he dies. So, he knows all that manly power and potency are his whether he is attractive or not. It remains a given. And, even if he has a creepy personality, brutish violent tendencies, filthy habits and not even one of the markers of attractiveness, a man is still a man. He still commands respect of other men and power over women. A female, however, has a much less clear and stable trajectory in her future.

In the heterosexual patriarchal myth a little girl looks forward to becoming a woman and being pretty (desirable to men), so that she may be chosen by one of them and have a chance at procreation and motherhood. The more attractive she is, the more desirable she is to these men, and thus the greater her chances of becoming a mother. So, just as a man must work to stay mentally, physically or financially able to keep his potency with women, a woman must work at staying physically attractive and/or of useful service to men. But, here is where the confusion lies, a cis woman is only fertile for a particular length of time, then she goes through menopause, at which time her “femininity” is cruelly revoked. I say cruelly, because she has trained her entire life to be this feminine creature, desirable and of service to men (feeding them, producing and nurturing their offspring, looking after their sexual needs), then gradually (a couple of wrinkles here, a little sagginess there), this same woman grows less sexually attractive to her man (see my last post for the explanation of that interesting little phenomenon).

What, then, is her purpose in life? She can still feed him, but that is not going to keep all his needs fulfilled. She has worked all her life at being a sexually desirable woman, because having some sort of power (in this case sexual) and personal agency in her sphere of mother and concubine (depending on how attractive she keeps herself, of course) is better than having none at all. But now neither of these roles are open to her and she has trained for nothing else, so her power and agency have all but disappeared. Now, even if her man is the most noble-hearted of men, if he is still potent, her role as his woman is under threat (his physical desire for a sexually viable woman could, at any moment, overcome his honorable intentions and she may find him down at her local Starbucks ogling that sexy young barista). Why has she not prepared a new role for herself as something else, something which provides at least an equal portion, and preferably a greater portion of agency and power than she had in her second stage of female-hood?

The reason women are not prepared for any role after menopause is because what they would, and quite easily could, become is far too threatening to the patriarchy. Let’s just get a little crazy and extrapolate that idea:

Okay, so it has been said that male and female hormones give animals (including humans) purpose, as in the will to actively pursue the survival of the species. Along with this idea comes the notion that our hormones are our ultimate masters, controlling our physical, mental, and emotional states and driving our behavior. Now, if we are always acting on our hormonal instincts, we have little room for other ways of being. If this is so, then after puberty men are locked into their hormone-driven tendencies for life, so hypothetically, if they could focus all that body and brain power on something other than sex and violence they could wield immense power. And theoretically, so could women. The world would certainly be a different place without all those sexual shenanigans occupying most of our time. But wait! There is already a group of adult humans unhampered by hormonal impulses. Post-menopausal women! What if post-menopausal women commanded all that prodigious non-hormonally-driven power, while everyone else of age remained hormonally-driven? Would all the awesome post-menstrual women teach all the wonderful menstrual women to wake up and claim their power too? Oh dear, then how would men get their needs fulfilled? Who would do the dishes? Nope. The risk is just too great.

This is where fairy tales come into play, where the disempowerment of our girls starts, and how “Mirror, Mirror” is a perfect example of the patriarchy’s fear of post-menopausal women.

 

We women have been slowly waking up from our sleep of servitude to men and finally our narratives are beginning to reflect this. While many fairy tales are still perpetuated in their blatantly disempowering form, mostly, these tales are evolving to reflect our escape from patriarchal bondage. There are still remnants of disempowerment floating around in the reworked narratives, which we know will be worked out completely in time. However, there are also those reworked fairy tales which on the surface look to be just like the newly transformed empowerment tales, but are actually surreptitiously and insidiously working in the opposite direction. “Mirror, Mirror” is one of these tales.

“Mirror, Mirror” is a seductively sweet answer to a problem that was never the central problem for women in the narrative of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” On the face of it the film looks to be a mildly empowering narrative for girls. Hooray! Snow White, retagged as “Snow,” is smart and capable of growth. Indeed, she learns to duel with a sword and fight, albeit still like a dainty little child, but she does learn to get on the offensive of sorts, by becoming an extremely feminine Robin Hood type, and she is able to put up a good defense when she’s attacked. Snow may have gotten a little physical training for empowerment, however the opposite is true for her story. The entire movie is like a subliminal seduction banquet, putting our girls through extreme disempowerment bootcamp.

Yeah, right. How? You may ask. Well, it’s like this: the movie starts out with Julia Roberts very reasonably introducing the tale and the main characters, including herself as the Queen, and Snow White. We are only given a hint of her extreme jealousy when she tells us that this will be her story, not Snow White’s. But as soon as the film starts, it becomes a full-on tug of war between the two stories and by the end, the “evil” Stepmother-Queen has to concede that it was Snow’s story all along. This shift of ownership of the story from the Queen to Snow is a pretty blatant statement clearly stating that, “only young women matter.” With Snow representing young women and the Queen representing older women, then I would say this film is the story of all women, as it is part of the propaganda campaign to divide and conquer the 50.6% of the population that happen to be female, and if you bother to look beyond face value it reveals the major problem in the story of our lives.

Okay, so we are talking about who the story of Snow White is actually for, who benefits the most from it. And I have already stated that it is not Snow’s (peri-menstrual women) story or the Queen’s (peri-menopausal women), it is designed to quash the power of both. This tale works as dogma for propping up the patriarchal hegemony, because it disempowers women of all ages, and thus, it is “for” men.

Now, I will agree that if you don’t look beyond the surface, it looks like ”Mirror, Mirror” empowers young women, and of course, it does, if we’re talking the patriarchally-condoned pretty princess power of feminine youth, beauty and innocence, but this fairy tale has always done that. Didn’t the Disney Snow White wield power over the Seven Dwarves with her youth, beauty and service to them (cooking and cleaning)? Yes, and that is exactly what Snow does, in “Mirror, Mirror”. The power of her innocence and beauty also influences the man who is ordered to kill her, and he subsequently lets her live (in both films and the original tale). The original character of Snow White was designed to teach girls that if they stay chaste, keep themselves physically attractive, and cater to the needs of men then they will have a better chance of being rescued by a studly prince and living “happily ever after”.

In ”Mirror, Mirror” the narrative diverges from the original tale when Snow actually rescues the handsome Prince from a spell put over him by the Queen, and in the end Snow and the Prince fight the beast together (who just happens to be her father under another spell of the Queen’s), so now youth trumps age across the sexes. But not really, because neither of them get to rule in the end. The ultimate punishment, of course, is reserved for the Queen, who had so much power, on so many different levels (she overcame both the powerful King and the potent Prince, ruled a kingdom, was a genius with magic [which stands as a metaphor for intelligence and creativity] and still managed to stay beautiful), but then she had to go and void all that talent and admirability, by degenerating into a jealous shrew. Sounds like it all came out right, doesn’t it? But this is where this film reveals it’s insidious subversion of female empowerment. A woman of that much power can not be tolerated! Look at all the destruction she could cause (going around overpowering men and youths all over town). So, how do we disempower her? Easy, make her desire something she can never have, youth. Make it drive her insane! Turn her into a crazy old crone! Neuter the bitch! Yeah, that’ll render her powerless.

The whole film is a dogma-fest, an imprimatur deeming youth and beauty the highest order of femininity and the thing to be revered above all else. Actually, it seems that not much else has any worth in this film (only one thing trumps it, and we’ll talk about that later). I make it sound overt with my satirical humor, but it is not. The propaganda is so successfully submerged in the entertaining narrative that only the rarest child could pick it out, and even the average adult would have a hard time reading the dense symbology.

So, we’ll have a quick look at an example of the symbolism in Mirror, Mirror. Okay, let’s pick this one apart: at one stage Snow says to the Queen, “I am the rightful ruler of this land.” We can take this as a cloaked metaphor for, “Youth and beauty rule the domain of female power (sexual life).” Why? Well, Snow = youth and beauty, “this land” = the only realm females are allowed to rule over in fairy tales, which is the sexual/reproductive (second) stage of cis femalehood. Unfortunately, the sexual and reproductive domains have been conflated in our culture, but we know that if that were a reality then we would only have sex when we wanted to get pregnant. It’s a nasty little truth, but in the patriarchal model neither women, nor girls should be allowed to rule the domain of humanity (that’s the entire population [women and men]), in an actual position of governance. And we know that this film’s underpinnings lie firmly embedded in patriarchal ground because Snow never does get to actually rule the land. With the Prince, she rescues her father and it is he who takes his rightful place as all powerful ruler of the kingdom, and after rescuing everyone, Snow’s big reward is to marry the poncy prince. So, our girls learn that patriarchal power trumps everything. The Queen gets her just deserts too, she is rewarded for all her jealousy (trespassing on menstrual territory, or trying to reclaim her sexuality)  with a good dose of old-aged “ugliness.” How ironic, you might say, she had almost everything and yet only desired the one thing she was forbidden; the pursuit of which became her downfall and her ultimate punishment.

Wait. So we know why the poor Queen has been positioned as a nasty, jealous peri-menopausal psycho-bitch, right? Well, for one, the patriarchy doesn’t want all those powerful done-with-attracting-men types out there, ready to rule the world in a fair, kind, and equitable way. Why would the Queen obsess over youth and beauty, when she had gotten rid of the one person who would want that (the King)? She wouldn’t! Especially since she had the power to get anything else that she wanted. It’s just not plausible. At least not in any kind of rational story. But “Mirror, Mirror” is not that kind of narrative, it is a training film disguised as entertainment.

 

The story is the same for newly post-menopausal women everywhere, throughout our pre-menstrual and menstrual lives we are “trained” (brainwashed is more like it) to work hard at making ourselves beautiful, so that we are desirable to men. This is illustrated in “Mirror, Mirror” when the Queen willingly puts herself through a painful, rigorous, and sometimes repulsive regime of beautifying treatments. Why? Why would she put herself through all that pain just to be a little more beautiful when she was extremely beautiful already? Because she is a symbol representing western heterosexual women who have been indoctrinated by fairy tales into believing that to be feminine is to be young, and that this is the only valid form of femininity. Then, and I believe this to be the most heinous crime of postmodern patriarchy, we are shamed for trying to retain our tenuous grip on the power of youth and beauty by taking positive action to hold back aging, or even reverse it. In “Mirror, Mirror” the ultimate retribution for the Queen’s sin of “vanity” was not her rejection by the young man, because she was smart enough to remedy that little situation, but her rejection by Snow, which to me, symbolized her own rejection of her true self. It is the ultimate shame, the ultimate punishment.

So, to sum up, “Mirror, Mirror” is a sad, sad movie which simultaneously works to make young women hate themselves if they are not thin and pretty, and to hate older women who try to maintain a semblance of youthful sexuality. It compels young women to work harder on their appearance, but it also shows them that beauty is no longer enough, they must also be smart, and sassy (in an obedient sort of way), and know how to fight. Then, after all that effort, they will be rewarded for their sacrifices and labors with the grand prize of keeping a man happy and raising his children. Yay! Just what we always wanted.

The consolation prize, however, is that they will gain a modicum of agency in this position as long as they keep their man happy and their children nurtured. “Mirror, Mirror” also works to make young women feel temporarily powerful by suggesting that they juxtapose themselves with aging women, to show them how they can wield all that sexual power over men which the aging women have lost, and can never get back.  While “Mirror, Mirror” glorifies feminine youth and beauty, it also works to simultaneously shame the desire for, and any efforts to, maintain that which is held to be the only authentic goal for women; sexual attractiveness (ie. youth and beauty).

The “happily ever after” thing promoted in fairy tales is also a prominent feature in “Mirror, Mirror.” I believe it is a dangerous pie in the sky for girls, because, as illustrated in “Mirror, Mirror”, the only “ever” after menopause is to have the man you spent your whole youth preening for, and catering to, lose his desire for you, or worse, switch his desire from you to a younger model. “After” that you think we would “happily” teach our daughters not to waste their time. But, understand this ladies, “the machine” is bigger than any one of us, or even any little group of us. If you are forward thinking and recognize the total mindfuck that is happening to you then progress out of it will take more than just talk. I know we have the smarts, so what’s missing? Awareness and action.

 

I cry for all the women currently struggling with who they are meant to be after menopause, I cry for all the women yet to experience the shock of suddenly realizing that there will be a serious loss of worth after menopause, and I cry for my daughters’ struggle to be beautiful and stay that way for as long as possible, because they too, have been indoctrinated… 
 
 

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