Friday, 5 November 2010

So much depends upon a pretty heroine

This post was originally written on 8th December, 2009.

Illustrations by Laura Barrett
Everyone knows the story of Snow White. A wicked stepmother,1 upon finding out from her magic mirror that her stepdaughter, Snow White (who is ‘as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in the window frame’), is fairer than herself, orders a huntsman to kill the girl. The man, influenced by Snow White’s beauty, lets her live. Left alone in the forest, Snow White is rescued by seven dwarfs. They welcome her to stay with them, as long as she does what good girls/women do. ‘If you will keep house for us, cook and make the beds, wash and sew and knit, and if you will keep everything tidy and clean, you can stay with us and you shall lack for nothing’, they say. In other words: be our mom, take care of us. Be our wife. Be our slave. All in one.

However, the stepmother learns that Snow White is still alive and she cannot possibly tolerate the existence of someone fairer than she; her mind is narrow like the tiniest needle. She knows that the useless huntsman has betrayed her and she is not to rely on another man. She decides to go get Snow White herself. She tries several things to kill the girl but most famously she, serpent-like, gives her a poisoned apple, which puts Snow White into a deep sleep. But the seven dwarfs think that the girl is dead and place her in a glass coffin. Although she is in the coffin ‘for a long, long time’, Snow White looks as if she’s just sleeping serenely. Even in her supposed death, her beauty attracts a young love-lorn prince, who eventually wakes her up from her prolonged sleep.

Can you imagine an ugly Snow White? Do you think she would be better off being plain? Then, her stepmother wouldn’t be jealous of her and want to have her killed. But then the story wouldn’t be propelled forward. Perhaps, in the world of fairytales, beauty is first punished and then rewarded. It is due to Snow White’s fairness that the huntsman is kind to her (‘And because she was so fair, the huntsman took pity on her and said: “Run away then, you poor child.”), the dwarfs put her in a glass coffin to show her off, and the prince falls in love with her beautiful ‘corpse’. Does that mean these stories are rather superficial, conventional and anti-ugliness?

Of course, one purpose of fairytales is for readers to escape into a fantasy world, so average girls can imagine themselves a beautiful princess. In fairytales, ugliness is often associated with evilness (note: in Snow White, the evil stepmother is fair but her heart is ugly). What I am wondering is whether in traditional fairytales, there is a case in which the heroine is plain (i.e. like the majority of people) or even ugly? If so, does this fairytale have a happy ending and does the heroine manage to get married in the end?2 I am not looking for a story such as The Ugly Duckling, in which someone who is originally considered ugly actually turns out to be beautiful. Nor am I looking for modern reinterpretations in which the heroine is intensionally made ugly to provide a feminist critique of traditional fairy stories.3, 4

1Did you know? Until the mid-nineteenth century, ‘mother-in-law’ also meant ‘stepmother’. (Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde, 1994:218)
2According to Warner (1994), stories with wicked stepmothers, such as Cinderella and Snow White, often end with a marriage: ‘the time of ordeal through which the fairytale heroine passes may not represent the liminal interval between childhood and maturity, but another, more socially constituted proving ground or threshold: the beginning of marriage’. (219)
3If you are interested in heroines in fairytales, you may be interested in this as well. (Thank you, Priyanka, for your suggestion.)
4The version of Snow White discussed in this post is Joyce Crick’s translation of Brothers Grimm’s original in the Guardian‘s “Great Fairytales” series.

ALSO read "Fairy tales teach us to be bad?".
6 Responses “So much depends upon a pretty heroine” →

Mike Marie
December 9, 2009
Tammy. This is interesting. I often think the so-called happy ending in those fairy tales wouldn’t last long as the couples may fight hard and find that they don’t like each other coz they hardly know one another beforehand. They just marry because of the looks. So I would think this is not “happy” at all if marriage is based on appearance and it may collapse or the characters will live hard for the rest of their life.

As for the image of Snow White, she has what a man desires- fairness, softness and obedience. Even if she’s very pretty, she doesn’t fall like the Queen. She’s humble and self-sacrificing. Haha. Snow White is definitely “The Angel of the House” in Virginia Woolf’s terms- charming, sympathetic, never say no to men and do all the household chores! Haven’t got a mind of her own~ You know even she knows that she’s in danger, she doesn’t fight back but rely on men to save her or spare her EVERY TIME. She is also kind of dumb and innocent (no brains at all) as she gladly takes the comb and the poisoned apple from the witch (two times!!!). She couldn’t fight but remain passive and “domestic”. Guess this is what men of that time (not sure for now, haha) would like for their wives to be- unforgivably stupid, pretty, fragile and obedient. But as a woman, I despise her.

This reminds me the Stepford Wives- all Blondies robots. We should have them murdered! MURDERED!

December 9, 2009
Catherynne M. Valente has written a two vol. set of interlocking fairy tales. “The Orphan’s Tales”, & “In the Cities of Coin and Spice” (

Many of the heroines in the stories in her books are ugly, and some are proud of their ugliness. Still I think this is the exception, as most fairy tale heroines are beautiful.

Catherynne M. Valente is an exceptional writer and poet. you can see more of her work at

Shadowy figure
December 9, 2009
Fairy tales tend to simplify, they need to have morals to teach. A person being ugly and staying ugly is hardly a moral in and of itself. If the hypothetical heroine’s looks are not important, then why mention them in the story in the first place? How baffling.

As a suggestion, maybe you should write such a fairy tale yourself…

December 9, 2009
“A person being ugly and staying ugly is hardly a moral in and of itself.” — is ugliness discriminated against in fairytales?

December 9, 2009
And yet the Ugly Duckling seems to mean precisely that the very notions of beauty and ugliness don’t mean anything…

But then, it’s not just fairytales; and it’s not just heroines… The notion of Beauty, as relative as it is, has always been extremely valued… Think of the narrow-minded theoreticians of literary criticism from past centuries who seriously thought that their role was to study how words could create “Beauty”, (whatever it means…)…
December 10, 2009
I’d like to mention a comment made by poet Luisa Igloria, who said: “[I]f you are willing to stretch your definition of fairytale so that you can cover contemporary narratives that can be demonstrated to hark back to or include some idea of narrative structure or recurring thematics in fairytales, then the first thing that comes to *my* mind is Sondheim’s incredible character Fosca in Passion, perhaps one of my favorite musicals of all time…”

Luisa wrote a review here:

1 comment:

  1. I have
    off and on
    And always
    To this:
    Is subjective
    And thus
    In the eyes
    Of the beholder

    I base this
    On cats
    Every cat
    I have ever seen
    Is beautiful
    To my eyes
    I have never seen
    An ugly cat
    An ugly dog
    An ugly bird
    An ugly fish
    All to me
    Are beautiful

    So, how then
    Is it possible
    For any girl
    Or woman
    To be ugly

    To see ugliness
    In anything
    Or anyone
    Is to reveal
    An Ugly part
    Of your soul



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