Once upon a time, on the fourth day of September in the third year after the second millennium, a gifted professor named Martha Driver asked her class at Pace University to exclaim to her the first words that came to mind when she uttered the word “mother.” The respondents answered: “Sacrificial, strong, giving, nurturing….” When the professor was satisfied with the responses, she asked the eager students to give their first reaction to the word “mother-in-law.” Her subjects yelled out: “Overbearing, overpowering, and jealous.” Lastly, the professor asked for a response to the word “step-mother” and the students revealed the words: “Evil, cold, selfish.” The professor was finally finished with her questions and one question was raised: “Why do these words all have one common root (‘mother'), yet receive overwhelmingly opposite reactions?”
I believe these diverse yet stereotypical reactions are on account of stories told about the different roles. This essay will discuss the depiction of ‘mothers' in the fairy tales of Walt Disney and his predecessors Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, which are read by children and adults worldwide. There are three very popular tales that I will focus on to provide illustration for my theory of how fairy tales and their authors have succeeded in promoting the stereotypes that lead to such diverse responses to the three words describing motherhood. These three tales are: “ The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods ” or “ Sleeping Beauty ,” “ The Little Glass Slipper ” or “ Cinderella ,” and “ Little Snow White ” or “ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs .” I would like to show how the portrayals of non-biological mother figures have led us to believe that all step-mothers, mothers-in-law, and other mothers who are not related to the child are not good-natured and nice.
Each of these tales has an original version and a Disney version. I have studied these versions along with scholarly interpretations of these tales by Katia Canton and Marina Warner. These tales all explore the evil nature of non-related bad-natured mothers, but it is very interesting to look at the enormous differences between the original publications of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries compared to the twentieth-century versions. The audience is different; the morals are different, and the mothers' roles are slightly but crucially altered to fit each time period. Katia Canton addresses the impression that modern mass-media has made on the re-inventions of many fairy tales: “Although their frames remain, the values embedded in tales such as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty , have been constantly remodeled, according to the publishing and film industry and specific interests of mass media” (17). The original tales have been rewritten and represented differently by mass media to appeal to the constantly changing attitudes in societies.
The earliest published of the three tales that I will discuss is “ Sleeping Beauty.” Charles Perrault first published it in a French journal called Mercure Galant in 1695. The story was later published in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé , a collection of his famous fairy tales (Canton, 21). In his version of the “ Sleeping Beauty in the Woods,” the wicked mother is a mother-in-law. The tale that we are familiar with is the Disney version about a young princess who is destined to prick her finger on a spindle and fall to sleep until a handsome prince's determination to save her and his final magic kiss will wake her, and they will live happily ever after. This plot is almost identical in Perrault's version but only accounts for half of his tale. The other half is about a wicked mother-in-law who is not satisfied with her son's bride and tries to kill her daughter-in-law and grandchildren but fails because her son realizes his mother's malicious plan and stops her. His mother is embarrassed and decides to kill herself in the conclusion of the tale.
Perrault's tale reveals a jealous mother-in-law and focuses on a challenging aspect of marriage. To an adult audience, in the sixteenth century, the subject of the difficulties of marriage was a main concern while an adolescent audience of the nineteenth century was more interested in courtship and the romantic fantasy before the wedding (Warner, 222). Perrault's version does not end with a kiss; it goes on to show a jealous mother-in-law who orders the slaying of her two grandchildren and her daughter-in-law. She is described as a woman of the “ogre race” (Warner, 221), which means she eats children, but she is tricked into eating lambs instead. Her association with ogres reflects the terrible perception of mothers-in-law in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, Marina Warner has pointed out that the evil character may be drawn from an actual mother-in-law in the writer's life. She states that many fairytales are based on an author's own experience. Therefore, Perrault may have wanted to base his fictitious tales on a real-life experience to indirectly punish the evil woman in his/her life (Warner, 220).
Disney's version does not contain an evil mother-in-law; it doesn't even mention a mother-in-law. In Disney's version, the evil woman is a grim fairy godmother who later turns into a dragon. The story begins before Sleeping Beauty's marriage and focuses on the hardships that she and her true love are faced with before they marry. This is because Disney's story is directed towards children and adolescents who fantasize about falling in love and are not ready to think of the problems they will face after marriage. Perrault's version also has a very mature ‘ moralite, ' or moral of patience, at the end of the story that a child would not understand but an adult may live by:
Many a girl has waited long
For a husband brave or strong;
But I'm sure I never met
Any sort of woman yet
Who could wait a hundred years,
Free from fretting, free from fears
The moral urges women to be patient and shows the female eagerness to get married to be a mistake. This moral is not intended for a child's interpretation. A child is not familiar with the fact that it is difficult to find a husband/wife who will be a good life partner. A child fantasizes about suddenly meeting his/her prince or princess and immediately falling in love, getting married, and living happily ever after. On the contrary, an adult is forced to realize that it is hard to find a suitor and may learn from this tale that patience is important and should have no boundaries.
The second story that I will explore is “The Little Glass Slipper” or “Cinderella.” This tale was also published in Perrault's 1696 collection of fairy tales. Walt Disney follows this Perrault tale more closely than “Sleeping Beauty,” but there are still some major shifts that are affected by changes in society and audience. As with “Sleeping Beauty,” Perrault directs the narrative towards an older audience, while Disney targets children. In Perrault's version, Cinderella's original nickname is “Cinder-slut” (Perrault, trans. Johnson, 68). Disney has removed this point from his version of the tale due to the change in his audience and time period. In the seventeenth century, “slut” referred to a woman who was lazy, messy, and dirty. It did not necessarily mean that she engaged in immoral sexual practices. In Disney's version the word is excluded because the word slut has taken on a new meaning in the twentieth century and his younger audience would definitely misinterpret this word. The story is about a young girl who is abused by her stepmother. She is forced to do all the chores around the house and is treated like a slave by her stepmother and stepsisters. As with most versions of this story, there is a prince who is looking for a bride and has arranged a ball to which every maiden is invited. Cinderella is restrained from attending by her stepmother but she is rescued by her fairy godmother and ultimately finds her true love in the prince.
The imprisonment of Cinderella by her stepmother may symbolize “The dark time that can follow the first encounter between the older woman and her new daughter-in-law, the period when the young woman can do nothing, take charge of nothing, but suffer the sorcery and the authority and perhaps the hostility of the woman whose house she has entered, whose daughter she has become” (Warner, 220). The stepmother character and the views about stepmothers were directly related to the views of mother in laws at a time when the two were described by the same word: “Belle-mere” (Warner, 218). As with the original version of “Sleeping Beauty,” Cinderella's confinement within the household reflects an adult theme of the strained relationship of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law just after the marriage. Cinderella's stepmother is jealous of Cinderella's “excellent qualities” because they make her daughters “appear more hateful than ever” (Perrault, trans. by Johnson, 67). Jealousy is a common emotion of a mother-in-law when she feels succeeded by a younger, more attractive female who cares for her son and makes the mother appear less attractive. Though the evil female in this fairy tale is a wicked stepmother, she seems synonymous with the wicked mother-in-law.
Perrault's story of Cinderella also gives a brief representation of the father's limited role: “The poor girl endured everything patiently; not daring to complain to her father. [He] would've scolded her, because he was entirely ruled by his wife” (67). In the modern version, Disney apparently did not want to denigrate fathers in his version, so the father dies before the stepmother becomes wicked. In Disney's story the father does not seem cowardly and unable to protect his child. In Disney's version the father is portrayed only as a “kind and devoted father who loved his daughter very much” (Disney, 3). This image protects the child's perception of his/her father as the kind and strong hero preventing children who read the Disney version from losing faith in their own fathers.
Disney's interpretations appeal to children rather than teach morals to adults so his version of “Cinderella” includes talking animals that are personified. For example, when four mice are chosen to turn into horses, they are Cinderella's friends with whom she has conversations throughout the tale rather than the much less appealing mice from a mousetrap that Perrault uses. In Disney's tale, there are many animals that Cinderella can converse with, just as a child would converse with his cat, dog, or imaginary friend when he/she feels alone.
Perrault's “Cinderella” has two “ moralites.” One states that “a gift called grace” can “pierce the Prince's heart” so women should always be graceful to appeal to a man because it is important to be chosen as a bride. And the other explains the necessity of a godmother figure in a woman's life. Every woman needs a “friend at call” so she should turn to an older, more experienced woman in her life for advice (Perrault, trans. Johnson, 78).
The third tale that I will discuss is “Little Snow White” or “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” This tale was originally published as part of a collection of tales by the Brothers Grimm called Die kinder – und Haus marchen. The tale was developed from a manuscript written earlier which told the story of a mother who wishes that her daughter will grow up to be as beautiful as she is until her daughter grows up to be more beautiful. Then the mother sees her as a rival and tries to destroy her. The Grimm brothers changed the mother into a “witch stepmother” to reflect the attitudes towards powerful women of the time. Dominating women were considered to be witches, and stepmothers were considered evil witches during the period in which the Grimms were writing (Canton, 36). Marina Warner shows Perrault's influence over the Grimm Brothers in the creation of the wicked stepmother arguing that the Grimm Brothers took the idea of the wicked mother-in-law and transformed her into a stepmother in their own story of “Snow White” (222). The presence of a stepmother within actual households became more common in the nineteenth century when the Grimm Brothers wrote the tale. Remarriage was becoming more popular, and the word ‘stepmother' was separated from the word ‘mother-in-law' for the first time in the mid-nineteenth century (Warner, 218). The initial tale of Snow White was written closer to the Disney version of the twentieth century, and the Grimm Brothers were already beginning to shift their attention to the children reading the tales. This story is about a young girl who is born beautiful and is envied by her stepmother who wants to be the most beautiful in the land. Her stepmother has a magic mirror and asks the mirror, “Looking glass, looking glass, on the wall, who in this land is the fairest of all?” (Grimm, ed. Elliot, 153). The mirror has always answered that she is the fairest of all until one day Snow White becomes more beautiful than her stepmother and the mirror answers, “Snow White.” The stepmother is enraged and sends a man to kill Snow White, but he cannot, and so she runs away. She finds a home with seven dwarfs in the mountains and is safe until the evil stepmother learns that she is alive and sets out to kill her. She tempts her with a poisoned comb from which Snow White quickly recovers, and then with an apple which Snow White eats and seems to die from. In the end she is awakened with the help of a prince.
There are some interesting connections between the Grimms' tales and Perrault's stories. One difference between Grimm's original version and Perrault's original versions of his tales is that Snow White is seven years old in the Grimms' version while in Perrault's she is a grown woman and a main character. The Brothers Grimm also take some aspects from Perrault's tale of “The Sleeping Beauty in The Woods” and use them in their story of “Snow White.” Snow White's stepmother orders her to be killed, and her heart is then to be cut out “as a token for the queen.” Then “the cook had to salt this, and the wicked [stepmother] ate it, and thought she had eaten the heart of Snow White” (Grimm, ed. Elliot, 147). This shows the wicked stepmother to possess the same cannibalistic qualities as Beauty's Mother-in-law, the ogre. Another similarity is that the young princess can only be brought back to life by a handsome prince.
There are certain aspects in the Disney version that are different from the Brothers Grimm version. One difference is a recurring theme of the famous saving kiss: this feature of romance is displayed to a child of the twentieth century who longs for his/her love to come, and with the first kiss, to fall in love. As in the prior tales of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella,” the father of the young girl has no say in her upbringing. The father does not appear to object to Snow White's murder because the new evil stepmother has taken over the role of the father and mother combined. Grimm's version has the dwarfs commanding Snow White to cook and clean for them in return for a place to stay (149) while Disney's version shows Snow White doing this out of her own free will and impressing the dwarfs. The adult theme of envy is displayed by the stepmother(“Envy let her have no rest”) when she finds out Snow White is alive (150), and it grows so strong that she is willing to die in order resolve the problem: “Snow white shall die…even if it costs me my life!” (151). In the Grimms' version, the stepmother makes a poisonous comb “by the help of witchcraft” (150), and ideas about witches were still commonplace in nineteenth century Germany. In Disney's version there is no mention of witchcraft. In the nineteenth century, women were considered the possessions of their husbands or fathers and this idea is portrayed in the Grimms' tale. The Prince comes to the Dwarfs' cottage and asks to keep Snow White saying that he will “prize her as [his] dearest possession” (153). On the contrary, in Disney's version, the prince asks Snow White to “come with me to my family's palace and be my bride” (Disney, 21). The husband treated the wife as a possession before the twentieth century. Disney's version reflects the major shift that took place in the role of women in families. In the twentieth century, marriage is becomes a somewhat equal partnership between two people; it is no longer an ownership of the woman by the man. The Grimm tale further includes a major health crisis, which occurred frequently in the nineteenth century. The problem of women dying during childbirth was of major concern to adults in the eighteen hundreds so in the Grimm's version of “Snow White,” this very real topic is addressed in the beginning of the story when Snow White's mother dies during childbirth. Disney writes that she died one year after giving birth so not to use such a traumatic theme, which would definitely upset children and focus on a problem that is less of a concern in the twentieth century.
The Grimm tales do not have a “moralite ” as Perrault's do but the tale of “Snow White” ends with this: “Iron slippers had already been put upon the fire and they were brought in with tongs and set before [the stepmother]. Then she was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead” (Grimm, ed. Elliot, 154). This gruesome conclusion serves as a lesson to others who are envious, who are ultimately destroyed by their own envy. This conclusion is omitted from Disney's version because it was thought to be too gruesome for children.
These three original tales and their Disney versions may seem to be similar on the surface but with a closer look, there are many key differences that show us the various audiences to whom the tales are directed. Perrault's and the Grimm Brothers' earlier versions were directed towards adults and focus on mature issues. Disney's versions, filled with dragons and friendly talking mice, are directed towards children and explore their fantasy world. A comparison of the differences between these various versions also shows us the problems that were relevant in earlier societies, which included: women as possessions of their husbands and fathers, cannibalism, and death during childbirth.
In the tales there is also a shift in emphasis on society's problems. The earlier stories focus on the daughter and mother-in-law who were required to live together in the earlier centuries, while the twentieth century versions focus on difficult relationships of the stepmother and stepchild.
The reason that the students mentioned in the beginning of this essay answered negatively when asked about stepmothers and mothers-in-law is directly related to the stories they read as children. Katia Canton explains the influence of fairy tales on the perception of mothers when she states:
as remarriage becomes more and more common,
stepmothers find they are tackling a hard crust of bigotry
set in the minds of their new children, and refreshed by
the endless returns of the wicked stepmother
in the literature of childhood (237).
I believe that she is absolutely right and that fairy tales serve a larger purpose than simple entertainment. They were moral teachings for adults in the earlier centuries, portraying the mother-in-law as jealous and wicked, and they also influence children's thoughts about mothers in the later centuries presenting stepmothers to be evil, selfish and cold. Tales are powerful and are the main reason for our negative reactions to the words “mother-in-law” and “stepmother.”
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