Self-identity is formed through social constructs. The true image of the inner self is difficult to ascertain. What an individual is has been constructed in the mind from childhood. What the body thinks or is believed to think, has been taught to it through fairy tales, schools, parents, etc.
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So the distinction between the right and the socially acceptable has become synonymous as has been permanently etched in human minds. The very notion of sexuality, gender, and class are made through a child’s very first interaction with fairy tales and thus, the children are constructed into the accepted way of life. The stress on female sexuality is more, as fairy tales have often faced feminist criticism of being a tool for men to construct women.
Fairy tales are believed to create male inscribed text for female identification with the image of a “good” and the “bad” woman. Grimm Brothers’ Little Snow White (Grimm and Grimm) is an apt example of such stereotyping. Fairy tales has been sown to create a distorted self-image especially of the body. The body image created in these tales of good and bad, normal and abnormal, right and wrong is strong and therefore, mar the individual’s inner voice in identifying the self.
Fairy tales are a well-used discursive tool in creating the gender and sexual identity of individuals; however, the body images created by such tales generate the true way of self-identification or are mere stereotypes of the constructed self. This paper analyses the discursive manipulation of fairy tales in creating sexual and gender identity in fairy tales and how different or similar they are to the self-image.
The present paper discusses this thesis using three texts – Grimm Brother’s Cinderella and Little Snow White, Bourges’ poem Mirrors, and Pitts’ essay Subversive Bodies. The essay will first discuss the question of identity discussed in these three works and then analyze how subjective self-identity and image is constructed through fairy tales.
The importance of male/female physical appearance is paramount in the fairy tales of Grimm Brothers. In both Cinderella and Little Snow White, there is a definitive distinction between the female beauty and ugliness, and male handsomeness and not so good-looking ones.
Thus, there arose a definitive emphasis on feminine beauty ideal for social construction of women. The emphasis on the beauty of both Cinderella and Snow White are salient in both the tales, and therefore, is suggestive of the normative social control over the feminine beauty ideal of women is evident from the texts of the Grimm brothers. Snow White’s first description in the tale of her birth is representative of the gender implications:
Once upon a time, in the middle of winter, when snow flakes were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen was sitting and sewing at a window with a black ebony frame. And as she was sewing and looking out the window, she pricked her finger with the needle and three drops of blood fell upon the snow.
And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window frame” Soon after that she had a little daughter, who was as white as snow. And as res as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony; and she was therefore called Little Snow-white. And when the child was born, the Queen died.” (Grimm and Grimm, Little Snow White 127)
The gender identity is explicitly stressed upon in the extraordinary birth of Snow White as described by the Grimm brothers. The very first lines stress on motherhood and feminine beauty that appear natural to the reader as it demonstrates the mother’s wish to conceive the child is a process that imitates nature. Further, as the whole process of Snow White’s birth is naturalized, therefore, a stress is put on female beauty as a natural element.
Finally, the conception of Snow White is a process that symbolically represents the patriarchal ideals of femininity through which Snow White’s beauty and birth is ascertained. The use of “mirror” as a means of self-revelation and self-image shows that the externalization of feminist ideals. The mirror explicitly reflects the self-image as it states to Snow White’s stepmother, “Thou art fairer than all who are here, Lady Queen. But more beautiful still is Snow-white, as I ween.” (Grimm and Grimm, Little Snow White 128)
Thus, the mirror becomes reflection of the human nature, convention, and beliefs. The narrative usage of the mirrors helps in gender construction. Snow White is shown by the framed mirror as the ideal construction of a heroine that is demonstrated through the image of beauty and suffering.
This female image is reiterated in Cinderella. Further, the fairy tales does not give any voice to the female protagonists – Snow White and Cinderella hardly have a voice of their own, they never question anything, and accept things as presented to them. Cinderella does not speak but her intentions are reported in third-person:
She danced till it was evening, and then she wanted to go home. But the King’s son said, “I will go with thee and bear thee company,” for he wished to see to whom the beautiful maiden belonged. She escaped from him, however, and sprang into the pigeon house. (Grimm and Grimm, Cinderella 63)
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The narrative strategy of the tales usually summarizes her speeches thereby silencing them. Therefore, both Snow White and Cinderella is the constructed child-woman who are made to suit the feminine image developed by the patriarchy which is believed to be the nature in a metaphorical way, thus, debarring her of any self identity.
Fairy tales have been used as the construction ground of female identity. These tales divulge the classical feminine ideals that are imprinted in the human mind as a child. Therefore, such fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella creates a psychosexual identity that women throughout the ages may have internalized and developed self-concept that they believed to be ideal and not acceptable. Therefore, these fairy tales create a separate gender identity and self-image for women as dominated by the patriarchal tellers of the tale.
The question of self-identity is related in Borges’ poem “Mirrors” in the book Dreamtigers (Borges 60-61). The theme or motif of the poem is the fear of humans to come close to the real self-image. This is recounted in the lines “what whim of fate / made me so fearful of a glancing mirror.” (Borges 60) It may have several meaning and many related to the identity. Nevertheless, the closest meaning for mirrors is a reflection of the human reality as he writes:
God has created nighttime, which he arms With dreams, and mirrors, to make clear To man he is a reflection and a mere Vanity. Therefore these alarms. (Borges 61)
Mirrors become the framed space that reflects the world in reflection; it produces the image of the world that is just another fabrication of the human being. Borges identifies the world we live with the constructed, discoursed universe that the mirror helps to reflect. Thus the significance of the mirrors becomes in its reflection of the artificial and manmade human.
Borges reflects man as constructed, manipulated, and discoursed through the social norms and practices. Therefore, the identity and image that is reflected in the mirror is not that of his own, rather the one that has been created by the discourses of the world. Therefore, the reality as reflected in the mirror is no different from the fabricated world we live in: “ungraspable architecture / reared by every dawn from the gleam / of a mirror, by darkness from a dream.” (61)
The mirror in Borges’ poem assumes infinite power and divulges a patriarchal superiority in dictating a world that is make believe and constructed rather than naturally created. Borges is constantly terrified of the images created by the mirror and it creates profound anxiety in his heart and mind:
I see them as infinite, elemental
Executors of an ancient pact,
To multiply the world like the act
Of begetting. Sleepless. Bringing doom. (60)
Borges stressed on the image that is reflected in the mirror is that of a world constructed through the patriarchal notion, and therefore are images of what man wants to see. Therefore, Borges also feels that it has the power to destroy man in his vices and arrogance.
This philosophy of Borges is reflected through the repetitive use of mirrors as the teller of truth in Grimm Brother’s Little Snow White where the mirror tells the truth to the wicked stepmother. The use of mirrors as a reflection of identity and self-image is evident in both the usage of mirrors in Grimm Brother’s stories and in Borges’ poem. Identity is reflected in the mirror and the mirror creates and re-creates the image of the individuals.
“Subversive Bodies” (Pitts) discusses the moralizing and construction of body image that is etched in human minds and categorized as normal and not normal. Therefore the acceptable body image divulges social order. Therefore, any image of the body that deviates from the social norm through “self-mutilation” by the “others” is categorized as abnormal (23).
Therefore, the modification of the female body, that accentuates the feminine identity causes social problem: “That the practices are perceived to reflect cultural dissatisfaction is often cited as one reason for concern.” (24) Pitts argues that social constructs ha definitively fixed the self-image and body image that is expected to remain unaltered to attain the equilibrium state of normalcy. Therefore the self has been constructed through various social norms, conventions, disciplines, laws, and regulations.
This self is the image that man bears in mind when identifying with his/her self-image and based on which created his/her identity. Pitts makes reference of the philosophy of body as presented by Foucault: “Foucault described the self’s production in modern regimes of discipline, and the role of the body in producing and ordering the self.” (28) Classical studies stressed on the presence of an ideal body and image of man.
However, postmodern studies reject such ideas. Pitts points at the de-construction of the “ideal body”: “Post-essentialist theories of the body, expressed in cultural studies, feminism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, and other areas thought, reject the notion that there is an “essential,” proper, ideal body.” (28) Pitts relates this theory in connection to her thesis that body mutilation or change as practiced by social “others” are not derangement of their identity but rather a matter of choice.
Though they move away from the socially constructed “ideal” body image, they are not actually separating themselves from their identity. Pitts therefore argues following Foucault that ongoing languages and discourses aim at creating “selves, bodies, desires, and pleasures” (29). Thus, Pitts confers:
The body, then, is positioned in multiple ways, including as a site for establishing identity that is read by the self and others; as a space of social control and social investment; and as an ever-emerging, unfinished materiality that gains meaning through various forms of symbolic representation and material practice. (29)
The three texts discussed therefore in the essay show that self is constructed through discourses of language and norms. What is reflected, as the self-image is what man has made himself and not the one nature intended (Borges). The identity of man as described in the tales of Grimm brothers in Snow White and Cinderella of an ideal feminine identity and body image is what the social hierarchy wished to be. Women had to be docile and beautiful. Thus were Cinderella and Snow White.
Similarly, Borges shows that the image of self that is reflected in the mirror is not what the self is but rather what human mind that is constructed by the artificial world, wants to see. Pitts too confers that self and body image are constructed by society and are the tools of manipulation and creation of the self-image of humans. Therefore modern philosophy of Borges and Pitts argues that the creation of self as an image in the mirror is just another construction of languages, texts, social norms, and practices.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Mirrors.” Borges, Jorge Luis. Dreamtigers. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2004. 60-61. Print.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. “Cinderella.” Tales, The Complete Grimm’s Fairy. Jacob Grimm; Wilhelm Grimm. Digireads.com Publishing, 2009. 61-64. Print.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. “Little Snow White.” Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Digireads.com Publishing, 2009. 127-131. Print.
Pitts, Victoria. “Subversive Bodies, Invented Selves.” Pitts, Victoria and Victoria Pitts-Taylor. In the flesh: the cultural politics of body modification. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 23-29. Print.