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‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’: Folklorists discuss ‘Retelling Fairy Tales from a Feminist Perspectve’

By Staff | Aug 2, 2019

Franklin Coleman, of Springfield, Virginia, talks with The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic co-founder Brittany Warman, left, following the lecture in Shepherd's Center for Contemporary Art on Saturday morning. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — One of the most familiar fairy tale phrases might be, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” And, according to the co-founders of The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic, Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman, this phrase reflects some of the deeper issues behind the stories many people grow up hearing from childhood.

“There are Snow White stories from all over the world, but we’ll talk about the Brothers Grimm version, which everyone knows from the Disney movie, and has received a lot of criticism,” Warman said, mentioning in the original version of the story, Snow White was seven-years-old. “A little girl is punished by her stepmother, runs away from her and then falls asleep. She waits for someone else to come to the rescue — very similar to a slasher film in that way.

“What we often don’t think about, is that in most Snow White stories, there are multiple attempts to kill her. And even when she’s killed, she’s resurrected. At the end, she overcomes adversity to become a powerful queen,” Warman said. “Even though she’s essentially rescued at the end of the story, she was still an incredibly strong woman to survive.”

Rather than simply reading or watching fairy tales tell stories about women whose survival is dependent upon a man, Cleto encourages consumers to consider exploring feminist retellings of these stories. Many of these retellings, according to Cleto, don’t even change the story, but rather spend time discussing the inner struggles of the female characters.

“Feminist retellings tend to fight against this story,” Cleto said. “Scholars have speculated that Snow White is about the fear of aging, especially how women fear aging. It’s also a story about a young girl growing up, and the mother not being quite ready for it.

From right, John Arrington, of Annapolis, Maryland, talks with The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic co-founders Brittany Warman and Sara Cleto, after the lecture in Shepherd's Center for Contemporary Art on Saturday morning. Tabitha Johnston

“It’s a powerful staging of mother-daughter conflict — there is an obsession about who is the fairest,” Cleto said. “Another possible view, is that it’s a story about female competition under male patriarchy. The ‘fairest of them all’ may be interpreted as gaining the male gaze. All of these are ways you can pack or reverse these stories, to better understand them.”

According to Warman and Cleto, feminist retellings of fairy tales place men and women in the stories on an equal ground, and can even be seen in recent Disney princess movies, like “Moana,” “Brave” and “Frozen.”

“Female protagonists had been obscured by the men in their fairy tales,” Cleto said. “I think that it’s fascinating that ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella,’ two of the most famous fairy tales, are not really about romance at all. It’s unfortunate that both of these stories are about how two strong women can’t get along.”

As Warman explained, there is nothing wrong with telling fairy tales to children, as long as parents are thoughtful about what the fairy tales are teaching.

“When we talk about feminist fairy tales, we’re talking about having all women and men deserving equal access to opportunities,” Warman said, before closing the CATF in Context lecture with a question-and-answer session.

To learn more, visit carterhaughschool.com. The lecture was presented in Shepherd University’s Center for Contemporary Arts on Saturday morning, with assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council.