In feminist writing, numerous techniques are employed in order to gain liberation from many stereotypical representations of women in their society. Anne Sexton uses the strategy of rewriting fairy tales, which I find most ingenious. The is because fairy tales have been what many of us have held close to our hearts, yet Sexton unveils it to be a cold patriarchal invention. In her retelling, Sexton raises the idea that women internalize and perpetuate a patriarchal identity, which comes from her society’s expectations, rules and norms. This identity consist of an ideal beauty and aspirations a woman strives to have, which I will explore in this discussion. Through her stark and naked portrayal of women, formed through the unapologetic tone she adopts in narrating the stories, Sexton strips the classic fairy tales of their deceptive allure and unmasks the gender inequality they perpetuate. In doing so, Sexton effectively strikes her message home, on how fairy tales-a representation of the social system-inspire us to develop into uninspired girls.
Before I discuss how Sexton reveals the stereotypical representations of women in their society, I would first like to justify my claim on the hidden gender inequality present in fairy tales. Foremost, let me give a quick history of fairy tales. Men wrote fairy tales, in fact, almost all literature. According to Jacqueline law in her research essay “Sleeping Beauty on Exhibition”, the Brothers Grimm “edited the tale to portray women in a chauvinistic way that adhered to cultural standards…and attempted to uphold the idea that beauty, rather than character, was a woman’s most valuable asset.” By modifying the tales, these patriarchal values were endorsed by the Brothers Grimm, setting versions of the ideal female and ideal feminine aspirations in motion through the tales Snow White and Cinderella for women to follow. I myself am a victim, deeply influenced by the representation of women in the male-oriented literature I grew up with, which has ingrained versions of the ideal feminine goals, aspirations, and appearance in me. They are to be beautiful like Snow White, and to be married and spend my life relaxing in a safe household, like Cinderella. This is precisely why I chose Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Cinderella” to discuss, to show that they insidiously influence our perception of males and females.
The internalization of such ideals is evident in the two poems. In Snow White, Sexton outlines the ideal female as “white” and “lovely”, which equates to being fair and young. This ideal could be defined as the male gaze for future reference. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we see the Queen asking the mirror, “who is fairest of us all?” This hints that she is dependent on the opinion of the mirror rather than herself. Not only does she ask for approval, she uses male diction of ideal feminine beauty to describe her aesthetic aspirations. She refers to the mirror like a “weather forecast”, showing how she refers to it daily, probably obsessively. When her mirror forecasts a storm, signaling to the Queen Snow White’s being “fairer than ”, this quote again mirroring male diction, the Queen’s immediate reaction is to want consume Snow White.
This is because Snow White possesses virginal youth, a criterion of the ideal female that the Queen lacks. Therefore, the Queen attempts to consume Snow White, to remain young. Sexton describes, “The Queen chewed up like a cube steak./ Now I am fairest, she said,/ lapping her slim white fingers”. We see her conviction that by chewing up Snow White’s heart, she is still the “fairest”. This is shown through her action of looking at her fingers as she laps it; the Queen is assured by the appearance of “her slim white fingers”. Her conviction that she would be young again is further emphasized by how she consumes Snow White’s heart. She savors Snow White’s heart in chewing it, a slow savoring technique, as if every ounce of Snow White’s perfectness, like a cube, will be her nutrition. Therefore we see how the Queen literally internalized the male gaze, for Snow White is a walking symbol of the male gaze, beautiful, virginal, and pure. And, in her details of the consumption of Snow White’s heart, Sexton sheds light on the gory nature of the story and leads us to feel disgusted at the length women are willing to go through to attain male approval. Hence, such visceral portrayal shows Sexton’s unapologetic and blunt tone that effectively strikes a chord within the female reader.