I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking and reading about fairy tales and mythology lately, as part of my individual study this semester (and because I can’t stay away from them). As is often the case with fascinating reading, overwhelming and fascinating ideas have invaded and it’s been difficult to sort them into something that makes much sense. But–finally–I’m going to try. Even better, I’m going to try in a way that delineates my often strange mental connections between things that really shouldn’t be related. I hope.
Jack Zipes, a well-known scholar and translator of fairy tales, discusses the application of memetics to fairy tales in Why Fairy Tales Stick:
“…a good example of a meme is a fairy tale, but not just any fairy tale, an individual fairy tale and its discursive tradition that includes oral and literary tales and other cultural forms of transmission such as radio, film, video, and the Internet. For example, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ has become a meme that has stuck in people’s minds since at least the seventeenth century and has replicated and propagated itself throughout the world.” (5)
The word “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and has its origins in the Greek word mimeisthai, “to imitate”. A strangely similar (though etymologically unrelated, as far as I can discover) word is the French même, “same”. Keep this in mind.
With this idea of replication in my head, I started wondering about another selection I’d read. In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner discusses the role of the wicked stepmother. She suggests (citing Bruno Bettelheim) that the inclusion of an evil stepmother allows young readers/listeners, when applying the concepts of the story to their own lives, to split the concept of ‘mother’ into two parts, good and bad.
“The bad mother has become an inevitable, even required ingredient in fantasy, and hatred of her a legitimate, applauded stratagem of psychological survival.” (212)1
This enables a child to direct a healthy amount of anger at his or her real mother without feeling guilt. (Mothers? Guilt? I’m sure Freud would have even more to say about this.) So the fictional stepmother replaces the fictional mother, and splits the real mother into two distinct personalities. But what about the fictional stepdaughter? What role does she play in this relationship?
The mother is the original iteration, who dies in childbirth and is–in essence–replaced by the daughter. The situation becomes more complicated when the stepmother is introduced into the family. She is now competing with the daughter as a replacement for the mother. It seems to me that the pattern within this type of fairy tale parallels the external pattern of fairy tales themselves. Evolution through new and competing versions is what drives both the production of stories and these specific characters. This replication and competition is most apparent in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, where the rivalry over ‘fairest in the land’2 is explicit and constructed much more deliberately than the subtler stepmother-stepdaughter competition in “Cinderella”, in that the characters actually perceive and articulate their contest. Finally, the most important symbolic device in the story is a mirror.3 Coincidence? I think not.4
To put this in weirder, more technological terms, the dead mother is version 1.0. The daughter is version 2.0. I think the evil stepmother is also version 2.0, but with slightly different features. And you don’t need two versions of the same thing, right? One is bound to make the other obsolete.5
illustration by Jennie Harbour, from “Snowdrop”
- Guess where else this has popped up recently? Neil Gaiman‘s ‘other mother’ in Coraline is a perfect example of the ‘bad mother’. [↩]
- Incidentally, the French phrase for “stepmother” (and mother-in-law) is belle-mère, literally “beautiful mother”. I find this both charming and disturbing. [↩]
- Want to see something with a really neat expansion of the mirror symbol? Try “The 10th Kingdom” (2000), a cheesy but very clever miniseries. [↩]
- Channeling Gardner Campbell, I see. [↩]
- Beta, I’ll always love you. You gave me my first Chaplin films. [↩]