How Snow White's Evil Stepmother Can Help Us Unpack Mother-Daughter Relationships

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In the story of Snow White, the most compelling character of the story isn't the title character, but the villain: the jealous, wicked, evil stepmother.

In her new book, "The Fairest of Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters," Harvard's Maria Tatar says tales about evil stepmothers help shape our understanding of age and beauty and tensions between mothers and daughters.

Tatar is a professor emerita of folklore and mythology at Harvard University, and a senior fellow at Harvard University's Society of Fellows.

On why she finds the story of Snow White so fascinating: 

Tatar: "[When I took] my four-year-old daughter many years ago to see the feature — the animated versions of Snow White, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — she fell under the spell of the queen, ... a charismatic figure with that mirror and the servant in the mirror, and then this underground layer with skulls and crows and dusty tomes and a chemistry set. Of course, [the queen] can work magic. She can change herself from one state to another, so that really grabbed her attention ... We all use this story in some ways to work through our own mother-daughter conflicts and to figure out where we are. Also, of course, the cultural question of beauty and rivalry among women — this sort of competition, this beauty contest, that is really part of patriarchy."

On why we have so many different versions of the story:

Tatar: "These stories, which we think of as being for children ... were told by adults to other adults ... [They were] the pornography and trash of a preliterate era. These were ... the simple expression of very complicated ideas — [such as] ... the whole question of beauty, aging and death, regeneration, resurrection."

"The story is told all over the world. I was astonished by that because I didn't find ... just 21 versions. I found hundreds of versions and I chose, you know, 21 that I thought were representative and also showed us how how different some of the stories are from the one that we know from Disney. So, yes, these are extraordinary narratives ... The story is not usually called Snow White. It's usually called 'The Beautiful Girl.' The skin color is completely irrelevant. It was really Disney more than [The Brothers] Grimm, their source, who fetishize the white skin of Snow White in that verse, 'Skin white as snow.' For the Grimms, Snow White was white as snow, and I think by that they meant ... she was innocent, she was pure, she was naive."

On what Snow White tells us about cultural perceptions of aging: 

Tatar: "[When the queen in the Disney movie transforms,] that's a spectacular scene because it's an allegory of aging. It's compressed into 30 seconds. Her hair turns white. Her hands are gnarled. The story itself is telling us about this fantasy that we all have to stay 'the fairest of them all,' but also about the reality that we do age and that we are going to be replaced by the next generation. But the good news is ... there is regeneration and renewal. Some folklorists have read this story as a tale about seasonal change ... These women ... the villains, the older women, are demonized so powerfully. And yet, if you think about Snow White's 'happily ever after,' what is going to happen? She will marry. Presumably she'll have children, possibly a daughter, and that daughter will also become her rival for 'the fairest of them all.' There's a message of hope, and also a reminder [that] we are all mortal — we age and we are not the 'fairest of them all' after a while."

On the fairy tale's intimation of a mother-daughter rivalry: 

Tater: "Fairy tales are so shocking. They startle us ...  and that's part of the beauty of the stories, that they get us talking to each other ... Not every mother, I think, feels that kind of rivalry with a daughter, but it may be there subliminally ... and it's something that you can talk about and try to come to terms with and recognize ... the beauty of your daughter becoming older and becoming 'the fairest of them all,' the most beautiful or the most just or the most compassionate, which is the way that we might want to rewrite the story today. Maybe it's time to switch it up, and instead of a beauty contest, we have a different kind of contest, one that has to do with hospitality or compassion or empathy."

On her favorite of the 21 stories: 

Tater: "My favorite is 'The death of the Seven Dwarfs.' ... It's about an old woman who knocks on the door of the cottage. Snow White denies her hospitality. And what does the old woman do but recruit a hitman to come back and kill the dwarfs? ... She becomes this gun-toting villain ... Again, this is a reminder [that] these stories really were part of an adult culture."

This segment aired on August 19, 2020.

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