Anika Reza Carleton University Rob Holton ENGL 3002 03 December, 2007

Binary Opposition in Fairy Tales: Insight into the Working of Ideology

Claude Lévi-Strauss would say binary oppositions, rather than any intrinsic connotation, is what creates meaning. Lévi-Strauss realized that the way society understood certain words depends not so much on any meaning the words themselves directly contain, but much more by our understanding of the difference between the word and its 'opposite'. He came to the conclusion that words merely act as symbols for society's ideas and that the meaning of words were based on a relationship rather than a fixed thing; a relationship between opposing ideas (Campsall). Therefore as meaning is dependent on a relationship between opposing ideas, and these ideas are not fixed but are a cultural construct, exploring binary oppositions and the meanings they convey reveals the ideology it stemmed from. Our literature is full of binary oppositions such as good/evil, men/women, light/dark, and royalty/commoners, which can all be found in one form or another in our stories. Levi-Strauss argues, "that mythical thought always works from the awareness of oppositions towards their progressive mediation" (Dundes 1) therefore the binary opposites found in fairy tales have a purpose; to promote a certain ideology. By looking at the fairy tales produced by the Walt Disney Corporation and the binary oppositions that structures it an insight may be found into the ideologies found in the Western culture. Disney feature length cartoons such as Snow White, Cinderella, and

Reza |2 Sleeping Beauty contain binary oppositions such as good/evil, beauty/ugly, and royalty/commoners. These binary oppositions stand for ideologies on goodness, beauty, and class. D.M Buss, the author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, states, “that men’s preference for beautiful women, and women’s preference for highstatus men are culturally universal” (Kanazawa 7). Evidence of this can be found in Disney fairy tales where the Princes fall in love with the female characters because of their beauty and they in turn dream of their prince charming that can provide for them. As the characters of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and the various Princes embody kindness, attractiveness and high status the opposite is true for the evil characters in fairy tales who are represented by their ugliness, cruelty and lack of proper status. These binary oppositions in Disney fairy tales reveal the western ideologies that value female beauty and status in men therefore it is associated with goodness. Beauty is the primary adjective with which a heroine in a fairy tale is described by thus it is their defining characteristic. In Disney’s Princess Treasury, the book version of the Disney motion picture fairy tales, Snow White is described as ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful’ throughout the tale; second in number only to the adjective ‘kind’. In Sleeping Beauty, apart from the obvious reference to beauty in the title, Aurora is also mainly defined by her physical attributes. The very first blessing she receives as a baby from the good fairies is the gift of beauty. Cinderella too is described as having “charm and beauty” (Lewis 199) along with kindness and patience. The frequent references to beauty reveal the extent to which western culture gives importance to such an attribute. Beauty is given further importance when it has the power to insight jealousy in the evil characters who then attempt to harm the beautiful maidens. Beauty is also the agent which orchestrates their rescue as it inspires admiration in the good and love in the nobles. In Snow White “the queen is very jealous of Snow White’s beauty” (Razzi 11) and so she orders the huntsman to kill Snow White and bring back her heart. It is also the factor which makes

Reza |3 the Prince fall in love with her as he thought “she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen” (14). It is Snow White’s beauty which leads the Prince to later to seek out the “beautiful maiden who slept in the glass coffin” (101) as he was curious to see if she was indeed the same princess he had met previously. Unsurprisingly the same pattern is found in Cinderella where the stepmother is “bitterly jealous of Cinderella’s charm and beauty” (Lewis 199) thus forces her into a life of menial labour. As beauty is the attribute which not only causes the misfortunes the good female characters go through but it is also which rescues them, we find that the Prince is “transfixed…[and finds Cinderella]… the most beautiful girl he had ever seen” (256) which then leads him to choose her as his bride. The Prince in Sleeping Beauty also falls in love with Aurora because of her beauty and he is willing to marry what he believes to be a peasant girl despite his bethroal to a princess as he speculates the ‘unknown’ princess couldn’t “be lovelier and sweeter than the girl he’d met”. Just as beauty is attributed to the good characters in the fairy tales and sees them first persecuted and then rescued because of it ugliness is reserved for the evil ones who at first lead a satisfied existence and later meet with an unhappy ending. The Queen in Snow White is described as being beautiful but inside she is as “evil as an ugly old witch” (Razzi 11) and at the beginning of the story she enjoys the title of being the most beautiful woman of the land. In latter part of the story not only does she transform into a ugly old peddler woman but her evil ways sees her meet with an untimely death. The evil witch Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty with her gray skin, long nails and black and purple robe and horns (Singer 113) also enjoys a sense of power of the kingdom with her black magic. However she too dies an untimely death which is the fruit of her evil doings. The cruel and homely stepsisters in Cinderella with sickly pale skin and wiry hair reside in the lap of luxury as they force Cinderella to do all the chores. Alas as fairy tales are constructed the ugly evil characters are punished while the beautiful good characters are rewarded therefore the stepsister are left lonely as Cinderella marries her prince charming

Reza |4 and live happily ever after. The binary oppositions of beauty and ugliness in fairy tales reflect the western ideology that beauty is highly desirable attribute in females. Thus all beautiful female characters in the tales are sweet and kind and endure any injustice with a forbearance of character and eventually attract the attention of a prince while the ugly female characters are cruel and evil therefore they either meet with a gruesome end or are left dejected. As beauty attracts the Princes to the good female characters in fairy tales it is the high social statuses of these men which attract the females to them. Satoshi

Kanazawa and Jody L. Kovar’s paper suggests that all men prefer to marry beautiful women while women prefer to marry men with high status (7). This
cultural preference and class ideology which holds royalty above commoners can be found in fairy tales. Each male lead in Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella is a prince with the wealth and status that comes with such a position. Even without knowing the Princes’ identities both Snow White and Aurora were able to clearly tell their statuses by their clothing. Snow White “saw a handsome man in the fine dress of a prince” (Razzi 14) while Aurora observed that the young man she had been dancing with in the woods “was dressed like a prince” (Singer 136). Cinderella too notices the dress of the handsome young man with whom she danced with at the royal ball and was clear that he was well to do. Each girl then promptly falls in love and their eventual marriage and subsequent happiness reflects the class ideology that status will bring happiness. Few women in modern day honestly expect to become a “princess” and have a royal wedding, though they subconsciously assimilate these cultural values and apply them to modern time. They transfer from fairy tales into real life those fantasies which state that wealth and status will lead to happiness (Rowe). Emphasis on royalty in fairy tales finds its modern counterpart in the way western society now puts an emphasis on famous and wealthy individuals. Where Snow White yearned for her prince, modern women yearn for

Reza |5 their rich and famous future husbands. The commoners in these tales are primarily side characters such as the good fairies in Sleeping Beauty along with the dwarfs in Snow White and the stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella. Thus by creating central characters that are prince and princesses and emphasizing their beauty and goodness fairy tales reflect the western class ideology that individuals of high status are beautiful, kind and happy. Therefore fairy tales are not just entertaining fantasies, but powerful transmitters of class ideologies which encourage women to internalize the value of status and wealth and seek men who can provide them with such. It also encourages men to attain high status in order to marry beautiful women. The common wisdom that the world is not black and white does not apply to the world found in fairy tales where the good is clearly distinguished from the bad as black is from white. By exploring what is considered good or evil an insight may be achieved into the cultural ideology the fairy tale stems from. In Snow White for example the evil Queen suffers from jealousy and vanity because of\ which she dresses Snow White in rags and forces her to do menial labour in order to hide her beauty. Jealousy and vanity is also a trait in the stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella. Lady Tremaine is jealous of Cinderella’s beauty and so she too forces Cinderella to wear rags and do menial work while her own daughters receive undeserved compliments and lived lavishly. Her daughters develop a sense of vanity and their jealousy towards Cinderella is revealed by their reaction in seeing Cinderella in the beautiful gown she had made for the royal ball. They tear the dress apart (Lewis 245). In Sleeping Beauty Maleficent is jealous of the attention baby Aurora receives as in contrast she wasn’t even invited to the celebration since she wasn’t wanted. Maleficent, in her jealousy, curses the child to die by her sixteenth birthday upon pricking her finger on a spindle. Thus jealousy and vanity is considered a trait of the evil ones as it leads to hurting the innocents. In contrast those who are good enjoy seeing and appreciating other’s beauty such as the dwarfs in Snow

Reza |6 White, the three good fairies in Sleeping Beauty and the fairy godmother in Cinderella who all recognize and appreciate the beauties of the good female characters. Also those who are good and beautiful are not vain in their beauty and they seek to aid the helpless not harm them as seen in characters of the leading female characters. The binary opposition which illustrates what is good and evil in fairy tales reflects the western ideology that kindness, beauty and humility is good while cruelty towards innocents along with jealousy and vanity are traits of evilness. Binary oppositions, which are a cultural construct, not only create meaning but they represent ideologies as well. By exploring the binary oppositions found in Disney fairy tales it is possible to find the ideology it stemmed from. Binary opposition in Disney’s stories reveals western ideologies such as those on beauty, class and goodness. The great emphasis on female beauty in the Disney fairy tales Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella points towards the importance it has in western culture. Furthermore beauty is almost the sole attribute given to these leading female characters which points to the western ideology that holds female beauty as almost the sole attribute by which to judge a female’s worthiness. As women are judged by their beauty men are judged by their social status. Class ideology is revealed in fairy tales by the overwhelming presence of royalties in these stories and the implicit desires in the female leads to be princesses. The binary opposition of good/evil is also a common pair in fairy tales and they too reflect the ideologies of the culture the tale stemmed from. In Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella good is embodied by the leading females and the Princes, thus tying beauty and status with goodness, and also by the dwarfs, good fairies and the fairy godmother which ties kindness and selflessness with good. Just as beauty, high status, kindness and selflessness is associated with goodness their binary opposites, ugliness, low status, cruelty and selfishness, is tied with evil. And evil is embodied by the

Reza |7 Queen, Maleficent and the cruel stepmother and stepsisters. Thus the binary opposites found in Disney fairy tales reveal the western ideologies on goodness, beauty and class.

Work Cited

Campsall, Steve. "Binary Opposition." English Biz. 2 Dec.-Jan. 2007. 10 Nov. 2007 <>.

Dundes, Alan. "Binary Opposition in Myth: the Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect." Western Folklore os (1997): 1-10. 2 Dec. 2007 <>.

Hurley, Dorothy L. “Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess” The Journal of Negro Education (2005): 1-15. 19 Nov. 2007 <>.

Kanazawa, Satoshi, and Jody L. Kovar. "Why Beautiful People are More Intelligent." Intelligence os 32 (2004): 227-243. 2 Dec. 2007 <>.

Lewis, Zoe. "Walt Disney's Cinderella." Disney's Princess Treasury. New York: Disney Press, 1995. 197-290.

Reza |8 Lukens, Rebecca J. A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature. 6th ed. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational, 1999.

Panttaja, Elisabeth. "Going Up in the World: Class in ‘Cinderella’" Western Folklore 52 (1993): 85-104. 18 Nov. 2007 < /view/0043373x/ap050176/05a00070/0?currentResult=0043373x %2bap050176%2b05a00070%2b0%2cFBFF1F&searchUrl=http%3A%2F %3D1%26gw%3Djtx%26jtxsi%3D1%26jcpsi%3D1%26artsi%3D1%26Query %3DCinderella%26wc%3Don>.

Razzi, Jim. "Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Disney's Princess Treasury. New York : Disney Press, 1993. 9-102. Rowe, Karen E. “Feminism and Fairy Tales” Folk and Fairy Tales 3rd ed 2002. 20 Nov. 2007 <>.

Singer, A. L. "Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty." Disney's Princess Treasury. New York: Disney Press, 1993. 103-196.

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