Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Witch Must Die

In this post I want to talk about why it seems there is almost always a malevolent woman figure in each story (whether it be a stepmother, jealous wife, witch, or any combination of the three). Is it simply just another way society’s misogyny has played out in fairy tales or can it be something else? There are a lot of different answers to that question, but personally I am starting to think it’s more complicated than just misogyny or the rigid gender roles of the past.

And here’s why:

In The Witch Must Die, by Sheldon Cashdan, the author puts forth the idea that the witch is more about the negative aspects of the child’s self and less about a negative portrayal of women. Cashdan sets up the idea that children naturally recognize the world as good and/or bad. Even though they are unable to explain or voice exactly what good or bad is, children still see through life these two simple categories. Naturally, all of these ideas of good and bad coalesce in the child’s mother (or caretaker).

The mother, being the nurturer, is seen as all-loving and as good. But the problem arises when the child also recognizes that his or her mother isn’t perfect. Instead of pondering how each person is made up of both good and bad, the child instead mentally splits the mother into two entities: the “good mother” and the “bad mother.” Cashdan claims this is so the child can deal with the stress of trying to understand how a person can be both consistent and inconsistent and the fact that the parent who loves them is also the one who disciplines them. This way the child can respond to each mother image as if they were really separate entities and can feel as if the world has order.

From the book:
Over time the two maternal representations – the good mother and the bad mother – are psychologically “metabolized” and become transformed into good and bad parts of the child’s developing sense of self. Much of this comes about through language, and the increasing appearance of “I” in the child’s vocabulary. As children mature, they stop referring to themselves in the third person (“Susie go potty”) and begin referring tot themselves in the first (“I go potty”)… these changes herald the development of an autonomous self and a sense of “I-ness.”

As a result, the internalized good mother comes to be experienced less as an inner figure and more as a part of the self (the “good me”), while the bad mother is experienced as a negative part of the self (the “bad me”). We are not speaking here of bad mothers per se, although there are certainly are mothers who neglect and abuse their children. Rather, we are talking about the naturally occurring split in the self that evolve from attempts on the part of young children to reconcile conflicting maternal experiences early in life.
I think this is a really interesting idea and it turns out that at least one other child psychologist agrees with Cashdan’s claims (and I’m sure there’s more than one, but it will take more than a simple google search to find them). While I definitely think there are still some issues with the way women are portrayed in fairy tales (and I will be doing a separate post on that later in the week), after reading Cashdan’s book I’m less inclined to lump the stepmothers and witches into the same category as the way female protagonists are shown (which is what my major gripe with fairy tales is).

Up next: Tomorrow will be the first Lesser Known Fairy Tale followed by a post on Snow White and Vanity on Wednesday (plus some art in there somewhere).


  1. Interesting post. I'm wondering about how this might relate to the mother being killed off so often in fairy tales and other Disney movies.

  2. I am actually going to do a post on that as well! :)

  3. I agree that it's time to reconsider the way that villianesses are portrayed in fairy tales. And if it *is* supposed to be some sort of projection of the child's bad traits or the mother's bad traits, or whatever it may be, it should be a little more obvious.

    I would also have less of a problem with female villians if the way that the protagonist overcame the bad, evil and hard struggles in her life was in some other way than being rescued by a handsome prince. If she showed strength and resolve to overcome her obstacles or to defeat the evil witch, it would show an evil representation of women along side a strong, independent, and good woman.

  4. The ironic part is that it is obvious when you know what you’re looking for (and I’ll have about five posts using different examples). The problem I guess is that most people don’t even think about it. I myself hadn’t even noticed until I started this project.

    And I agree with you about the protagonist. I mean, the antagonist is supposed to be evil in fairy tales. I’m okay with that. But I think the so called “strengths” of the protagonist aren’t very positive in most cases.


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