112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Fairy Tales and the Myth of Beauty

Meghmik Mardian, Independent Scholar

Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle has taken fairy tales about beautiful girls who are punished by old women, and rewritten them to critique modern female anxieties regarding beauty and age. Gaiman shows that women have internalized the ideals of beauty that the patriarchy originally enforced as a mechanism to control them, and now women have begun policing themselves instead of fighting the oppression.


Why is beauty so important to women in today’s society? Who is the one putting so much emphasis on its value? And how do young girls interpret and internalize this concept of beauty in today’s world? These are questions that raise awareness to the problem regarding female ideals of beauty taught to children at a very young age through fairy tales. With stories about beautiful, young girls who are always punished by evil, old women, the only message that can be sent to children is that beauty is something defined in the skin, and it is cause for jealousy and competition. Neil Gaimain’s The Sleeper and the Spindle uses elements of the stories of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White to create a gothic representation of female anxieties regarding age and contemporary beauty ideals that are enforced by women themselves.


            In a world dominated by beauty advertisements and societal pressures to maintain a youthful appearance, the value of beauty is instilled in girls at a very young age, but it was only after the Industrialization Era that the concept of beauty became important within the middle class. Prior to Industrialization, beauty did not have the same emphasis in society as it does now because it was not a factor in choosing a wife within the middle class. The critical work of Naomi Wolf states that this “beauty myth” was created by the patriarchy in opposition to the threat of the independent, working woman that emerged after Industrialization. Originally, this myth was imposed on women as a mechanism to control them, but now women have internalized this and have begun policing themselves and each other instead of fighting the oppression.


            Gaiman’s story uses familiar fairy tale characters, but portrays them very differently from what the reader is expecting. In this manner, he is allowing the reader to identify with a more modern version of these characters and realize that they are revealing an ugly truth about the treatment of women by the patriarchy. This enforcement of the beauty myth starts at a very young age with girls through fairy tales and beautiful, young princesses, and Gaiman use this medium to point out the flawed knowledge that women pass on to their children instead of teaching them to think for themselves and be proud of their bodies. As Wolf argues and Gaiman shows, the ideal feminine image of beauty must be changed, and princesses must be allowed to age in order to show children the value of age and the wisdom that can come with a new, older identity.  


            The patriarchy is at fault for the creation of the beauty myth that resulted in these competitive, self-centered women; however, most of the blame goes to the women themselves who choose to perpetuate these roles in society instead of fighting them. Gaiman argues that women must undo the work of the patriarchy by remaking the feminine image, then turn the tropes of domesticity into weapons against the patriarchy, and assert an independent female identity.