Fairy Tale Femininities: A Discourse Analysis of Snow White Films 1916-2012
Fairy tales are enduring cultural texts that have enjoyed wide appeal and the continuing popularity of the fairy tale can be seen in the recent proliferation of media employing fairy tale narratives. Fairy tales provide a site of meaning about femininity and masculinity and examining them over time identifies versions of gender that are prized or denigrated within specific social, historical moments. This project was interested in the continuities and divergences in these gendered discourses across time. Although there has been considerable academic interest in fairy tales and gender, few studies have approached the topic from a genealogical perspective. This research extends the current literature through a genealogical analysis of five Snow White films from 1916 to 2012 in addition to incorporating an analysis in relation to a contemporary postfeminist, neoliberal social climate. The research employed a feminist poststructuralist framework and utilised thematic and genealogical Foucauldian discourse analysis to analyse the data. Discursive analyses found enduring discourses of traditional femininity across the films which centrally organised around a binary construction of femininity as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ A moral discourse worked to construct ‘good’ femininity as prized and bad femininity as punished. Alongside persistent discourses of femininity, however, a newer postfeminist femininity was evident in recent versions of the fairy tale. Consistent with a postfeminist, neoliberal discourse that highlights the importance of the body, analyses found an increased emphasis on beauty and the vast effort required to maintain it. Another postfeminist shift in the tale was the invoking of a girl power discourse to construct Snow as a competent fighter and leader. However, the complex entanglement of discourses of femininity in contemporary society is highlighted by the co-existence of these newer versions of femininity with traditional goals such as achieving a ‘happily ever after.’ From the perspective of possibilities for subjectivity, these shifts in representation appear to offer a young female audience more empowered possibilities of femininity but such power is simultaneously constrained by a complex amalgamation with traditional ‘niceness’ and beauty.