Paola Cortellesi’s monologue on Snow White: fairy tales and the struggle between archetype and stereotype

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By John

“Once upon a time…”. And a world opens up: of good and bad, kings and queens, fairies and witches, wolves and lambs, ugly with hearts of gold and beautiful with the soul of monsters. There are all; there is life in the fairy tale and, despite the incipit in the past tense, his characters are among us, every day. Each fable carries within its “moral”, which attests to its specific pedagogical purposes, aimed at guiding the learning of the little ones towards values ​​widespread in the near and distant context, introducing them to what future life will be.

An intense debate has sparked in recent days precisely on the “moral of the story”, triggered by Paola Cortellesi’s monologue at Luiss in Rome, on the occasion of the inauguration of the new academic year. Subject of the debate, the fairy tale of Snow White, taken by the actress and director as an example of a sexist storystructured on stereotypes that are out of step with the times and based on implicit messages that convey a partial and distorted image of the feminine.

«But it’s just a fairy tale!», her detractors replied, accusing her of wanting to introduce “political correctness” into children’s narratives and distort the originality of the story, quoting the part of the monologue in which Cortellesi states that the Prince kisses Snow White without first asking for consent. The focus thus shifts from the dissertation on the “moral of the story”, to politics, to poles and oppositions which find in Snow White a pretext to reiterate an ideology rather than an idea, realizing in fact precisely what the actress is accused of , that is, a misunderstanding of the pedagogical value of the story.

And as often happens when biased communication is adopted, arguments are put forward that detract from the underlying messages, confusing the part with the whole and implicitly ignoring the complexity of the communication. In fact, the actress’s monologue seems to have highlighted the fundamental truth that everything concerning childhood is a serious matter, because any external input represents an important learning tool for the child’s extremely plastic mind which, as such, should be chosen with caution, taking into account the future educational and performative value. Therefore, if we ironically say that Snow White is a housemaid for the seven dwarfs, we do not intend to deprive children of a positive model of acceptance and femininity, but rather to underline that a woman is not just this, but much more.

Just as happened in the most ancient oral traditions of the story, in which the woman was defined by qualities that underlined her strength and determination, before male writing caged her value in a few simple specific traits, offering a model of a delicate and fragile, dependent on male support. In fact, if you think about it carefully, the female figures in fairy tales always need the help of a powerful man – prince, father or lord of the castle – who protects them and highlights their value, referring above all to beauty, primary compared to other much more incisive qualities.
A feminine caged in stereotypes, therefore, which deny the value of personal complexity, but above all bring into play an unequal dialectic between stereotypes and archetypes, not taking into account the plurality of models available to the new generations.

Without taking anything away from the classic fairy tales that have enchanted adults and children, one cannot help but notice within the stories a slavish repetition of symbolic characters that have taken away color from the archetypes – figures of the collective unconscious, bearers of fundamental values ​​- to favor of stereotypes that are no longer in step with the times. Because in addition to the archetype of the mother, the bride, the gentle girl with a noble soul, there is that of the warrior woman, the Amazon, the powerful queen, not necessarily evil, but witty and capable of leading her people better than same king. Examples that history, even in the past, has given us several times but which have no place in classic fairy tales, where female superpowers are often entrusted to a magic wand, outlining an enchantress woman who makes the impossible possible through spells, and not by doing reference to natural qualities of rationality and courage.

Should fairy tales be rewritten then? Probably yes, or at least review them. Not to deny the past, but to bring it closer to a present in which the roles of the two sexes have profoundly changed, and princesses wish to be architects of their own destiny, as well as capable of saving themselves, like Delia, the protagonist of the cinematic anti-fairy tale « There is still tomorrow.”
Because women have sufficient qualities and strengths to write their own story, even though evil ogres disguised as prince charmings persist in not wanting to accept it.