The Beauty and the Hag

I continue with the theme of iconic representation of women, which I introduced in my last post. It reminded me of the vehement reaction from a number of women to the chosen name of my blog. How dare I call older women Hags, even in jest! It got me thinking and I turned to fairy tales to find the answer.

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Irrespective of the cultures in which we grew up, fairy tales are awash with innocent damsels in distress, villains, heroes, and of course, wicked stepmothers, witches and hags.

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Throughout, fairy tales perpetuate the stereotypes of women as either passive, beautiful and young, whereas older women embody evil and are often deformed and to be despised.

Powerful, older women who stand up for themselves are often depicted as murderers, child-eating witches or hags. On the other hand, the timid, powerless heroine has to be saved from the clutches of the evil, older women by the handsome prince charming. In most fairy tales these two stereotypes are pitted against one another. The message is that passivity and beauty is rewarded and powerful strong women are punished often by death.

The subconscious message is that women are weak and vulnerable and can only succeed when a man intervenes on her behalf. We can observe the continuation of the theme of powerful women as villains in many cultures. Successful women leaders, whether in business or politics, are often portrayed as cold, heartless and manipulative.

Fairy tales unashamedly instil fear of older women in children. How often do parents use these characters to threaten and cajole children who misbehave? In fact, when you analyse the stories we regale to children before bedtime it is not surprising that they experience nightmares. The wretched witches lure children into their den to be roasted in their ovens, cast evil spells on them or lock them away in towers.

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Apart from being blood curdling gruesome, vilifying older women in fairy tales is particularly scary because historically the most powerful person in the life of the child was the mother. There appears to be an underlying fear of female power in ancient tales told across different cultures. It was, of course, not all that long ago that the fear of such perceived power resulted in witch-hunts to rid society of their threat, devious and immoral behaviour.

However, in some cultures older women are revered in stories as they are seen as the ones who keep the family together, pass on traditions and who are wise and knowledgeable in the art of magical remedies to cure all illnesses. In these folklores older women have the power to judge, punish, reward and heal and therefore assume the centre characters of the stories.

It is not surprising therefore that as older women we fear the loss of our youthful appearance as the outer appearance of the older wicked women of the fairy tales are often portrayed as gnarled, grotesque and physically frightening and to be abhorred. On the other hand, the stereotype of youthful beauty being the ideal is constantly reinforced. The modern twist to the tale is that although women may assume a more powerful and independent role, they have to remain physically attractive. The media and glossy magazines continue to perpetuate the myth that you have to be beautiful to be successful.

Having reflected on the power fairy tales exercise on the way cultures view women and their roles, the strong reaction from some women to the title of my blog was not surprising. They did not want to be associated with the older, evil women of the fairy tales that had evoked such fear in them as children.

By choosing the title of hags for my blog, it contributes to the rewriting of the image of older women and reinstate them with the wisdom and respect they deserve. We must also remember that it is the older woman who can work magic…..

 

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