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Anika Reza

Carleton University

Rob Holton

ENGL 3002

03 December, 2007

Binary Opposition in Fairy Tales: Insight into the Working of


Claude Lévi-Strauss would say binary oppositions, rather than any intrinsic

connotation, is what creates meaning. Lévi-Strauss realized that the way society

understood certain words depends not so much on any meaning the words themselves

directly contain, but much more by our understanding of the difference between the word

and its 'opposite'. He came to the conclusion that words merely act as symbols for

society's ideas and that the meaning of words were based on a relationship rather than a

fixed thing; a relationship between opposing ideas (Campsall). Therefore as meaning is

dependent on a relationship between opposing ideas, and these ideas are not fixed but are

a cultural construct, exploring binary oppositions and the meanings they convey reveals

the ideology it stemmed from. Our literature is full of binary oppositions such as

good/evil, men/women, light/dark, and royalty/commoners, which can all be found in one

form or another in our stories. Levi-Strauss argues, "that mythical thought always works

from the awareness of oppositions towards their progressive mediation" (Dundes 1)

therefore the binary opposites found in fairy tales have a purpose; to promote a certain

ideology. By looking at the fairy tales produced by the Walt Disney Corporation and the

binary oppositions that structures it an insight may be found into the ideologies found in

the Western culture. Disney feature length cartoons such as Snow White, Cinderella, and
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Sleeping Beauty contain binary oppositions such as good/evil, beauty/ugly, and

royalty/commoners. These binary oppositions stand for ideologies on goodness, beauty,

and class. D.M Buss, the author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating,

states, “that men’s preference for beautiful women, and women’s preference for high-

status men are culturally universal” (Kanazawa 7). Evidence of this can be found in

Disney fairy tales where the Princes fall in love with the female characters because of

their beauty and they in turn dream of their prince charming that can provide for them. As

the characters of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and the various Princes

embody kindness, attractiveness and high status the opposite is true for the evil characters

in fairy tales who are represented by their ugliness, cruelty and lack of proper status.

These binary oppositions in Disney fairy tales reveal the western ideologies that value

female beauty and status in men therefore it is associated with goodness.

Beauty is the primary adjective with which a heroine in a fairy tale is described by

thus it is their defining characteristic. In Disney’s Princess Treasury, the book version of

the Disney motion picture fairy tales, Snow White is described as ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful’

throughout the tale; second in number only to the adjective ‘kind’. In Sleeping Beauty,

apart from the obvious reference to beauty in the title, Aurora is also mainly defined by

her physical attributes. The very first blessing she receives as a baby from the good

fairies is the gift of beauty. Cinderella too is described as having “charm and beauty”

(Lewis 199) along with kindness and patience. The frequent references to beauty reveal

the extent to which western culture gives importance to such an attribute. Beauty is given

further importance when it has the power to insight jealousy in the evil characters who

then attempt to harm the beautiful maidens. Beauty is also the agent which orchestrates

their rescue as it inspires admiration in the good and love in the nobles. In Snow White

“the queen is very jealous of Snow White’s beauty” (Razzi 11) and so she orders the

huntsman to kill Snow White and bring back her heart. It is also the factor which makes
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the Prince fall in love with her as he thought “she was the most beautiful girl he had ever

seen” (14). It is Snow White’s beauty which leads the Prince to later to seek out the

“beautiful maiden who slept in the glass coffin” (101) as he was curious to see if she was

indeed the same princess he had met previously. Unsurprisingly the same pattern is

found in Cinderella where the stepmother is “bitterly jealous of Cinderella’s charm and

beauty” (Lewis 199) thus forces her into a life of menial labour. As beauty is the attribute

which not only causes the misfortunes the good female characters go through but it is

also which rescues them, we find that the Prince is “transfixed…[and finds Cinderella]…

the most beautiful girl he had ever seen” (256) which then leads him to choose her as his

bride. The Prince in Sleeping Beauty also falls in love with Aurora because of her beauty

and he is willing to marry what he believes to be a peasant girl despite his bethroal to a

princess as he speculates the ‘unknown’ princess couldn’t “be lovelier and sweeter than

the girl he’d met”. Just as beauty is attributed to the good characters in the fairy tales and

sees them first persecuted and then rescued because of it ugliness is reserved for the evil

ones who at first lead a satisfied existence and later meet with an unhappy ending. The

Queen in Snow White is described as being beautiful but inside she is as “evil as an ugly

old witch” (Razzi 11) and at the beginning of the story she enjoys the title of being the

most beautiful woman of the land. In latter part of the story not only does she transform

into a ugly old peddler woman but her evil ways sees her meet with an untimely death.

The evil witch Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty with her gray skin, long nails and black and

purple robe and horns (Singer 113) also enjoys a sense of power of the kingdom with her

black magic. However she too dies an untimely death which is the fruit of her evil doings.

The cruel and homely stepsisters in Cinderella with sickly pale skin and wiry hair reside

in the lap of luxury as they force Cinderella to do all the chores. Alas as fairy tales are

constructed the ugly evil characters are punished while the beautiful good characters are

rewarded therefore the stepsister are left lonely as Cinderella marries her prince charming
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and live happily ever after. The binary oppositions of beauty and ugliness in fairy tales

reflect the western ideology that beauty is highly desirable attribute in females. Thus all

beautiful female characters in the tales are sweet and kind and endure any injustice with a

forbearance of character and eventually attract the attention of a prince while the ugly

female characters are cruel and evil therefore they either meet with a gruesome end or are

left dejected.

As beauty attracts the Princes to the good female characters in fairy tales it is the

high social statuses of these men which attract the females to them. Satoshi

Kanazawa and Jody L. Kovar’s paper suggests that all men prefer

to marry beautiful women while women prefer to marry men with high status (7). This

cultural preference and class ideology which holds royalty above commoners can be

found in fairy tales. Each male lead in Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella is a

prince with the wealth and status that comes with such a position. Even without knowing

the Princes’ identities both Snow White and Aurora were able to clearly tell their statuses

by their clothing. Snow White “saw a handsome man in the fine dress of a prince” (Razzi

14) while Aurora observed that the young man she had been dancing with in the woods

“was dressed like a prince” (Singer 136). Cinderella too notices the dress of the

handsome young man with whom she danced with at the royal ball and was clear that he

was well to do. Each girl then promptly falls in love and their eventual marriage and

subsequent happiness reflects the class ideology that status will bring happiness. Few

women in modern day honestly expect to become a “princess” and have a royal wedding,

though they subconsciously assimilate these cultural values and apply them to modern

time. They transfer from fairy tales into real life those fantasies which state that wealth

and status will lead to happiness (Rowe). Emphasis on royalty in fairy tales finds its

modern counterpart in the way western society now puts an emphasis on famous and

wealthy individuals. Where Snow White yearned for her prince, modern women yearn for
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their rich and famous future husbands. The commoners in these tales are primarily side

characters such as the good fairies in Sleeping Beauty along with the dwarfs in Snow

White and the stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella. Thus by creating central

characters that are prince and princesses and emphasizing their beauty and goodness fairy

tales reflect the western class ideology that individuals of high status are beautiful, kind

and happy. Therefore fairy tales are not just entertaining fantasies, but powerful

transmitters of class ideologies which encourage women to internalize the value of status

and wealth and seek men who can provide them with such. It also encourages men to

attain high status in order to marry beautiful women.

The common wisdom that the world is not black and white does not apply to the

world found in fairy tales where the good is clearly distinguished from the bad as black is

from white. By exploring what is considered good or evil an insight may be achieved into

the cultural ideology the fairy tale stems from. In Snow White for example the evil Queen

suffers from jealousy and vanity because of\ which she dresses Snow White in rags and

forces her to do menial labour in order to hide her beauty. Jealousy and vanity is also a

trait in the stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella. Lady Tremaine is jealous of

Cinderella’s beauty and so she too forces Cinderella to wear rags and do menial work

while her own daughters receive undeserved compliments and lived lavishly. Her

daughters develop a sense of vanity and their jealousy towards Cinderella is revealed by

their reaction in seeing Cinderella in the beautiful gown she had made for the royal ball.

They tear the dress apart (Lewis 245). In Sleeping Beauty Maleficent is jealous of the

attention baby Aurora receives as in contrast she wasn’t even invited to the celebration

since she wasn’t wanted. Maleficent, in her jealousy, curses the child to die by her

sixteenth birthday upon pricking her finger on a spindle. Thus jealousy and vanity is

considered a trait of the evil ones as it leads to hurting the innocents. In contrast those

who are good enjoy seeing and appreciating other’s beauty such as the dwarfs in Snow
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White, the three good fairies in Sleeping Beauty and the fairy godmother in Cinderella

who all recognize and appreciate the beauties of the good female characters. Also those

who are good and beautiful are not vain in their beauty and they seek to aid the helpless

not harm them as seen in characters of the leading female characters. The binary

opposition which illustrates what is good and evil in fairy tales reflects the western

ideology that kindness, beauty and humility is good while cruelty towards innocents

along with jealousy and vanity are traits of evilness.

Binary oppositions, which are a cultural construct, not only create meaning but

they represent ideologies as well. By exploring the binary oppositions found in Disney

fairy tales it is possible to find the ideology it stemmed from. Binary opposition in

Disney’s stories reveals western ideologies such as those on beauty, class and goodness.

The great emphasis on female beauty in the Disney fairy tales Snow White, Sleeping

Beauty and Cinderella points towards the importance it has in western culture.

Furthermore beauty is almost the sole attribute given to these leading female characters

which points to the western ideology that holds female beauty as almost the sole attribute

by which to judge a female’s worthiness. As women are judged by their beauty men are

judged by their social status. Class ideology is revealed in fairy tales by the

overwhelming presence of royalties in these stories and the implicit desires in the female

leads to be princesses. The binary opposition of good/evil is also a common pair in fairy

tales and they too reflect the ideologies of the culture the tale stemmed from. In Snow

White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella good is embodied by the leading females and the

Princes, thus tying beauty and status with goodness, and also by the dwarfs, good fairies

and the fairy godmother which ties kindness and selflessness with good. Just as beauty,

high status, kindness and selflessness is associated with goodness their binary opposites,

ugliness, low status, cruelty and selfishness, is tied with evil. And evil is embodied by the
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Queen, Maleficent and the cruel stepmother and stepsisters. Thus the binary opposites

found in Disney fairy tales reveal the western ideologies on goodness, beauty and class.

Work Cited

Campsall, Steve. "Binary Opposition." English Biz. 2 Dec.-Jan. 2007. 10 Nov. 2007


Dundes, Alan. "Binary Opposition in Myth: the Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in

Retrospect." Western Folklore os (1997): 1-10. 2 Dec. 2007


Hurley, Dorothy L. “Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale

Princess” The Journal of Negro Education (2005): 1-15. 19 Nov. 2007


Kanazawa, Satoshi, and Jody L. Kovar. "Why Beautiful People are More Intelligent."

Intelligence os 32 (2004): 227-243. 2 Dec. 2007


Lewis, Zoe. "Walt Disney's Cinderella." Disney's Princess Treasury. New York: Disney

Press, 1995. 197-290.

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Lukens, Rebecca J. A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature. 6th ed. New York:

Addison-Wesley Educational, 1999.

Panttaja, Elisabeth. "Going Up in the World: Class in ‘Cinderella’" Western Folklore 52

(1993): 85-104. 18 Nov. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.carleton.ca






Razzi, Jim. "Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Disney's Princess

Treasury. New York : Disney Press, 1993. 9-102.

Rowe, Karen E. “Feminism and Fairy Tales” Folk and Fairy Tales 3rd ed 2002. 20 Nov.

2007 <http://www.broadviewpress.com/tales/feminism.htm>.

Singer, A. L. "Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty." Disney's Princess Treasury. New York:

Disney Press, 1993. 103-196.