As I finish writing my dissertation on gender and the body in Western European fairy tales, I’m reminded of why I’m doing this research in the first place: yeah, fairy tales are fun to study and all, but they’re also really important in Western culture. Kids are exposed to fairy tales in the form of films, toys, coloring books, theme park experiences, various forms of literature, plays, art, and so on. The gender roles espoused in fairy tales are often quite restrictive, and these messages matter.
One of the topics I touched on in my dissertation, which I think is also quite relevant for discussing gender and sexuality, is dualism. Dualism describes two things that are opposed to one another and can never be reconciled. This takes many forms, among them, in Western culture, mind/body dualism. We have philosophers like Plato and Descartes to thank for developing this idea, the notion that the body and mind are separate and antithetical to one another.
Gender also sneaks into dualism; if you’ve heard of the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” books, then you’ve experienced a dualistic formation of gender that claims that women and men are totally different types of beings. Mind/body dualism is often gendered, too; women are associated with the body, and men with the mind. In fact, pretty much every dualism I can think of–nature/culture, reason/passion, subjective/objective, passive/active–has gendered dimensions to it.
When it comes to sex, dualism is also prevalent. The virgin/whore complex suggests that women are either good because they are pure and refuse sex, or dirty because they engage in sex. This is a totally false construction, but because it resonates with the other dualisms informing Western belief systems and values, people often take it for granted and don’t bother reflecting on it. This also informs the slut/stud dichotomy, whereby a woman who has a lot of sexual partners is degraded as a slut, whereas a guy who has a lot of sexual partners is celebrated as a stud.
Second-wave feminists used dualism as an important structural category of analysis; since then, it’s fallen out of fashion. However, scholars such as Susan Bordo and Elizabeth Grosz are doing important work on mind/body dualism, so they’re worth a read if you want to know more. I think it’s worth reflecting on how dualistic values influence us, even if unconsciously, which is one reason I chose to address how dualism works in fairy tales in my dissertation. So far I’ve found that men and women are depicted differently in terms of gender roles (women are supposed to be beautiful, and men are supposed to be powerful), and I’ve found evidence of mind/body dualism persisting in fairy tales. This is another reason it’s important to look at dualism: it’s such a pervasive idea that it influences lots of our cultural forms, form the stories we tell to the stereotypes that influence how we think.
If you decide to look at the world around you with your dualism-googles on, let me know what you find!
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