Explaining Nags, Witches, and Evil Stepmothers

Picture 1Did you hear the radio story this morning on folklorists attempting to explain why, all across culture, old women so often appear as evil characters in fairy tales and myths…?

No? You can listen to it here.

As the journalists sums it up:

The point of these ancient tales, no matter what continent they come from, may have been to scare children into behaving….

Surely a myth theorist would see many other possible explanations for them, no?

What I therefore find curious about the story is that other than the dual nurturing and disciplining role played by many women worldwide in the lives of children (the angle adopted by this story), another cross-cultural universal, at least in many cases, is patriarchy. Whether this no less common circumstance accounts for why women, and notably old women, are often cast in the role of the dangerous characters in these tales, the ease with which all of the researchers interviewed for this story avoid this other explanation — an explanation that would hardly see these characters as empowering but, instead, as representative victims of their male-dominated circumstances (ensuring that women who don’t occupy the place powerful males have set for them and not misbehaving children might be the intended audience of the tales) — is the curious thing.

So I wonder what any student who has take a course in our Department — where issues of identity, negotiation, power, contest and gender, are sometimes the focus — would say…, not about fairy tale nags, witches, and evil step mothers but, instead, about the way these scholars approach the topic.

That NPR uses the story to lead into an announcement (you’ll hear it at the end of the story) about their new Instagram project, #grownladycrush, might tell us all we need to know about why they approached this story as they did — prompting us to ask whether the story was journalism or an ad for this new social media initiative?