When domestic abuse specialist Alyce LaViolette presented a talk entitled “Was Snow White a Battered Woman?” little did she suspect the ridicule she’d be subjected to eight years later. But with her ludicrous testimony that admitted killer Jodi Arias was an abused woman, and Arias’s victim, Travis Alexander an abuser, her entire professional record is on trial. And well it should be, considering that the evidence she points to in her efforts to help free Ms. Arias includes text messages in which Mr. Alexander called Ms. Arias a sociopath who had hurt him more than anyone ever had.
To Ms. LaViolette, such harsh words amount to the “character assassination” of an innocent woman. To Travis Alexander, they may well have been an expression of what he really believed about the woman who two weeks later would savagely butcher and shoot him as he staggered from his shower, naked, unarmed and fighting for his life.
But to be fair to Ms. LaViolette, as she indicated on cross-examination, the title wasn’t meant in seriousness; it was just an attempt to draw interest to her talk. Even academics must compete for an audience, and mixing fairy tales with grisly abuse lightens an otherwise grim topic. So thinking Grimm, let’s give some thought to her question, was Snow White a battered woman? It could certainly be said that anyone who cooks and cleans for seven men, seven days a week, if not battered by the end of the day, is at the very least a damned fool. Yet the question Ms. LaViolette posed is an intellectually credible one, because the stories we tell and pass through generations reveal the fascinating complexity of what it means to be human. Fairy tales particularly resonate because they provide a comforting way to think through discomforting human emotions, to illuminate the darkness of humanity and the obstacles they present to our innocence.
In the story of Snow White, there was indeed a darkness shadowing the princess as she innocently went about her life, unsuspecting of the jealous hatred her beauty inspired. But it wasn’t the dwarves who did her any harm—it was the Queen, a “Wicked Witch” who so transfixed by her own image, could not abide that another could take her place. It was the Wicked Witch who ordered Snow White to be pursued and murdered. It was the Wicked Witch who, in the Grimm Brother’s tale, ate with zeal what she believed to be the liver and lung of her victim, unremorseful to say the least. And it was the Wicked Witch who having learned her victim was not dead, changed her hair and dress and so disguised, showed up at the door of her victim’s house offering her poisoned fruit. In short, it was the Wicked Witch who stalked her victim with deadly intent, an act of such abuse that it would be fair to say that yes, Snow White was indeed a battered woman. But it was was a woman, the matriarch of the kingdom, who abused her, not the working class, whistling dwarves.
Ms. LaViolette has theorized throughout her career that abuse is fundamentally about patriarchy. Few would deny that to the extent that women are economically dependent on men they are at greater risk of abuse. Moreover, the more that social relationships are based on male authority and female submission, the greater the potential for abuse. Patriarchy is indeed a characteristic of western and eastern civilizations. Men have held the majority of positions of political leadership, controlled resources and property, and dictated moral authority throughout human history. While scholars are divided over whether any true matriarchy has ever existed, all are in agreement that patriarchy is the universal norm, and that gender relations cannot be understood outside this universal norm.
In efforts to challenge the social supremacy of males, however, some have glorified the submission of women through an essentialized view of women as inherently peaceful, cooperative, and nurturing. Women, in this view, are seen as metaphorical Snow Whites, sweet, kind and innately drawn to taking care of others, while intuitively connected to nature and all its creatures.
But our fairy tales tell us a different story. In fairy tales, the innocence of women is matched by their aggression. Women curse, poison, stab, and destroy their enemies. They are prone to raging jealousies and betrayals, become obsessed, and profoundly depressed. And they seek their ultimate reward through marriage to powerful men. At the same time, women are portrayed in fairy tales as judicious politicians and clever strategists. They are confident and trusted, friends to men and women alike, talented and resourceful. In short, fairy tale women are, like all humans, complex and confusing.
Yet it is this very complexity that becomes lost in portrayals of any conflict, in which good guys battle bad guys, evil confronts goodness, and purity is polluted by filth. As the media get hold of a story, and the public interprets it, those who are viewed as right are increasingly portrayed as flawless paragons of virtue, while those who are viewed as wrong are dehumanized and ridiculed, deserving of any accusation. And nowhere is this more apparent than in a conflict that heads to court, where the stakes are high and in the public eye and whoever comes out looking like Snow White will be declared the winner.
In the trial of Jodi Arias, whose own court-scribbled portrait of Snow White with a blackened eye has taken on new meaning with Ms. LaViolette’s testimony, the dual between purity and depravity couldn’t be more sensationalized nor cynical. Not only is the defense painting a picture of Ms. Arias as an innocent who’d might as well have tweetering little birdies flitting around her head, so pure they regard her in the face of Mr. Alexander’s supposed depravity, but that same innocence has been denied the victim. Travis Alexander was no Snow White to be sure, yet his own ordinary flaws have been turned into felonious crimes and mortal sins to justify his killing.
In the end, the Snow White defense of Jodi Arias doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of succeeding because, aside from an avalanche of forensic and material evidence condemning her, her defense has taken their own fairy tale a step too far and brought it into the realm of science fiction. It may have been Travis who wanted Jodi to dress up as Little Red Riding Hood for a little fairy tale fornicating, but it was Jodi Arias who with her lies, has cried wolf. Not many will take a bite of her poisoned apple anytime soon.