Carrie Gress has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America and is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University. She is the author of several books, including The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis. Carrie is the co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints: A Pilgrims Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A homeschooling mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her blog at www.carriegress.com. (Photo by Renata Grzan Wierczorek, RenataPhotography.com)
Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty; these are the stories that have animated the imaginations of little girls for centuries. Popularized by Disney, different versions of these stories, particularly Cinderella, have crossed the divides of cultures and time throughout much of history.
All of these fairy tales follow a particular story pattern. There is generally an older woman — a mother, witch, or queen, who relishes her position as top cat, and then some upstart comes along and threatens her prized place as “fairest of them all.” The young maiden must, at all costs, be stopped. And from there the fairy tales unfold into a common ending: things don’t go well for the old hag and the young maiden and her prince live happily ever after.
There are many lessons that can be extracted from such fairy tales, but the primary issue is the timeless vice of envy. Envy and jealousy are generally used interchangeably, but they are actually quite distinct. Jealousy is directed at the desire for a particular good or object, but stops there. Envy takes jealous to a new level — it wants something, but it sees the person who has what they want, or who is an obstacle to what they want, to be taking something away from them. The word envy comes from the Latin word invidere, which means to “look askance upon,” or to give someone “the evil eye” full of malice and spite. It fosters the impulse to destroy others.
Envy is a deadly sin for both men and women, but has a deep root in the heart of women that dates back to Eve. Even in the Garden of Eden we can see envy at work. The serpent tempted Eve with the fruit of the tree of Good and Evil by pitting her against God, as if God was withholding something good for her to which she was certainly entitled. “But the snake said to the woman: ‘You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.’” (Gen 3:4-5).
What happens then, if we take this timeless vice and apply it to our own culture. Is there a connection? Yes, but in a most unexpected place: radical feminism. The first wave and perhaps the second wave of feminism may have been built upon noble ideas, but our current strain is animated by envy.
We see envy’s role first and foremost in the relationship women have come to have with their children. The ideology behind unfettered abortion, we are told, is that it must exist so that women can get ahead. A child’s life is a threat to the mother’s success and happiness. Much like Snow White, the child is silenced, but for much longer than 100 years. How else is it that people could rejoice in such an act of destruction, or think it empowering to “shout your abortion?” Even the defining mark of a newborn female child that used to herald sweetness and innocence has been usurped by radical feminism: the pink hat.
And what about men? Men usually don’t figure into fairy tales as antagonists, but our contemporary version has set its sights on them. Women decided that if only they could have the lives that men had, then they would be happy. The attitude toward men reveals the destructive and belittling marks of envy. Women no longer embrace the goodness that men have to offer society, but view it as an evil that must be eliminated. The important impulses of protection and responsibility that have inspired men to greatness have been reduced to “toxic masculinity.” The unspoken feminist mantra says: “Men, even though we want to be just like you, you must change.” Daily we see the venom of envy directed at men, particularly on the ubiquitous TV ads where every one of them bumbles along until a sage woman comes to the rescue.
And how do feminist women treat those women who don’t embrace their ideals? Women who choose to have many children and/or pick family over career are frequently disparaged as fools and on occasion are compared to rabbits. Feminists seem to miss the irony that “sexually liberated women” literally dress up like rabbits (or bunnies) to show their empowerment.
Sadly, Christian women are not immune to the ideological destruction of radical feminism. It is quite commonplace to see it among any group of women in our culture. And yet, Christian women have shown over the ages that they have a deep capacity to help and encourage other women. This virtue is hard to live out or even consider when the wider culture presents jealousy and envy as required virtues to survive economically and socially.
How do we combat this this old sin of Eve? First, it is important to be aware of envy and all the manifold ways it plays out in the world around us. But more importantly, we need to look into our own hearts where it often lurks, peppering our conversations, actions, and inaction.
Second, we can look back to these old fairy tales for assistance. The envious woman prizes her own status, whether it be her youth, wealth, power, and/or influence. But these temporal items are not the complete story of what it means to be a Godly woman. There is a deeper layer of life for women that we have lost sight of in our own culture – maturity and wisdom. These attributes don’t just happen because of the passing of years, but must be acquired through deliberate acts of striving for the virtues of humility, patience, trust, guilelessness, and so on. The key is a deep awareness that God is Our Father and cares greatly for each of us and that everything that happens to us is part of his providential will. When we know that “all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28), and reject the lie that we are orphans, then envy has no hold on our lives. A spirit of gratitude for this relationship with our Maker and for all the many gifts in our lives, no matter how small, can also dissipate envy’s venom.
Like every good fairy tale, in the end, we know that authentic beauty, goodness, truth, and honesty can only be hidden, abused, and despised for so long. One day, the flash and fancy of feminist ideology will finally be revealed for what it is: no longer the fairest of them all.