Woman is told by a male authority figure not to look in/at something, but is given no reason. Woman looks in/at said thing. Bad stuff happens.
That's pretty generalized, but it's at the heart of more myths than I care to count:
- Bluebeard--Bluebeard's newest wife is told not to look in the forbidden room; she does, and finds the remains of Bluebeard's previous murdered wives. He attacks her in punishment.
- Pandora's Box--Pandora, the first woman, is told by Zeus not to open her jar/box; when she does, she unleashes all manner of evil into the world, preserving only hope.
- Cupid and Psyche--Cupid visits his new wife at night, in the dark, and tells her never to try to see his face/reveal his true form. She looks at him while asleep, and manages to fall in love with him, but he flees when he finds out she's seen him.
- Lot's Wife--Lot, his wife, and their daughters are fleeing Sodom as Yahweh rains fire and brimstone down on the city. Yahweh tells them not to look back; Lot's wife looks back. As punishment, she is turned into a pillar of salt.
- Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" (not sure if it's in the de Beaumont version)--takes a page from Bluebeard; Belle is told by the Beast that she cannot enter the West Wing of the castle. She does, where she discovers the magical rose that binds the Beast, and when discovered she is cast out.
Expand it just a little and you can include the story of Eve as well. There are more, though some are slipping my mind at the time, but the pattern should be fairly clear. And of all of these, I can think of only two variations where a male character is the one to turn back: one classical, one more modern.
- Orpheus--Orpheus the poet descends into the Underworld to rescue Eurydice, who was killed on their wedding night. After softening the hearts of Hades and Persephone with his song, they allow Eurydice to follow Orpheus back to the world above, on the condition that he does not look back until they have left the Underworld. Almost at the end of their journey, Orpheus turns back, only to see Eurydice disappear forever.
- The Girl with the Ribbon--a man falls in love with a woman who never removes a ribbon that she wears around her neck (usually of a specified color; I first read it as black, but I've heard it as green, red, and pink as well). Eventually the two are married, but she makes him promise that he will never try to remove the ribbon. Eventually, he does, and her head falls off.
That last one there scared the hell out of me as a kid. Most ghost stories didn't, but for some reason that one stuck with me.
It's interesting to see how nearly all these different myths, from various places around Eurasia, play on this notion of women's curiosity and disobedience of male authority figures, who expect them to obey unquestioningly and without any stated reasons. Even Orpheus is portrayed with stereotypically "feminine" traits, being an emotional musician who never even consummated his marriage. Only in the modern telling do we get a really complete gender reversal.
In folktales with male protagonists, cleverness is a virtue. How many stories of giants and genies end with the male underdog outsmarting their physical foes? Yet for these women, curiosity is a singularly dangerous trait. I applaud the more modern retellings for spinning the heroines' intellects into a positive quality, but I still wonder why this theme is so prevalent in the earlier stories. I have little doubt that this was part of teaching young girls the proper way to think and behave, preparing them for lives of quiet obedience; after all, when girls showed an inclination toward curiosity, their parents could point back to these stories and say "don't be another Eve/Pandora/etc." But what about the attitude and stereotype at the heart of these stories? Where did that come from? Aren't men just as curious as women? Haven't men been taking credit for the fruits of curiosity (science, for instance) since the dawn of civilization? I suspect that it's partly a relic from a time when men's curiosity was seen as something that could be directed toward producitive ends through training and education, while women's curiosity was useful only in producing unhappy shrews who longed for the same rights that men received by default. But I really don't have anything to back that up.
In any case, I think it's interesting to look at, and I'd be interested in your input--has someone done the legwork to explain all this? Are there stories that I'm forgetting? What do you think?