faerie tales
November 19, 2003 02:40 PM

Roni's back on WHB with this week's question. Yay, Roni!

Are Disney movies harmful? Is giving a lil girl a copy of Grimm Fairy Tales going to plunge her into a self-doubting abyss? Is Shrek really the feminist tale we'd like it to be? Also, fess up, what's your favorite fairy tale?

I think there are some problems with faerie tales, because of the way we use them. We think they're just great stories, but they have so many implications.

The study article Roni referenced points to a statistic I find interesting:

The five tales that have been reproduced more than 101 times are "Cinderella," "Snow White," "Briar Rose" (also known as "Sleeping Beauty"), "Little Red Cap" (also known as "Little Red Riding Hood") and "Hansel and Gretel."

So, we have four tales about girls who mostly are pretty and get rescued, despite some show of ingenuity, and one where the girl is plucky enough to get herself in and out of trouble (that'd be Gretel; she's got moxie).

Is that a problem? Well, yes.

It's a problem that ties into a lot of the things we unintentionally teach kids about gender. Of course, it's hard to say whether it's parents or kids who drive the popularity of these stories, but I think they're emblematic of the subtle ways we influence kids into gender stereotypes - girls are purty and sensitive, boys are (sometimes facelessly and generically) strong and plucky. The faerie tale is part of a whole culture of gender roles.

But. There are faerie tales and more modern stories in which girls are plucky and boys are sensitive, and I think any examination of the influence of kids' stories needs to look at the total - not just what traditional stories are most popular, but what is the sum total of the stories kids get. That, as others mentioned in response to this question, needs to include looking at the way parents share these stories with their kids. Do they point at pictures of heroines and say "isn't she pretty?", or do they ask kids questions that encourage broader gender roles?

Would handing a girl a book of all the faerie tales instantly make her a self-doubting little chica? Well, no. But if you only handed her books without asking her to question them, it might set her up to expect faerie tales out of life.

And Disney. Well, Disney is quite another thing. I have some serious personal beef with the Disneyites for the horrific blight that is their treatment of two stories I cherished as a child.

One. The Little Mermaid. One of my favorites. She's supposed to end up miserable in the end, dying after she learns that her (faceless) prince would have loved her more if she'd kept her original form. She does in the "original" Hans Christian Anderson story. It's the right thing - the lesson presented is that you are lovable just as you are, and it's okay to stay that way. Disney, on the other hand, takes this sad little story and turns it into a happy dappy feature film where the prince and our leggy mermaid live happily ever after. Rubbish. Rubbish. Rubbish. It's like those teen fiction books from the eighties about dorky fat girls who go to fat camp and come back to instantly become prom queen, as if fatness was the only thing that separated them from their true, cool, selves. Rubbish.

I know the intention was to make a cheerful movie, but there are near infinite numbers of stories to make movies. It were better this movie had never been made.

Two. Pocahontas (or Pocacuntus, as a friend called it). She is not hot for John Smith. He's the Elizabethan equivalent of 85, likely older than her father, who's pretty darn old to begin with (having been the Algonquin equivalent of an emperor for some years already). They try to make it up in the second movie (which, yes, I watched on the Disney Channel or something) in which she meets and marries Rolfe.

The love angle makes Pocahontas less of a hero for her compassion than a hero for love. And that sucks, quite frankly.

And finally, way to completely hose the geography, folks. There are few, if any, of the much sung about sycamore trees even in the southernmost regions of Powhatan's empire. That's like a Florida thing, certainly not a Virginia one. And the dramatic cliffs? Highly unlikely on the east coast, even 400 years ago. More rubbish.

So, yeah, I have issues with some of the Disney movies. I think they've improved in intervening years, doing less to take the teeth out of stories and doing a little better on gender in general.

And, yes, "Shrek" is an example of a better cartoon story for kids (and for grownups, really), particularly for kids who have a background in faerie tales - it pokes fun at so many of those stories, and does a really nice job of making its princess into a character with depth who makes stupid mistakes and ends up in the right place at the end. But even she, ballsy though she is, ultimately is saved from her own bad decision-making by her (unconventional) true love. In this, it's much the same as "Princess Bride". The characters, then, break convention, but the story only does so up to a point.

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The interesting thing about faerie tales is that they've held up for so long. Really, they are nothing more than the urban legends of old that teach us how we are "supposed" to behave and warn us about the consequences. Just like the story of the guy who wakes up in a bathtub of ice to find his kidney missing (which tells us that we should never party -- and certainly not to excess), little red riding hood tells us that girls should be careful in the woods/guard their virtue (or something along those lines -- the Grimm versions are so different than the versions we are more familiar with). I wonder if our modern faerie tales will also be passed on for generations...

these are the thoughts of Sarah on November 24, 2003 05:14 PM

Modern faerie tales might be as hokey and unthinking as powdered sugar, but it's all a matter of looking backward far enough. Only in the past 150+ years have these stories been watered down and censored. "Little Red Riding Hood", for example, has been stripped to something unrecognizeable to its French folklore counter part. Originally, the story was called, "The Grandmother's House". The main character was never described as particularly beautiful and innocent, and she didn't have a red cape or hat. She never wandered off the path, but found the (were)wolf while she was still on it, her grandmother WAS killed and eaten, and the heroine eventually figured out the predator's guise, and proceeded to escape with the help of some laundresses across a river. The Wolf was drowned.

There are darker elements to the story, yet - cannibalism, sexual-suggestion between the wolf and girl (she strips all her clothes off before getting into bed with "Granny"), and witch craft (a talking cat and bird that try, in vein, to warn the girl). This original version, with a little research, CAN be found, actually.

The changes of the story were pretty concious by those who transcribed them. Charles Perrault, for example, took the old story, gave the girl her red cap - thus, the modern name - but altered the ending. His "Grandmother's House" was a warning to women to stay away from wolfish gentlemen of deceit. Making her beautiful and foolish, Little Red Riding Hood goes through the story well enough, but is devoured, in the end, in her grandmother's bed.

Escaping from the grasp of the French, the faerie tale renentered rural, German folklore. A middle class maid supposedly described the story to the Brothers Grimm. Feeling sorry for the Red and her poor, sweet grandmother, a hunter was added to make all fair and wonderful in the end - a kindly, masculine hero in an originally female folk story. Yet another version is known to most school children, which makes "Little Red Riding Hood" terribly unexciting dribble.

Other examples prop up: Snow White was not kissed by the prince to wake up, but she and her glass coffin were loaded onto his wagon, and the poison apple in her throat was jarred when they ran over a pot hole.

One of the original Sleeping Beauty tales has a princess named Talia raped by a king while she's asleep. Of course, the married man didn't think she was unconcious - he thought she was freshly dead! That's not the strangest of it - still in dream land, Talia gives birth to twin boys. She is only awoken when one mistakes the finger she pricked on the spindle, and sucks out the flaxen in an attempt to get nourishment. The king comes back to Talia, finds that she's had his two sons, and takes her back to his kingdom to replace his evil, barren, part-ogress queen.

So, what do you think?

these are the thoughts of persephone_blue on October 10, 2004 04:38 PM

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