Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fairy Tales

I was a fairy tale junkie when I was a kid. I had my mom's old copies of Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson, which I would read over and over again. I lived for Disneyfied cartoon versions of these tales and I think I watched Aladdin about 50 times one very boring summer. Part of me just loved the cheesy romance and the other part of me loved the fantastical elements. Now I've grown up and become "the biggest feminist" that Chris Baskett (one of my students) knows. Whatever I may have believed about romance is now countered by six years of a happy but very real marriage. I still love fantasy but modern fantasy is easy to digest because many novels have strong female protagonists and there are even stories that don't feature a love interest. Thus I could give a future child any number of fantasy stories and feel that I was giving him/her good literature.

But let's review a canonical fairy tale, shall we?


This is the tale of a woman who allows her "evil" stepmother to force her into household service (wimp). She calls on birds to assist her with her chores (helpless). Then she decides that she must go to the big ball (materialistic) where she meets the man of her dreams who loves her based on her looks (shallow). Rather than show him who she really is she attempts to escape (the "real" story had her attend several balls, not just one) and the day of the last ball, she drops her shoe (dainty). After having no luck with getting the shoe on the big-footed step-sisters (thus signifying their lack of femininity which becomes their downfall), the shoe fits on the lovely Cinderella who has incredibly tiny feet (Chinese ideal). And she lives happily ever after. If I were to teach this story literally, here is what my students would (in theory) learn from it:
1) Whatever crappy things happen to you, you just have to take it because eventually it will get better.
2) That when facing any difficult task in life you will have help to overcome it (birds, fairy godmother).
3) That one must hide one's flaws (Cinderella hiding her poor attire).
4) That step-families are evil.
5) That a man will rescue you from your crappy life if you're attractive enough.

With the popularity of the Disney Princesses line, I think it's a good thing to at least look at what ideas we're introducing our children to. Admittedly, I read this tale and watched the Disney film many times as a child, and I still was able to see past the superficiality of the relationships within it. However, there are lots of little girls (and teenage girls) who believe some of these ideas about beauty and men, so not everyone hears the tale without being influenced by it.

The Cinderella "formula" has been around since the 7th century, so it does promote an ancient concept of love and a woman's place within society. In other words, it's dated. And there are several good novels out as well as the film Ever After that try to update it. But the Disney Cinderella is still out there (apparently you can buy a standee of her for $32.95 since that's where I got the picture above). Should we encourage young girls and boys to read fairy tales which often describe women as helpless until a man comes and rescues them from their various dilemmas? What's really awful is that the fairy tales that didn't follow this formula, like one called "Tattercloak," fell out of circulation in the Grimm and Anderson collections. So anything that might have offered a different perspective died out because they weren't as popular as the traditional tales.

I don't know what the answer is--there is a part of me that would want my daughter and/or son to read and watch films that do not make her/him feel like she/he has to be this caricature of womanhood/manhood. However, I grew up loving those films for their sentimentality and cute supporting actors (namely the mice or whatever creature was the hero/heroine's assistant). So why shouldn't children of the 21st century get to have their own say? I guess the compromise is to expose them to it but talk to them about what they think of Cinderella's decisions and how the story ended. I don't believe in censoring literature for language or unpopular ideas, but I also think that fairy tales can be dangerous because they don't specify a specific time or place, so in theory, they could be happening in a small European country somewhere. Whereas tales of women being mistreated in ancient Rome are historical and not timeless. We can look at them and say, "Aren't we glad it's not like that anymore!" With fairy tales, they are archetypes, so they live on forever in several chic lit. and romance books out there. Thus they stop being "once upon a time" and become very much a part of the modern world. As with all things, the discussion is necessary even if it does yield a definitive answer.



Jenny said...

I think you sort of have to examine the fact that you watched these films as a child and weren't negatively effected. I think most kids are not effected by fairy tale princesses, but rather by the stories of the "modern day Cinderellas" like Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears, etc. These are the girls they see on magazine covers, TV, and in their friend's CD player. And, the biggest difference, these are real people and although there may be some suspension of disbelief with animated films, kids know that Britney is not the same as Snow White.

So, while you can examine Cinderella or any Disney princess and find anti-feministic themes, I think it's important to look at the bigger picture of what is really causing 6 year olds to be worried about their weight- a cartoon Jasmine w/ her 10'' waist or a real-life Mary Kate Olsen w/ a 10'' waist.

Ms. DeCamp said...

Nice point, Jenny. I agree that the media's focus on young female "celebrities" may be a bigger issue. However, I'm studying English, not media studies, so the fairy tales are my focus for at least the next four weeks.

Lindsey said...

First: can I throw up now? Sorry, that was just a wee bit too much feminism for me. ;)

Second: when kids watch/read fairytales, they want to do just that... watch a movie or read a book. If you make them analyze it every time, they will come to hate it because it's not fun anymore, it's just more work. I speak from experience. All the "reading comprehension" junk in school made me hate reading for a while because it took all the fun out of it. It was just work. Boring work. Just had to throw that out there.

mayo said...

I hate Cinderella and I've never watched it all the way through. I never got into the Disney princesses. I was babysitting the other day and the three year old wanted me to play Cinderella with her and when I told her that no one else's feet could fit in the glass slipper she asked why and I said, " Because they had fatty feet and if their feet fit, then the rest of the story wouldnt make sense." and she looked at me as if to say," Well what do you know about it?" hahahahahaha