We draw many modern symbols (tropes, perhaps) from folk and fairy tales. Look, for example, at horror films: they’re rife with werewolves, zombies, and vampires, all of which come either from folk tales or from subsequent adaptations that have gained an increasingly large audience over time (for example, Dracula – not the original vampire tale, but probably the best-known). Horror aside, children and adults alike are familiar with the tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella, stories that were initially transmitted through oral retellings, and were eventually recorded by Charles Perrault in the 17th Century and, later and more famously, the Brothers Grimm in the 19th Century. There are novels whose plots have also spread memetically1, such as the story of Frankenstein, and invented fairy tales like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Many of these stories seem to have a universal quality, as in the case of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the basic structure of which (girl or children in the woods, grandmother eaten, wolf plays villain) can be found not only in Europe but across the world. (The best example of this is the Chinese tale Lon Po Po2.)
Even when the folk and fairy tales that survive and rivet audiences end happily, they usually contain dark elements: Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are both eaten by a wolf (who is either simply menacing or a frightening rapist3, depending on the version of the tale), Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their parents, Cinderella is abused by her step-family, Anderson’s little mermaid is mute, perpetually feels she is walking on knives, and commits self-sacrificial suicide at the end of the story, and Doctor Frankenstein’s rejected creation becomes internally as well as externally monstrous and eventually kills the Doctor’s beloveds. The disturbing elements of the stories help them stick, because they describe some of the most painful, scary and inexplicable experiences in human existence: death, abuse, abandonment, betrayal, unrequited love.
Many contemporary versions of these same popular fairy tales have been neutered, ostensibly in order to spare children the very fear that makes the stories memorable. The alteration of fairy tales is the topic of a recent Boston Globe article titled “Fear of Fairy Tales”, which appeared with the tag line: “The glossy, sanitized new versions of fairy tales leave out what matters: the scary parts.” The article’s author, Joanna Weiss, asserts that fairy tales have been heavily revised in order to increase their commercial value, because selling a vague and cheerful “pretty lady” doll is considerably easier than selling a instead a bruised, timid, or soon-to-be devoured one. According to Weiss, this type of marketing appeals to the “lowest common denominator” and hence, sells more easily. However, the tone of and content of the article change when the topic of Weiss’s own daughter arises. Weiss writes that she has told a less frightening version of the Little Red Riding Hood story to her four-year-old daughter, one “in which Granny isn’t eaten by the wolf, but is conveniently out of the house when Red Riding Hood pops in.”
That statement raises a larger question: why do adults change the fairy tales in the first place? Although the commercial appear of the neutered fairy tale is undeniable, it is unrelated to the hesitance of adults to expose their children in any way to In “Fear of Fairy Tales” Weiss briefly sites David Bickham 4, a researcher at the Center on Media and Child Health as stating that “kids are already exposed to plenty of violence.” Subsequently, Weiss moves on to write about the Disney Princess brand. However, I remain stuck on the idea that children somehow can’t handle a disturbing fairytale. After all, as Weiss writes that researchers have found that “some of these metaphors [mostly the sex-related ones]…will fly over the youngest kids’ heads.” (Many adults worry that the “youngest kids” are those more deeply and negatively impacted by violent media.) Weiss also paraphrases then quotes Jack Zipes: “he has seen young kids latch onto the classic, dark versions of the tales. Some of the most disadvantaged students, he says, ‘really relate to us, because we’re telling tales that they experience in their homes.’” If children are genuinely able to filter out many of the perturbing metaphors and retain only those aspects of the stories that have parallels in their own lives, then why the panic over the fact that fairy tales sometimes also contain sexual metaphors5 and some violence, particularly when the violence mirrors the actual, real-life experience of children.
Adults have their own neutered fairy tale about what childhood is like, as common alterations to the classic fairytales demonstrate. This fantasy about childhood relates not only to what adults think of kids, but also to adults’ deep longings about their own lives and the nature of the world. The Disney Princess line extends not just to children around the world, but also to adults as well. Weiss writes, “To little girls, these fairy tale heroines are pretty ladies, nothing more. And perhaps to adults, too. Disney has introduced a line of Disney Princess costume wedding gowns, designed, [Kathy] Franklin [Disney’s vice president] says, ‘for women who have always dreamed of their wedding as the day they’re a princess.’”
This marketing suggests something bigger about American culture (the root of the Disney Princess brand): that adults have their own specific ideas what childhood should and can be and also whether – or more accurately, how – it can be reclaimed. Both childhood and adulthood are marked by the acquisition of material goods. Sometimes the accumulation of objects accompanies internal maturity (or the lack thereof), but many times it is irrelevant. Nonetheless, society continues to associate maturity primarily with material gain. So it follows that many adults seem to hold the infinite, nonsensical hope that creating an external living environment that looks like a fairy tale will cause the promises of that tale – happiness, safety, a lack of poverty, sickness, even the evasion of old age and death – to come true. It’s one of many reasons for the American obsession with gross wealth (although obviously those who are materially deprived have other and more pressing reasons to value easy access to money and possessions). If you wear Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” dress the caption beside it must come true: “With a single kiss, Sleeping Beauty’s dream comes true. She finds her prince, falls in love and discovers that she’s already a real princess.” Never mind the desperation, jealousy, and violence present in the original version of the story.
As adults strive to fulfill their childhood fantasies, both literally and vicariously, through media6 – fantastical wishes built on fiction, which are never replaced when adulthood turns out to be a disappointment – they also try to bury their fears. Simultaneously, we adults forget that our current fears are just twisted, or inflated versions of the same fears we had as kids, the fears that the scary parts of fairy tales let us know were real and mattered; the fears that fairy tales told us that we were not alone in experiencing and not too pathetic to cope with (even if coping simply meant bravely facing something like the eventual inevitability of death). There were things moving in the dark beyond our eyes, and we knew that. As children fairy tales helped us put names and faces to the scary part of the world, the part adults often refused to own up to because they believed that if they admitted the world was frightening that it would become too terrible, incomprehensible or tragic to manage.
However, the adult version of childhood is not always an attempt to deny the difficulties of actual living or ignore real fears and dangers. There is also often a sweetness to the adult interpretation of the kid’s world that comes from a genuine desire to protect children from the pain that the adults faced while they were growing up. A good example of this sweet, albeit potentially ineffectual care is the practical suburban fairytale presented in “The Wizard of No”, a quirky anti-smoking educational video made in America in the mid 80s. The Wizard of No is a charming and magical oddball who helps the prepubescent protagonist of the film bolster his flagging self-esteem and say no to tobacco. If only self-esteem could be created with a pat on the back and an encouraging word, reified by a parade behind a strange but kindly man in a blue wizard hat! It’s such a lovely, cheerful fantasy, one that acknowledges the realities of peer pressure within a safe bubble of. If anything, “The Wizard of No” illustrates – in vivid colors, with blue capes and silver stars – the sort of world adults wish they could give to children and teenagers. It’s a world free of distracted or abusive parents, where there is no such thing as a lack of school funding or dearth of available jobs, where cruel peers, death and sex simply don’t exist. It’s unbelievably safe, demonstrating the way in which either adults recall childhood as a time of wonder or wish their childhood had been better, gentler. It also seems ineffective, although I wish it weren’t. If only bolstering a child’s self-esteem were as simple as putting on The Wizard of No for 19 minutes. But children know the actual world is different – more frightening and sometimes more wonderful. In the words of Robert Crumb (excerpted from “The R. Crumb Handbook”):
“Adults were hiding something from us. And that’s such a fascinating thing, the adult interpretation of the kid’s world. A world artificially sweetened for kids, full of things kids were supposed to like and want. We sat in front of the television Saturday mornings and looked at kids’ stuff. The shows tell kids that life could be fun and exciting, but the unconscious message was that the adult world is strange, twisted, perverted, threatening, and sinister.”
As a kid I sensed the dangers of the world, often without being able to articulate them. The fairy tales that stuck with me most were not the nice, neutral Disney versions, but the more bizarre and sometimes violent tales – Hansel and Gretel, Anderson’s Snow Queen and Elfin Hill, the underappreciate story of Mr. Fox (a steady favorite from age 10 onward), and Lon Po Po (I didn’t come to appreciate Little Red Riding Hood until I encountered the Charles Perrault and Angela Carter versions of the tale).
The original fairy tales often warn kids and adults alike about the pains and foibles of being human. Adults should heed these lessons. The actual pains of life and adult misinterpretation of the ways in which children perceive such difficulties is far more likely to hurt children than sad or violent themes in fairy tales. In fact, those fairy tales may help children cope when adults are ineffectual or unavailable.
Long live the old stories.
1 Jack Zipes writes at length about the memetic nature of fairytales in his book “Why Fairy Tales Stick.”
2There is an excellent picture book version of Lon Po Po available written and edited by Ed Young.
3The original Charles Perrault version of Little Red Riding Hood is more or less an extended metaphor for rape.
4Bickham’s study, the results of which were published in 2004 in an article called “Is Television Viewing Associated With Social Isolation? Roles of Exposure Time, Viewing Context, and Violent Content”), found that “children who watch violent television programs — especially those who watch such shows alone — spend less time with friends than children who watch a lot of nonviolent programs. Although the federally funded study could not determine a cause-and-effect relationship, researchers suspect one exists.” Bickham’s study itself concludes its abstract, “The more time that children spent viewing violent programs, the less time they spent with their friends. While this study cannot determine the direction of effects for this relationship, a cyclical process between violent media and peer integration best explains the findings. To optimize social development and mental health, children’s access to violent media should be limited.” I find the researcher’s “suspicions” a dubious foundation for assertions about the effect of violence on children. The children who spent less time watching violent television also had richer and more involved home lives; their parents tended to be better engaged and regularly demonstrated love and care.
5Admittedly, occasionally folk and fairy tales contain actual sex, as the obscure Peruvian tale of “The Snake’s Lover,” in which a woman is seduced and impregnated by a snake. However, few parents are likely to know of that tale much less read it to their children.
6 By “media” I mean films and books – particularly romantic comedies and action films – that insert the values and security of the sanitized fairy tale into a more adult context, e.g. the desire to be a hero or a treasured princess, both living in a world where they are immensely safe and ridiculously happy and successful in their endeavors. Various genres express these fantasies in different ways. As fantasies they aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, but when they take the place of primary adult goals (and they seem to for so many people), they create a culture in which people are divorced from their true needs and the needs of children. Basic pain in life is considered too cruel, and attempts to minimize it become so great that real, pressing problems, personal and social, are often ignored.