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Utopia Deferred: Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”

Having been awoken from a recurring dream of a bizarre Wonderland, a young girl asks her father whether she is going mad. Her father assures her that she is, but, smiling gently, tells her that “all the best people are.” This is an auspicious beginning to Tim Burton’s new Disney film, Alice in Wonderland (2010), which celebrates eclecticism, imagination, courage, and rebellion, drawing on the familiar and ever-evocative characters of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland books (and also Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland) to reinforce a message that is, up to the penultimate scene, utopian. In the final scene, the film inexplicably belies its previous message and replaces it with empty rhetoric.

Alice enters Wonderland.

19-year-old Alice enters Tim Burton's Underland.

That Burton decided to focus on many of the more utopian aspects of the story—frequently repeating the idea that one may “believe six impossible things before breakfast” and that “all the best people” are mad, the film glories the untamed imagination and fully recognizes its potential to cause social upheaval and positive, humane change. Indeed, in the end none of the film’s characters are slain save the Jabberwocky (though the audience is denied the thrilling “SNICKER SNACK” that traditionally accompanies the Vorpal Sword’s fatal blows). Even the cruel Red Queen is spared; she is, however, banned from the kingdom, and chained forever to her equally unpleasant steward, the treacherous Knave of Hearts (played by a delightfully creepy Crispin Glover). The White Queen transforms the entire kingdom into a peaceful, human, and equal place—a mad utopia, but a utopia nonetheless.

The ending, however, belies the rest of the film—Alice chooses to go home instead of remaining in Wonderland. She spurns her loathsome suitor’s offer of marriage but decides to follow her father’s footsteps as an entrepreneurial explorer, expanding business into new lands and distant countries (specifically China). In the end, the film suggests, the most important thing is not humane change but potential for exploration and boundless personal and financial gain. Through its rather heavy-handed use of a visual caterpillar (The Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar, to be exact) transformed into a butterfly in the final scene of the film (the butterfly soars over Alice’s shoulder as she strides confidently toward the bow of a ship that will take her to China), the film suggests that Alice’s real destiny, in fact her happiness, self-expression, and true freedom, are inextricably bound to explorations via venture capitalism. Indeed, her imagination seems more contained, more limited than ever—it has been “domesticated.”* Of course, the domestication of the imagination is par for the course with Disney—and Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is, after all, a Disney film.

By borrowing the penultimate act of The Wizard of Oz (in Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland Alice is given Jabberwocky blood which allows her to be transported home, if she so chooses), Burton reasserts the utopian implication of Frank L. Baum’s novel and of the various Oz films—that home, the real world, can be improved, and made better. However, Burton’s Alice hopes not for improvement of overall conditions, but only for the limited improvement of her own personal life. As Jack Zipes writes in Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tales, Baum lost faith in the utopian American dream over time; in the final Oz books, Dorothy decides to remain in Oz forever, having no use for the vast, unresolved social and economic inequalities of her original home in America.

Alice in her armor.

That Burton’s Alice is blind, even indifferent to greater social concerns. Although her adventurous actions would have been unusual, even subversive for a woman in Victorian England, viewed in a contemporary context her decision to use her imagination in order to succeed in business perfectly corroborates the myth that iconoclasm, risk-taking and hard work create not just success but also joy. Moreover, the film equates the genuine social parity and happiness achieved in Wonderland with the boundless expansion of business and personal wealth—implying that the latter (personal wealth/gain) creates and support the former (social equality), despite the fact that inequality—especially economic inequality—is entrenched in American society. We need utopian stories to help suggest fresh ways of addressing social imbalance. As Jack Zipes says, “I find our reality so disturbing, so unfulfilling, so corrupt, and so barbaric that I began conceiving alternatives to our social condition. All good literature provides hope, but the best of fantasy literature provides extraordinary hope, and I guess that is what I am after — extraordinary hope.” That’s why the conclusion to Burton’s Alice in Wonderland upsets me so deeply—it lacks the extraordinary hope present in the rest of the film.

A quick look at recent fan fiction based on Burton’s Alice in Wonderland reveals that large portion of the fan fiction written about the story either change the ending so that Alice remains in Wonderland or send her back to Wonderland after she becomes discontent with her drab life in the real world. Perhaps we’re all holding on to that extraordinary hope after all.

*The “domestication of imagination” is a phrase that Jack Zipes uses many times over in his books.

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“Fear of Fairytales” and the Myth of a Blithe Childhood

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.

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“Scary, mad wishes don’t make things come true.”

Sometimes people are good,
And they do just what they should.
But the very same people who are good sometimes
Are the very same people who are bad sometimes
It’s funny but it’s true.
It’s the same, isn’t it, for me and

Isn’t it the same for you?….

“That song…I sing to let children know that everyone does things that are naughty once in a while but that doing something bad doesn’t make you a bad person. It may seem a small difference when it’s written out like that, but the feelings we have as adults tell us what a big difference there really is.

“It’s easy to say ‘Bad boy!’ or ‘Bad girl!’ to a child who spills or breaks or hits or bites or gets dirty. But the child is likely to hear ‘I am bad’ rather than ‘What I did was bad,’ and a child who feels he or she is a bad person is also likely to feel unlovable. If we come to believe we are unlovable, there’s likely to be little motivation to avoid doing bad things.” –Mister Rogers Talks With Parents (Fred Rogers and Barry Head), pages 57-58

“[Professor Albus] Dumbledore consistently demonstrates to Harry [Potter] what the Dursleys never have: that he wholeheartedly accepts Harry as a well-intentioned person. In many instances when Dumbledore might express anger or disapproval of Harry’s actions – when Harry repeatedly breaks his curfew to visit the Mirror of Erised (Sorcerer’s Stone), when Harry succumbs to his curiosity and peers into Dumbledore’s Pensieve (Goblet of Fire), or when Harry furiously destroys objects in Dumbledore’s office in a rage after [his godfather] Sirius’s death (Order of the Phoenix)–Dumbledore instead empathizes with Harry and attempts to convey that Harry’s wishes and desires are normal and understandable. He accepts Harry’s emotions and gently guides him to make the right decisions.

“Whereas the Dursleys continually drill into Harry that he is aberrant and delinquent, Dumbledore instead tries to convince Harry of the goodness within himself. It is significant that Dumbledore is the first person in whom Harry is willing to confide that the Sorting Hat wanting to place him in Slytherin, a fact that fills Harry with shame and fear that he is like [evil wizard] Voldemort. Dumbledore does not simply dismiss these fears with empty assurance but counsels him that his choices indicate a strength of character that sets him apart from other wizards, both good and evil (Chamber of Secrets).

“Another quality of Dumbledore’s that makes him a precious mentor to Harry is his willingness to admit mistakes… he not only absolves Harry of some of the guilt of causing Sirius’s death, but also models for Harry the valuable ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes and view these errors as learning opportunities, which is a marker for a resilient mindset (Brooks).

“Another important lesson is the practice of weighing both short-term and long-term costs and benefits of one’s actions. For example, when Harry returns from having witnessed Voldermot’s return in the graveyard [and the murder of his peer, Cedric Diggory], [Professor] McGonagall and Sirius discourage Dumbledore from making Harry relive his experience and think it best to distract Harry. However, Dumbledore focuses on Harry’s long-term interests and advises that Harry stay and talk about the trauma (Goblet of Fire). In other words, Harry might benefit in the short term from postponing his reflection on the events of the night, but, as Dumbledore tells Harry, ‘Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it’ (Goblet of Fire 695). Harry realizes once he finishes retelling his experience that he does indeed feel a sense of relief, thus internalizing Dumbledore’s message that one must consider the long-term impacts of one’s actions.” –Harry Potter and the Resilience to Adversity (Danielle M. Provenzano and Richard E. Heyman), from The Psychology of Harry Potter (Editor Neil Mulholland, Ph.D.), pages 114-115

I juxtaposed these two quotes  because they emphasize a couple of important developmental tasks a majority of children – and hence a majority of adults – have never mastered: first, the ability to understand that “bad” actions do not make one a bad person and that, given a person’s level of developmental skills, their “bad” actions probably generate from an emotion or set of emotions and thoughts that are easy to empathize with; second, that thought and action are separate, and that the existence of the former does not spontaneously create the latter (in the words of Mr. Rogers: “Scary, mad wishes don’t make things come true”).

This wisdom is pretty easy to scoff at: it seems to be common sense. But consider how many times you – yes, you, reader! – have felt guilty or ashamed about a thought you’ve had, or even worse, felt very scared that there was something inherently wrong with you because of the thoughts you have. I can’t really speak for you, of course, but I do know that I catch myself thinking about how “bad” I am (as a person) for some thought or feeling.

It wasn’t until I started working with kids – a whole four months ago – that I realized that the ability to separate thoughts and feelings from personal integrity is a learned skill. The wonderful thing about that is that it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t have the skill to separate “bad” thoughts, “bad” actions, and (often negative) self-identity – you’re not bad or stupid or hopeless for not having this skill – you just never learned it. In addition, with some hard work (and it can be quite difficult for adults), it’s very possible to master this and other important developmental skills that might have been missed during childhood. (That sort of developmental skill-building is something I’m focused on doing right now, actually.)

I’m drawn to the above quotes because they explain in very clear language how confusing it is for children (and, really, most adults) to do or even think “bad” things. Better yet, both quotes provide a very way of explaining and supporting others through their confusing emotions and experiences.

(A marginally related post script: there are many valid criticisms of the Harry Potter series, most notably those of bell hooks and Jack Zipes. However, I don’t think these criticisms detract from the above quote and my subsequent commentary.)

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