In Defense of Fairy Tales

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I knew I loved fairy and folk tales, so I assume they’ve been part of my being ever since I can remember. In my house, my sisters and I were told stories. We were read to. We had a big bad-ass dress up box. We had a few cherished old Disney movies, and books with beautiful and provocative illustrations (like Edward Gorey’s uniquely creepy illustrations of Rumpelstiltskin, or Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s spellbinding visions of Snow White, painstakingly translated by Randall Jarrell).

Rumpelstiltskin, retold by Edith H. Tarcov, pictures by Edward Gorey

We were little kids with a lot of space to play, a lot of time, and a lot of imagination. Fairy tales were a natural part of our games–and are still a natural part of my creative impulses.

But somewhere along the line fairy tales have gotten a bad rap. Perhaps it’s little girls’ (and occasionally little boys’) obsession with princesses that has us all worked up. Despite my moderately feminist upbringing, I must confess I liked storybook princesses too (the dresses! the castles! the dresses!). I even went so far as to make a storybook of my own out of cardboard, entitled “Princess Amanda and the Unicorn”. [Princess Amanda was the youngest and most beautiful of seven king’s daughters. Apparently she meets a unicorn, but to the best of my recollection the better part of the book is spent naming ducklings near the castle pond, and the story has no conflict. Delightful.]

Childish fancy aside, I’m sure most of us have (inwardly or outwardly) groaned and rolled our eyes at the women we meet who, despite their adult years, happily call themselves “Daddy’s Little Princess” etc. and who use this label as an excuse to be covetous, shallow, and selfish. Bridezillas on reality shows like “Say Yes to the Dress”, “Wedding SOS”, and “Four Weddings” constantly emphasize two main goals: to look “like a princess”, and to have “a fairy tale wedding”. If this over the top display of vanity and consumption bothers you I don’t blame you. But don’t blame the fairy tales.

Fairy tales have also long been harangued by feminist critics for promoting idealized and patriarchal interpretations of romance, interpretations that reward beauty and passivity in women (a la Cinderella) and punish intelligence (a la the evil queen in Snow White whose character, while pathologically jealous, still serves as a rare depiction of an educated woman). The outdated and unrealistic ideas of “waiting for The One”, “love at first sight”, and being on an unhappy path in life until a “special someone” steps in form the basic plots of most romantic comedies today. The answer, according to most of these films, is finding romance. Never mind your career accomplishments, your intelligence, your bonds with family, friends, and colleagues: you’re nothing until you find a man. Your life means nothing without a “fairy tale” ending (except, of course, for most of us, our lives don’t end at marriage but must be defined ultimately by what comes beyond it). If you find these messages sexist, nauseating, and unrealistic, I don’t blame you. These are valid criticisms. But don’t blame the fairy tales.

I've got this one on my shelf. It never stops blowing my mind.

I’ve got this one on my shelf. It never stops blowing my mind.

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that for most North Americans, the versions of fairy tales we know best are the ones depicted in Disney films. Disney’s versions are so ingrained in most of our minds many of us can’t even tell what is part of the story and what is Disney invention. University of Winnipeg professors Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer believe that contemporary critics of fairy tales “need to consider the possibility that the archaic sexist or ageist values they express may be those of the…1930s and 1940s–and the 1990s and 2000s–as much as, or rather than, those of an ancient oral tradition or even those imposed on the tales by writers such as [Charles] Perrault and the Grimms.” (The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, 312). If you’re going to take issue with a fairy tale, you should at least know where it came from. (Which is easier said than done, since the “authenticity” of fairy and folk tales is hard to prove considering their origins in an oral tradition–the middle-class Grimms were far removed from the German peasants whose tales they claimed to be collecting–but for argument’s sake let’s go with “earliest recording” as closer to “original” than Disney.)

An old tale like Snow White, for example, has been unfairly criticized for depicting a passive and gullible woman, waiting around (and then SLEEPING, for heaven’s sake), doing and achieving nothing, happy to let men (i.e. the dwarves) take care of her in exchange for a little housekeeping, and when they fail to protect her, happy for a prince to come along and wake her with a kiss. Such is Walt Disney’s telling, but the version “recorded” by the Brothers Grimm is somewhat different on a few key points:

  1. Snow White is a seven year old child when she escapes to the dwarves’ cottage, not even old enough to be considered a “young” woman. Can you really blame a seven year old for sticking with those who can offer her shelter and protection, and for being naive enough to be tricked by a clever queen in disguise? Heck, I’ve known seven year olds who can’t tie their own shoes. At least Snow White can do a little housework.
  2. Snow White is not woken by a kiss. Her rescue from her step mother’s poison, in fact, has little to do with romance. After eating the apple and “falling down as if dead”, the dwarves can’t revive her. The child is so beautiful, even in death, that they do not want to bury her so they lay her to rest in a glass coffin. A prince comes along, sees Snow White, and cannot part with her. The dwarves take pity on him and let him take the coffin. As they’re carrying it off, one of the prince’s servants trips on a bush and bumps the coffin. The bump dislodges the piece of poisoned apple that was still stuck in Snow White’s throat. She coughs it up, instantly revives, and when the prince asks if she wants to marry him, she says (more or less), “Yeah, sure.” Considering she’s a child who’s had four attempts on her life at this point (the huntsman, the bodice laces, the poisoned comb, and the apple), it’s probably fairly prudent of her to marry a guy with the resources to keep her safe and comfortable.
  3. The violence against the heroine of this story does not go unpunished. Unless we accept the Disney version of events in which the evil queen (disguised as a peddler woman) falls off a cliff, most of us don’t really know or care about what happens to her. Which is weird. She tried to KILL a little girl! More than once! Don’t we want some justice? The Grimms sure do. When Snow White marries the prince the evil queen is invited to the wedding. Dressed up in her party clothes, the queen asks the mirror her famous question. The mirror answers that the new bride is the fairest one of all. The queen is sick with jealousy but can’t overcome her curiosity–she HAS to see who this bride is. When she gets to the wedding she recognizes Snow White, but before she can be too pissed off about it they put her in a pair of red-hot iron shoes and she has to “dance” until she dies. The end.

If I was going to have a problem with the story’s depiction of women I’d probably take bigger issue with the representation of an educated woman with a can-do attitude as vain and homicidal than with the depiction of a young child as fearful and naive. I’d also be a bit squeamish about a seven year old getting married but in the olden days small royal children got married off to other royal people all the time. So……I’ll chalk that up to the medieval world this tale seems to be set in.

Fairy tales are really all in the version you read/hear, and all in how you think about them. Even silly little Cinderella, with her dreams no bigger than a ballroom, should be able to find sympathy in this liberated age. Having been abused, humiliated, and forced into servitude by her family, is it any wonder she won’t let herself wish for anything more than one night of fun (or three, depending on the version)? For privileged folks like us, one night at a party seems like nothing, a silly thing to ask for. But for a young woman in Cinderella’s situation, the idea of even one night away from the prison of her home must have seemed an impossible dream. “But she doesn’t DO anything” you might say, “she just cries and waits around for someone else to save her.” Well, yes. Sometimes, people in abusive situations can’t find a way out of them, and they might need outside help. Magic old ladies and pumpkin carriages aside, this idea is not so unrealistic unfortunately. Though marrying the prince may not seem like the perfect solution to Cinderella’s problems (as she exchanges one set of bonds for another), becoming a princess to raise her status and power above that of her abusive family’s is a pretty shrewd maneuver I think. Well done, Cindy.

Do fairy tales hold an honest mirror to society or provide us with good principles to live by? Of course not (at least not directly). But they’re not supposed to. They present a removed world (somewhere “Once Upon a Time”) where lines between good and bad, rich and poor, hero and villain are clearly drawn. Simple yes, but the tales aren’t simple because they’re low. They’re simple so people telling and retelling the stories can remember them. No matter which version you encounter, each popular fairy tale contains certain elements that remain the same–a red cloak–a magic mirror–a room full of straw–a poisoned apple–a giant beanstalk–a lost slipper–an angry fairy–a secret name–a deep dark forest. There is something utterly captivating about these elements, something familiar but bewitching, that gives fairy tale stories their longevity. Dress them up however you like, criticize them, comb them for Marxist/Capitalist/feminist/Freudian theory, adapt to stage and screen and back to fireside–these tales endure.

And there is no reason to blame them. If you don’t like the versions of fairy tales you know, tell your own. Tell them and retell them and tell them again. Though eventually recorded into “definitive” versions by scholars and court scribes, at their most authentic, these stories have always belonged to everyone. The elements are all there; you just need to tell the tales. If you don’t, you have no one to blame for their “messages” but yourself.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Fairy Tales

  1. Thank you for writing this. I think that we are very caught up today in being PC, it’s hard to remember that these tales were written in a very different time from us. The protagonists are generally much younger than we remember today, and the penalties for wrongdoing much greater. They were written (or told) as lessons, very direct and over dramatic lessons, to make a point. I agree that we tend to remember the “Disneyfied” version, but at the same time I think we bash Disney pretty hard. A) most of the films are dated, many were made pre 80s and so carry much of what was desirable/acceptable at that time. What we consider anti-feminist, or racist now, was just how life was then. B) they are trying to sell a product and as such will include what they know their market will enjoy. If people want to see a change in how Disney shows women, then they need to make that desire noticeable in their own buying/viewing habits. If there is enough public demand, Disney will most likely do it.

    Thank you again for your thoughts and insight. Very enjoyable.

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