Modern Fairy Tales
Fairy tales have been on my mind a lot lately. I’m pretty hooked on Once Upon a Time, my mom can’t stop watching Grimm, I recently read Philip Pullman’s compendium of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and On Being had a wonderful segment about fairy tales. They’re everywhere. They’re making a comeback. And here I am wondering why. The traditional fairy tales generally do not resonate with me. Especially the Disney retellings are often sexist and racist. But for some reason I am just as much a sucker as anyone else for these reimaginings. What’s the role that they play? Why are they so important? What do they teach us? Why are we so hooked on reimagining them, melding them together, mushing them up and seeing what comes out? And why do we feel comfortable doing this with fairy tales, but not newer stories?
Fairy tales have ALWAYS been changed; it is part of human nature to adjust stories as we tell them to fit our needs, values, thoughts and interests. It allows us to play with stock characters, and spend more time exploring what they would do rather than building from scratch. I think fairy tales have a lot of parallels to modern day fanfiction, and I think we could learn something from the flexibility that stories have had in the past, as well as the distance they had from any authorial intent. Obviously there is something interesting in authorial intent, and it’s at play in these new versions of things, but knowing that our understanding of these characters is far deeper than anything the writers could have given us is interesting: they are public property. When we read a fairytale, we feel that the characters belong to us. They are part of our culture. They don’t belong to the author. We ALL participate in creating them. The recognition of the communicative nature of stories is one of the greatest gifts a fairytale can give us: it explores the two way street of writing and media. It helps us realize that the audience contributes as well as the author. And that because of that, we all get some piece of the story. We all get to interpret and add from our own experiences, knowledge, and values. That’s why stories are so important to change, tradition, and exploration of self. They are highly uninhibited.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about many of these retellings is that they actively try to shy away from the sexist and racist overtones of the past. Some of them combat those problems. They flip the damsel in distress trope on its head and prefer to make women heroes, or saviors, or strong, deep characters. If you look at Disney movies alone through time, you can see how each one reflects the cultural milieu of its time. Fairy tales help us transmit values. Because the stories are often just an outline, or a basic plotline, we can adjust the details to suit our needs. And as our values have started to change drastically about the roles of men and women, and places for people of different races, orientations, abilities and so on, we have inverted the traditional outlines in new ways to accept our radically different values.
This is one of the most beautiful things about fairytales. We have a ready made vehicle that other people understand, which connects us to history and tradition, which can be modified quite easily to fit the messages and values we want to transmit at any given point in time. It’s considered completely acceptable to adjust fairytales. One of the particularly interesting things in my mind is that because a fairytale is untethered to a particular teller, it gains the freedom to be used however we deem fit. It gives us space to explore. And that’s what fairy tales are all about.
In On Being, Krista Tippett explores what the purpose of fairy tales is. She begins to come to the conclusion that it is to face fears in a safe place. I believe that this is only part of the story. The fears in the stories are not realistic. Fairy tales, by the nature of being magical, give us space to test out the world in a hyperbolic setting. We can take our fears and let them loose just to see what they do. We give them space to play, and then allow our imagination to supply the solution. But we do this in all sorts of things besides fear: we do it with love, and with family, and with growing up. There are many themes in fairy tales that we explore through extremes. And again, I believe that’s part of the reason they’re so important for transmitting values. In the past, when gender roles may have been slightly more strict, a fairy tale would reinforce that the ideal of a man is the white knight and the ideal of a woman is the damsel. Now we have Once Upon a Time, in which the main character is a woman, the most powerful enemy is a woman, and the most perceptive character is a little boy.
While some skeptics may deride fantasy a bit, and wonder if it really helps us exercise any sort of critical thinking, there are benefits to these stories. They give us an obviously unreal setting (almost like a philosophical thought experiment) to put our values and ideas into play. And just as we can see these things changing around us, we can see them changing in our fairy tales. Take Once Upon a Time for example: so far it’s featured a black man as Lancelot, Rumplestiltskin (the most powerful person in the show) uses a cane, love as an equal endeavor in which both partners work to find and support each other, and family across generations as more important than vengeance or honor. Maybe our fairy tales can give us some hope.