Well, boohoo. The kids love them.
To be honest, I love them too. I’ve feasted on these stories since forever and have no shame in admitting how much I cherished my collection, couldn’t wait to pass it on to my kids, have watched every version ever made by Disney or others (but especially Disney), and I would do it all over again. Just this weekend, we went to swoon over the new Cinderella up in theaters. Such bliss!
To get an idea of why these treasured tales were suddenly the butt of such widespread criticism, I read up on the criticism. I must say it was the lamest set of explanations I ever read on a subject:
They’re too scary, they promote bad values, they objectify women, they degrade women, they glorify sorrow, they glorify men, they lower self-esteem, they inculcate supernaturalism… (Dawkins won with that last one. I mean – really? That's your worry?)
How come I never knew about these adverse effects while I was learning to be imaginative and writing stories of my own and planning to jump over the moon because the dastardly fairy tales told me anything was possible? I suppose I’d been brainwashed with the lure of magic and sparkles and the simplicity of a sharp distinction between good and evil. I was too in love with the message of hope and the promise that good always prevails if you try and try again to really see the world for what it truly was – dark and dingy and all fifty shades of blah.
Given my personal bias, I was pushed to not depend on my analysis alone. I conducted a poll.
First I asked the ladies, most of them mothers.
Laila, a mother of two boys (emphasis on boys), declared to be a huge fan of fairy tales and in great favor of reading them to her kids. She didn’t think fairy tales were detrimental to the mindset of her boys. (Puzzling, I know.) On the contrary, she thought they were very important for nourishing a child’s imagination.
“They learn to create and to dream. I love fairy tales!” she exclaimed.
Okay, she was obviously high on skittles and rainbows. Her poor kids didn’t stand a chance against all that optimism. I turned towards the non-mother, realist types to seek truer perspective.
Priyanka, a blogger who has written more pieces on women’s rights than I can read, apparently loved fairy tales too. To quote her, “Oh, they're wonderful! Get into a world where animals speak, trees think, and people set out to do exactly what is unexpected of their characters! It is that wonder that gives one hope for miracles!”
Oh, no! I was surrounded by bright-eyed bimbos! To pull out the stats, 70% of the women I asked were huge fairy tale fans while 28% thought they were okay. None thought they were bad for the kids.
Utterly disappointed with my peers who failed me in being true feminists, I turned to the ones these tales were supposed to poison – the kids. And most importantly, female kids since they were the ones most at risk of being trashed. I was curious to know to what extent were these young minds ruined at the hands of witches and fairy godmothers, flying carpets and poisoned fruit, and big bad wolves and dragons. I knew these kids were exposed to this malicious glittery nonsense since birth.
I asked them how these stories made them feel, what they thought of the characters therein, and if they related to the stories and characters. The questions opened up a floodgate of opinions that I didn’t expect. The statements these little men and women of the future made were both entertaining and enlightening.
For starters, they found the princesses to be brave, courageous and steadfast. Yes, some of the little ones actually knew the word steadfast and could use it in its correct context. Since, most had watched and/or read Disney versions, I wanted them to specifically tell me how they found those damsels in distress brave.
“Well, Cinderella is brave to stay hopeful even though everyone around her is bad and she’s stuck,” said an eight-year old. “And she’s brave to go to the ball and stand up for herself!”
“You shouldn’t talk to strangers,” said another. “Little Red Riding Hood should’ve known better. And Hansel and Gretel, too. You don’t just break into people’s houses! It’s called strepss-passing.” (You mean trespassing?) “Yes! That!”
“I think Ariel was pretty but stupid. She was curious, which is good but she went too far…and then died. It was sad. I’m sad for her. And that prince was lame. He did nothing except break her heart.” This was a sensible tween talking, of course.
“Prince Phillip is good and brave,” a five-year-old declared. “He kills the mean dragon!”
G. K. Chesterton once said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
My favorite part was when they made comparisons between superheroes and the fairy tale protagonists.
They didn’t think the two were all that different from each other. Even the supervillains in both settings were quite similar. The superheroes were more action-packed while the fairy tales talked more of emotional strength. Cinderella’s strength was her kindness and good heart, and you can’t really be a superhero if you’re not good at heart and lack compassion. The Snow Queen (the root story for Frozen) could freeze things like Iceman. Prince Charming was always strong and fought monsters bigger than himself, just like Captain America or Black Widow did. Rapunzel’s hair kept Mother Gothel alive just as Tony Stark’s arc reactor was essential for his survival. Superheroes helped the people in need and so did the fairy godmothers or good witches.
The superheroes had superpowers while the fairy tale characters used magic. Superheroes protected the universe while the fairy tale protagonists protected one country or kingdom. Superheroes were global; they belonged to everyone just like the fairy tales. Many fairy tales didn’t have a prince or a princess, for instance, Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Bean Stalk, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood to name a few.
They were also aware of the shortcomings of these characters. For instance, the Beast was arrogant and so was Thor, which is why both were cursed (banished) until they got their heads back in place. The king in Rumpelstiltskin was too greedy and he married that girl for her gold, which wasn’t really hers so…they felt sorry for Rumpelstiltskin. Aladdin was a liar and a thief but he was sorry later on so, they forgave him because nobody’s perfect.
We talked about the violence and the fights but they all were so thrilled with the fact that the good guys always won. We as human beings have an innate desire to see virtue triumph over vice and fairy tales give us that confidence as children that yes, it happens just as it should happen and you can make it happen if you try hard and never lose hope. Plus, the analogies invite critical thinking.
My best comment came from an eight-year-old:
“Fairy tales are like lessons that tell us about what will happen in the real world so we don’t get lost or killed. Fairy tales use princesses and princes to tell you stuff that can help you guide through the real world. But it doesn’t have to be in a kingdom or a palace, like Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t have a princess but it tells you not to talk to strangers.”
You can’t beat that kind of wisdom.
PS: This post first appeared on The Nation