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Fairy Tales
A closer look at those familiar yarns
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Kevin Yee

Fairy Tales Defined

When you hear the words "fairy tale," what pops into your head? Visions of a dancing princess, bedecked in a white gown and tiara? A cross-dressing wolf? A gingerbread house, or giants that live in the clouds? All of these are fairy tale elements, but elements alone do not constitute a fairy tale. Consider the 1996 movie "Freeway" starring Reese Witherspoon, billed as Red Riding Hood for the 1990s. Is it a fairy tale? It certainly evokes fairy tales with the opening montage of classic wolf/girl forest scenes, but the thematics and target audience are decidedly different from fairy tales.

I'm pretty sure that what really did pop into your heads when you heard the term "fairy tale" was either a Disney image or one recalled from the nursery books you read as a child. Are fairy tales thus children's literature? I think that's a fair claim to make, at least as a starting point.

I'll go even further. Fairy tales, in my opinion, are simply short, gripping narratives. They were created to be short, because they existed as oral literature and had to be remembered easily years later. For example, no one will ever accuse the Godfather trilogy of being a fairy tale, although its violence level might qualify it to join the Grimms in the annals of history. That fairy tales are gripping and exciting helps us remember them, but also fires our imagination and leads to a neverending series of interpretations. Is Cinderella the story of romantic love at first sight, the story of feminine manipulation, or the story of meddlesome German scholars with an axe to grind about Christian morality? These tales must be flexible and open to interpretation - if they weren't, we wouldn't be talking about them hundreds of years later.

That the tales have persisted remains beyond all doubt, but it is an interesting phenomenon that we really only know a small, select group well: Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood, and perhaps Rapunzel and Rumpelstilskin. Who here remembers "Hans in Luck" or "Mother Holle"? The titles in the French tradition may be familiar, but do you remember the plot to "Blue Beard" and "Puss in Boots"? Even if you do, I bet you don't know "Ricky of the Tuft," which is also part of Perrault.

Yet the well-known ones perserve and continue to resurface in our culture every few years. Those readers over 20 years old may remember Shelley Duvall's Fairy Tale Theater, for example. Cinderella may be one of the most re-told tales: the big-budget live-action movie Ever After with Drew Barrymore retells the story without magical elements; Disney's own live action version starring Brandi strove for political correctness; and consider that a quick search of the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) reveals 99 matches for the word "Cinderella." We all know what a Cinderella story is, and a Cinderella Complex. It doesn't quite work to say that someone has a Snow White Complex, does it?

Disney competitors continually dredge fairy tale material to compete with the Mouse, such as the incorrigable Goodtimes video company. This company would, without fail, release non- Disney cartoons to coincide with Disney home video releases in the 1990s. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarves appeared, so too did a Goodtimes video named Snow White, though it wasn't the Disney version. I always wondered who got fooled by this kind of marketing - it must have worked for them to continue for so long.

Other Disney competitors have been at it for a while, starting with ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, whose The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail encouraged a renaissance of animated features for children. Fern Gully, anyone? The trend neared its peak with Fox Animation's Anastasia - no, it is not a Disney movie, despite what many think-and DreamWorks' Prince of Egypt. The true pinnacle came with the recent Shrek, a movie whose entire conceit is that all fairy tales are real, and co-exist on one world. This funny and smart film both satirizes and enacts a fairy tale at the same time, tickling both children and more discriminating adults.

Shrek is actually a culmination of a sort of subgenre of fairy tales: the postmodern tale. In the Ironic '90s (and going back into the 1980s actually), it became popular to deconstruct fairy tales, unpack them, and rearrange them. Stephen Sondheim's award-winning play Into the Woods (on video starring Bernadette Peters, no less!) prefigured Shrek by a complete decade, utilizing many of the same types of jokes and playing to the same cultural topoi as the computer- animated film.

For the ever-dwindling book-reading public, however, the most clear example comes in the form of James Finn Garner's popular "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories" and its sequels. Garner satirically re-packages the tales in a scathing comment on the PC-movement of the '90s. Here are a few highlights:

Red-Riding Hood:
"Her screams were heard by a passing wood-chopper-person (or log-fuel technician, as he preferred to be called). When he burst into the cottage, he saw the melee and tried to intervene. But as he raised his ax, Red Riding Hood and the wolf both stopped. 'And just what do you think you're doing?' asked Red Riding Hood… 'Bursting in here like a Neanderthal, trusting your weapon to do your thinking for you! Sexist! Speciesist! How dare you assume that womyn and wolves can't solve their own problems without a man's help?'"

"Hello Cinderella, I am your fairy godperson, or individual deity proxy, if you prefer. So, you want to go to the ball, eh? And bind yourself into the male concept of beauty? Squeeze into some tight-fitting dress that will cut off your circulation? Jam your feet into high-heeled shoes that will ruin your bone structure? Paint your face with chemicals and make-up that have been tested on nonhuman animals?"

Snow White:
"When she awoke several hours later, she saw the faces of seven bearded, vertically challenged men surrounding the bed. She sat up with a start and gasped. One of the men said, 'You see that? Just like a flighty woman: resting peacefully one minute, up and screaming the next.' 'I agree, said another. 'She'll disrupt our strong bond of brotherhood and create competition among us for her affections. I say we throw her in the river in a sack full of rocks.' 'I agree we should get rid of her,' said a third, 'but why degrade the ecology? Let's just feed her to a bear or something and let her become part of the food chain.'"

Simply delicious, no? The whole book is like that-it's a good read; you might consider picking one up. While Garner tickles our funny bones, he doesn't really further develop the concept of just what a fairy tale is. In fact, his humor relies upon our basic recognition of a fairy tale and familiarity with these narratives in particular. Are his re-tellings also fairy tales?

All of us, I suspect, could name several movies that seemed to be fairy tales but have no wolves, giants, magic, or fairies. They aren't even children's stories necessarily! The most recent example would have to be Steven Spielberg's A.I. - Artificial Intelligence. This story is told from a purely real-world standpoint-albeit a future world of new technology-yet it clearly evokes its fairy tale roots both in tone, scope, and the blatant search for the Blue Fairy to grant the hero's wish for real humanity. It's a modern Pinnochio story, in other words, with almost no features left intact from the original story. And yet it's a fairy tale.

I mentioned last time that I consider the Star Wars series to be fairy tales, at least in the "original" trilogy. Think about it: it's a drama of a dysfunctional family, with the mystical Force substituting for the expected magical element, complete with good and evil characters and even the requisite happy ending (nothing, after all, says HAPPY ENDING with such finality as a John Williams fanfare). There is even, God help us all, a Freudian reading of Star Wars as a modern fairy tale on the web. The author even uses Bettelheim directly. If you dare, go have a look here.

So fairy tales can be long, too, it seems, if Star Wars is one. It looks like we'll have to revise our definition somewhat. But before we do, consider a radically different genre: music videos. Those that are not of the concert variety are short, gripping narratives, too. Would these count as fairy tales? Some might, others would not.

How do we know the difference? Indeed, how can we say that Star Wars and A.I. - Artificial Intelligence are fairy tales while Max Keeble's Big Move and Rugrats in Paris are not? The gut answer is, we just know. We feel it. And indeed here is the key. A fairy tale refers more to an affective-that is, emotional-response than to any set of formal characteristics of a story. It is difficult if not impossible, to classify the elements, length, and format of a fairy tale, but we know one when we see one. Why? Because it plays with our emotions in a certain way. Fairy tales appeal to basic human emotions. So is Titanic a fairy tale? I would say not. Fairy tales are related in a childlike way - either through simple language or through visual imagery that evokes childhood.

And so, at last, we have a working definition of a fairy tale. It will prove useful, for the way in which Disney achieves this "emotional response through childhood evocations" morphs over time. We might consider "Classic Disney" to be the time of Walt's life and shortly behind, "Middle Disney" to be the time frame between Walt and Eisner, and "Modern Disney" to be the Eisner era. There is a pattern to the types of fairy tales in each of these periods. To oversimplify, let me float the idea that in Classic Disney features, the adolescent hero/heroine conforms to a pattern of helplessness reminiscent of the Grimms' tales, while Modern Disney features explicitly infuse an empowering and very politically correct notion of triumph by virtue of self- help.

The degree to which this is true will naturally vary for each tale. Let's begin next time by looking at the Little Mermaid, where the slide toward an empowered heroine had only just begun in the Modern Disney era - but Ariel is a far cry from the passive Snow White.


Grimms - published their fairy tales in 1812 / 1814, with an unpublished and unedited collection of raw stories in 1810

Perrault - published his tales in France, 1697.

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