A week or two ago I was watching PBS Idea Channel. What’s Idea Channel? Well, it’s a YouTube show where the host, Mike Rugnetta, analyzes popular culture from all sorts of different intellectual angles. Anyway, Rugnetta suggested an interesting concept: the reason that people went so absolutely ga-ga over Disney's Frozen was because it was a critique of fairy tales. The idea is that Frozen deconstructs the fairy tale by having all the parts of a fairy tale (princess, animal sidekicks, handsome prince, witch/magically-empowered queen, act of true love, etc.) and presents them in ways that would be traditionally perceived as “out-of-place”.
Now, I find this argument a bit flawed. If it’s true, then it means that fairy tales have been critiquing themselves for a couple of centuries now. Take my favorite fairy tale from Grimm, “How Six Men Got On in the World”, for example. The heroes are essentially a group of conmen. The king and princess are both evil. Also, magic stems not from some fairy or witch but five men who each have one specific magic power. That’s not all, though. Throughout my reading, I’ve encountered more than my share of princesses who were petty and spiteful and princes who were neither good nor charming. The truth is that what Frozen seems to critique is our popular conception of the fairy tale. Essentially, it overturns all the stereotypes we expect to see in Disney movies (actually, one of my own criticisms of Frozen is that it simply tries too hard to do this to the extent that the story doesn’t feel organic but instead feels like a story strung onto a series of deconstructed elements). The truth is that many of the things that people think are in the “fairy tale rule book” aren’t necessarily there. If my high school teachers and college professors are to be believed, the only hard and fast rule is that the good guys win despite having to endure a number of difficult trials and that bad guys get punished for having put the hero or heroine through said trials. Even these “rules” are suspect. Some fairy tales don’t have villains, just difficult situations (“Beauty and the Beast”, for example). Anyway, this is why I can’t really call Frozen or Shrek anything counter to a regular fairy tale. No one ever said an ogre can’t be a hero or that a handsome prince can’t be a villain.
Now, I’m going to try to do like Idea Channel and ask a lot of questions for this post. This is in contrast to too many of my opinion pieces which, unfortunately sometimes just change into angry rants (sometimes, it’s hard for a fairy tale geek to avoid the perilous claws of “nerd rage”).
So, here’s the question: Why, as a culture, do we grab hold of these popular tropes?
Why do we see these specific popular conceptions as quintessentially “fairy tale”? Why are princes and princesses good and witches and monsters bad? Why does love save the day?
It would be easy to blame this on Disney and other media types, but maybe there’s more to it. After all, big businesses like Disney often just give the public what it wants.
The reverence for princes and princesses is an interesting one. It seems to stem back to the days of old systems of rule when there were not only royals but also nobility and landed gentry. Royalty is about as high as you can go. Now, naturally, no one’s going to believe that royalty are always good people. There have been enough rebellions and uprisings in history to refute that. However, fairy tales often carry the notion of attaining royalty. Cinderella, for example, becomes a princess by marrying a prince. For the peasant class, the idea of becoming as well-off as royalty has a certain appeal compared to the hardscrabble life they’re used to. From there, it all seems to fall into place like dominoes. If becoming royalty is good, then royals themselves must be good. It all seems rather pro-authority, as compared to something like “How Six Men Got On in the World”. However, you should also wonder “Why not kings and queens?” I’ve read stories where full-fledged kings were the protagonists, but they rarely seem to make it into the world of well-known fairy tales. Princes and princesses are royalty, but they’re not the people in charge yet. The titles do suggest youth, to an extent. However, they also suggest status without added responsibility. They’re rich and powerful and should be respected, but they are not yet “chained to the throne” in terms of responsibility. They’ll become kings and queens someday, but that’s after the story ends.
So maybe, in our common conception of fairy tales, regard for princes and princesses stems from some kind of desire for youth, wealth and status but without the added burden of responsibility.
As for witches and monsters, they are “the other”. Traditionally, the unfamiliar is something to be cautious of. They also rarely fit into Judeo-Christian belief except as some kind of demon or evil creature. These creatures and people are probably depicted as ugly because it’s a way of making their badness obvious, like they wear their evil on their face. And yet, fairies are generally depicted as “good”. Also, I should note that I know of at least one story wear the protagonist learns sorcery, which is pretty close to being a witch.
It’s that “true love’s kiss” bit that really stumps me. I really want to blame this one on Disney. However, then there’s “The Frog Prince”. Most people think there’s a spell-breaking kiss in “The Frog Prince” but there isn’t. Disney didn’t make The Princess and the Frog until well after that misconception took root.
Anyway, I’m just spit-balling these ideas. I really don’t know the answers. If anyone else has any ideas about why people have latched onto certain fairy tale tropes or stereotypes, please post in the comments. And if you’d like to watch more of PBS’s Idea Channel, check out their YouTube channel right HERE.