Friday, August 15, 2014

Pertinent Fairy Tale Questions.

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.


  1. I find that argument about "Frozen" a lot flawed. People went ga-ga over the movie because it subverts fairy tale stereotypes? I'm sure all those four-year-olds on the playground belting out "Let It Go" and pretending to shoot ice castles out of their fingers do that because they respond to the subversive element of the story and they delight in the difference from classic fairy tales. Of which they have such vast experience. Pfffft.

    Anyway, if you want one erudite answer to your question about why we grab hold of those tropes, check out Jack Zipes' journal article "What Makes a Repulsive Frog So Appealing: Memetics and Fairy Tales" (; he's got some interesting things to say on it.

    As for "True Love's First Kiss", I've hunted for its origin high & low, and the best I can come up with is that it really originates in Disney's "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty". Which means that with "Frozen" (and "Maleficent"), Disney are subverting the stereotypes they created in the first place. Interesting...

    1. Well, the infamous "kiss" starts in Charles Perrault's "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood", so at least that's a starting point.

    2. Actually, it doesn't: - he just falls to his knees by her bedside, and she wakes up. It's the Grimms' prince who does the smooching. But regardless, it's not "the Power of True Love's Kiss" that breaks the spell, but the prince's showing up. It's Disney who first made a big deal of kissing in fairy tales, introducing it into stories where it never existed before (notably "Snow White").
      If you closely examine those "fairy tale tropes" Mr. Idea Channel says are being subverted in "Frozen", most of them are "Disney tropes" - as you point out, many fairy tales don't even contain them.

  2. And now that I've watched the Idea Channel episode in question, I have to comment on that too: once again, here is someone equating "Fairy Tales" with "Disney Fairy Tale Films", and nothing but. Sigh...

    1. Idea Channel is fun to watch, but it mainly focuses on pop culture, albeit an erudite dissection of it. It doesn't deal with the larger culture and rarely the more hidden parts of it that folks like you and I are frequently drawn to.

  3. I'd say for the True Love's Kiss, Grimm's Briar Rose is the Trope Maker and the pop-cultureversion of The Frog Prince is the Trope Codifier to use TV Tropes terms.

    In my opinion the "Classic fairytale tropes" as present in popular culture are not only influenced by Disney, but also by the limited pool of fairy tales that are common knowledge. The most well known fairytales as far as I know are Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood, Jack and The Beanstalk and Goldilocks. The first three of them are not only the most popular, they also all follow the "classic" formula with a clear distinction between Good and Evil, benevolent royality, a theme of love and a quite passive heroine. They are also the ones adapted by Disney. Red Riding Hood would be hard to make into a family movie, because of the quite brutal climax, Goldilocks wouldn't make for an engaging feature-length film and Jack and The Beanstalk, while adapted by Disney, never reached as much popularity, since it was part of a package movie and never really advertised after Disney got back on his feet after WW2 because of that. The Disney adaptions of those three fairytales further helped their popularity and influenced the popular conscience. But the impact Disney has on public opinion wouldn't be nearly as great, if more fairytales would be told/published/read. Today it's hard to find an adult that knows 10 or more fairytales, most people only know 3 or 4. And since most people simply never have read or heard “How Six Men Got On in the World” or similar fairytales, they can only judge what they know. That's how stereotypes like "In fairytales all princesses are good and all queens are evil", "Fairytales are for girls" or even "Fairytales are sexist" and "Fairytales are gruesome and don't belong in the hands of children" come to be. I don't say everyone needs to spend large chunks of their freetime reading fairytales, like we do ;) But a little more variety would be refreshing.

    1. There are also a number of fairy tales that are right on the edge, known by name and reputation but with the story a bit hazy: Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince, Rapunzel, Puss in Boots and anything from the Arabian Nights.

      What you say is true. The issue, of course, is exposure. We know about this stuff because we seek it out. However, the unfortunate truth is (and this is something that's also the bane of comic book readers and video gamers), most people only consume media casually. They watch and read what's convenient and has significant exposure. They're not, well, geeks (for lack of a better term). Heck, even fairy tale fans need a starting point. Someday, I'll need to write a post on how television and specifically Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics affected my interest in folklore and fairy tales.

      Y'know, exposure's one of the reasons I started this blog (especially my "Folk Tale Secret Stash" column). Though, I probably spend most of my time preaching to the choir.

    2. Heh - "anything from the Arabian Nights" translates to "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", as far as Western Culture is concerned. And maybe (very maybe) "Sindbad the Sailor".

      I came up with a list of about 20 "Favourite Fairy Tales", stories that are ubiquitously known in Western culture - i.e. "everyone" knows what you mean when you say someone is "an ugly duckling" or "The Emperor has no clothes". They include all of the stories you've mentioned, plus The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Pea, The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Bluebeard, and The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor's New Clothes. There's also a few other sorta-known ones like The Elves and the Shoemaker, The Little Match Girl, Tom Thumb, and The Snow Queen. All told no more than a couple dozen.

      I think the same goes for any other "cultural goods" - stories such as Bible stories, Shakespeare, Greek mythology - there is a select number of them that are just "floating around" the culture and we pick up just from our upbringing, Kindergarten, Sunday school, high school, library story time, etc.

      Yeah, you're preaching to the choir (I'm an alto, myself) - but if there wasn't a choir, we'd lose the music altogether. So preach away. :)

    3. Yeah, you're right about the Arabian Nights.

      Also, the general public might not know they know so few fairy tales because, partially due to ignorance and partially due to Western (or rather American) culture's knack for being reductive, people often group all sorts of folk tales, children's stories, legends and nursery rhymes under the heading "fairy tales". If you asked a random person on the street to name as many fairy tales as they know, you might get a list like this: "Snow White, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty, Hansel and Gretel, Pinocchio, Robin Hood, Goldilocks . . . "

      Part of me wants to be upset about this, but at the same time I kind of use this in order to give myself wiggle room to talk about a wider variety of stories on this blog (but hey, at least I use my title cards to separate them out).

  4. I completely agree about Frozen - yes okay, it is a sort of critique, but it's not the first story (and certainly not the first fairy tale!) to overturn stereotypes. And it does about it so clumsily that it's pretty much devoid of plot. Also, the stereotypes it deals with are exactly that: stereotypes. There are hundreds, thousands and fairy and folk tales in existence and only a fraction of them deal with acts of true love, kindly princes and evil queens. Just because these things are dominant in society (probably because of Disney) that doesn't mean they're representative of all fairy tales.

    Interesting thoughts about royalty. Fairy tales do feature princes and princesses as main characters more often than kings and queens, now that I think about it. Perhaps because they're often tales of coming-of-age or starting out in life/finding your way? Kings and queens have already undergone this process, so such plots would be wasted on them.