Saturday, July 14, 2018

So you wanna make blanket statements about fairy tales

Fairy- and folktales seem to make appearances in social media for one of two distinct reasons:
No. 1: "Young people are killing fairy tales!"
No. 2: "Fairy tales are killing young people!"

I already blogged in detail about the former, but thanks to an article shared by Maria Tatar on Twitter recently (as well as various other articles people keep sending my way) I think it is about time I blogged about the latter.

The article in question - "Should we be raising our kids on fairy tales?" - talks about classic fairy tales ("books") as something outdated, potentially harmful, and completely not of interest to modern children. The examples? Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. Another one  - "Five reasons to stop reading your children fairy tales now" - talks about how fairy tale heroines are passive, and always rescued by a man and marriage. The examples? Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast. Yet another one - "'Sexist' Sleeping Beauty and all the other fairy tales that may need updating for a new generation" - suggest changes to... you called it: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Red Riding Hood. 

Sensing a pattern yet?

Alright, then, let's note a few things about this issue.

1. "Folktales" and "fairy tales" are not the same
I feel like I am repeating myself, but here it is. Folktales belong to the oral tradition, they are transmitted in many versions across generations and across cultures, and they belong to the community. They also change over time. I already wrote about this.
Fairy tales are tales of magic (also often called wonder tales). They can be folktales, or literary tales (as in, written by an author, such as Hans Christian Andersen).
So, for the people in the back: Not all folktales are fairy tales, and not all fairy tales are folktales! I am repeating this because I have encountered professional storytellers who did not know the difference. Let's practice:
Little Mermaid: Fairy tale, but not folktale.
Clever Maid: Folktale, but not fairy tale.
Master Maid: Fairy tale AND also folktale.
Alice in Wonderland: Neither fairy tale nor folktale.

So, you wanna make blanket statements about fairy tales.
Read a couple of hundred, for starters. Then read a couple of thousand. Really, there are millions out there. Therefore, if you make grand claims about "women in fairy tales," you better bring examples beyond the 5 most popular Grimm stories.
Alternately: Preface your claims with "in the western fairy tale canon..." and then it will be clear that you are making them about a standard set of stories that most often get retold and adapted in western Europe and North America. You know. Like Snow White, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast. Don't just say Grimm. Unless you read all Grimm.
You'd be surprised how many clever, independent, strong women can be found in folktales and fairy tales around the world. They do exist. They might not be selected for collections, adaptations, or for storytelling performances, but they do exist. Check these books out for starters.

3. Stories have layers
The layer these articles focus on the most is the outer one - the actual, practical, literary take on a story, that deals with the representational aspect, such as the hero's gender. This layer is essential, and we need to pay attention to it. However symbolic we get, the children (and adults) we tell to will still notice what is there, and what is missing. I have been thanked before by a little girl for telling about a princess "who had black hair like me."
Then, there is the symbolic, psychological, archetypal, whatever you want to call it deeper layer. Or layers, rather, depending on what method of analysis you use, and who is listening to the story. The same tale can say vastly different things to different people. For example, when I see Beauty and the Beast, I think about trying to change someone who might not change (not one of my favorite tales). But someone else hearing the same story might think "don't judge by someone's looks." Both are equally valid. My interpretation is no reason why others should not hear the story.
The fun part is, the deeper meaning can work all the same, regardless of the representation you use. So why not make your repertoire more diverse? Especially when thinking about underrepresented themes and characters and identities, it is vital to know that we can teach the same values - kindness, courage, justice, hope - using a wide variety of symbols and characters. And we can even add new ones, because that is how the oral tradition works.

4. Stories are told, not recited
Regardless of whether you tell tales or read them aloud, the emphasis is on communication. Discussing stories, adapting them, playing with them, or even developing them together with your audience makes sure that they are not misunderstood, or that things that don't exist in the same way anymore (like the arranged marriages of royalty) are presented in context. Throw a "back in those old days..." in your story. It works wonders.

5. This is not the Hunger Games
It does not have to be either or. We don't need to cut old fairy tales to make place for new ones. Our heads, our hearts, our repertoires, our bookshelves can definitely fit more. Just because I love stories about strong independent women, doesn't mean I don't enjoy hearing Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, or that I want them eliminated from existence. I don't. In fact, I enjoy a good princess-rescuing as much as the next gal.
The key to a more equal story world is a small word: TOO.
Let there be male heroes too.
Let there be female heroes too.
Princesses can be rescued too.
Princes can be rescued too.
We can have fairy tale weddings too.
We can have happily ever afters without weddings too.
We can have story psychology and representation too.
We can have adventure too.
We can have love stories too.
We can have classic tales too.
We can have new folktales too.

And, most importantly: We need teachers, parents, librarians, and storytellers, who go out and gather all these tales for the next generation.
There is life beyond the fairy tale canon too.

(I'm not apologizing for the Disney gifs.)


  1. hummm ..nice write up
    A lot of lovely photos.
    Enjoy your weekend dear.
    New post:

  2. Excellent article that shows there is so much depth in the canon and the ancient roots.

  3. Hello, I miss you already and also THIS BLOG POST IS EXTREMELY ACCURATE. Sorry for yelling...I just think you're really really correct.