Thursday, August 21, 2014

Jackie Robinson on Fairy Tales

"Next time I go to a movie and see a picture of a little ordinary girl become a great star, I'll believe it. And whenever I hear my wife read fairy tales to my little boy, I'll listen. I know now that dreams do come true."
-Jackie Robinson, a few days after he was signed on by the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1947

Jackie Robinson's life was far from perfect, before or after he became the first black man to play for professional baseball. I can only take so much of his biography* at one time because it's hard to read about all of the humiliations he faced due to Jim Crow laws and the racism that was prevalent all over America at the time.

However, as in any good fairy tale, the darkness only makes the light at the end more satisfying. Only when you get a little glimpse of what life was like for many African Americans for hundreds of years do you realize how pivotal it was when Robinson was finally recognized for his athletic abilities. Only then do you realize how heroic he was for never losing his temper in the face of hostility, or how noble was Branch Rickey, the Dodgers manager who risked his career and reputation to sign on the black player and personally mentor him through what he knew would be a long road facing much opposition. Jackie Robinson represented hope for his fellow African Americans who saw a glimpse into a future where there might be equality, which is still in progress...

*I'm reading the biography by Arnold Rampersad. I would recommend it if you're looking for something very thorough-it's pretty long

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Read QuillandQwerty's Fairy Tale Paper!

Fellow blogger and fairy tale friend, known on the internet as amo, started her blog quillandqwerty as she was researching for her thesis. It's finally done and ready for public reading-if you hop on over to her blog and follow the instructions.

I have very much enjoyed reading the interesting tidbits she's shared with us and very sad that, now that the paper is done, she won't be blogging about fairy tales any more :(. 

But I highly recommend taking the time to read her paper-it's definitely longer than the average blog post, at 47 pages of text. Titled "Once Upon a Movie Screen: Four Favorite Fairy Tales and Their Disney Film Adaptations," the paper explores the history of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Frog Prince; from the classic older versions to their respective Disney films. I really appreciate her balanced approach; amo avoids the tendency to either hate on Disney or to be too defensive, but to really look at the cultures in which the various versions of the fairy tales were produced, and show how each version, from Perrault to Grimm to Disney, was a reflection of the culture.

There are so many fascinating things in the paper. As obsessed as I've always been with Disney's BATB even I learned many new things. Just one example:

Remember the scene in Cinderella when she feeds the chickens? In the whole film, we see Cinderella doing many domestic chores, and always singing sweetly and appearing like there's nothing else in the world she would rather be doing. When she does many of her cleaning tasks, she puts a scarf around her hair.
Beauty and the Beast, made 40 years later, was a much more feminist film. This heroine longs for adventure and loves to read. Rather than waiting for a prince to come find her, she turns down her suitor and ends up becoming the role of the rescuer, rather than rescued, as she finds love. In fact, we never see her do any domestic chores at all, with one exception: after Gaston proposes, she goes outdoors and begins to feed the chickens, like her predecessor Cinderella.

But her attitude is completely opposite. Not cheerful and complacent, Belle sings about how ridiculous it would be to be Gaston's "little wife" in his old-fashioned picture of domestic bliss. She even, at one point, briefly throws a scarf around her head, like Cinderella, but it's a mockery; in the end, she never even finishes the chore, running off to the fields to sing about longing for adventure.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Cinderella: A Progressive Victim?

Cinderella has been criticized so often, especially in her more recent incarnations (Disney of course, but also the many children's books based off of Perrault's version) for being so passive. Jane Yolen concluded about the Disney film that "Cinderella, until lately, has never been a passive dreamer waiting for rescue. The forerunners of the Ash-girl have all been hardy, active heroines who take their lives into their own hands and work out their own salvations ....[The Disney film] set a new pattern for Cinderella: a helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by the talking mice and birds because she is “off in a world of dreams.” It is a Cinderella who is not recognized by her prince until she is magically back in her ball gown, beribboned and bejewelled. Poor Cinderella. Poor us.”
Herbert Cole

While it's true that older versions of Cinderella (such as the Grimms' Aschenputtel) may show a little more initiative, as in going to her dead mother's spirit and animal friends and asking for help, overall her actions are not that noticeably different, in my opinion. She still must be obedient to her stepmother, she still does her chores with magical aid, and still desires to go to the ball/festival/church. In the Disney, I don't mind that daydreaming is her one escape from her less-than-glamorous life. I don't think it makes her useless, as Yolen implies, but gives her a something to hope for. (Plus, Yolen is incorrect that in the Disney film, the prince couldn't recognize her without her dress. It's the older Grimm story in which the Prince carries off each stepsister and, only when told by a bird to look at the blood coming out of the shoe, that he realizes she has mutilated her foot. In the Disney it isn't the Prince who searches for her but the steward)

Usually I point out that, historically, young girls simply didn't have options like they have today. The best Cinderella could probably hope for if she left her stepmother's house would have been another position of servitude, which could have been just as bad a situation.
Walter Crane

When people write modern versions of Cinderella, yes, by all means, give her another solution. Have her ask a teacher for help, go to DCFS, in today's world there is hope and no one should be raised by abusive guardians. But the historical Cinderella was trapped by her culture as much as her stepmother. Women were usually not able to go to college or hold the same jobs or positions of leadership. I remember being shocked and horrified to learn in a college Education class that some of the first women accepted into American college, at Oberlin College in 1837, had to do the male students' laundry and cook their meals in addition to their own studying. No wonder so many women have identified with Cinderella over the years-they have been treated just like her; their parents, husbands, and culture at large saw them as capable of little more than domestic work.
John Batten

Furthermore, Cinderella was a victim of abuse-verbal abuse at the very least. Imagine a child whose stepmother, who should be loving and kind, takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean her. Her own father stands idly by; he must be aware of the fact that she is in rags and treated as a slave, yet does nothing. This has been going on for years. Do we really expect her to become a strong, independent woman, capable of standing up for herself? It takes a great amount of courage even for the strongest person to stand up to authority and contradict them. Some of the effects of verbal abuse may include the following:

-live in a constant state of hyper-awareness, watching for clues of impending abuse
-feels misunderstood and unimportant
-may develop symptoms of or full mental disorders
-have difficulty forming decisions
-feel there is something wrong with them on a basic level
-analyze their experiences to see where they made mistakes
-experience self-doubt and low self-confidence
-lose spontaneity and/or enthusiasm
-long term medical effects including headaches/migraines, digestive issues, or stress-related heart conditions
-long-term psychological conditions including stress, depression, memory gap disorders, sleep and eating problems, anger issues, alcohol and drug abuse, assaultive behaviours, self-mutilation, suicide
-children who suffer from verbal abuse are more likely to become delinquents and believe and act out whatever negative words are said about them

Really, if we really examine her historical and mental state, we shouldn't be surprised at all that Cinderella was submissive. We should be impressed that she was even dreaming of a better life.
This quote is ironic. If you ask any fairy tale aficionado if Disney's Cinderella is passive or active, they'll tell you passive-she's easily one of the most criticized. I read this quote and immediately thought of Cinderella crying in a garden before her fairy godmother showed up and just gave her everything.

 And yet, before that, she did show the initiative to ask to go to the ball, get out her old mother's patterns, and was intending to sew the dress in every spare moment. That's pretty much as active as the Grimms' Cinderella going to her dead mother and animal friends to ask for help, isn't it? (And keep in mind, the fairy godmother scene was based on the even earlier Perrault version of Cinderella. And being that the godmother is a powerful, helpful female, isn't that an example of empowerment?)
Elenore Abbott

I also came across this quote on Disneybound:
Is this true? I don't know the movie well enough that I can say for sure, but I don't actually remember her wishing for the prince. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty very directly do, but I think Cinderella really just wants to go to the ball-to escape, dance, and have fun. Much more healthy desires than sitting around hoping a prince will save you. 

It's natural for Cinderella to dream of a life of luxury. But in the end, when she becomes the Queen, she has also ascended to a position of prominence and power, completely unlike her former state. I didn't even intend for this post to become a defense of Disney's Cinderella, but actually, it may be a lot more empowering than I originally thought. It just depends on how you look at it...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Heads Up! Fairy Tale Style

The other night we were out with friends who decided to play the game Heads Up!. Many of you may be familiar with variations of the forehead game, in which each player usually has the name of a person on their forehead and has to ask yes or no questions to determine which "person" they are. Apparently this game goes as far back as Marie Antoinette's time (although this could have been one of the many creative liberties taken by Sofia Coppola in the film...)

Anyway, Ellen DeGeneres created a new version for iphones, and I was excited to see a "fairy tale" category (there's also a Disney characters category which is pretty fun). These are included in the free download of the game (there are other categories you can buy).
A couple of us tried the fairy tale "deck." I somewhat disagree with their definitions of fairy tales ("Peter Pan" was one-I had trouble guessing "Little Red Hen", it never really gets discussed in fairy tale circles, although it is technically an old folk tale). It might be fun to play if you had a circle of other fairy tale nerd friends, but one person in our group got "Katie Crackernuts," and I was the only one who had ever heard of it. It was pretty hard to get someone to guess a title that obscure to the general population. But the game would be a fun weekend activity, whether or not you play with the fairy tale option!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters

Image from here

It's really quite difficult to make accurate generalizations about fairy tales. Although people do it all the time, they're usually using the most well-known collections of folk tales as their source (most often, Grimms' "Household Tales"). Yet the Grimm fairy tales in common knowledge are a collection of fairy tales brought to us by two brothers, which have undergone change after change due to editors, publishers, illustrators, and translators, which served to reinforce and enlarge differences in gender roles, and utilizing the tales as moral lessons for children. Most copies of Grimms' fairy tales is not a complete edition, so the editors have to choose which tales to pull and which illustrations to use (and much has been lost or changed in translation into English as well), and often these collections don't represent the full scope of the collection well. Maria Tatar even states that part of her purpose in creating The Annotated Brothers Grimm was to restore the gender imbalance present in most collections.

Yet there are so many other fairy tales that exist outside the Grimms' and other standard collections. Some tales, such as Cinderella, have hundreds of variants all over the world, while others remain known in only small pockets of the world; yet those tales are a significant part of that culture's history as well as a valid piece of folklore for consideration.

In 1998 Kathleen Ragan helped counter people's incorrect assumptions about fairy tales in general by putting together a collection featuring all strong, female protagonists, Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters. It's a great collection. Sometimes you go through a fairy tale book and turn to a tale you don't know and realize it's not really the best story and there's a reason it isn't well-known; yet this book seems to contain all hidden gems (from what I've read, I haven't read it straight through). Ragan also includes helpful notes at the end of each story.

I don't think that girls only identify with female characters; yet I understand people's concern when stories show potentially harmful gender patterns repeated over and over again. This book features women who are witty problem solvers; who bravely go on journeys and rescue people along the way; who turn down marriage proposals from princes and wisely rule countries, who are kind and promote justice among the poor and overlooked.  One of my favorites is "How the King Chose a Daughter-in-Law" from Romania, which is sort of like "Princess and the Pea" but with a contrasting message:

Once there was a king whose son was of an age to marry, and he wanted to see him happily settled. But the king wanted "a good, hard-working daughter in law and not some silly featherbrain." So he built a great palace with a thousand rooms and invited all the neighboring kings and princes to bring their daughters and see which one could find her way through the maze.
Pena National Palace, Portugal

Skilled workmen from all over the world created the palace, and when it was finished there were all sorts of visitors from abroad, eager to try their luck. Yet none of the girls could find their way through the complicated rooms, and the king began to lose hope.

Among the crowd was a poor old woman and her daughter, and the daughter watched the royal girls leave without success and thought she might like to try. Her mother scolded her for being so bold, but when the king's son saw how lovely the girl looked he asked her to try.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau

The poor daughter went into the palace and from room to room, finding an engagement ring in one and wedding dress in another. When she came out, she had a token from each of the rooms with her as proof that she had been there. She and the prince were married. The king asked her how she had been able to navigate the labyrinth of rooms: the girl had brought her whole distaff full of thread into the palace, left it at the door, and held the other end of the thread all around the palace. On her way back she wound up the thread again on her spindle so she didn't get lost.

"And from that time on there has been a saying that clever folk can be found in mud huts too, not only in palaces."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Su Blackwell's Fairy Tale Book Sculptures

Snow White

Incredible book sculptures by Su Blackwell. She has also done set for a stage version of Snow Queen, which Once Upon a Blog's Gypsy shared earlier this year. Fans of her work may want to buy the book Fairy Tale Princess, as seen on Surlalune when it was published in 2012, which is illustrated by her works. She has also done many other magical/fantastical stories, from Narnia to Wizard of Oz to Alice in Wonderland (even Wuthering Heights! Big fan of the Bronte sisters). 


Snow Queen

The Girl in the Woods

Twelve Dancing Princesses

Princess and the Pea

Wild Swans

Monday, August 11, 2014

Fat is Not a Fairy Tale

Fat is Not a Fairy Tale
Jane Yolen, 2000
Gustav Dore

I am thinking of a fairy tale,
Cinder Elephant,
Sleeping Tubby,
Snow Weight,
where the princess is not
anorexic, wasp-waisted,
flinging herself down the stairs.

I am thinking of a fairy tale,
Hansel and Great,
Bounty and the Beast,
where the beauty
has a pillowed breast,
and fingers plump as sausage.

I am thinking of a fairy tale
that is not yet written,
for a teller not yet born,
for a listener not yet conceived,
for a world not yet won,
where everything round is good:
the sun, wheels, cookies, and the princess.
"Cinderella," Edward Burne-Jones

Like pretty much every female, I've had my share of body image issues. I'm not the ideal size of a model or A-list actress, although I'm overall healthy, but it's hard not to cave to societal pressure which says that beauty is found in such a narrow standard.

Yet the thing that strikes me about this poem is that fairy tales themselves don't promote the hourglass figure, but recent visual interpretations of fairy tales do. For that matter, pretty much any visual media-films, billboards, the fashion industry-promotes that same figure; fairy tales are hardly alone in this. That's the beauty of tale that can be told or read-when a little girl hears that the princess was the most beautiful in the land, she can picture whatever she wants in her head (which is, most often, herself). Fairy tales very rarely highlight specifics of appearance, other than a preference for blonde hair over all. 
Willy Planck

For example, the princess in The Frog Prince is described as "so beautiful that the sun himself, who has seen everything, was bemused every time he shone over her because of her beauty." Cinderella is hardly described at all other than the effect that her clothes have on her. Sleeping Beauty was given the gift of beauty and looked lovely in her sleep, but in none of these instances was any feature described in detail at all. They could have been tall or short, petite or large, any hair color, it's all up to the imagination (Snow White is an exception, but if anything proves that beauty is found in non-blondes as well). (All of these examples are taken from Grimms).

And while I'm all for promoting finding beauty in all shapes and forms, we have to be careful not to go to the opposite extreme and criticize the naturally skinny. The poem would seem to indicate that anyone with a tiny waist is anorexic, which is certainly not true either. And while we shouldn't judge people for their weight, we should be concerned about people's health, and healthy bodies come in many varieties-health is not just about a number on a scale, but an indication of the body's ability to fight off infections and keep you alive longer.
Sure, Disney princesses have unrealistic and ideal bodies. But how is that different than most celebrities on the red carpet? The women below do not represent an average group of people either

Yet, many internet reviewers love this poem and seem to agree with the idea that fairy tales themselves, not the media overall, embody unfair beauty standards. 

But I do like Yolen's positive spin at the end, about anticipating a future that does celebrate more body types. How does this poem strike you?

Friday, August 8, 2014

LOTR, Fairy Tales, Humanity, and Hope

Tony and I got to go to Ravinia last night to see Lord of the Rings: Return of the King with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing the soundtrack live. It's a great experience-we had gone last year to "Two Towers" and knew we wanted to return for the final movie of the trilogy.

In addition to hearing the music live and up close, which really made me notice the musical motifs more than I normally would have, the great thing about seeing this epic movie in such surroundings is to feel the bond with the other people in the audience. Much like if you go to see a midnight showing of a movie, people would break into clapping at significant parts of the plot-and being such an enthusiastic audience, and a movie where so many brave choices were made in the face of danger and so many victories were finally won, there was a lot of spontaneous clapping.

It was just cool to be a part of that crowd. All the other people there last night came from totally different backgrounds-we had different religions and political beliefs, and different worldview philosophies. Yet we were united with complete strangers over some of the most fundamental human things-applauding fictional characters for their courage, and being joyful together when a battle was won and when the characters received the honor they deserved.

I've also been thinking lately about the whole debate around whether or not it's dangerous for so many stories to end happily-does it really give us false hopes or fail to set us up for real life? But here's the thing about fiction vs. reality: Any good story will have dark aspects of it, just like life. We've discussed this with fairy tales time and time again. Lord of the Rings is very dark. No one is claiming that LOTR gives people the impression that life is all sunshine and rainbows and perfect, despite its happy, "storybook" ending. (Yet strangely, people have come to the conclusion that fairy tales-the most famous of which involve abuse, attempted murder, and violence among other things, somehow do promote a sunshine and rainbows worldview).

Yet the main difference is, fictional stories end. The creator makes a conclusion which, whether or not he or she intends it, communicates a certain philosophy to the reader-is life pointlessly depressing? Is there reason to hope? But life itself doesn't end. Even when we eventually die, we have left a legacy. All the people we've interacted with, the causes we fought for-we made a difference in the world, however small (and what I love about LOTR and fairy tales is how often the most insignificant characters-the youngest child in a peasant family, the little hobbits who are warned that they are not fit for battle, end up being key in victory). To borrow from Walt Whitman: "The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."

Walter Crane

Where you end a story makes a statement, but does it show the whole picture? What if Snow White ended with her still trapped unconscious sleep? What if Cinderella ended with the false bride, her stepsister riding off with the prince? What if a World War II movie ended when Hitler was still gaining power? On the other hand-what if Andersen's Little Mermaid, the most famous depressing fairy tale ending, didn't end with her becoming a spirit of the air and a warning against children behaving badly, but went on to describe the good deeds she witnessed in the world and her eventual gaining of a soul and living a new life? Often even a depressing end is really just the conclusion of a chapter-the great Story goes on. Even the most tragic events have some form of redeeming value to them-if nothing else, then to serve to educate future generations. Maybe happy endings to stories don't have to give us an unrealistic idea of what life will be like, but can help us to view our struggles as part of a larger picture.

In current thinking, we are increasingly being told not to accept a certain morality just because it's been handed down to us, but to discover our own. This independence can be thrilling, but it often comes with stress, ambiguity, and disagreement. This very phenomenon is why, in part, we are exploring fairy tales in so many different ways-questioning the strict good and evil and looking into the character and motivations of the villains (like Maleficent). This is all wonderful, it's so good to delve into fairy tales and look at them in new ways, and to apply our critical thinking to the stories.

But sometimes, especially in light of all the tough decisions we face when trying to decide what is right for ourselves and our country, we crave that good old-fashioned hero riding in on a white horse. Sometimes fantasy-whether an epic tale like LOTR or a well-known fairy tale-unites people together in a way that very few things do. When controversial issues become so divisive, in traditional fairy tales we find common enemies and common values that reunite us. And sometimes, especially in light of all the war and disease and horrible things going on across the globe today, we need to be reminded that there is hope. Not assurance that it will all turn out exactly as we want, but assurance that it's worth fighting for justice anyway. We can't possibly know what's going to happen or how our chapter will end, but our darkest hour is not the end of the story-the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse...