Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Some thoughts

After a bit of research on fairy tales, you tend to hear certain judgements again and again. Fairy tales are deemed trite if they're too happy; "Disneyfied" becomes a negative term, you start seeing everything as misogynist or Freudian (after reading Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment," I started freaking out that since I have a good relationship with my father, I might have secretly harbored incestual thoughts about him. But then I remembered I also have a good relationship with my mother, which blows most of Bettelheim's theories out of the water). When I started researching fairy tales, I felt like they were being attacked over and over again and I found myself wondering, "Why do you (authors) spend all your time researching fairy tales if you don't even like them?"

Just a couple of specific things I've been mulling over lately: First of all, I take it too personally when anyone says negative things about something I like, which is something I'm working on. A commenter on some other blog (I forget which one) called Beauty from Beauty and the Beast "passive" and her father pretty close to evil. Yes, it seems that all princesses end up passive when analyzed, and taking culture into account makes sense, but at the same time, Beauty? passive? The woman who courageously risked her life to save her father's despite him pleading for her not too? And the father is less than ideal-he does let Beauty go a little TOO willingly-but geez, she has to get to the castle somehow. It does change your reading of the tale to know that, in Victorian times, women were basically expected to sacrifice anything and everything to make the men in their lives happy. That's unfortunate, but I had always viewed Beauty as a role model. I know my father would give his life to save mine if he could, and I always hoped that, if the need were ever to arise, I'd be willing to do the same for him.

Also mulling over the comment from the Tatar book I recently read about Disney intensifying the evilness of Snow White's witch, who is female, and therefore being misogynist. There's more to it than that, but I never would have made the connection that because many fairy tale villains are evil females it must be a negative reflection of women in general, if other scholars hadn't pointed that out. Not that they have no reason to say that-patterns tracing which tales have been collected and popularized are very telling. But in this day and age, or maybe universally, I find myself connecting with male protagonists as well as female, and I don't pick up on gender patterns unless I stop and think about it. The wicked witches and stepmothers are, to me, single characters who don't necessarily reflect the entire gender. There are an unusual number of female villains compared to male, but also fairy godmothers and old peddler women who are really kind fairies in disguise.

I don't really have a point with all this, but sometimes it's nice to step back and remember why I like fairy tales in the first place. I love the world of fairy tales. I think there's a little bit in all fairy tale scholars (and amateur scholars such as myself) who would be thrilled to find historical evidence for an ancient predecessor of Cinderella or one of the fairy tale characters. I remember I used to subconsciously think that, if I knew my fairy tales well enough, they would give me a sort of code to live by, or a set of clues that I could use to uncover my own mysterious adventure. And I lovelovelove the story of Beauty and the Beast, no amount of criticism can change that (though it does make me tense). But in a way, I'm already making that come true, as I work with people with disabilities. They can be beastly figuratively--people who are looked down on by culture for having less intelligence or social smarts--or physically, they often look very different from "normal" people. But each time I teach them I find beauty in them--in their personalities and their humor and their appearance--and I hope to show other people that beauty through my work with them.

Fairy tales are classics-they've been passed down from generations, some thousands and thousands of years old. Even those with definite authors and cultures behind them were influenced by tales that came before them. While each culture shapes the tales and they evolve over time, it would be a pity to let the negative aspects of some cultures (Victorian or 1950s American gender stereotypes, for example) shield us from seeing the beauty in even those versions of the tale too. If I can read tales now and get a different meaning than they had in the culture in which they were created, maybe the tale has a quality that transcends through culture. A Cinderella created to be more passive can still encourage me to be cheerful while I do my own housework and humble when I do feel victimized (Note: I do NOT promote passivity, in males or females). Now that we aren't bound by Victorian sensibilities, we have more power to transform the tale into something meaningful to us. We have resources to explore all different versions of tales and learn about different cultures through them, and we can still enjoy tales from all different cultures. Even the Brothers Grimm, and even Disney! I feel almost ashamed to admit it, but here I go: I love Disney!!! I have wonderful childhood memories of all the movies, of going to Disneyland, especially everything having to do with Beauty and the Beast.

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