Monday, December 28, 2015

From Toys to Husbands: Children and Romance in Fairy Tales



I got to see two productions of "The Nutcracker" this year, one that my student was in, and then I wanted to see the Joffrey's classic production of Nutcracker one last time before they switch to a different production next year!

One thing that stood out to me this year as I watched the story unfold was how odd it was that Clara is such an odd mixture of child and woman. At the beginning of the story she is very excited to be getting dolls and dolls beds for Christmas, but the whole story is a romance. Although she doesn't marry the Nutcracker Prince at the end of the ballet, E.T.A. Hoffman's original story makes it all the more jarring-the heroine (who was originally named Marie) begins the story at 7, and the conclusion says that she and the Prince were "married after a year and a day." Yes, some time has passed, but not long enough for that to be any less troubling!

Cameron's Frog Prince
Katharine Cameron

Yet this is not a new issue in fairy tales (and yes, I'm aware that "Nutcracker" isn't technically a fairy tale). I've already mentioned that I find it kind of creepy that the Princess in Frog Prince is so childish at the beginning, especially in the Grimms' version-her golden ball (another toy) is her favorite thing, she needs to be taught (in a rather condescending manner) about the "importance of keeping your word" (not the danger of letting strange supernatural males sleep in your bed), and after throwing the frog against a wall, she all of a sudden marries him.

Rackham's Snowdrop
Arthur Rackham

Yet another seven year old fairy tale character ends up married in the Grimms' version of Snow White. Some say that she must grow during her enchanted sleep, but even then it's hardly more comforting-she would still emotionally be a little girl after waking up (there are plenty more disturbing things about the Grimms' Prince I won't go into here). And why is her age even mentioned? Unlike Clara/Marie and the Frog Prince's bride, her story could have happened to an older teenager/young woman. Her stepmother is jealous of her beauty-an odd thing for a seven year old girl-and she is tempted not by toys, but by an apple and beauty products. Removing the age from the story would make total sense.

I've already done a little looking into the fact that, in other cultures, many girls really did get married off extremely young (see Frog Prince and Marriageable Age). It's possible that in some of these stories, the idea of a young girl going right from baby dolls to making babies would have seemed more natural, but it's also possible that the extreme and sudden transition was intentionally meant to show how unnatural the process felt for many of those young girls. Often fairy tales served to be the voice of the voiceless, as women passed down their experiences to those in the next generation.
Joffrey Ballet

Yet maybe it's not all that unnatural. It's very common for young children to have romances, even though they are not sexual ones. I remember having my first "boyfriend"at age 6. It was a label that really had no meaning, but for many people of all ages, having a significant other can be more of a status symbol or form of identity than anything else. Children see romance stories all the time, and it's natural to have crushes, even though they might not think through the logical outcomes of those crushes.
Joffrey Ballet

And stories like the "Nutcracker" may just be an exploration of that odd time when young girls are still children in many ways, but starting to feel that pull towards adulthood. It can also be seen as a sweet story of a girl's first crush-in the Joffrey version, Clara is the only one to join in both the children's and the adults' dances.

Thoughts on the subject?

13 comments:

  1. It is strange, isn't it? There are indeed a lot of fairy tales in which the heroine is supposed to be seven years old and then marries the Prince or the King. As for The Nutcracker, I haven't yet got around to reading the Hoffman story, but have seen various versions of the ballet. Sometimes the child Clara dreams of being an adult. Other times, the Sugar Plum Fairy does all the pas de deux. When our National Ballet school does it, Clara is played by a student and the Sugar Plum Fairy is danced by a professional dancer. The Australian Ballet even has a version which makes Clara a Russian ballet dancer who escapes Russia during the Revolution. The Christmas party takes place in Australia many years later when she is an old woman, remembering her life. :-) In another version, Drosselmeyer is a dancing part rather than a character role. He is trying to break the spell in his nephew and returns home at the end of the ballet to find the young man, no longer a nutcracker, waiting for him.

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    1. I always find it confusing that the Sugar Plum Fairy dances the Pas de Deux with the Nutcracker! It almost appears as though the Nutcracker just vanishes for the second act and the dancer is now the Sugar Plum's Cavalier! At the Joffrey, Clara is played by one of the members of the company, which makes it even more awkward that it's this grown woman among all these little girls at the party, lulling the dolls to sleep.

      The Australian Ballet version seems very intriguing! I wonder if it's on youtube...?

      I like the versions-I think maybe the English Royal Ballet does this?-where the bookend is Drosselmeyer and a portrait of his nephew on the wall, and it's more about breaking the spell. In the Joffrey, the nephew is also a guest at the party, so again it's confusing-how is he enchanted as the Nutcracker if he's also a guest? It makes it seem like the whole thing is more like a dream in the Joffrey, she's just imagining her new toy is her crush. But maybe, since the dolls under the tree are also the ones who perform the dances in the second act, it's all about imagining toys to be alive?

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    2. What's the difference between a dancing part and a character role?

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    3. As I understand it, the character role is more of an actor than a dancer-he moves about the stage, gesturing and maybe doing some very simple dance steps, but doesn't do traditional ballet moves or even necessarily wear dancing shoes. In some companies the role of Drosselmeyer may be played by an older dancer, like the head of the company or a retired dancer, since it's not as physically demanding. (But ballet people out there, correct me if I'm wrong!)

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  2. If you look on YouTube under Nutcracker : The Story of Clara, there are some bits, though not the full thing. The choreographer is Graeme Murphy. That's the REAL Australian Ballet version. You know, I think that version you mention with the nephew sounds a lot like the one I had in mind. The nephew's portrait is on the wall as Drosselmeyer prepares for the party and the boy himself is there when he returns at the end, right?

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    1. Yes! I'm not positive which version it is, my parents had it on VHS when I was little.

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  3. The Grimm Brothers' 'golden ball' Frog King is particularly notable when you compare it to other Frog Prince stories. In almost every other version the heroine is trying to get water from a well, either to help her family or because her wicked stepmother ordered her to. She can't do it, either because the water is too muddy or her container is full of holes, and the frog helps her in exchange for her granting his requests. But this dutiful heroine transforms into a childish, selfish girl who just needs to learn to keep promises for the Grimms. The ending is like that too - normally she kills the frog because he asks her too, but in the Grimms' version she's just sick and tired of his demands. I much prefer the water-gathering versions.

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    1. The Grimms had two different versions of that story in their first edition, but the other one (entitled "The Frog Prince") was cut from later volumes. Probably for being too similar to the other one. You might like that one better.

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    2. That's really interesting! And I'll have to look at the original Grimms' "Frog Prince" to compare!

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  4. What we shouldn't forget is that the concept of "childhood" as we know it today is young and the concept of a "teenage" as the stage between childhood and adulthood, where toys and games are put aside, is even younger. Just a few decades ago it wasn't uncommon for 14 or 15 year olds playing "children's" games with younger peers. So a girl who plays with a golden ball could easily be of an age during which her sexuality develops (even though I realize that the charcter of the princess was infantilized in the Grimm's version of the Frog Prince). It's also worth mentioning that she sort of has amale counter part in the prince character in Iron Hans (who interestingly also got more and more infantilized with each edition of Grimm's fairytales): Both loose their golden balls at a well, which leads to their respective rite of passage (metting the frog and awakening her sexuality/ being forced to leave the safe haven of Iron Hans' forest and feding for himself, while also meting a love interest). I'm not sure whether the version influenced each other.

    Also Snow White had to spend at least a few years with the dwarves. The second timethe Wicked Stepmother tries to murder her, she suffocates her with a bodice, i.e, an article of clothing worn by women and girls who have already hit puberty (which would probably also put her at 14 or 15). Some scholars interpret this as Snow White feeling threatened be her developing sexualiy, which would support your point about those tales being used to talk about the fears of young girls who have just hit puberty.

    As for the romance in The Nutccracker: I read the book (and I can recommend it to anyone who is interested in German culture, as it paints a quite poignant picture of the Biedermeier era, from Christmas traditions to the troubling prevalence of militarism) and I gotta say, why it feels odd to modern audiences, it doesn't seem like more than a baby love, a fantasy of asexual love for young girls to me. Unlike the princess and the frog prince, Marie and the Nutcracker don't share a bed, they don't even kiss or hold hands. Love is viewed from a very childlike perspective, where it means sharing the same house, eating the same meals and exchanging compliments, but nothing more. The marriage does happen, but it is removed from the rest of the story as some time passes. The time that passes may be quite short, but young children may see making Marie wait much longer as uncessarily mean.

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    1. I'll have to take a look at Iron Hans, I'm not too familiar with that tale, and it seems like it would yield some very interesting compare and contrasts! And as far as toys go, balls are hardly that infantile, it's just the ball in combination with the way the Grimms also portray her that makes her seem extra young.

      And good point about the bodice, but again, it just makes me wonder why there's a need to even mention Snow White's age at the beginning, since all the things that happen to her could easily have happened to a teen.

      And I did like the Hoffman Nutcracker when I read it a few years ago; I don't remember the romance seeming weird to me at the time, although maybe the marriage at the end was startling, but again it kind of fits into the way of nicely wrapping up the story. It's when the story morphs over different ballet productions that it seems more strange and potentially disturbing. I'm sure I would have thought nothing of Marie marrying the Nutcracker had I read it at 7, but as an adult it's more shocking.

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  5. I'm glad to find another person who's actually read "Nutcracker."

    And as for the seven years old thing in "Snow White," I have a theory.

    I saw the 1987 Cannon Movie Tales version of "Snow White," which is very good. It was kind of funny, because when the Queen gives Snow White the poisoned comb, she's disguised as a stereotypical Chinese lady! I wonder how Chinese people feel about that!

    But, most notably, Snow White is played by two different actresses in that version. She's a little girl when the hunter abandons her in the forest and she stays with the dwarfs. Then, quite a few years pass before the Queen finds out that she's still alive, making Snow White at least a teenager when the Queen poisons her. So, it's entirely possible that Snow White was seven when she was abandoned, like the story says, and that she grew up to be older before the Queen found out that she was with the dwarfs. There's nothing in the text that would suggest that it's not possible.

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    1. Yes, I'm obsessed with Nutcracker!!

      Ha, not familiar with that '87 Snow White, you'd never see something that unpolitically correct today :P

      But, very interesting about being played by two different actresses! And yes, I think aging with the dwarfs is the only way to make sense of the age aspect (as Julia also suggested above). It's probably one of those things where you're really not supposed to take it that seriously or think too hard about the timeline, but given the other tales where it also mentions seven year olds who then get married, it's something worth thinking about...

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