Fairy Tale Controversy, Part 3: Modern Times

[Previously:  Fairy Tale Controversy, Part 1 ; Fairy Tale Controversy, Part 2: Coming to America]

Fairy tales are no less controversial today than they ever were in the past. The arguments against them echo some of the concerns of the past, and add new ones. Sexual content or innuendo in tales for children is still prohibited. We are less concerned about maintaining class distinctions, but we definitely have a lower tolerance for grisly violence than audiences of the past. And we have added the relatively recent concerns of racism and sexism to the mix. As well, parents today seem inordinately bothered by death scenes in children’s literature. In past times, the death of a parent, of a mother in childbirth, of babies and young children was much more common than today, and therefore found a place in the literature. Today we seem uneasy with the very subject, a modern preoccupation.

Today the general public is familiar with only a tiny fraction of the fairy tale literature. In addition, our grasp on the most familiar tales has been strongly mediated by the Disney corporation. Not only have they been able to exercise a market stranglehold on fairy tale movies, but the Disney machine has dictated to us what the characters look like and what the plotlines are. (Just try to tell your daughter that Cinderella could wear anything but a blue dress. Or that Snow White’s dwarves don’t actually come with names and jokey personalities in the original.) The company pretty much holds a copyright monopoly on all the big names (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White)… as much as is legally possible anyway, considering these tales are ancient and should be beyond such considerations.

What most people don’t realize is how much Disney changed the original stories. Many changes were necessary to make the oral form fit the film medium. Some changes had to be made to pad the storyline out to feature length. Others were needed to make the European stories ‘fit’ the American imagination. (See my last commentary on this.)  Still others served to make the story less old-fashioned, more modern. (More gags, more jokes!)

“Disneyfication: the application of simplified aesthetic, intellectual, or moral standards to a thing that has the potential for more complex and thought-provoking expression.” ¹

Unfortunately many of the criticisms that modern parents level against fairy tales in general are actually more rightly aimed at Disney. ²  The most common charge of all, that of sexism, is the most interesting. The idea that every fairy tale involves a weak, oppressed princess who needs rescuing from a prince is in reality far from the mark. It’s more accurate to say that every Disney fairy tale has a female who must be rescued by a prince. The plotlines of Disney movies are all incredibly similar, from the 1930s to today. As Jack Zipes has noted, every story is turned into a formulaic musical, the secondary characters (“funny, adorable, infantile and mischievous”) play an inordinately large role since the main characters are so bland, and the female must be rescued by the prince. “Heterosexual happiness and marriage are always the ultimate goals of the story.” ³

The design of the princess characters only serves to make wary parents more queasy, as over time they have been drawn increasingly sexier, more scantily clad, with more impossible measurements, and in more flirtatious poses. Compare Snow White’s rather demure shape and dress with Ariel’s big-eyed infantilized face, seashell bikini top and teeny tiny waist.

Ah well, that’s a topic for another day…

Walt Disney the man had his own 1940s/50s-era idea of men and women which he anchored his vision and enterprise to, and the modern company is still trying to dig their way out of this hole without upsetting the success of his formula. Their solution is to appease their female audience with ever-spunkier heroines… who still cannot really be happy until they’ve married a man.

For some truly wise and strong female characters, go to the wider collection of fairy and folktales. The small number we know now were edited down from thousands by men who made changes according to their own tastes and to make them suitable for 19th century Victorian children. Charles Perrault, writing for the grownups of the court at Versailles, rewrote the stories in a more elegant and refined fashion, “adding witty morals in verse and turning wise women of folk tradition into pretty fairies in court dress with wands and butterfly wings.” ⁴   Many regard the Grimm’s tales as ethnologically true renditions of ancient oral tales, but even though the brothers presented their work as faithful to tradition, they changed and altered heavily to make them more morally acceptable and suitable for children.

John M. Ellis has written extensively on the heavyhanded alterations made by the Brothers Grimm. His position is that from an ethnographic standpoint the Grimms were blatantly fraudulent. Their desire to brand their stories as purely Germanic led them to gloss over influences from other cultures, particularly from Perrault’s french tales. Their own literary sensitibilities led them to make many poetic contributions to the rather bald and uneducated retellings they collected. The most invasive of their changes however deal with morality: the omission of any suggestion of sexuality or sexual themes, and the heightening of revenge and punishment. A lot of the criticism today levelled against fairy tales for their gruesome violence can be aimed directly at the Grimms. They greatly increased the violence of many stories in order to punish the wicked characters more fully.

A good example of this is the ending of the story Rumplestiltskin. In the Grimms’ original notes of 1810, preceding the 1st edition, the angry, foiled Rumplestiltskin simply flies out the window on a spoon, never to be seen again. However by their 2nd edition he grows so angry he actually tears himself into pieces.⁵  Many stories grew more bloody through subsequent editions of the collection. These changes are not due, according to Ellis, to any further discoveries of source material, but to the Grimms’ habit of constant, idle tinkering with the stories. ⁶

In Ashenputtel, the Grimms’ Cinderella story, the wicked stepsisters have a particularly hard time of it. Not only do they actually cut off their own toes and heels to try to fit into that teensy glass shoe, but at Cinderella’s wedding they also have their eyes plucked out by birds. None of this occurs in the Perrault version, which preceded theirs by over a hundred years. It is not certain that the Grimms invented these scenes, but they surely always chose the most bloody of the alternative versions they came across in their research.⁷

The Grimms have also been charged by some with inventing the ‘evil stepmother’. In Hansel and Gretel the early versions have the mother and father conspiring to leave the children in the woods. It is only in the 4th edition that the mother suddenly becomes the step-mother. Her evil nature is heightened, and the father is made more reluctant to go along with the plot. Ellis writes that this change was to reduce the depiction of violence within the family by making the evil one an outsider. The mere thought of one’s true, biological mother plotting one’s demise was just seen as too extreme. The Grimms also habitually added references to God and prayer to stories – in this one they added Gretel weeping and praying over her plight until God “inspires” her to do the witch in.⁸

Besides all this, there are so many stories that we don’t know – ones that the Grimms left out, or even ones that were included in the Grimms’ over two hundred tales but which have been left out of subsequent, more modest (greatest hits) collections. There are so many stories, in fact, that to say that fairy tales are this or that, to say that they are sexist for example, is patently absurd. Some writers, in fact, try to reduce the whole fairy tale canon down to a single story, to suggest that Sleeping Beauty, the most passive princess of all, is somehow indicative of how females are depicted in all fairy tales. (If you read any of the current editorials on the dangers of princess literature for our daughters, the example of Sleeping Beauty is always presented as some kind of trump card: she’s so helpless she’s actually asleep!!)

Alison Lurie maintains that the true tales which preceded the earliest published collections are far from being conservative and restrictive. She claims they are in fact the most subversive texts in children’s literature, for they always side with the disadvantaged – children, women, the poor – against the establishment.⁹

Another counter-argument to the charge of sexism in fairy tales is that children will identify with whatever character they admire most, male or female. This will ring true for anyone who has ever watched children at play. (When my daughter insisted on acting out Peter Pan, she nearly always chose the title role for herself. Being Wendy was just not as much fun…)

“While some literal-minded parents do not realize it, children know that, whatever the sex of the hero, the story pertains to their own problems.  … Since there are thousands of fairy tales, one may safely guess that there are probably equal numbers where the courage and determination of females rescue males, and vice versa.”  – Bruno Bettelheim ¹⁰

An important work on the subject of the psychological effect of fairy tales on children (perhaps the important work) is Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment. While heavily bogged down in places with Freudian theory, it is still a thought-provoking and enlightening counter-argument to those who would purge fairy tales from the modern library. Bettelheim worked for many years with emotionally disturbed children and believed that fairy tales provide youngsters with the tools they need to navigate the sorrows and terrors of life, both in the obstacle course of childhood, the minefield of adolescence, and the fathomless depths of adulthood. Fairy tales can be instrumental in addressing “phase-specific psychosocial crises”.¹¹ They fulfill the psychological needs of children by presenting in symbolic form their deepest dilemmas, from sibling rivalry (Cinderella) to fears of abandonment (Hansel and Gretel) to curiosity/fear regarding sexuality (Little Red Riding Hood).

Bettelheim provides a useful reminder that many times our objections to reading material for our children reflect our own issues and obsessions rather than the needs and tastes of the young.

The Uses of Enchantment is a pretty dense and rich book, I don’t feel I can do it justice with a quick summary, but here are a few of Bettelheim’s insights…

“Unfortunately, too many parents want their children’s minds to function as their own do – as if mature understanding of ourselves and the world, and our ideas about the meaning of life, did not have to develop as slowly as our bodies and minds.” ¹²

“[The] child must be helped to make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of his feelings. … He needs… a moral education which subtly, and by implication only, conveys to him the advantages of moral behavior…” ¹³

“There is a widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures … Instead, we want our children to believe that, inherently, all men are good. But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be. This contradicts what they are told by their parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes.” ¹⁴

“Psychoanalysis was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it, or giving in to escapism. … This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence – but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” ¹⁵

Bettelheim’s fairy tale analysis seems a little stretched at time in its strict adherence to Freudian dogma. However, whether or not you fully agree with Freud and the value of psychoanalysis, Bettelheim’s views on childhood struggles and fairy tales are wonderfully sensitive and humane.

Fairy tales are complicated, even as they appear childlike in their simplicity. They have often been denounced as too old-fashioned for modern children, too dusty and obsolete. And yet they persist, in a myriad of forms and media, despite all opposition and misgivings. Rather than again announcing their demise, or cleverly rewriting the handful of most famous tales in 21st century dress, it is definitely the right time to instead search out and revive the unknown stories.

A final word from Bruno Bettelheim on the power of fairy tales:

“Each fairy tale is a magic mirror which reflects some aspects of our inner world, and of the steps required by our evolution from immaturity to maturity. For those who immerse themselves in what the fairy tale has to communicate, it becomes a deep, quiet pool which at first seems to reflect only our own image; but behind it we soon discover the inner turmoils of our soul – its depth, and ways to gain peace within ourselves and with the world, which is the reward of our struggles.” ¹⁶


Some useful collections for alternate tales:

Lang, Andrew ed. “Coloured” Fairy Books: Blue Fairy Book (1889), Red Fairy Book (1890), Green Fairy Book (1892), etc.

Segal, Lore and Jarrell, Randall trans. The Juniper Tree: and Other Tales From Grimm, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, rev. ed. 2003)

Tchana, Katrin, The Serpent Slayer; and Other Stories of Strong Women, ill. by Trina Schart Hyman (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2000)


¹ Karen Klugman, Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995) p. 103

² The charge of racism (at worst) or racial insensitivity (at best) does not even apply to fairy tales, as they are so generic that specific countries and races are generally not identified, and if they are, the race is all inclusive to the tale. (Ie. A story from the Arabian Nights takes place entirely within that culture – no outside judgement is made upon Arab peoples or customs.) The addition of racial stereotypes as villains or for comic purposes is a common aspect of Disney (and indeed Hollywood) films, right up to the present day (Aladdin).

³ Jack Zipes, “Once Upon a Time Beyond Disney: Contemporary Fairy-tale Films for Children”, in In Front of the Children: Screen Entertainment and Young Audiences, ed. Bazalgette and David Buckingham (London: British film institute, 1995) p. 111

⁴ Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell the Grown-ups. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990) p. 20

⁵ John M. Ellis, John M., One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) p. 79

⁶ Ibid., p. 85

⁷ Ibid., p. 80

⁸ Ibid., pp. 176-194

⁹ Op. cit., Lurie, p. 16

¹⁰ Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment; The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. (New York: Random House, 1975) pp. 226-227

¹¹ Ibid., p. 275

¹² Ibid., p. 3

¹³ Ibid., p. 5

¹⁴ Ibid., p. 7

¹⁵ Ibid., p. 8

¹⁶ Ibid., p. 309


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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