You’ve all heard the cry that Disney is destroying ‘true’ fairy tales, one by one. Probably also that contemporary re-writers of fairy tales are twisting them into corrupt and damaged things, particularly those YA authors, with all that sex and death and hormones. It’s a cry that has rung out before; when sentimentality reigned in Victorian times; when tales were first fixed in writing instead of living in the oral tradition. It’s not a rare thing to decry the contemporary moment as the worst and most corrupting time for some beloved part of our culture. It happens with music/art/fashion. Photography meant the death of painting. (It didn’t). The mini skirt was the end of style. (It wasn’t). Rock and roll would corrupt us all. (We seem to be doing ok).
Fairy tales seem to hold a certain sanctity for us – probably because they link firmly back to our childhood. In our minds they are a sacred text. We hold close the Golden Books, anthologies and worn editions of Grimm and Anderson that gave us our safe and predictable Once upon a times and Happily ever afters. It is that sensation, I’m sure, that causes many to lament the contemporary ruination of those ‘original’ fairy tales.
What we often forget though is that there is absolutely no such thing as an original fairy tale. As I’ve written about previously, Cinderella can be traced back to old China. Sleeping Beauty has so many incarnations and variations, and exists in some form or another in so many cultures, that it’s impossible to trace it back to one source. And it’s the same for most of the tales we know and love. There is no original version. Stories pass through cultures and times like roughly spun wool through cloth; changing colour and ply as they go. Sometimes hidden, sometime caught up in a knot, but running unbroken throughout generations.
This is what frustrates me about the claim that we’re spoiling them now. We might not agree with how the Disney corporation treats its princesses (I certainly don’t!), but they have as much of a place in the evolution of fairy tales as did the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. In fact I have as much of a bone to pick with Anderson over his portrayal of women as Disney – if not more so.
I recently read someone expressing their anger over writers like Neil Gaiman claiming to ‘fix’ fairy tales by altering gender roles and storylines. And I agree wholeheartedly with her argument that that we can’t let new stories suppress the old ones, but we’ve been ‘fixing’ fairy tales ever since we’ve been telling them. Every generation alters its fairy tales to fit within their own cultural context – stories would soon lose their power and agency if we didn’t. Yes, we need the comfort and lessons of tradition, but we also need to relate. And if that means reading female protagonists who more closely fit our feminist ideals, well then hoorah! About time too. And if YA and Adult Fiction writers are putting sex and death back into fairy tales (there was plenty of it before anthologists like the Brothers Grimm realised that parents were reading their stories to their children), then great! There’s room for all of it.
I argue that the only way to destroy a fairy tale is to freeze it in time; to leave it locked in a glass case, untouched and ‘sacred’. Fairy Tales have always evolved, they are right now, and they will continue to far into the future. And may they live happily ever after.
PS: This blog post has suddenly had an extra 250+ views via Facebook overnight, but I don’t know who or where from. If it was you, thank you! If you are one of those many lovely people who clicked over, I’d love to know who led you here. If you could leave a comment and let me know, I’d be ever thankful. Lorena.