Cinderella - Edmund Dulac
Last month, The Telegraph and a number of other news sites covered the results of a new poll that indicated that a significant proportion of UK parents (or, more specifically, 2000 adults) now consider traditional fairy tales to be "too scary" for children. Some highlights of the poll, as reported in the Telegraph article, included:
"[O]ne in five parents has scrapped old classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Rapunzel in favour of more modern books. One third of parents said their children have been left in tears after hearing the gruesome details of Little Red Riding Hood...[N]early half of mothers and fathers refuse to read Rumplestiltskin to their kids as the themes of the story are kidnapping and execution...And 52 per cent of the parents said Cinderella didn't send a good message to their children as it portrays a young woman doing housework all day."The survey was conducted and published by Watch (a UK television channel) in the days leading up to its premiere of the US television series Grimm, a gritty fantasy/cop drama where the characters from the Grimm Brothers fairy tales really exist and it's up to their descendent to keep the supernatural existence of these magical creatures in check. There was an obvious promotional advantage to publicizing the results of this particular poll for Watch - they were about to launch a fairy tale drama targeted to adults, and the results seemed to confirm that the Grimm fairy tales in particular contain high levels of gore, violence and mature themes (target marketing anyone?). Much of the ensuing news coverage focused on the many ways in which fairy tales - both the traditional versions and reinterpretations such as NBC's Grimm and various recent/upcoming PG-rated fairy tale films (e.g. last year's Red Riding Hood, the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman) - are rife with dark subject matter, sexuality, and other things that are often more squarely associated with teen and adult culture than that of children. In short - by arguing that fairy tales are increasingly seen as inappropriate for children, the poll introduces the idea that fairy tales are indeed appropriate for adults.
The story caught on, however, in no small part because it taps into larger, longstanding debates about what constitutes as "appropriate" or "inappropriate" content for young people...especially younger children. The debate itself has been around for centuries and although it has always included a strong focus on books, it has extended into pretty much every media form that's surfaced: penny "dreadfuls," comic books, television, film, videogames...you name it. Fairy tales themselves have already stood at the centre of various incarnations of this debate. For instance, in addition to recurring concerns about their at-times-dark and at-times-violent content, fairy tales have raised objections in regards to their very emphasis on fantastical, whimsical and magical themes (which for some critics are a slippery slope into witchcraft, while for others present a risk of "misinformation"). So, the current interest in the role of fairy tales in kids' culture actually has a rich historical and theoretical context - one that needs to be considered when we think about the Watch poll or about the nastier moments contained in the Grimm Brothers' version of Snow White.
Earlier this week, Tralee Pearce wrote an article for the Globe and Mail entitled "Fairy tales or scary tales: Should we sanitize stories for our kids?" (riffing on the title of an article written by Liam Lacey last year about all those PG-13 fairy tale films). Pearce asked parents and experts to weigh in on the debate, using the Watch poll and ensuing debate (e.g. Libby Copeland's Slate article) as the entry point. As Pearce writes, while fairy tales have undergone various changes and retellings over the years, filling a number of prominent roles in kids' culture (in terms of providing core themes/motifs, containing morality lessons, and so on):
We’re certainly not sure if they’re edifying for children any longer. Many parents blanch when they stumble upon alarming scenes in volumes they haven’t vetted. Cinderella's stepsisters slice off their toes and heels to try fitting into the slipper? Red Riding Hood and her grandma actually get eaten by the wolf and a huntsman slices the wolf open?Pearce points out that the "sanitized Disney versions, with their focus on pretty princesses and happy endings, dominate our collective memory," and claims that "even Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm edited out some of the more unsettling elements in their later editions." While it's certainly true that the Disney versions have come to overshadow other iterations of these tales for many of us, they are nowhere near beyond critique - in fact, Disney's fairy tale films represent some of the most thoroughly studied, critiqued and challenged children's texts out there. And the idea that the Grimm's edited their stories to remove the darker elements builds on some other common misconceptions circulating out there about the history and origins of fairy tales...namely, the idea that the stories were not originally intended for children at all. The actual argument that is most frequently made by children's scholars and historians is that the oral folk tales that modern fairy tales are based on were not solely intended for children - which is very different from saying that they were NOT for children. As many historians argue, the idea of a completely segregated children's culture is a fairly recent phenomenon - storytelling was traditionally an activity enjoyed by people of all ages and they would engage in the practice together, communally. In terms of the Grimm tales specifically, well, it would very much appear that the first volume of fairy tale stories the brothers published was entitled Children's and Household Tales, which certainly implies that children were indeed among the original intended readers.
There are similar complexities behind the idea that the Grimm's edited their stories in order to make them less "unsettling." The Grimm's edited their stories for complex and multifaceted reasons. As Jack Zipes, leading expert in fairy tales, points out in his 1997 book Happily Ever After, those changes made to the Grimm tales were part of a larger movement (involving clergymen, some publishers, educators and parents) to ensure kids were reading "appropriate" material that reflected "proper" values (i.e. Christian, upper class, patriarchal, etc.):
"At first, fairy tales were regarded as dangerous because they lacked Christian teaching and their symbols were polymorphously meaningful and stimulating. But by the beginning of the 19th century, fairy-tale writers had learned to rationalize their tales and to incorporate Christian and patriarchal messages into the narrative to satisfy middle-class and artistocratic adults. For example, the Grimms purposely changed their fairy tales between 1819 and 1857 to make them more instructional and moral, and other writers worked to create tales more appropriate for children, not realizing that often, in seeking to protect children, we harm them most."The key argument that Zipes makes in much (if not all) of his work is that these rationalizing processes are what pose a real danger to children's culture. It is the recurring modern tendency to sanitize, simplify/infantilize, and homogenize fairy tales that robs children of potentially rich, meaningful cultural experiences. I've incorporated a lot of Zipes' work into my own teaching and research about fairy tales, and how this genre functions as a core component of kids' culture. For instance, the idea that fairy tales are dynamic and changeable, and that each iteration is a transformation - a symbolic act designed to arrange and rearrange the shared themes, archetypes and motifs that are found throughout our culture. Fairy tales serve a wide variety of purposes, from addressing and representing the concerns of those in power (e.g. traditional mid-19th century tellings, hegemonic reinterpretations a la Disney), to challenging power relations, established hierarchies and social norms (as found in both folk and contemporary versions).
So how does this fit in with a debate about fairy tales containing darker themes, violence and sexuality? Well, in a few ways. By tracing the ways in which fairy tales have been the subject of different but similar controversies, oftentimes changed in ways that advanced very particular ideologies and agendas, we can see how notions of "appropriate" content are not only relative but also political. These discussions should always raise more questions than they answer: Appropriate according to who? According to what criteria and cultural norm? In what context, which version of which story?
In contemporary discussions, appropriateness is oftentimes justified by association with some sort of scientific research or developmental theory, but in the end these types of justifications are almost always contentious in their own right, and come with a whole assortment of counter theories and criticisms that problematize any attempt to apply them categorically. As a group, kids are as diverse as any other...perhaps even more so, given all that's going on with them in terms of their physical and cognitive development, their rich social and emotional lives, all the learning they're constantly doing and all the adult expectations they have to attend to. They mature and learn in diverse ways, they like and are drawn to a wide variety of things, just as they are disturbed by and afraid of different things. So linking a concept as rife and changeable as "appropriate" to some sort of standardized template based on "age" or gender or any other static and ultimately over-simplified category is going to be problematic.
That doesn't mean that an individual child, along with their teacher or parents (and other caregivers), can't figure out what's appropriate for them...they can! And do! What it means is that making sweeping generalizations about "kids" runs a risk of effacing important nuances and differences in how kids engage with culture, what they need from it and how they learn through it, in different contexts and at different times (of the day, of life, etc.). Once these nuances are made invisible, everything that falls outside becomes labelled as different, as deviant. Which is not only easier to exclude, but also tends to invite more active forms of disciplining, control and vilification. Book bans come to mind here, as do the many moral panics linking children's so-called "inappropriate" book or media consumption with various forms of social and behavioural "deviance." Classifying certain books or genres as inappropriate implies that the kids who read and enjoy them are somehow inappropriate, at risk or dangerous (e.g. they'll expose other kids to scary ideas, they'll become desensitized to violence, etc.).
Many of the articles I've read in this recent discussion contain really valuable anecdotes about a child asking their parent not to read Grimm fairy tales at bedtime anymore, or a child reporting having nightmares after reading a particularly gruesome edition of Cinderella. The reactions of the parents to then put those books away (or "away for now") is completely valid, I think, and highlights the enormous value of familial negotiation (and family dynamics more generally) in kids' mediated cultural experience. It also points to the very individual and subjective relationship different kids have with different materials at different stages of their lives. But some children love gory, scary stories. The continued popularity of Goosebumps, and the enduring tradition of watching horror movies at sleepover parties both attest to this. It is for these kids that we need to avoid overly stringent categories like "appropriate" - these kids, and various others who don't fit whatever dominant, hegemonic notions about "what kids are" and "what kids should be/read" happen to be circulating at the time.
For these children, sanitizing or banning darker versions of fairy tales could mean cutting off a potentially important outlet for exploring things that are important to them, in a format that appeals to them, through experiences that could lead to new and meaningful understanding of the world around them, how it works and how they feel about it. Research on the profane aspects of kids' culture reinforces this idea that such encounters can be enormously significant - they can serve as bonding rituals, can help children discover (and push) both personal and cultural boundaries (e.g. reading a scary book you aren't quite ready for can serve an important function in terms of figuring out what your limits are, what you're afraid of...why). Buckingham's examination of the delight that some viewers (both child and adult) take in being disgusted by and terrified by horror films is a great example of this particularly under-reported body of research. And I'll have more recommended readings to add to that list once I finish Part II.
In the next section (coming later this week), I will attempt to link the debate about fairy tales to another contemporary controversy, as children of younger ages are now flocking to the dystopian sci-fi hit series, The Hunger Games, raising a similar set of questions among parents, educators and librarians around (similar, but also slightly different) issues of "appropriateness," violence and impacts.