What my daughter sees in fairy tales

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Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 1.58.02 PMMy wife and I watched Maleficent last night, and I found myself overly annoyed at the lack of redeemable male characters. Not heroes, mind you, but just decent human beings in the form of men.

And that got me thinking about what my daughter will see when I watch it with the kids tonight for Saturday Dinner and a Movie.

I’ve been reading princes stories to my daughter for the last year or so. We started with George MacDonald’s princess stories, The Light Princess, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie and we went through all the traditional princess from the Brothers Grimm to Disney.

It’s partly because she’s eight, and she loves princess stories. It’s partly because I want to understand the message these stories are portraying so I can help her process them in our current age. I did not grow up hearing princess stories, so it’s a discovery process for both of us.

And it’s partly because the world is obsessed with fairy tales right now. Or perhaps it always has been.

As far as I can tell, we revisit these classic stories with their archetypal characters every hundred years or so in an effort to modernize the stories. Revisionism, in this sense, is simply updating the stories to fit the time period. We’ve been doing this for the entirety of human history.

Shakespeare was nothing if not a classic Greek revisionist, though I’m sure scholars would butcher me in that argument.

And if it’s true that there is nothing new under the sun, then great storytelling is just revisionism perfected.

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 1.58.36 PMThe story of Maleficent starts hundreds of years ago with an archetypical character known as the fairy godmother.

She is nameless for most of her history, likely a stand in for Clotho, one of the ancient Greek Fates. She was known as the Spinner, the one who spins the thread of life. She is also associated with a goddess who shows up in the ninth month of pregnancy. She is feminism ensconced in one of the venus figurines, older than time and memory.

She was first named Carabosse in Madame d’Aulnoy’s fairy tale Princess Mayblossom, and later she morphed into the intensely evil Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

For any particular age, she manifests what people want to see, what storytellers see around them. She is the resounding gong of our maternal relationships, our view of women and our own insecurities. She is at once a life giver, helper, guiding light and a troublemaker. She’s been known alternately as a matronly goddess and the mistress of all evil.

Fairy tales of the Romantic period are often revisionist towards the culture they were written for or collected by. An attempt to harness the culture and prove to others that our culture is better than your culture.

When fairy tales jumped from oral tradition to parchment to books and to movies, men, white men, to be more accurate, ruled the world.

Much of what you see in fairy tales reinforces the worldview of men who were hungry for power or hell-bent on staying in power.

Fairy tales, and especially princess fairy tales, portray women as mostly helpless beauties, as property of someone or something and as much better when sleeping, quiet, respectful, with a good man by her side or otherwise fulfilling the male-centric view of women in whatever age her story was re-written for.

The pendulum has been swinging the other way since Sleeping Beauty came out in 1959, and it’s been gaining a lot more momentum than you might think. The 1960s ushered in the sexual revolution and feminism. The 70s broke down social norms that had existed for centuries. The 80s saw powerful women rise to political leadership around the world. The 90s brought gay rights the forefront of popular culture and politics. the oughts gave us new ways to look at women in society through art and challenged equality all the way to equal pay and the front door of the White House.

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 1.58.51 PMAnd today, in 2014, princesses stories are being questioned by thinkers and 8-year-olds alike.

Make no mistake, they are still making princess movies depicting them as ageless beauties with hourglass figures. Feminist ideals have not made their way into the Hollywood scripts in a way that reflects the progressiveness of the rest of our culture. But that’s because Hollywood is still run by old white guys hell-bent on staying in control.

So why am I reading princess stories to my 8-year-old?

It’s because she’s trying to understand her place in this new world, and you can’t do that without understanding where you came from, and what others who came before you had to live through to get to this place where we are currently at.

Girls (not all girls, but many) are going to be interested in princess stories for a long-time to come, and they should be. This is the world and the stories of their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers.

And it’s the stories of their fathers, grand fathers and great grandfathers too.

You can revise them all you want, but today we have a much clearer lens into our past thanks to the fact that we’ve actually closed the gender gap. I realize saying the gender gap is closed is probably very controversial, but I’m assuming that we’ve turned the corner, and that even though there is a long way to go until we achieve equality, we’re not going back. History could prove me wrong though.

My daughter is not reading princess stories or watching princess stories through the same lens that children before her have. She’s living in a much more enlightened era, one in which she can’t help but put one view of females up against the modern opportunities for females. And believe it or not, we discuss these things. She’s very aware of herself and her place in this world.

And in all of this, I’m actually taken by the story of Maleficent, a complex character who is finally, perhaps, a little more accurate to the true nature of all of us. A little bit good and a little bit evil. Of course she’s a fairy, which goes back to characters assigned to help out early humans when the world was being created, called daemons, and which modern religions like to refer to as the legions of hell, devils and demons.

Most people don’t realize daemons were actually muses, and that we wouldn’t even have any of the stories we have today, the basic fodder for all fairy tales, were it not for muses and their subjective delivery of creative juices.

But I digress.

[Spoiler Alert]

The movie Maleficent portrays a matronly character who gets her wings ripped off by a power-hungry white male who uses his knowledge and control of a natural resource (iron) to try and grow his dominion.

The make matters worse, the power-hungry white male was a childhood companion of Maleficent’s, and their friendship eventually blossomed into love. The power-hungry white male, a very simple and popular archetypical character in today’s films, betrays Maleficent, and therefore incurs her wrath in the form of a curse intended to kill a baby daughter of the angry, power-hungry white male.

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 2.02.11 PMMaleficent happens to have a bird companion, and I use the word companion lightly here, by the name of Diaval, another male figure in the film who is mostly frightened, maybe a little caring at times and definitely not available, because he’s a shapeshifting slave to Maleficent.

As for other male characters in Maleficent, you won’t really find anything admirable.

Prince Phillip, whose kiss should awaken the sleeping princess, shoots blanks, leaving it to Maleficent herself to undo her curse. The hapless Phillip looks like a member of One Direction, but he’s the dullest character in the movie, by far.

And so I’m left with a movie that accomplishes much of what I want for my daughter today in its portrayal of women, unless you count the three pixies, who play the part of the archetypical fool, but at the cost of a modern female portrayal of the comic figure.

But I wonder if it hasn’t swung too far in the opposite direction.

Have we come so far in 55 years towards equality only to turn the mirror back on ourselves revealing an equally unflattering view?

It’s one movie, so I can’t second guess popular culture and where it goes with this.

Perhaps men deserve a turn at the whipping post of pop cultural derision.

As my 8-year-old daughter learns more about her place in this world, or, better yet, establishes her place in this world uninhibited by the rigidity of yesteryear, I hope for a better portrayal of all humans in our folklore, in our modern retellings of the classics. I hope that we can find male and female characters worthy of the kinds of heroics we know humans are capable of without reducing one or the other to irrelevance.

I hope as she sees femininity in the light of its place in the world today, and as she sees continuing positive changes for women, she also sees a good portrayal of men so that equality is not as much a balancing act on scales but level ground between the sexes.

This starts with the men in her life. Her brothers and me.

But it should extend to the storytellers, the filmmakers, the collectors of fairy tales who retell them for today and the daddies reading princess stories to their little girls.

One thought on “What my daughter sees in fairy tales”

  1. We have this discussion regularly in our home, too, (that hour-glass figure cliche’ is vexing to many!) and as my daughter gets older her own individual pet-peeve is how many parents get killed off at the beginning of stories. Why, she asks me routinely, are no healthy stories portrayed where teens partner with fun parents in navigating adventures? Good question!

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