Updating our Fairy Tales by Anjeanette LeBoeuf


Anjeanette

The rising voices of female empowerment, consciousness, and position has been an undertaking in the last two centuries. Yet societies are still using fairy tales; tales that were written at least 500 years ago. Many of the fairy tales can be read in a 21st Feminism lens as being harmful and products of a patriarchal society. The movement can only gain more strength and momentum if we start from the ground up – reworking the stories, fables, and myths we teach our children, we make into movies, and that children want to dress up as.

Actress Keira Knightly has been very vocal recently on her conscious decision to not allow her three-year-old daughter the stories of Cinderella and the Little Mermaid. Keira does not want her daughter growing up being told that she can’t help herself, that she has no agency or voice. Actress Kirsten Bell, who voiced the character of Anna in Disney’s first even sister led animation film Frozen has gone on record that stories need to change to be relevant to the times. Both actresses provide decent points, the fairy tales of old, depict females in domestic situations who are only seeking their ‘one true love.’

frozen

Frozen and Moana have provided a hugely successful push back on the fairy tales of old. Frozen evolved into being a story of sisters. Moana is the first Disney Princess film where the main character, Moana, does not have a love interest, does not marry in the end but leads her people into new discoveries across the ocean. We have also started to see with the success of Frozen and Moana, many young boys wanted to be the female characters especially that of Elsa from Frozen.

moana

Disney has found quite a lot of success in the last five years with producing films which aren’t focused on romantic love but on self-love and family love. 2017 Disney released the film Coco based on a young Mexican boy who travels to the land of the dead during the Mexican festival of Día de los Muertos. The film is centered around a young boy Miguel finding his long lost great-great-grandfather in the land of the lost, reclaim his memory, and ultimately be able to live out his dreams of being a musician.

coco

The realities of the true stories of fairy tales would turn many a parent’s stomach. The Grimm’s Brothers version of Sleeping Beauty depicts Aurora being raped while she is in her coma and only wakes up after child birth.

sleeping beauty

Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid has the mermaid kill herself to save the prince and his wife.

little mermaid

The original French version of Cinderella has her stepsisters cut off their toes to try and fit into the glass slipper. The Evil Queen in Snow White has burning iron shoes and dance until she dies. I could go on and on with the ‘real’ elements of fairy tales devoid of the treatments given by Hollywood and more importantly Disney.

These highly adult and eerie details found in fairy tales are paired with the very clear message that women need saving, that they will receive punishment for not being pure, and clean, and good. The Little Mermaid literally has her voice taken away, Aurora and Snow White their consciousness, and that’s not even mentioning the French classic Beauty and the Beast where the character of Belle trades herself for her father’s life and falls in love with her captor who is also magically an animal-human hybrid – a story of Stockholm syndrome and beastly maybe? And I say that with heavy fingers as Disney’s and the original French version of Beauty and the Beast was one of my favorite fairy tales growing up.

The rising call for positive female representation in film and television, in novels, and in children’s fairy tales is gaining power. More and more comic fans have called Marvel Studios (since 2009 part of the Disney Corporation) to produce a superhero film based on a female hero. 2019 will see the first Marvel Female Superhero movie released Captain Marvel. DC Studios finally struck gold in the 2017 Wonder Woman

There have been attempts in recent years on the small screen to rewrite and reimagine fairy tales. ABC’s Once Upon A Time initially provided a space for a retelling, a reworking of the beloved fairy tales.

ouat

The main character of Snow White held much more agency then originally written and many times throughout the series saves herself and her “Prince Charming.” NBC’s Grimm took more of a grisly outlook by depicting fairy tales as being fragmented stories of real life monsters.

grimm

Whether it be fairy tales, superhero stories, or myths, they all function as being paths and tools of how one understands the world, emotions, and their own positions within them. With each new day comes a different understanding of how all genders, races, and cultures function and work. Isn’t it time for the fairy tales of old to be retired, for new stories, legends, and lore to be created which supports the rising consciousness and positionality.

Anjeanette LeBoeuf is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Whittier College. She is the Queer Advocate for the Western Region of the American Academy of Religion. Anjeanette also writes the for activist blog, Engaged Gaze. Her focuses are divided between South Asian religions and religion and popular culture. She has become focused on exploring the representations of women in all forms of popular culture and how religion plays into them. She is an avid supporter of both soccer and hockey. She is also a television and movie buff which probably takes way too much of her time, but she enjoys every minute of it. Anjeanette has had a love affair with books from a very young age and always finds time in her demanding academic career to crack open a new book.

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Categories: Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, Fiction, General, Literature

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

17 replies

  1. Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale. You are so inspiring.. keep going

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  2. Thanks for writing this essay, Anjeanette. I think it’s important (imperative) for us to understand that our culture’s stories, including religious ones, shape us. As you’ve noted, “Whether it be fairy tales, superhero stories, or myths, they all function as being paths and tools of how one understands the world, emotions, and their own positions within them.”

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    • Esther – these stories and images do shape us…. it is so scary to me that they function as “paths” through life. As a child who was submerged in fairy tales as a young reader I absorbed so many destructive messages….

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    • It’s very sad—this was several years ago—to have experienced being a guest teacher in a women’s study class at American University, and to have heard that most of the students had only seen the Disney version of “Cinderella” (One of my story-performances was a re-created version of the Russian tale of “Vassilisa”—“Vassailisa” has been called a Cinderella story— for a program I put together called Strong Russian Women.)
      I agree emphatically that “Whether it be fairy tales, superhero stories, or myths, they all function as being paths and tools of how one understands the world, emotions, and their own positions within them.”
      It’s sad but true, but it also heartening to know that there are people out there who keep on keepin’ on, more than 150 years after the founding of the Women’s Rights Movement. What strength; what courage; what perseverance!

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  3. You’re right! I’ve been writing revisionist fairy tales for years because we need to have strong girls who can act for themselves. I’ve also de-Christianized my revisionist fairy tales. If there’s a divine power in one of these stories, it’s a goddess. It’s also important to know that the French fairy tales were written (many of them during the reign of Louis XIV) for sophisticated adults, not children, and the Grimm brothers were mostly doing research to “dig up” the old German values of strength, male strength. Their “household tales” were also originally not for children.

    Does anyone else know Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods? When Cinderella asks the Prince (who has already been philandering early in their marriage) a pointed question, he replies that he was raised to be charming, not sincere.

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  4. Agreed, we do need new stories, but we also need an updated version of how young girls look – we DON’T need female models like the proverbial “Barbie” in whatever new incarnation she appears… Empowering young girls with new stories with an “old” man centered look sends a double message – one that might be equally destructive. And please remember – the image precedes the word.

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  5. Two sentences into your post, Anjeanette, I was singing: “Someday My Prince Will Come”! Stories are powerful! Especially with music.
    I agree with Sara Wright, we need to do more than make our stories with the same old “look”. (A scantily dressed “Wonder Women” with weapons of destruction for instance. Violence as a solution.). Why not tell the stories of real women who made/make a difference? Let their names be known. Women scientists, social reformers, (How many young women know about women’s struggle for equal rights, even to be recognized as “persons”?) community builders, etc. How many of the things we take for granted are the result of women who dared, and who fought not comic book characters, but real people who still try to keep us submissive to them?

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  6. Yes, I completely agree. I grew up under the auspices of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella looking for my prince to save me. I was lucky by my mid 40’s to realize that if there was any saving to occur, I would be doing it myself. :) … Nowadays, it warms my heart to hear my 6 and 9 year old daughters speaking of their favorite Princesses: Moana, Merida the Brave, Mulan. Change your stories. Change your Life.

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  7. I too grew up with the old Disney, but I like the aesthetics of the old movies much more. Those stupid looking girls with big eyes don’t do it for me. Siggghhhhh

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  8. Your essay is, so, so important. (FYI, I’m working on a book with six other internationally-known women storyteller/writers. It’s a collection of tales—from mostly original stories to adaptations of fairy tales. I might be able to use your statement that: “Whether it be fairy tales, superhero stories, or myths, they all function as being paths and tools of how one understands the world, emotions, and their own positions within them.” How do I get permission?

    By the way, the Grimm brothers’ re-wrote the stories they collected; they were not verbatim. That’s my understanding, anyway.

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  9. Olga Broumas also has poems (I think 6) that re-vision fairy tales from (if I remember correctly) a feminist standpoint.

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  10. Thank you for your article Anjeanette….

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  11. Very informative. Re-visioning fairytales sounds like a great idea to me.

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