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Explore in detail and using examples, how Fairy Tales are manifested in contemporary culture. By Rachel Strachan (110053714)


Contents Introduction… Origins of fairy tales… Contemporary fairy tales: Disney… The fairy tale influence … Bibliography...


Introduction In contemporary society, when we think of the words “Fairy Tale” we automatically may assume and connote the Disney franchise, DreamWorks, or perhaps the classic adaptions of the books we all read as a child (Little Red Riding Hood for example.) In today’s society children are more likely to watch an animated fairy tale then actual read one. Although fairy tales have undergone a massive change within modern day society, the stories themselves have been around for centuries , and before we look forward at what these classic stories have become, we must look back to where it all began (and just to be extremely cliché I shall start with how these stories begin… Once Upon a Time…) I am first going to begin with looking at the origins of these fairy/folk tales, and then go on to discuss the influence fairy tales have on society, as well as looking at the Disney franchise.


Origins of fairy tales In todays society when we think of fairy tales, we usually assume they’re targeted towards a younger audience, however the actual origins of fairy tales were quite different, “up through 1700, there was no literary fairy tales for children, on the contrary, children like their parents heard oral tales, from their governesses, servants, and peers. The institutionalizing of the literary fairy tale, began in the salons during the seventeenth century, was for adults and arose out of a need by aristocratic women to elaborate and conceive other alternatives in society than those prescribed for them by men” [1994:23] If we were to tell the same, original fairy tales in todays society, this would be seen as highly controversial and inappropriate for children due to the content. Fairy tales were told orally long before they were written down, the stories would be told dramatically and passed on from person to person. The 17th century was known as the “Salon era” for these tales, “the literary fairy tale was first developed in salons by aristocratic women as type of parlor game by the middle of the seventeenth century… the salon fairy tale became so acceptable that women and men began writing their tales down to publish them.” [1994:20,21]


“Once there was a time when folk tales were part of communal property and told with original and fantastic insights by gifted storytellers who gave vent to the frustration of the common people and embodied their needs and wishes in the folk narratives. Not only did the tales serve to unite the people of the community and help bridge a gap in their understanding of social problems in a language and narrative mode familiar to the listeners’ experiences, but their aura illuminated the possible fulfilment of utopian longings and wishes which did not preclude social integration.” [1979:4] Suggesting that telling/reading these stories was seen as social interaction, people would unite and listen as these were dramatically presented to the listeners. Sharing fairy tales became a social culture. The ‘oral folk tale’ was originally how fairly/folk tales were told, and would be passed around through word of mouth. Now this method is almost unheard of, as it progressed to the literary tale, and now in the case of contemporary society the animated/visual tale. As Jack Zipes states it in his book Breaking the Magic Spell: “Today the folk tale as an oral art form has lost its aura and given way to the literary fairy tale and other mass-media forms” [1979:5 Zipes] Whilst modern day fairy tales may be visual through use of film and television, it would be suggest that these are the stories that lack imagination and that the oral and literary classic tales brought a more magical element, as audiences would perceive the characters, and the images themselves. “Friedmar Apel has argued that, from its origins, the central theme of the fairy tale has always concerned the struggle of the imagination against the hard reality of exploitation and reification. Whereas the earlier fairy tales of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could optimistically project a harmony of soul and reality brought about by magic or a fantastic element that seemed commensurate with progress in the world, Apel has claimed that the modern temper is stamped by our conscious recognition that such harmony can never be achieved and thus the very basis of the fairy tale is no longer relevant and can never again be valid, unless its formal characteristics totally change.” [1994:140.]


Walt Disney “It was not once upon a time, but in a certain time in history, before anyone knew what was happening, Walt Disney cast a spell on the fairy tale, and it has been held captive ever since… If children or adults think of the great classical fairy tales today, be it Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella, they will think Walt Disney.” [1994:72] Walt Disney has highly influenced fairy tales in our contemporary society, he has changed how we as the audience perceive these types of stories, and has made them more appropriate for the viewer. The narratives are highly diluted in order for them to be acceptable in todays society. Disney has moulded fairy tales into a children’s genre, and has therefore made the narratives far more simplistic and suitable, this differs to the norm of the original fairy tales which would include elements of pain and suffering, the endings were sometimes cruel and sad, opposed to the Disney convention and this idea of a “happy ever after.”


“The purpose of the early animated films was to make the audiences awestruck and to celebrate the magical talents of the animator as demigod...The animators sought to impress audiences with their abilities to use pictures in such a way that they would forget the earlier fairy tales and remember the images that they, the new artists were creating for them.” [1994:80] The stories through the use of animation became more memorable for the viewer, as the narrative was obviously more visual. Due to the main audience of the Disney franchise (children) it would (in our contemporary society) be extremely controversial and unheard of in western society to even consider telling children the original folk/fairy tales, Disney has taken a old/traditional narrative and highly diluted it so its appropriate for its audience. For example, in the original Sleeping Beauty tale, the story is completely different, the story is as follows; The Princess pricks her finger and falls asleep, the Prince then arrives, who falls in lust, rapes her, she then becomes pregnant with twins and gives birth to them whilst still asleep. The babies then crawl out and feed on her, but one of them accidently starts sucking on her finger and consequently sucks out the splinter and the curse is broke. “The great ‘magic’ of the Disney spell is that he [Walt Disney] animated the fairy tales only to transfix audiences and divert their potential utopian dreams and hopes through false promises of the images he cast upon the screen” [1994:74] Audiences obviously know these stories/tales are fictional, but from a young age growing up with the Disney fairy tales allow audiences to have these ‘magical dreams,’ Disney offers a lot of false promises within its fairy tales and leads certain expectations of love, beauty, men and so on. In the Disney narratives everything seems like a perfect world, and is meant to produce a form of hope and desire to its audiences. Within our modern day culture Disney films allow for escapism, as their main convention within the narrative is that there’s always a happy ending, which gives a sense of optimism within our society.


The fairy tale influence “Everywhere one turns today fairy tales and fairy-tale motifs pop up like magic. Bookshops are flooded with fairy tales…. Schools and theatres perform a wide range of spectacular fairy-tale plays for the benefit of children. Operas and musical works are based on fairy tale themes. Famous actors make fairy-tale recordings for the radio and other mass media outlets. Aside from the Disney vintage productions, numerous films incorporate fairy -tale motifs and plots. Even porno films make lascivious use of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty. Fairy-tale scenes and figures are employed in advertisements, window decorations, TV commercials, restaurant signs, and club insignias” [1979:1 Zipes] This quote from Jack Zipes really highlights how fairy tales influence contemporary culture, they have a profound effect on various forms of mass media/art. Fairy tales are manifested into our consumerist society, as they have a vast impact on what and how we buy or consume a product/service. “In this century at least, so many people know fairy tales only through badly truncated and modernized versions that it is no longer really fairy tales they know.” [1979:4] Zipes here suggesting that the ‘magic’ of the fairy tale is lost. The narratives themselves have been changed and retold so many different times, in so many different ways that the story loses its essence. We forget about the actual meaning and the traditional stories, due to the modernization of them, we now think of fairy tales of being animated films/ something we visually view. So much of the story has been altered in order to be ‘politically correct’ that we begs the question; can they really be classed in the fairy tale genre?


Although when you think of classic fairy tales, you make think Little Red Cap or perhaps Snow White, in the 20th century we welcome what may not necessarily be classed in the fairy tale genre (although do carry a fairy tale motif to some extent.) But there are other forms of stories we can learn from and enjoy through the aspect of fantasy. Steven Swann Jones in his book The Fairy Tale examines the fairy tale influence in The Wizard of Oz, The Cat in the Hat and Where the Wild Things Are. Firstly Wizard of Oz, although the same conventions of fairy tales don’t apply there are similarities between the two, as Jones states “The Wizard of Oz begins with a problematic domestic situation . In the tradition of many fairy tales heroines (such as Cinderella, Snow White, and the heroine in “The Kind and Unkind Girls”), Dorothy feels unloved at home and does not get along well with her mother, or the woman serving in the role of mother.” [2002:92] The roles of the protagonists also see a correlation; each has heroes/heroines, villains, helpers etc. “The Cat in the Hat also dramatically depicts the psychological struggles of its young protagonist through fantastic imagery that follows the fairy tale model” [2002:99] Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, follows a form of fairy tale motif, due to its fantasy elements, it sees a young boy called Max who travels on a journey to a magical land, this form of narrative is seen in classic fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk. Jones implies that usually protagonists in fairy tales are portrayed as innocent or maybe even slightly naïve, however Max would differ from this convention. To sum up, Jones states “Each text presents a quest or adventure in which, through their successful negotiation of the interaction with the magical or fantastic phenomena, the protagonist resolve their dilemmas or problems and return to a happy and harmonious family home with their parents.” [2002:91]


Bibliography “Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk & Fairy Tales” Jack Zipes: First published in 1979, Routledge. “Fairy Tale As Myth, Myth As Fairy Tale” Jack Zipes; Published in 1994; The University Press of Kentucky. “The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of the Imagination” Steven Swann Jones; Published in 2002; Routledge


Fairy Tales