Where’s Your Fairy Tale?

In the May 21 edition of Time magazine, James Poniewozik had a light-hearted article examining the change of pace in the Fairy Tale genre in recent times, through films such as Shrek and books such as David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs.  Throughout much of the article, Poniewozik essentially argues that the old-style fairy tales – a la early Disney, the Brothers Grimm, and other classical fairy tales – are just too unrealistic.  Unrealistic, and just plain unappealing in our feminist, post-modern, street-wise culture.  Shrek and other parodies of old-style fairy tales are now de rigueur, creating a new establishment for some future writer to lampoon in time. 

Poniewozik is clearly un-enamored with the classic fairy-tale structures of damels in distress being saved by brave princes and such.  These outdated fairy tales are “hokey”, “stultifying”, “boring” to adults (not necessarily to kids),equated with “strained peas” in terms of their appeal to youth.  He is particularly unhappy with Disney’s “sanitized” fairy-tale versions that stripped the originals of some of their sharper edges to make more appealing family fare.  But his criticisms seem to range wider than this narrow – though lucrative – target.  Ultimately, he writes as one who has rejects the “message” of “old-school” fairy tales.  That message apparently is that “life doesn’t play out as simply as it does in fairy tales”, and that “wonder is for suckers”. 

Of course, the obvious rebuttal is that fairy tales are not historical narrative.  The power of the classic fairy tales lay precisely in their straddling of the precarious and often blurry line between what is and what ought to be.  The lessons were not necessarily realistic, but practical.  You might not get eaten by a wolf disguised as your grandmother, but you should be careful about what situations you allow yourself to get into. 

He also clearly identifies a curious – and I would argue dangerous – fact.  The ‘new’ fairy tales are recasting cultural values that have been somewhat universal in the West for literally thousands of years.  Understandings of the differences between men and women are being traded in for the insistence that men and women are completely identical in every respect except for what sexual organs they happen to have been born with.  And that sticky wicket can be surgically altered as well.  Men and women are seen as essentially identical slabs of meat that can be pressed into unisex uniformity. 

Except that it’s not uniformity.  Women are pressed to be capable of doing everything a man and a woman has traditionally done, while men are continually feminized and weakened to the point that one wonders what a woman of any age would want with one of them.  If you don’t believe this is the case, name a strong, capable, respected male figure on any major network sitcom.  Now how many strong, capable women are on these same sitcoms – women who are constantly cleaning up after their hapless men and taking them to task for being such dimwits? 

Fairy tales are ultimately an expression of actions and attitudes in the here and now that reflect the reality we wish existed.  Strong, brave men should have been willing to face danger for the love of a woman, though they often didn’t.  Princes should have been charming, though often they were not.  Nevertheless, fairy tales didn’t simply scrap a view of how the world should be because of shortcomings in the reality.  Disney may have made some of these boring, but that doesn’t mean that the values and messages behind Disney’s films – or the original fairy tales – were for “suckers”.

We all want a better world.  Unfortunately, in an age that has uniformly denounced and abandoned any outside assistance in overcoming our basic human inadequacies, failures, and inconsistencies, what we’re left with is simply trying to describe our reality more realistically, setting our sights lower.  We’re encouraged to try and make ourselves better, but over and over again we’ve discovered both personally and vicariously that we can’t.  Genetics holds such a powerful sway over the public imagination because science has for the first time presented some sort of physical answer to the problem that has plagued man since Eden.  We aren’t who we were meant to be, and we know it.  Science hopes to change this by altering our genetic code to make us into who we think we ought to be. 

If you’re optimistic about the odds of this turning out to be a) correct and, b) successful, you’re more a believer in fairy tales than you might be inclined to give yourself credit for. 

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