Monday, 10 June 2013

Snow White and the disneyfication of the fairy tale

Been a day of musing over cups of tea about this.

Around about this time each year I go to Toys R’ Us to purchase a present for the big birthday celebration where my kid goes to day care. Each year I decide to have a look at their book section to see what they have because I like giving books. Each year I’m sorely disappointed with what I find myself looking at: a range of Disney princesses in their uniformly bright colours, the book spin-offs from various animation successes (Cars, Finding Nemo) and colouring-in books (seriously, people, colouring-in books don’t count!). Each year I go around and find some bewildered looking shop assistant and ask them if they’re sure these are all the books they have. Each year I end up speaking anxiously to the manager about their selection.  Each year they give me the phone number of their head office.

Last year I phoned the Toys R’ Us head office and spoke to the buyer for children’s books (without any success clearly) and wrote a letter to the paper. I am aware that Toys R’Us isn’t called Books R’Us (which people have pointed out to me), but when I stare jealously at the impressive DVD and gaming section they have, I can just as easily say they’re not called DVDs R’Us either.  Clearly children’s literature isn’t considered fun enough or entertaining enough to warrant much shelf space in a toy store.

Anyway, the point of this blog post is not to discuss my obsession with the book selection of toy stores, but rather the uneasy feeling I get when I stare at those inanely smiling Disney princesses with their flawless, generic features. I want to talk about Snow White (and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) and the disneyfication of the fairy tale.

Image from here
Many of us won’t remember how we know fairy tales – we just seem to have always known them. This common or shared knowledge can be referred to as our common repertoire of fairy tales.  If the Disney-dominated bookshelves of toyshops are an indication of demand, then it is probably true that these days the version that we all “know” is that of the Disney movie.

But these are not the original fairy tales. The first written records of these oral stories date back hundreds of years and make it clear that they were not originally intended specifically for children, as we assume they were today. In a version of Sleeping Beauty recorded by Giambattista Basile in 1634, for example, the prince is so taken with the looks of the sleeping princess that he climbs into bed with her and enjoys “the first fruits of love”. Then he leaves her pregnant, but still sleeping. She gives birth to twins but doesn’t awaken until one of them sucks hungrily at her finger and, in so doing, removes the poisoned piece of flax that enchanted her.

Recognisable versions of the fairy tales we know today first appeared in print in 1697 in Charles Perrault’s collection aimed at entertaining the French court. Much later, in 1812, the brothers Grimm published their first edition of German folktales. Clearly, fairy tales have come a long way from oral folklore to Disney product. Versions have changed over time and become less scary and more child-friendly as we would define it today. Disney has in many ways sanitised the fairy tales of the past.

In his chapter entitled Breaking the Disney Spell (from Fairy tale as myth myth as fairy tale), Jack Zipes makes the point,
“It was not once upon a time, but at a certain time in history, before anyone knew what was happening, that Walt Disney cast a spell on the fairy tale, and he has held it captive ever since. He did not use a magic wand or demonic powers. On the contrary, Disney employed the most up-to-date technological means and used his own ‘American’ grit and ingenuity to appropriate European fairy tales.”
As a result, Zipes argues, 
“If children or adults think of the great classic fairy tales today, be it Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, they will think of Walt Disney. Their first and perhaps lasting impressions of these tales and others will have emanated from a Disney film, book, or artifact.”
It would seem a pity if the only contact children have with fairy tales is the sanitised, mass-produced Disney version and that the rich, varied history of fairy tales is lost. I’m not suggesting that Disney is all bad, but that it would do well if, as Zipes suggests, the spell was broken and that among the Disney spin-off books could be found more of the traditional versions as well.

Just a thought...

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