Monday, September 22, 2008

Sanitized fairy tales: News story exposes modern trend of bland safeness

The Boston Globe published a great article on Sunday that I felt compelled to share. The title of this piece by Joanna Weiss says it all:

Fear of fairy tales: The glossy, sanitized new versions of fairy tales leave out what matters: The scary parts.

Weiss' article lays out the case that something important is lost when a child's introduction to fairy tales comes in whitewashed form, and the old classic tales are denuded of anything mildly scary. Writes Weiss:

In toys, movies, and books, the old fairy tales are being systematically stripped of their darker complexities. Rapunzel has become a lobotomized girl in a pleasant tower playroom; Cinderella is another pretty lady in a ball gown, like some model on "Project Runway."

Weiss adds that what makes classic fairy stories timeless are the difficult and often dark elements they contain, which often provide instructive allegory or socially relevant commentary.

I couldn't agree more. As a father of two children I've seen a lot of these kid-friendly versions of the old tales, most of them by Disney. The new rage these days is Disney Princesses, which feature the classic princesses from fairy tales (Cinderella, Snow White, Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid, etc.) living together and spending their days overcoming safe, mundane, and rather trivial obstacles. The result is that kids are entertained, but not challenged. Meanwhile, Disney makes millions selling product-tie ins like costumes, vanity sets, and sanitized books and videos. Writes Weiss:

When the stories intersect with commerce these days--whether in children's books or the endless barrage of toys--they can quickly get reduced beyond recognition. It's easier to sell a Rapunzel playset, after all, as something entirely cheery and safe.

Some parents I suppose will argue that they don't want to expose their children to anything that might potentially scare or unsettle them. I won't argue with that; it's their choice. But the answer is not in stripping classic fairy tales of vitality and meaning. Let them watch Barney or Sesame Street instead. These are fine alternatives (well, Sesame Street is, Barney is Chinese water torture). Although I do think that children are given far too little credit for their ability to distinguish fact from fiction, and fantasy stories from reality. They're pretty smart. For decades and centuries kids grew up on these stories, and most of us turned out all right.

My oldest daugher is six and I plan on reading her The Hobbit soon. Suffice to say that I won't be reading a safe, sanitized version in which Thorin doesn't die, or Gollum becomes a slapstick comic device instead of a slimy, corrupted creature eyeing Bilbo as a tasty meal.


Max said...

Interesting to contrast the most popular modern fantasies with these bowdlerized fairy tales. Both the Harry Potter and the Golden Compass books, for example, feature their heroes in very real jeopardy -- even mortal danger in some cases. Isn't that one of Bruno Bettelheim's fundamental notions -- that children *need* these sorts of stories as a part of their development?

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Brian Murphy said...

Hi Max, I'm actually not familiar with Bettelheim, though after I "Wikipedia-d" him I feel that I should be.

The Boston Globe writer was actually very complementary of Harry Potter for the same reasons you've mentioned here. Even though my impression of the first Harry Potter book was mixed (I thought it was okay, but it didn't make me want to read the second), I understand that it doens't sanitize its evil characters or make Harry's struggles trivial.

trollsmyth said...

"Faerie tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Faerie tales tell children that dragons can be killed."

- G.K. Chesterton

Brian Murphy said...

One of my favorite quotes.