2012-02-08

Fairy Tales and Failures

Hey all,

Do you remember when I was asking for ideas about how fairy tales were relevant to today's society? Well I ended up generating an essay and after getting some reviews and critiques from my classmates (and the embarrassing massacre of my paper by my professor) I'd like to see what you guys think of it, m'kay?

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Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”


We all know the story of Hansel and Gretel, the two children who lived with their woodcutter father and his evil second wife in a cottage in the woods. If we recall the tale, we remember that this evil stepmother did not like the children and believed there wasn't enough food for them all, so she convinced her husband to abandon the children in the woods. We remember the ingenuity of the breadcrumb trail, the disappointment we felt when the crumbs were eaten leaving the poor children to wander alone. With wonder, we joined them as they came upon a cottage made of sweets. Unfortunately this cottage was owned by an evil witch who wanted to eat the children. How horrible. And again, we are astounded by how clever the children are in escaping from her.

Fairy tales, much like urban legends, stem from a tradition of oral storytelling and aim to influence behavior, particularly in young children. Stay out of the woods at night. Don't open the door to strangers. Be afraid and be cautious. These stories are old and probably ingrained in many of our psyches, but how relevant are they today?

In the case of Hansel and Gretel, there are many themes and concepts found within that are still prevalent in our modern society. For example, the many cases of child abandonment being blasted on the news harken back to this very story, where the two children are abandoned by their father and left to fend for themselves. In some instances, these abandoned kids are left with some money or food, but in the case of our two wee heroes, they have to rely on Hansel's cleverness to see them safely home. Their stepmother, portrayed as evil and heartless – as most fairy tale stepmothers are, is insistent that the family can't afford to feed so many mouths and again, this is something we in the modern world can relate to. With such a poor economy, it's harder to make ends meet and sometimes sacrifices must be made. By no means should a child be sacrificed, but the theme is there.

The interaction between the two siblings plays a very important role in the idea of sibling bonding. Most siblings fight, that's a given, but in dire situations this story teaches us that the best way to see it through is to stick together and help one another out. Hansel creates a breadcrumb trail to help them find their way home and constantly reassures his sister. Gretel, for her part, plays a major role in saving her brother's life at the end of this story.

Another important lesson featured in this story is to beware of strangers and if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. When Hansel and Gretel come upon the house made of gingerbread and candy, they can't believe their eyes. They're completely captivated and are easily lured in by the witch who lives there, who then attempts to eat the children. While we may not find many children-eating witches today, there is still a decided threat to our society's children and he often comes in the form of a suspicious man with a van, and either candy or a puppy. Like the gingerbread house, this is a tactic meant to lure children in and if they're familiar with the story of Hansel and Gretel, maybe they'll think twice about that nice man and his dog.

Other popular fairy tales that can offer insight into our culture include Cinderella. Many people can relate to her sad story and for a multitude of reasons. Cinderella is at the mercy of a rather cruel step-family and anyone who lives with step-siblings or was adopted into a family can relate to tales of simply wanting to be loved and accepted. It makes for a complicated situation when a child must deal with a new parental figure entering the scene and may even rebel. The step-parent on the other hand could be awkward or hostile around a child perceived as “not theirs” and this is, I believe, where the notion of the evil stepmother really comes from.

For her part, Cinderella is a kind and noble character, carrying out her chores without complaint, being kind to the household's animals, and keeping her sad thoughts to herself. She is selfless and valiant and it's for this reason that the fairy godmother visits Cinderella and allows her to go to the ball. The lesson here seems to be all good thing to those who wait. But there is always a price for dreams come true and we must be willing to accept that price or else our very own chariot will turn back into a pumpkin. In Cinderella's case, she was given a curfew, something most young people can identify with. And if that curfew is ignored or forgotten, there may be consequences. It isn't likely that the car you borrowed from your parents is going to turn into a pumpkin, but you may not see the keys again for a while.

The most important moral of Cinderella's story though, is that no matter what background you come from, you can always make your dreams come true and that's a very powerful and inspiring message even today, when the world seems bleak and hopeless. Whether your dream is to make a lot of money in the future or win a beauty pageant, don't give up. Your happiness is worth pursuing.

Speaking of beauty - it can be a curse or a blessing, as Snow White shows us. This is a tale about a young girl and a wicked Queen, both of which are very beautiful. But the Queen is so vain that she can't stand the thought of someone being lovelier than her and when Snow White becomes the fairest in the land, she's outraged. It sparks images of belligerent beauty pageant contestants attacking the winner and stealing her crown. Surely we can think of at least one person in our lives who is envious of someone else's beauty and secretly wishes to ruin that person's life. Jealousy is a wicked thing and something that still runs rampant in our appearance-based world today.

The victims of jealousy have it rough. Snow White, for example, was taken into the woods to be killed by one of the Queen's henchman. Fortunately, he was too much of a coward to do so, but how many people today have enough misguided courage to treat others unfairly based on their looks? We see it today in the ostracizing of those wearing alternative fashions, the snubbing done to those who might not dress as “cool” as everyone else, the mockery of those who are too poor to buy brand name items.
However Snow White's beauty also saves her. The seven dwarfs fall in love with her and wish her to stay with them. The prince, who comes to see Snow White in her glass coffin, is so taken with her beauty that he can't resist kissing her. Who could imagine that such a superficial desire would save her life? Beauty is definitely a double-edged sword.

The story also displays a rather cruel fact about how women are perceived. It seems to say that if a woman isn't fair or pretty that she might as well be worthless. The Queen certainly believes this notion and to an extent perhaps even Snow White does.

In fact, most fairy tales centering around princesses or lovely maidens seem to contain this thread of thinking. Sleeping Beauty is a lovely girl and the story spun around her seems to imply that all her misfortune is caused by her beauty. Rapunzel has such long hair that she can pull people up into her tower with it. Even Cinderella was described as being the loveliest girl at the ball. What does this tell young girls, though?

It tells them that beyond being a good person and having virtuous qualities, that they must be beautiful. It tells them that they must be feminine, and have long hair, and wear the prettiest dresses. Otherwise one can't even begin to measure up to these fairy tales princesses that many young girls aspire to.

Fear not, men, for there are many sexist and unfair ideas presented in fairy tales for you as well. Take for example the case of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. The villain of both of these stories is a wolf. Wolves are commonly referred to as masculine animals, thus the assumption can be made that a “wolf” is referring to perhaps a burly or brooding male, the type to catcall women on the street or make passes at them in a bar. Not only do these tales demonize an animal species that isn't inherently evil, they also demonize men. Men are the violent criminals. Men are the beasts. In today's crime scene, the majority of suspects are often male and when referring to a sexual predator, one often conjures up an image of a troubled man. Much like in fairy tales, it is unfair to assume that men are to be blamed for all misfortune. But it seems that these classic tales of horror and wonder have permanently ingrained this idea into our culture.

The wolf does play an important role in these stories though. He serves as a warning, what to watch out for and what to avoid. In Little Red Riding Hood, he's the creepy (potential) pedophile that taunts Red as she's heading off to grandma's. He's the reminder that we mustn't talk to strangers or give them any reason to target us, if we can help it. The wolf is also the murderer or burglar trying to get inside the homes of the Little Pigs'. He easily blasts through the houses made of straw and sticks, but can't blow down the brick house. The lesson here is that if we want to keep unsavory individuals out of our homes, we should invest in a good security system and not leave our home as vulnerable as a straw hut.
The popularity of fairy tales seems to wax and wane throughout the decades, but these past few years have seen a resurgence in the art of telling folktales. The entertainment industry is cashing in on re-spinning many of our beloved and classic fairy tales, such as Rapunzel, Snow White, and even Peter Pan, making them easy to relate to for a modern audience. However, many of the key elements and motifs of these classic tales of caution and magic remain the same, bridging cultural gaps and to this day reflecting our own cultural values and ideals. So I'll ask again. How relevant are fairy tales today?

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I know, I know...it's long. And what I'm about to ask of you is even worse. v_v

What do you see as the main point of my essay? 
Is it narrowly focused or too broad?
What improvements would you offer me?

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