Saturday 19 October 2019

Fantastical fairy tales offer a welcome respite from harsh digital age realities

Mother Keira Knightley does not find Disney's fairy tales suitable for the current social climate

DOES MUM KNOW BEST? Kristen Bell and Keira Knightley
disapprove of problematic messaging from fairy tale classics. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
DOES MUM KNOW BEST? Kristen Bell and Keira Knightley disapprove of problematic messaging from fairy tale classics. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

A poor young woman, abused and mistreated by her stepmother and sisters, is taken in by a wealthy man she meets briefly one evening. Another beautiful woman is impregnated by her lover, who goes missing after an attack from a jealous woman. A young brother and sister are abandoned by their parents, only to be enslaved by a deranged, cannibalistic woman.

Don't worry, these are not the bad news stories you missed last week. They are stories told mostly to young children, over and over again until they become engrained in our consciousness.

Fairy tales are cultural touchpoints that transcend gender, class, generation and language. This is likely to do with their longevity - a study from 2016 found that the origins of some fairy tales stretch back further than previously thought. Rumpelstiltskin, for example, is now thought to be up to 6,000 years old, existing "long before the emergence of the literary record".

While some may appreciate the cultural and historical significance of these enduring stories, others may find them simply old fashioned. Last week, while speaking with Parents magazine, actress Kristen Bell pointed out the problematic messaging from classics such as Snow White, and the impact this can have on children.

She asks her daughters, "Don't you think that it's weird that the prince kisses Snow White without her permission? Because you cannot kiss someone if they're sleeping." In the same week, Keira Knightley revealed that both Cinderella and The Little Mermaid are banned in her household. She doesn't believe that these stories have a particularly feminist bent, considering that The Little Mermaid's Aeriel gives up her voice for a man, while Cinderella "waits around for a rich guy to rescue her". The same could be said of Elizabeth Bennet, the Pride and Prejudice heroine played by Knightley in 2005. Presumably her daughter also won't be seeing Silk, the 2007 film in which Knightley plays a woman who knows her husband is in love with another woman, but does nothing about it.

But back to the fairy tales. Both actresses are, of course, referring to the Disney versions of these ancient stories. Knightley baulks at the thought of a female role model who gives up her voice for a man, but she may be even more horrified at Hans Christian Andersen's version of the story, in which the Prince chooses to marry another woman, causing the mermaid to die and become seafoam.

Keira Knightley. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Keira Knightley. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

If Bell is troubled by the issue of consent in Snow White, she'd likely be more unsettled to know that in the 1812 Brothers Grimm telling of Snow White, she is not asleep when the Prince finds her, but actually dead. This does not deter said Prince from attempting to make off with her body, which makes for an altogether more disturbing scenario.

Just as modern-day mothers like Knightley and Bell don't find Disney's fairy tales suitable for the current social climate, Disney himself sanitised storylines until they were fit for a family-friendly cinematic experience.

As television and film came to classify what we consider 'entertainment', oral storytelling became a relic of the past, along with the macabre origins of many of these stories. As Amber Sparks writes for the Paris Review: "Disney made his versions cannon; the originals were reduced to curiosities."

So, the creation of a woke Cinderella would be nothing new. What's more important than the storyline itself, however, is the act of telling the story. There are few songs or poems that both a nine-year-old and 79-year-old could recite with clarity, but the plot of Jack and the Beanstalk? Almost by rote.

There's no doubt that the stories we tell to our children, particularly those told time and time again, can be profound. To some extent, they have the ability to shape their moral compass, their expectations and their general perception of the world around them. However, the most powerful thing about fairy stories is their ability to stoke the imagination.

In a digital world, in which the harsh realities of life are presented to children at an increasingly earlier age, the telling of fantastical fairy stories offers welcome respite. They may not be entirely palatable to our modern social mores, but there are few things that capture a child's imagination more than a fairy tale; if it's a choice between a submissive maiden or the tyranny that is Fortnite, I know which I'd choose for my child.

Sunday Independent

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