Some friends and I were discussing Disney movies, and one person mentioned that there are certain movies that she can’t stand to watch because of how Disney changed the original stories. Which made me think about the evolution of fairytales and how their purpose has changed over time.
Remember the awful things that used to happen in the old fairytales? The things that Disney left out? Why were those even there in the first place?
The Moral of the Story:
What Are Fairytales For?
If you’re like me, you grew up reading fairytales as well as watching them. You might’ve even known how they linked to fairies and superstitions, depending on which culture’s fairytales you were reading. Stories like “Snow White & Rose Red,” “The Little Match Girl,” or “Vasilisa the Beautiful.”
That’s not as common for younger generations. Many of the students in middle school or younger today don’t know any fairytales except the ones in Disney movies. And while I love Disney movies, the lessons taught are very different.
The Original Fairytales & Their Purpose
Looking back at those old fairytales, you see some common themes.
- Horrible things happen to children who disobey the rules.
- Good manners, beauty, and hard work are rewarded. Occasionally, brains are rewarded, too, but mostly for peasants (and it’s usually playing a trick on the aristocracy). Love is occasionally the answer, too, but not as often as modern fairytales would have you think.
- If the main character is saved / saves the day, it’s because of bravery and the help of others (including magical creatures and tools). In fact, it’s often the result of previous behavior (the rewardable kind), which means that the main character doesn’t have to do much at the end to win. It’s got a kind of pre-ordained kind of feel.
- The wicked are punished. And by wicked, I mean lazy people and people who betrayed their kings or duty.
- Taboo behaviors by today’s standards are treated as normal and kind of glossed over. Like abandoning your kids in the woods and some horrible mistreatment of women. Read about one of the old versions of “Sleeping Beauty” like “Sun, Moon, and Talia” if you want a clearcut example of how values have changed.
Let me go back to the third one for a minute to say that that’s a big if. The main characters don’t always survive in the old tales. Mainly because the stories were meant to scare children into good behavior. Safe and socially acceptable behavior.
Don’t want your 5 year old wandering off in the woods and getting mauled by a boar? Tell the kid that a child-eating fairy/witch/monster lives in those woods and will steal any child wandering there alone. Want the child to stop lying? Tell him/her about the horrible creature that devours children who lie.
It’s amazing how many behaviors could be prevented by hungry monsters.
Telling lies, laziness, theft, disobedience, poverty – there were stories with morals for all of them. Whatever lesson(s) your child needed taught, there was a story for it. Or you could make one up. Because that’s what fairytales were for.
In the old days, that is.
Today’s Fairytales & Their Purpose
If you’re thinking of plopping your kids in front of a Disney movie to teach them not to do something, I would think again. Today’s versions of the old fairytales are a little different. Although they do have some common themes:
- A child disobeys his/her parents or authority figures, and everything turns out ok. In fact, sometimes, the child’s disobedience is justified – usually because the parents were wrong (Moana for example).
- Love, beauty, kindness, rule-breaking, cleverness, and extreme determination are rewarded. You can see how some of these grew out of the old values, which means you have to look closely sometimes to see the difference in emphasis (Is Cinderella rewarded for being obedient or being kind?).
- The main character is saved / saves the day through bravery, cleverness, and the help of others (including magical creatures and tools).
- The wicked are punished. Although, now, “wicked” generally means cruel and selfish as opposed to the old definition.
- Taboo topics (of today) are taken out or glossed over. Either it’s not in there, or it’s added through innuendo for the adults.
- Happy endings. There. I said it. It’s guaranteed. And, trust me, even the occasional bittersweet ending is happy compared to some of the original ones.
Yep. Everyone gets a happy ending, and you can do anything if you try hard enough or wish hard enough. Those are the new messages being sent. As well as the fact that parents can be wrong and that being kind is important.
Of these, I think the last one is best. The parents-can-be-wrong message is true but may not be the message parents want to send their kids (Disobey me if you think I’m wrong!), and the first two are only true in modern fairytales. In the real world, not necessarily.
So are the messages the main point today? Nope. It’s more the singing, the graphics, and the “feels” – AKA entertainment.
What Caused the Evolution of Fairytales?
Why did that happen? What made the stories change from moral lessons to entertainment? What brought on the happy endings and the value changes?
I think the value changes are easiest to explain – society’s values changed, so the values of the stories changed. Pretty simple.
As far as happy endings and the change to a purer form of entertainment, I’m guessing those had to do with the new medium (movies and animation) and with the time period they began to develop.
Like Restoration England gave Shakespearian plays happy endings in reaction to the hard times they’d just survived, the society surrounding early animation was still recovering from WWI, the Great Depression, and the wildness of Prohibition resistance. The result? The Hay’s Production Code, forbidding immoral language or behavior, and stating that explicit violence could not be shown on screen.
Well, there goes half of the endings of the traditional fairytales.
Of course, there’s more to it. Social values began to emphasize sheltering children from taboo behaviors and situations. So the more society began to see animation as a “children’s genre” in the U.S. (which it in no way is in other countries), the more this kind of white washing happened. Fairytales were censored to protect children from their “adult” content.
How could the stories keep their original purpose if the taboo behaviors they’re supposed to discourage can’t be shown or discussed? If they’re not allowed to scare or scar children? It’s simply not possible.
So the old fairytales were made more and more distant from reality, not through their magic, which changed the least, but through ideas like “happily every after” and “love conquers all.”
What Should Fairytales Be For?
What’s the moral to this story? Should we scare our children? Should we keep them entertained as we shelter them from reality? Should we read them old fairytales and discuss the moral issues involved in between watching Disney movies and pointing out the unrealistic expectations? Or should we give up on fairytales altogether?
Is there a right answer? What do you think?