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The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of the Genre

By Jack Zipes
Princeton University Press, 2012

If a balloon floats into the atmospheric realm known as Oblivion, then it follows that anyone grasping hold of that balloon’s ribbon will float into Oblivion, too. Which brings us to the fairy tale—that happy helium-filled thing—and all the academics dangling thereupon.

In the most recent of his oeuvre’s sixty-plus books, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, Jack Zipes—a former professor and Director of the Center for German and European Studies at the University of Minnesota—contends the genre has sufficient ballast to remain culturally relevant. But then up, up he goes: carried ever higher even as he argues that his feet are on the ground.

But let’s start from the beginning. (Or, actually, an approximation of the beginning. As Zipes declares several times, it’s impossible to define folklore’s origins. So here we are unable to resist: our story begins a while ago, back then, once upon a time.)

“Fairy tales, like our own lives, were born out of conflict,” Zipes writes. The stories “confront the injustices and contradictions of so-called real worlds.” As such, their function was–and, as Zipes would have it, still is–to engender solidarity and hope among disenfranchised classes, and spread awareness of social inequality. In the tales, peasant women want to marry princes and peasant men want to be them; straw is spun into gold and domestic pets develop the ability to speak and help their owners toward financial prosperity; evil kings and queens (and step-parents) are punished and the proletariat triumph. “The magic of the tales,” we learn, “can be equated to the wish-fulfillment and utopian projections of the people.”

This last quote comes from Zipes’s first book, Breaking the Magic Spell, published in 1979; while his more recent work is less prone to lengthy denunciations of capitalist commodity production, he has continued for the last three decades to approach fairy tales from a populist perspective–he could likely be considered the genre’s Howard Zinn. As he notes here and now in 2012, “During the past forty years…I have endeavored to demonstrate that the historical evolution of storytelling reflects struggles of human beings worldwide to adapt to their changing natural and social environments.” A noble aim, but one sometimes difficult to discern, as his prose tends to be dipped deeply into the obfuscating murk of academic jargon, where three syllables are always better than one.

As an oral form, fairy tales have been around for millennia; it wasn’t until the 17th century that they were written down for the first time. Somewhat more recently, Zipes laments, they’ve been commercialized into TV and films and, with each new incarnation, the fairy tale’s ability to depict social struggles has diminished. Likewise, the fairy tale’s narrative edge has been continually dulled; whereas folklore was once rife with inventive murders, unwanted pregnancies, and the occasional cannibalistic feast, the various media have redacted, airbrushed, and photoshopped much of this content away. Which means, basically, the stories are less fun. It was Disney, Zipes says, that did the most damage, kidnapping the fairy tale and malnourishing it until it was nearly dead, editing out any edifying material in favor of listless princesses and happy endings. And although Zipes really seems to believe that some relatively obscure feminist artists might restore the genre’s vibrancy, the next evolutionary step in his timeline of folklore is, inevitably, extinction. (Although, if one pays any attention at all to mainstream culture, one can see that the genre is actually fairly resurgent.)

It’s never, of course, a good thing to let the masses become too hopeful. Inevitably they will start wanting things. So, Zipes claims, the aristocracy appropriated fairy tales, thereby squelching folklore’s revolutionary soul. Especially in the 1600s, when the stories began appearing widely in print, the upper classes seized control of the genre. “Who could read?” Zipes asks. “Who controlled the printing and the distribution of texts? Once the folk tale began to be interpreted and transmitted through literary texts its original ideology and narrative perspective were diminished, lost, or replaced. There was a switch in class emphasis to either the aristocratic or the bourgeois.”

In his account of “Beauty and the Beast” that appears in Breaking the Magic Spell, Zipes demonstrates pretty persuasively how the folk tale was subverted. The story, he explains, is rooted in ancient fertility ceremonies wherein virgins were sacrificed to please dragon- and serpent-gods; in exchange, those gods were trusted to then help the community. Similar motifs appeared in innumerable folk tales until 1740, when Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, a courtesan and salon-goer, penned “Beauty and the Beast” and rendered moot all other variations on this theme. Her story, Zipes says, “Totally transform[s] the original meanings of the folk-tale motifs and seek[s] to legitimize the aristocratic standard.”

The plot and its disentanglement: There was a rich merchant who lived on a rue. He had three daughters, two of whom were spoiled brats who lazed about the house, and also Belle, who was relatively sweet. When the merchant’s fortune was one day lost, his children remained unwilling to work for a living. One day, while walking through the forest, the merchant lost his way. He found shelter, though, in a conveniently situated castle. On his way out the following morning, the merchant tried to take with him a rose from the castle’s garden. Unfortunately, it turned out this rose was the prized possession of the castle’s owner, The Beast, who demanded that the merchant pay for the flower with his life or one of his daughters’. Belle agreed to live in the castle—she insisted on it—to save her father. In literature’s most sympathetic depiction of Stockholm Syndrome, she eventually grew to love The Beast. She consented to marry him, and suddenly he was transformed into a prince. Her sisters, meanwhile, were turned into statues and placed in front of Belle’s new palace.

“So,” Zipes writes, “the good fairy now intercedes and rewards Belle because she has preferred virtue above either wit or beauty while her sisters are to be punished because of their pride…Surely this was a warning to all those bourgeois upstarts who forgot their place in society and could not control their ambition.” By hijacking a story archetype and using it to demonstrate that one should know one’s place in the world and stay there, Villeneuve deprived the fairy tale of its emancipatory spirit.

Zipes admits this example is an extreme one. Nevertheless, he notes that many fairy tales as they exist in print today still heavily bear the markings of their first chroniclers: Joseph and Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, Carlo Collodi. As these individuals sometimes had an untoward social or political agenda, their influence, he argues, wasn’t always harmless.

Grimm Bros., Inc.

In the introduction to his translation of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (1987), Zipes summarizes how the Grimms altered the many folk tales they collected, essentially recreating the stories in their own images. The brothers’ major publication was Kinder- und Hausmarchen (Children’s and Household Tales), which first appeared in 1812, and which they continued to revise, sometimes radically, until the seventh edition in 1857. In all, they had collected 211 tales, including “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” “Little Snow-White” and “Rumpelstiltskin.”

According to lore, the Grimms traveled the countryside gathering tales from peasants. In actuality, they invited storytellers—most of them educated young women from the middle- and upper-classes—into their home, and there, between 1807 and 1812, recorded what they heard. Also they collected stories from other literary texts. Then they set about creating an ideal type for the fairy tale that happened to reflect their personal upbringing and preferences. Raised as devout Christians, they “added numerous Christian expressions and references” into their texts. Jacob, the elder brother, was a chaste, fastidious man who remained a bachelor his entire life; among his changes was to eliminate almost all erotic content from the tales. Wilhelm, who eventually married and had three children, revised several editions of the tales to “make the contents of the tales more acceptable to a children’s audience.” Also, they’re implicated in molding the tales to support Germany’s somewhat rigid patriarchal hierarchy, diminishing the heroines until they were little more than quivering, meek young ladies waiting for their handsome saviors to come and rescue them from their towers, step-parents, and/or poverty.

Zipes recounts all this plainly. Although in his work he is usually venomous in apportioning accusations of sexism (as, to be fair, are several scholars of folklore), he seems to accept the Grimms’ patriarchal attitude as a necessary wart on the genre’s history—fair or not as the Grimms’ treatment of women may have been, without the Children’s and Household Tales these stories would have been completely lost. Still, it is exactly this thread—sexism—that seems to have been most vigorously taken up by future interpreters, and one might briefly wonder if this would have been the case had the Grimms not been so liberal with their social conservatism.

Disney, Inc.

If the fairy tale is dead, then so too would be the academic discipline that is its faithful parasite. So it’s fun watching Zipes pretend fairy tales are still valid, while simultaneously demonstrating that they’ve already choked on their own poisoned apple.

Sprinkled throughout his books are grievances against Walt Disney and his films, which coalesce in his chapter “Breaking the Disney Spell” from Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale (1994).

Here Zipes charges Disney with wrongfully and egotistically erasing from public consciousness the names Grimm, Andersen, Collodi, and Perrault, as if he, Disney, were the tales’ true creator (and as if this erasure was Disney’s ultimate intent). Moreover, like Madame Villeneuve and her rendition of “Beauty and the Beast,” Zipes claims Disney neutered the genre’s ability to bring about social consciousness. “It would not be an exaggeration,” he says, “to assert that Disney was a radical filmmaker who changed our way of viewing fairy tales, and that his revolutionary technical means capitalized on an American innovation and utopianism to reinforce the social and political status quo.”

In recounting Disney’s rise, Zipes’s logic becomes desperate and over-intellectualized. “Animation is trickery,” he says, “for still images are made to seem as if they move…as long as one controls the images…one can reign supreme.” Although his reasoning might be just a small tad bit of a stretch, it underscores how deeply he loathes Disney’s folkloric incarnations, and this loathing makes his prose (for once) come alive.

Like the Grimms, Disney fingerprinted the fairy tales that he sought to tell, “project[ing] the enjoyable fairy tale of his own life through his own images.” Growing up, Disney was relatively poor, endured an overbearing father, and was thwarted in his love life. He encountered professional disappointment – when he left home at age eighteen, no one would hire him as an artist; following some popular early films, he faced bankruptcy after getting hoodwinked on distribution deals. Characters he’d created had essentially been stolen by producers, and he was denied any profit. He vowed thenceforth to retain complete control on all his productions. As his studio began to thrive, he demanded no-compete contracts from his business partners and deprived his animators and writers any credit from the films they worked on. It’s not so tough to see Disney’s life as a transformation from the prototypical peasant into the prototypical evil stepmother.

Zipes believes Disney’s entire career was a willful effort to diffuse his autobiography through his fairy tale films, and uses Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as an example for how this was achieved:

To a certain extent, Disney…had been keeping ‘evil’ connivers and competitors from the entrance to the Disney studios throughout the 1920s. Therefore, it is not by chance that Disney’s next major experiment would be a banished princess, loved by a charming prince, who would triumph over deceit and regain the rights to her castle. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was to bring together all the personal strings of Disney’s own story with the destinies of desperate Americans, who sought hope and solidarity in their fight for survival during the Depression of the 1930s.

The reader may have a hard time making the connection between Disney “keeping ‘evil’ connivers” away from his studios and the inevitability of his making a film about a banished princess. But that’s why this particular chapter is so readable. Illogic, in this case, produces something resembling art.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or “Little Snow-White,” is the story of a narcissistic mother’s jealousy. A beautiful queen wishes for a daughter “as white as snow,” and soon gives birth to one. Yet when the girl grows up she becomes more beautiful than her mother. So, naturally, the queen wants her killed. When the hunter she enlists for the job proves too soft-hearted, the queen herself tries to murder Snow White—who is now residing in a forest with seven dwarfs—first by tying her bodice so tightly she nearly suffocates, then by poisoning her. Snow White succumbs to the poison and appears to have died. An evidently necrophilic prince happens by and falls in love with the princess, and demands that her body remain preserved. Nobody seems to have any problem with this. Eventually Snow White wakes up and marries the prince. The queen dies.

To illustrate Disney’s manipulations, Zipes gives a point-by-point description of the differences between the Snow White tale as conceived by the Grimms and by Disney: In the Grimms’ version, Snow White is the queen’s biological daughter, whereas in Disney’s the queen is her stepmother; the Grimms’ Snow White doesn’t do chores, yet on film she works as something like a maid in the castle; the prince plays a negligible role in the Grimms’ plot (Snow White wakes up at random, the prince absent from the scene), but Disney’s prince is devoted to Snow White from the outset and his kiss is required to rouse her; the dwarfs are anonymous in the Grimms’ telling, while Disney’s dwarfs are differentiated and become integral characters that the viewer can’t help but be charmed by; finally, Disney omits the original ending, in which the dwarfs force the queen to dance in red hot cast-iron shoes until she dies.

Zipes has two main criticisms concerning Disney’s editorializing. First, he chastises Disney because his characters are ‘stereotypes’ (even though the Grimm’s characters are called “the queen,” “the king,” “the first dwarf,” “the second dwarf,” and so on). Second, and with greater urgency, he nails Disney for blatant and rampant sexism. Snow White, he notes, isn’t exactly the prototype of a Strong Female Lead; she more or less hangs out worthlessly in a hut, trusting the dwarfs to keep her safe and hoping for her prince to save her. The film’s trademark song is “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The prince – and, Zipes asserts by Freudian extension, Disney himself – “takes all the credit as champion of the disenfranchised.”

That sexism was already manifest in the Grimms’ version is something Zipes is now evidently very willing to ignore. At times Zipes makes it seem as if Disney invented sexism, and that his ultimate goal was not to produce really stunningly beautiful movies, entertain audiences, or even to profit off them, but to declaw the genre of whatever revolutionary spirit it might once have had and to enact the subservience of women.

If I like a Disney movie, does it mean I’ve been manipulated? If I’m seduced by its artistry, am I then socially irresponsible? Am I unable to watch a Disney film in anything but a drool-mouthed, glaze-eyed stupor, as my nachos heat up in the microwave? Will I perpetuate the patriarchy if I like Snow White? As one reads Zipes’s arguments, it’s easy to feel one’s been somehow duped into enjoying Disney films despite their egregious shortcomings. But turn those arguments around, and they lose their potency, become somewhat ridiculous.

Now, Inc.

Zipes spends much of The Irresistible Fairy Tale pointing out the hidden gems in the fairy tale’s history and present—the ignored fabulists and movements that better embodied the revolutionary spirit of fable-telling. It’s a sort of People’s History of folklore. He shows that some fairy tales do indeed treat women fairly (most of these, until recently, untranslated), champions forgotten fair-minded folklorists like Giuseppe Pitre and Laura Gonzenbach, and finds salvation in contemporary feminist takes on tales by artists such as Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, and Paula Rego. Put together, this is a bit as if a German soldier were to admire the few flowers left behind in the earth the Russians have torched, as food supplies dwindle and winter looms.

But in another part of society—one that rarely comes into contact with museums and other similarly marble cultural institutions—the fairy tale continues to thrive in various iterations that folklore scholars completely ignore. The examples are obvious and probably not very enlightening, maybe because the dissemination of fairy tales has never been a nuanced enterprise. For starters I’d invite Zipes to turn on his radio. An entire fabulist world, replete with kings and queens descended from traditional folklore, and recounted by, and for, a disgruntled and disenfranchised proletariat, has emerged through hip-hop. Certainly this genre of music “reflects struggles of human beings…to adapt to their changing natural and social environments.”

Beyond the fleeting references – i.e. Slick Rick’s invocation of “Mirror mirror on the wall” from “La Di Da Di” (which is, of course, later included in Snoop Dogg’s “Lodi Dodi”) etc. – several songs and albums adhere explicitly to specific fairy tale narratives, tropes, and themes. Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)” follows pretty closely the arc of a “Little Red Riding Hood” story; Nas’s “One Mic” sticks to the “Aladdin” narrative, exemplified by the rise into wealth from poverty with help from a magic object (in this case, yes, a microphone).  Let’s not linger too long here. But I do want to make the very broad point that if fairy tales can be instruments to arouse social consciousness, I have to believe that no one is making better use of them in this context than hip-hop artists.

Clearly this is a superficial analysis. About, in fact, as superficial as it could possibly be. But that’s the thing: this connection is unexplored. It seems that if Zipes and others want folklore studies to remain relevant, then they should study the influence of folklore on relevant cultural entities. (Is de-legitimizing hip-hop as a folkloric medium any different than the 18th century aristocracy de-legitimizing the fairy tale itself?)

All due respect to Smith, Sherman, and Rego; their work certainly uses fairy tales to express injustice, and can be exciting in its newness—but always in a museum-ish sort of way. If, as Zipes asserts, the fairy tale was, and can still be, a means to engage the collective imagination and confront unpleasant social realities, then it seems following the genre’s incarnations into libraries and art galleries is a down-the-rabbit-hole endeavor, and an expert’s time might be better spent observing media with which people are more actively engaged.

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Max Ross‘s reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Star Tribune, The Harvard Review, and The Rumpus. He is an editor at Open Letters Monthly.