Fairy Tales and Utopian Ideals

There are some scholars that, as much as I would like to try, I just cannot avoid. They are the ones that add conversation and dialogue to my research, taking it to a deeper level. Sure, it would be easy to ignore them, but then I’d be just as shallow a researcher as the Shallow Researcher “archetype” at the core of my academic shadow projections. Today’s unavoidable researcher: Jack Zipes.

I discovered Jack Zipes when I was doing the Pacifica preview day, which I’d timed on purpose to coincide with my admissions interview. As part of the preview day, they were giving out a $25 gift certificate for the Pacifica bookstore. One of the unspoken secrets of the Pacifica bookstore is that the really good books all cost exactly $25 or more, and that it is neigh impossible to exit the bookstore without spending at least $45. I blew my travel budget many times in that bookstore… Anyway, I chose Zipes’ Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale, because the title seemed to be dealing with some residual questions I had lingering from my MA thesis. I read 3 pages before shelving the book to prepare for Pacifica, and there the book stayed for 3 years until one day I brought home his book, Happy Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry from the Pacifica library. Revisiting Jack Zipes revealed two things: 1. he is no lover of Disney and 2. he fails to make the distinction between Grimmified fairy tales and literary fairy tales in his criticism of the Disneyfication of fairy tales. Before leaving this point, I must emphasize how much it annoys me that people criticize Disney for “sanitizing” or “trivializing” fairy tales, making “the one true version” that most kids today know and realize, but fail to criticize the Brothers Grimm for doing the EXACT same thing. AND, I would further point out, that Disney’s fairy tale films until The Little Mermaid were anything BUT sanitized.

Anyway, the point of this post is a couple of questions that Zipes poses in Happily Ever After that I think need to be addressed, though I’m not sure my dissertation is the place to do it.The quote is this:

Indeed, ever since World War II the fairy tale as live-action film or animation has become one of the most successful genres in the culture industry. Perhaps, given the barbarism of World War II, the need for fairy tales in the mass media became greater afterward, for it is through the fairy tale that hope for happy endings is kept alive. The question we must ask, however, is whether it is a false hope. Do fairy-tale films project false utopias through amusement? Have fairy-tale films contributed to the destruction of community and the deception of the masses? (70).

The hope for happy endings that these films project is not limited to the barbarism that upset the American psyche following World War II. In fact, Snow White and Pinocchio were promising us happy endings before we even entered the war. However, the potency of the genre took off following the war, but I don’t think the war is to blame for this. Instead, I suggest turning to the Cold War. After World War II, America was on a high – we had come out of the war the victors and we were one of the most prosperous nations in the industrialized world. But we were afraid of “communism,” a fear of our individuality being compromised and a fear that still resonates today. We projected this fear onto the Russians, and what followed was an absurd decade of drills, bomb shelters and the illusion that if your school gets hit by a bomb then your school desk will protect you. Out of this fear, we get science fiction films, film noir, suspense thrillers and fairy tale films. The first three deal with confrontation with the unknown, while the last on the list deals with the happier side of the imagination. So it makes sense that Disney would experience a surge of popularity, being one of the few media outlets that gave us fluffy bunnies in a time of constant fear. The Cold War fear led to Vietnam, which was a major blow to the American psyche, from which we sort of recovered from after the fall of the Berlin wall. But as we were leaving our fear of communism behind, we were turning it instead into a fear of “terrorism,” which we believe compromises our identity with oil. This is the mode we’re still deeply swimming in.

Do fairy tale films project false utopias? YES, but these false utopias offer hope. The American Dream is a projection of a false utopia. The country was founded on utopian ideals, conquered by utopian ideals, and industrialized under utopian ideals. We have always attracted immigrants who are searching for utopia. Utopia is at the deep, buried core of American mythos. Since World War II, we have seen an increase in apocalyptic films. Cold War films projecting the fear of our destruction. Then after the fall of the studio system and Woodstock, films reflected a dystopian disillusionment. Films since the 80s have tried to offer hope for a savior hero, but that savior hero has yet to manifest in the culture (another discussion for another day). Throughout all of this, fairy tale films have given us happily ever afters. Sure, there is some saving going on – the princess needs some kind of rescue, or more recently the prince does – but what is being saved is hope for new beginnings. As Doug Brode points out in From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created Counterculture, Disney films don’t have happy endings. They don’t end. They offer, instead, new beginnings. One that takes place off screen. “And they lived happily ever after” is very different than “The End.”

Have fairy tale films contributed to the destruction of the community? I think asking this question is blowing everything out of proportion. Many factors contribute to the destruction of the community. If anything, fairy tale films reinforce community. Walt Disney said somewhere that his goal was always the family, which is the core of any community.

Have they contributed to the deception of the masses? Again, I think this is blowing everything out of proportion. Sure, they project false utopias, but they speak to the mythic imagination, not to the reality of our lives. If the masses are deceived, it’s a failing of the education system and community network. America does have a propaganda machine, but it does not operate the same way as other propaganda machines have, fully pulling the mask over our eyes. This country benefits from the fact that we allow both sides of the conversation to happen, but that doesn’t mean we’re listening. That’s not Disney’s fault. If anything, Disney films are more subversive than we realize.

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One thought on “Fairy Tales and Utopian Ideals

  1. In the last few weeks, I have read a number of blog posts and had a number of conversations lead back to one question: “Why literature?” I think Zipes might be missing the point of literature when he asks if fairy tales deceive us with false hope. Is the goal of literature to *describe* our real world to us as it is? to make us feel the same way we feel when we read the newspaper? I think not. The hope fairy tales bring us can inspire us to make our own world a better place; if they do that, then the hope turns out not to be false after all.I’m reminded of a quote attributed to G.K. Chesterton in this regard:

    Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

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