Fairy tales just aren’t PC, friends. They’re violent. Kings kill princes, fathers fling their daughters out in the snow, the wolf chows down on Grandma. They’re horribly insensitive to gener issues. Girls want to marry the prince, and even if they manage to do something clever or save themselves, marriage is their portion. Fathers promise their daughter’s hands without consulting her, beauty and charm are all important, etc. They’re heavily dependant on social class. Servants live belowstairs, masters above. Paupers abound. Lords, Kings, mayors control everything that’s important. They’re scary–orphans are everywhere, witches and pipers steal children away, giants and trolls lurk.
These are exactly the kinds of things that I’d rail against if they formed a regular part of Sesame Street, but fairy tales get a pass. Because I’ve just reviewed Animated Tales of the World and Happily Ever After for Commonsense Media, I’ve been wondering why.
Anyone who knows me knows I’ve got a sensitive 5-year-old. There are moments when Clifford the Big Red Dog gets just too scary for him (I’m not kidding.). I shield him from scary TV as well as I can, and he does a pretty good job of shielding himself, too. But I encouraged him to sit and watch with me while the Green Man chased Jack and was killed by his daughter, and we’ve got a bunch more stories on the watch list. What’s different?
For one thing, I think you’ve gotta know this stuff. There’s little to be gained in watching the fishing boat catch Nemo if you don’t want to, but Cinderella, the wicked witches, the greedy kings, the young men off to seek thier fortunes–these are part of our culture. In fact, they’re part of every culture. We’re talking the seven plots here, the grounding for all narrative. They’re the alphabet of storytelling.
For another, youve got to start somewhere. Sam, like me, handles sorrow and scary things much better in books. It’s one thing to imagine something yourself. Having someone else put an image on it makes it too scary, freezes it in your mind their way, which might not be a way you can deal with. But he’s not going to go through life without ever seeing a bad guy blow somebody away. He’ll probably grow to enjoy it. He probably needs to grow to enjoy it, if he’s going to be a boy in this country. Face it, cheering Xena on as she lops someone’s head off is a rite of passage, and his generation will have it’s equivalent. He’s already the only boy at school who won’t play Power Rangers, and I don’t want to change that, but he’s going to have to get somewhat used to the great battle between good and evil in all its sillier guises.
His sister isn’t going to have this problem. For one thing, despite her name, she’s no delicate flower, and for another, she’s likely to watch what Sam watches up to a point, so she’ll be desensitized even before she’s sensitized if I’m not careful.
But to return to fairy tales–they’re important culturally and good on other levels, too. You can’t get too comfortable with them. The same characters aren’t back every week or in every story ecept in the broadest sense. You have to do some interpreting–what’s a spinning wheel? Why is salt important to meat? Why sell a donkey at the fair? And, of course, there’s always a moral. The evil, the scary, the nasty and even the just plain boorish will always get their comeuppance in the end. That may not still be true, but it’s a good place to start.