Saturday, April 1, 2017

Actually, Fairy Tales Aren’t Meant to Be Creepy



Part 1 of a series.  Part 2 is here and part 3 is here.

There is, reportedly, a new “moment” in the new Disney Beauty and the Beast.  Some are calling for boycotts; some are calling the boycotters names.

This is not a post about that moment.  There will be no post on that moment—not on TGWWS.  For one thing, this blog has generally focused on things I care about that other people don’t, or at minimum on offering a different angle on things everyone else is already discussing.

One reason I’ve said little about the election is that I’m not sure
there’s anything to say, true or false,
that hasn’t been said.
But trust me, I’ll think of something eventually.

No, I want to talk about something brought up in a thread I was reading about B&B, something which I’ve seen raised a few times now, which was there phrased as a critique of the previous Disney movie.  Roughly, it goes like this: Why are we seeing, and taking our children to see, a film which glorifies Stockholm Syndrome and perhaps worse?

If this critique is puzzling to you, you probably
haven’t seen the first Disney B&B, which is fine..
If you have seen the first Disney B&B,
just think about it for a few moments.
Bothered yet?
Good!

One potential reaction to this sort of question—which is but a particular version of the general query, Why take our children to a film that glorifies bad behavior?—is best expressed in a response which I’ve seen time and again when fairy tale adaptations are discussed (e.g., Once Upon a Time).  It reads more or less as follows:

Well, but of course fairy tales are creepy!  Or maybe we could call them “dark” or “edgy” if you prefer.  We only think fairy tales are innocent and sweet and tailor-made for children [alt.: “We only think children and their tales are innocent and sweet”].  If you read the original Brothers Grimm stories, you’ll see that they’re actually quite violent and nasty and disturbing.  Good doesn’t even always win!  And of course Perrault was writing for grownups at the court of Louis-the-Somethinth.  So really, we shouldn’t be surprised if the films we make of fairy tales are sometimes improper.  We can’t help it; the originals were improper too!

Oh, mon frères.  Up to a point, I grok this.  Fairy tales can, by a certain definition of “creepy” or “dark”, be … well, creepy and dark.  They contain dragons, after all.  They are even potentially improper—at least, considering them too carefully can involve the overthinker in impropriety.  I remember being a much younger age, and mentally trying to frame an adaptation of “Rapunzel,” and coming hard up against the undeniable fact that Rapunzel and the prince managed to have two babies without a church wedding, and being scandalized.

In this case, you will note that Disney’s version actually removed
the impropriety, proving that they CAN when they want to.

There are, however, ways around the “Rapunzel” problem that even a touchy religious person like myself could work, if we wanted to.  Introduce a chaplain in the desert (the cast of the story is rather thin for a two-hour movie anyway!), make Rapunzel and her prince pagans (of the ancient or modern variety), make them St. Augustines (i.e., sinners who repent).

I can already hear some crying “foul!”; for of course, such additions may appear to be inexcusable intrusions of morality into what was an innocently improper genre (see description of Grimm et al. above).  Perhaps; but I am not convinced.  The fairy tale is an innocently improper genre, much like Greek or Norse myths; but it does not follow that a full-length feature film or novel can proceed as the original fairy tale did.  For one thing, the mere representation of dialogue in a novel, or of a real actor in a film, awakes questions in the ordinary adult mind which have no room to rise in the confined paragraphs of a fairy tale: What is this person’s backstory?  What is their family like?  What sort of world do they live in?  What are their secret motivations and unrealized goals?  In other words, the film and the novel are inherently psychological; the fairy tale is not (unless perhaps one wishes to discuss psychology of the Jungian sort).  And the novelistic psychological inevitably touches on history and culture as well; for those same questions which tell the particular story of a given person, when asked of an entire society, generate accounts of the doings of nations.

This is where things like ethics, morality, and even religion enter in.  One can, of course, construct a fantasy world with a different religion, or without much religion at all, or with no religion beyond whatever vague spirituality is contained in the magic.  The fact remains, however, that—religious or not—a fantasy world will have its own manners and mores just as the real world does, and it will be necessary to portray the protagonists of the now-grownup fairy tale as either in conformity with or in violation of their universe’s norms.  And if these norms differ significantly from those of the majority of readers or viewers, it will be necessary for the author to communicate the differences (however subtly) to his audience, so that they are cognizant of them as a frame for understanding the characters’ behavior.  This need not imply endorsement of the cultural norms portrayed—an author may present protagonists who are rightly rebels.  The fact remains, however, that if the characters are rebels, with or without a cause, it is important to the viewers to grasp this fact; otherwise, they have not grasped a part of the character.

All of this leads me to say, regarding my adolescent instinct to give Rapunzel a wedding, that although it may have been clumsy in the realization, it was not misdirected in substance.  In a novel or film some elaboration of Rapunzel’s behavior was necessary; at minimum, the audience needed to know whether this was par for the course or the sort of thing upon which her parents would frown.  It affects the happy ending just a bit, if you know what I mean.

To generalize: Fairy tale adaptations must be …

And that is a nonmoral must, a technical must:
If they are to be good as literature or entertainment …

... fairy tale adaptations must be responsive to the expectations of normal literary works; must not leave us with psychological or cultural loose ends—unless, of course, the loose ends themselves are left dangling by design, as part of the story, part of the artistry, to make us question this or that type of character or situation.  But even then, it is important to realize that these loose ends are an overlay of the original story: the fairy tale does not, by its very nature cannot raise the sorts of question that makes us say in reply: Creepy (modern sense).  It is only our adaptation of the fairy tale that may, if we choose to so construct it.  If the old Disney Beauty and the Beast is “creepy,” or if Ever After is “edgy,” or if Maleficent is “dark,” we are the ones who made them so; and we might as well be honest and own up to it.  Ultimately, fairy tales are a magic mirror that reflect who we are, depending on how we interpret them.

This brings me back to the topic with which I opened, to the particular problems posed by Disney’s (now two versions of) Beauty and the Beast.  Does the Disney take on the story in fact glorify Stockholm Syndrome, or otherwise present an unhealthy image of love?

I’m so glad you asked.  But that, at this point, is matter for another post.

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