Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 1: About Fairytales

I've been thinking about writing something about Disney, fairytales, and women for some time now. In reviving this blog the idea came back to me, and I've been prepping it for a few weeks. In that time I've run across several Disney movie reviews, podcasts, etc. in which people talked about women in Disney films or Disney films based on fairytales trying to insinuate that they knew the “original fairytale,” while their actual words betrayed the fact that they had never so much as read any version of the original non-Disney-written fairytales, let alone had any deeper thoughts about them. I found this annoying, and decided I had too much to say on this topic to confine it to one post. I'm not sure how long this series will be, but I definitely intend to write a few posts talking about different fairytale stock characters and tropes/devices and how those translated to Disney's fairytale films, as well as specific fairytales in comparison with the Disney versions. I believe fairytales, folktales, and mythology are valuable to study in their own right, but especially for anyone who wants to talk seriously about Disney movies, a deeper knowledge and understanding of fairytales and folklore is integral.

For this first post I'd like to summarise some background information and basic things to keep in mind about the history of fairytales, folktales, and mythology in general.

Possibly the most important thing to keep in mind is that there is no “original fairytale” when we're discussing things like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Such a thing does not exist. The Grimms are not the originals, Perrault is not the original. If there ever was one singular Cinderella story, we have no way of telling. There are at least 20, probably if not definitely more, versions of Cinderella from different cultures and places all over the world, and the only hard dates we have on any of them are publication dates, which mean nothing since these stories come from oral traditions hundreds or thousands of years old. Usually when someone refers to an “original fairytale” they are referencing the Grimms' version or Perrault's version, but those are relatively modern and heavily edited anthologies of fairytales and really cannot accurately be called originals. Now, original stories like Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen can be called such because they were written by Andersen; while the Grimms and Perrault edited the old stories in their own respective styles, they did not write the stories from scratch. So if someone tries to state a fact about the “original” Sleeping Beauty, they are full of it. A fact about the original Little Mermaid referencing Andersen's original story would be correct.

Why we have so many versions of essentially the same stories is a matter of debate that isn't necessary to summarise here, but it is worth mentioning the Aarne-Thompson classification system which catalogues different kinds of fairytales and folktales. When I say we have 20+ versions of Cinderella, the classification to which I refer is AT510A and AT510B, Persecuted Heroine and Unnatural Love respectively. Some versions fall entirely under one or the other, many versions incorporate the two. As you can tell from that list, there's just tons and tons of different kinds of stories, and the same stories tend to be repeated with minor alterations in different versions from different cultures and places. This is the main reason it's pointless to try to discuss an "original" Cinderella; it is just impossible to figure out which one of these came first, as they originated in the oral tradition. With regard to Disney, we would discuss Perrault's Cinderella as that is the one on which Disney's film was entirely based. Donkeyskin and Katie Woodencloak, though they are clearly Cinderella-type stories, have absolutely zero relevance to the Disney film.

Even discussing Grimms' and Perrault's tales isn't quite so simple. The Grimms released several editions of their collection, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, each one making changes to existing stories as well as adding or removing stories. The 1812 Rapunzel asks the witch why her clothes have grown so tight (spoiler: she's pregnant), but the 1857 Rapunzel asks the witch why it takes so much longer to pull her up the tower than the prince. The 1812 Rapunzel is merely naive to her situation while the 1857 Rapunzel seems substantially less than bright, casually disclosing her clandestine visitor to her captor. Why the change? According to Jack Zipes, "[Wilhelm Grimm] often changed the original texts by comparing them to different versions that he had acquired. While he evidently tried to retain what he and Jacob considered the essential message of the tale, he tended to make the tales more proper and prudent for bourgeois audiences" ("Once There Were Two Brothers Named Grimm," The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm xxvi). Similarly, Perrault's tales were edited with regard to his audience. The title "Little Red Riding Hood" is original to Perrault, but the story is represented in many earlier tales, such as The Story of Grandmother, Grand-Aunt Tigress, and Thrymskviða. Perrault's ending is almost entirely opposite to the tales on which it is based. In other versions, the girl outwits the beast, either escaping from it herself or killing it; in Perrault's, she is eaten, and Perrault ends with an explicit moral, telling women to be wary of beastly men. Perrault's tales were told in the court of Louis XIV, and his tales were edited to serve as moral lessons for the upper-class; for this one in particular, he was telling the upper-class women to follow the behavioural rules in their society or men will take advantage of them.

And on that note, it is important to remember that fairytales were not always intended for children. Go back and read The Story of Grandmother. Yeah. Yeah. I keep mentioning that the Grimms' and Perrault's stories were heavily edited because they were heavily edited. Generally, the earlier you go with fairytales, the bawdier and sexier they are. People like to complain about fairytale analysis "making everything about sex" in children's tales, when, in their older forms, these were stories about sex and varied adult themes that were later sanitized to become children's tales. Of course some of the symbolism remains in the children's tales, which is the proverbial thread you pull to unravel the sweater, which is why you have people talking about adult-theme symbols in fairytales. They were there all along; no one's adding them in to fit their agenda or ruin your childhood.

So with these things in mind, I'll turn next time to some specific kinds of characters in fairytales and how Disney translated them to their films. In the meantime, if you're looking for some good books on the subject, may I recommend:

The Annotated Brothers Grimm, The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, and The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar
The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes
Folk and Fairy Tales edited by Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek
Fearless Girls, Wise Women, & Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales Around the World by Kathleen Ragan
From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner

(One more note: the bulk of my study has been the Grimms and world folklore. I'm not as familiar with Perrault and Andersen, so I tend to talk more about the former group. I don't mean to ignore Perrault and Andersen, they're just not what I know the most about. I will try not to leave them out!)


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