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The Importance of the Classic Fairy Tale

Cinderella, RKO Pictures,1950

Yesterday I read an article that I stumbled onto put forth by Vanity Fair, about how Disney is killing off the Fairy Tale romance genre that it helped to create. ( You can read that here.) We’ve seen things trending in this direction for a while with more of a focus on some of the darker characters in these classic tales which has sometimes lead to some truly amazing performances, I was completely enthralled by Charline Theron as Ravena. However, I think that the total dismantling of “Happily Ever After” is a really bad idea.

As a writer, I’ve reconstructed some of these classic stories a time or two myself, in moments of disillusionment, in pain, in sorrow, in satire and sarcasm, but make no mistake, that’s because I’m a creative person. I am an arteest, and when I penned a poem about Cinderella getting a divorce and placing a singles ad, among other things, that was my ever-loving disillusioned, heart-broken soul talking at and in that moment. I’ve been there. But I’m not the first to re-write a fairy tale or to offer my own take on them, Anne Sexton took on the works of The Brother’s Grimm, and of course, there is Anne Rice’s “Sleeping Beauty Quartet” to offer just the beginning of the list of authors influenced by these tales, point being that there are many. ( Link to some of them.) Keeping in mind, and this is imperative to understand, that such retellings and reconfigurations of these classic tales as I am talking about have been written by adults for adults.

I understand there’s all this muck about how these stories set girls up for heartbreak, for unrealistic expectations of weddings that cost tens of thousands of dollars, of the idea of a rescue from dire circumstances by some handsome prince who’s going to show up and make it all better, instead of teaching them, girls, how strong and capable they are of being their own heroes. I call for the co-existence of the two ideas. The idea that girls can be their own heroes, and that of the classic fairy tale princesses created by Disney (that is as in altered from their Brother’s Grimm origins) presented in those wonderful Technicolor animated features, the original idea of “happily ever after,” be allowed to stand together. That we do not destroy the famous Disney versions of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and any other such interpretations, for the sake of “art,” entertainment, creativity, enjoyment, and certainly not least of all, in the interest of hope.

Who is to say that having enough hope to keep going until one can persevere, who is to say that that isn’t a completely heroic thing in and of itself?

I grew up with these stories. I grew up with a secret obsession with dresses with puffy sleeves, ruffles, bows, empire waists, and sweetheart necklines. Secret because as one of those “princesses” in hiding, well, you can’t ever really let anyone know who you are until it’s time for the big party, dance, event, and so on when the possibility that the “prince” might be there makes it worth the risk. It isn’t the “prince” that we’re talking about though, is it? No, it’s that even more elusive idea, true love, but not only that, the idea that true love conquers all. Do you know why?ย  Because there are things in life, in this world, that sometimes just don’t go right. Because what is presented in those Disney versions is the classic damsel in distress, she’s all that and a bag of chips, and in a situation that she cannot get out of on her own, thus the need for a rescue, but possibly more important than even that, the idea of a rescue, the hope of the possibility, an idea to cling to, to keep a girl going.

It’s a great thing to present to girls, to women, to people, the idea of their own strength, their own ability and power to overcome circumstance, but it is as naive as those fairy tales might seem to present the idea that there might never come a situation in life where a person might need another person, a rescue, or simply something to have faith in long enough to get through it. I think that it’s also sad and a disservice to eradicate the idea of that classic happily-ever-after because for one thing, there’s nothing wrong with it at all. I’ve had happily ever after in more than one situation in this life and I’ve got it again and hey, it’s nice work if you can get it. Those stories are about hope. They are about dreams coming true. They are about trust, and betrayal, and about true love winning out and saving the day, and the evildoers getting banished, blown-up, melted, and so on, because they were mean to the princess, and they were evil, and there’s a good message in that. I’m not going to say that artistically, creatively, the idea of putting the Wicked Queen into therapy where she’s got to work out her issues and become a decent person, give up the Magic Mirror on the Wall and the craft for a nice tract home in the burbs, doesn’t have possibilities, like I said, I’ve gritted up a lot of fairy-tales to suit my disillusioned moods or “reality” from time to time. I’m not saying don’t present strong, independent, moral, female role models. I’m saying don’t get rid of the princesses as characters, as possibilities, as an idea, because princesses are real, as real as any other archetype.

I’m saying that sometimes in this life circumstances might be such that what helps to get a person through it is the hope of something better, the hope of a rescue, the hope of true love, the hope of the fairy tale, and that idea that even after all of whatever it was, there can still be happily ever after. I know that those ideas have sometimes gotten me through a lot of really bad stuff and tough times, perhaps even in taking them apart, and they, the princesses, certainly weren’t my only “role models”, in fact far from it. But on a really bad day or in a situation where there just didn’t seem like there was any way out, Prince Charming was a pretty nice idea, one that I knew better than to really believe in most of the time, but none the less I found mine. I’m saying don’t get rid of those innocuous versions of the fairy tale princess stories with the princess and the prince living happily ever after together, because people still need them.

Teri Skultety