Fairy Tales 2010

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Plus ce différence, plus ce MEME chose: How Zipes Indirectly Connects Darnton and Bettelheim

Two weeks ago, I thought the difference between Robert Darnton’s and Bruno Bettelheim’s arguments would be perpetually unsolvable. I saw their works as two sides of the same coin, although they (and Darnton, especially) saw their own works as completely irreconcilable. However, while reading “What Makes a Repulsive Frog So Appealing” by Jack Zipes, I discovered a way that the original two arguments can be approached simultaneously.

I found the thesis of Zipes’ argument to be “I would like to suggest that an evolutionary psychological approach might be able to provide a method for interpreting ‘The Frog Prince’ (and other classical tales) that not only sheds greater light on the conflicts within the Grimms’ text but also enables us to comprehend why and how the tale has retained its relevance throughout the world, has become a meme [“defined as a cultural artifact that acts as a cultural replicator or cultural adaptor that manages to inhabit our brains. It becomes so memorable and relevant that we store it and pass it on to others” (Zipes 110)], and continues to exercise its memetic force today” (117).

As you recall, Robert Darnton is invested in an anthropological way of extracting historical and cultural information based on the oral tradition of peasants’ recounting of folk tales. On the flip side, Bruno Bettelheim depends on psychoanalysis in order to document how fairy tales – and “our cultural heritage” (Bettelheim 269)” – shape the imaginations and self-importance of children. When Jack Zipes interprets how certain folk fairy tales stick with readers/listeners because they “enable us to comprehend our strategies and to learn how to court and mate” (Zipes 117), this angle blends the cultural coding of Darnton’s work while simultaneously involving the mind – wondering specifically how the human mind retains the information of a folk tale better than others and puts this information to work in its cultural context. In this way, Zipes’ argument indirectly finds the point where Darnton’s and Bettelheim’s work merge. The meme becomes the cross-section where it is useful to ponder the psychology of how people come to latch onto a particular meme and to analyze what the use of the meme then says about the user’s anthropological context.

Zipes goes on to provide some psychoanalytic interpretation of the motifs of golden rings and phallic frogs, but he never loses sight of what these motifs – when put to use – begin to say about a culture’s interests, thoughts, fears, and practices. As I said before, are Bettelheim’s and Darnton’s respective arguments not two sides of the same coin? With the introduction of Zipes’ work, I think they are closer to the same side than ever before.

Fairy Tales remixed

I wanted to take this time to think of how my perception of fairy tales is now changed or maybe the better word is remixed. The definition of remix on definition.com is to mix again and for me reading all the original fairy tales is leading me to conclude that "no matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing; the dream that you wish will come true" is now flipped on its head to not wanting to dream in that "fairy tale" way anymore. Although I always figured that dreaming is just that I guess I never figured that the original versions would be so blunt. However they have been remixed in my eyes such that I am growing and so are the stories for me. The fairy tales that I knew as a child are for children as well modified and accepted in our present societal norms. The fairy tales I am discovering now are real which is ironic because it is a fairy tale yet they have more of a human aspect of reward and punishment that is suited for a land far away. Hence for me a remix of sort; a better mixture of what I now believe in and what could have happened once upon a time.

I'm not buying it...

The Aarne-Thompson Classification system brings many elements into question when examining the reasoning for the continuing emergence of the same folktales with the same underlying meaning on various parts of the planet. It has been explained as the result of the subconscious motivations of all human beings as we supposedly all think alike, as well as the constant migration of people to different parts of the world. However, just because the stories are repeated in various parts of the world does not answer the question as to why they remain so popular. If one takes a broader perspective and thinks about how we are all unique in our own way in terms of looks, genetic make-up, and thought processes, then how do we all know what is right from wrong? A more logical thought would be that we have been conditioned from the moment we were born to accept certain moral and cultural ideals; arguably from a patriarchal society which has continued to push a gender, social, and racial hierarchy as long as history has been recorded. This leads to the possibility of the enactment of a hidden agenda by the patriarchs who have ruled society for ages opposed to a non-scientific conclusion of us all just happening to think the same. It is difficult to believe everyone imagines the world to be one way as I myself do not necessarily think in these terms. There is no way I would ever be caught dead remaining silent for an extended period of time in order to appease my significant other (male), ever. This simple example forces one to investigate the validity of the reasoning that has been presented to the general public (by males of course). Considering an alternative perspective may lead one to the possibility of exposing a conspiracy that has successfully manipulated popular culture into denouncing activities that threaten patriarchal control for thousands of years on end.

Crushed hand

Nerve damage + painkillers = no blog

Evolution of "The Princess and the Frog"

Today in class (but also throughout the semester) we've talked about how different societies adapt the fairy tales to make sense to them in their time or to fit their culture. We don't know about a lot of these changes, because being oral stories, their changing isn't documented. But as these big compilations have been gathered and stories have become classified, it's easier to track what motifs have been added or changed and how the stories continue to adapt to modern times. We looked at this a lot with Cinderella, from the early written versions to the first film adaptation to the modern Hillary Duff version. I want to try to explore how the Princess and the Frog has adapted and changed over time. So if you want to comment with things you find online or think about, that'd be great!

I think my only other "Princess and the Frog" experience outside reading the fairy tale in our book and the movie (which is still playing at one theater in Nashville -- 100 Oaks -- if you haven't seen it yet) was a similar type story that I think would fall into this category because of some similar motifs: the ugly frog who turns into a prince when the princess kisses him ("The Frog Prince"). I remember seeing this in movie form when I was still able to count my age on one hand from a tape we checked out from the library. It's similar to the story in our book, only now there's kissing, which is also in the Disney version.

The wikipedia site for "The Princess and the Frog" movie says it's "a 2009 American animated family film loosely based on E. D. Baker's novel The Frog Princess, which was in turn inspired by the Grimm brothers' fairy tale "The Frog Prince"." (Or "The Frog King," I guess.) I know I read another post where someone said they hadn't ever been exposed to this story, but haven't you kinda heard the kissing the frog prince story? Or some version of a frog that's a prince that the princess needs to stay faithful to or make some sacrifice to transform back into a prince? Disney put a little twist on that, but the general idea is still there. Sometime, though, between the story we read and the versions we have today, kissing was added. Like someone said today in class about the bird metamorpheses, it's a sacrifice and a gender role the woman has to take upon herself to transform the man back into human form. She does not change them back through any big shows of valour, but simply through doing womanly things.

Does Disney change that up, though? Tiana has a lot more character development than most fairy tale (and Disney) princesses. What new motifs are added? Are they from other fairy tales (like the idea of a magical helper) or from current American values (like New Orleans and Tiana being the first African-American princess)? What old ones stay the same? And why is music such an important part of Disney fairy tale movies???

I am one of those people...

I want to use this week's blog post to comment on a point that has been brought up multiple times already this semester in order to hopefully allow me to atone for my sins. Up until sophomore year here at Vanderbilt, I was under the impression that Disney was the originator for stories like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc. Like most kids of my generation (and past generations I'm sure), I grew up to these stories as told by Disney. There really was never any reason for me to question whether or not they were authentically Disney. I lived under this veil of unquestioned Disney loyalty until ENGL 118W sophomore year when I read the Grimms' version of "Cinderella" and my childhood was shattered before my very eyes (not really, but I'm just trying to liven this post up a little bit).

Anyway, this brings me to the apparent grudge Zipes has against Walt Disney for his supposed monopoly on these classic fairy tales in America (and perhaps worldwide). Politically, I can understand where this is coming from given Zipes's Marxist beliefs and Walt Disney's domestic conservative beliefs; the two clearly can't coexist and I won't argue whether or not one is right. What I do want to comment on is that Zipes is taking the whole issue WAY too far. Saying that Disney has a "stranglehold" on these fairy tales and that he is imposing his domestic values is really trying to force an issue more than anything else. Disney's versions are so popular because they are entertaining for all viewers (and yes he was a successful businessman, but that's beside the point). Yes Disney altered previous versions of these stories to fit what he deemed to be both entertaining and appropriate; there really is no denying that after reading these earlier versions. However, both of these primary issues that Zipes has with what Disney has done to these classic tales can be applied to the Grimms' versions. They also altered previous versions of the stories to be both entertaining and appropriate for their audience. Disney may have censored more by our standards, but he did so with the same intentions as the Brothers Grimm. Because of the positive influence Disney movies had on my childhood and because of over-analytical people like Zipes who were apparently deprived of a fun childhood, I am not ashamed to admit that I am one of those people that naturally associates Disney with a lot of these fairy tales.

Casual Thoughts on Zipes and My Fairy Tales Experience

It may be hard to believe, but I did not grow up with the “Frog Prince” fairy tale told to me. In fact before this class, I have never owned a book of fairy tales! My exposure to fairy tales came from the tales my mom would tell me (Hispanic versions of The Little Red Riding Hood in particular) and Disney videocassettes. This is why Zipes’ article, “What Makes a Repulsive Frog So Appealing: Memetics and Fairy Tales,” appealed to me. Zipes explains that motifs can become so ingrained in the human mind that they are informative about subconscious cultural actions. He explains that fairy tales, “reveal very important factors about our mind, memes and human behavior.” He uses “The Frog Prince” as his vehicle to argue the sexual implications of some fairy tales. In particular he is arguing that this tale type teaches us about mating strategies and courting practices. This thought really struck me. Before reading the assigned tales, I had no previous conceptions of the story, however, I have always known of the enchanted frog and his desire for a kiss from a princess to return to human form motif. (In fact the first time I ever saw this in action was in Sherk!)I guess I am living proof of part of his argument!

The hidden, or not so hidden sexuality- however you want to look at it, in the “The Frog Prince” surprised me. I may be naïve or just plain dense, but before this argument suggested to me the incorporation of sexuality and courting practices I did not make that connection. It is almost frightening to me that I have so blindly accepted Disney as the source of fairy tales and I have never before bothered the values imposed upon me. My fairy tale paradigm has already been rocked. I can only except the the rest of the semester will challenge my understanding of fairy tales so much that I will never look at them the same way again.

Walt Disney and his "Fairy Tales"

I wanted to write my blog on the Zypes article "Breaking the Disney Spell." As a typical American girl, I loved Disney movies as a kid- all of them. I sang along with the songs and imagined what it would be like to be a Disney princess. I always knew the stories were imaginary and the damsel in distress who ends up marrying a prince plot probably would not happen- even though I am still holding out for Prince William. Being a Disney movie fan, I found Zypes' article very intriguing. I had always accepted what Disney put forth in his films as the "correct" version of the well- known tale. Perhaps that is why Zypes argues that Disney presents film in a way in which the viewer does not question what he or she is watching; it is a "one-dimensional portrayal." Zypes argues that Disney has "cast a spell" on most of the modern world with his animation of the fairy tale. Disney, according to Zypes, has censored the stories to appeal to a younger, more naive audience. Disney created his versions of the fairy tale with his past and life in mind. He struggled at a young age, as do most of the protagonists in the films. Tiana in "Princess and the Frog" has an incredible work ethic and works toward her dream of owning her own restaurant. Cinderella is oppressed by her evil stepmother and stepsisters. Snow White has a witch who is ready to poison her.

Perhaps Zypes is right. Disney may have taken the "classic" fairy tales and censored and warped them until they are virtually unrecognizable to those who originally told them. Would they be shocked to hear that Cinderella didnt voluntarily cut off parts of their foot in order to fit into the glass slipper? Maybe. However, it seems to me that Zypes is overly critical of Disney and his masterpieces of animation. They are timeless. He must have done something right. Zypes believes that Disney animated movies that made people falsely optimistic and have a Utopian view on life. I think Disney was a businessman and he was trying to be the most successful person in his field- which happened to be animation. He wanted to sell movie tickets. People would not have gone to the movies to watch girls get their head cut off or be pursued by their father. During the 1950's, when Disney had his first "hit" with Cinderella, the nuclear family was the most important aspect of most people's lives. The women were domestic and the men provided financial stability. Disney needed to create movies that parents would want to take their kids to, and those were not the Brothers Grimm stories. I think Zypes was reading too far into Disney's work.

Also, I dont completely understand why there seems to be such an issue with Disney creating movies with happy endings and love. Let's be honest, most people want to find someone they love to spend the rest of their life with- what is so wrong with that? Will it be a prince? Probably not. Even so, I dont see a problem in having an ending with the protagonist finding love. It is true some people wont find love or get married, but whats wrong with hoping? What's wrong with working towards a "happy ending." If the world was full of cynical people who don't believe they can achieve things they want to achieve, it would be a much worse place to live. Hope is a powerful thing and I think Disney movies help instill the hope and optimism kids need in order to persevere through obstacles and hopefully attain their goals (maybe not all but a few). I may be completely naive but I still think that the overall messages of Disney movies hold true.

Some Random Thoughts about "The Frog Prince"

I enjoyed reading Zipes’ article “What Makes a Repulsive Frog So Appealing” because it offered an extremely thorough analysis of a fairy tale we all know well: “The Frog Prince”. I feel like most children in the Western world have heard this story at least once during their childhood. Zipes focuses on why this particular story has been told and also modified over many years, placing a strong emphasis on its themes of mating, love, and the search for one’s identity.

Personally, I remembering hearing this story when I was younger and had never seriously considered its true meaning and moral. I simply thought that a young girl stumbled upon an ugly frog one day, who told her that he was really a prince and that the only way to break the spell was to kiss him. Therefore, the girl kisses the frog, and he immediately turns into a handsome prince and the two live happily ever after. Honestly, I never thought about the main argument that Zipes makes about the frog choosing the princess as his mate and how the story is intended to show courting and mating strategies. Zipes believes that this story is a meme, which he explains is a term used to describe something that becomes well known and relevant to humans or a particular culture through the process of storing the knowledge and later passing it on to others.

Because this tale has been told and retold, the story has evolved and adapted to fit particular cultures. Like we discussed before, often fairy tales will change to address the problems of a particular culture or time period, thus making the story more relatable and memorable. Zipes argues that it is in this way that tales like “The Frog Prince” have become memes and will continue to be told for years to come. I loved how he discussed numerous different versions of the story and how the tales adopted new modern ideas, like the prince’s search for identity taking precedence over his finding a mate, over the years. His examples were effective in that we could see the changes taking place, like the gender reversal or the change to make the story more kid-friendly. I have to say my favorite story that made me actually laugh out loud was “The Horned Toad Prince”, about the cowgirl that lost her sombrero and had to make a deal with a horned toad in order to get it back.

One final note: Every time I think of this tale, I think of Keane’s song, “The Frog Prince”. The song opens with, “An old fairy tale told me / the simple heart will be prized again. / A toad will be our king / and ugly ogres are heroes.”

I’m not really sure what Keane intended for listeners to get out of this song (I still love it though!), so if any of you are familiar with it, what are you thoughts?!

Here is the best live version I could find of Keane's song:

When Wishing Still Helped

What interests me about Zipes' article, "What Makes a Repulsive Frog So Appealing: Memetics and Fairy Tales" is how it interacts with Disney's "The Princess and The Frog". Zipes spends the early part of his essay discussing how the Frog Prince story evolved throughout the Grimms' collections. I'd argue that the "The Princess and The Frog" is that story evolved to modern times. If the Frog Prince is interested in partichal control and rebellion against it, then "The Princess and The Frog" is interested in being a self-made man (or woman) while maintaining that feeling of rebelling. Truly American, no?

Walt would be proud of how his company has continued to craft its morals to attract a larger audience. Instead of being a princess, Tiana is poor, having to work menial jobs to support herself. What audience member wouldn't want to see some of themselves in that description I just gave?

Instead of having a strong father figure who knows best, Tiana's father is dead. She must fend for herself. She's tough. She's independent. She works hard. Yet she isn't happy. She is going to lose the building she'd hoped to open her resturant. Life isn't fair. Who can't relate to that?

In true Disney fashion, the only way for Tiana to be happy is fall in love and get married. However, she's the one who must be transformed from a tough cookie into a more tolerant girly-girl. Thus it makes sense that when she kisses the frog, she is turned into "ugly beast," as Zipes calls it, as well.

Prince Naveed is not the focus of the story. Sure, he changes too. But the drama and the pay-off of the film come from Tiana allowing someone to help her. That's when she gets what she wants. That's how she is able to rebel against the status quo. Only by joining the upper-class by marrying Naveed can she best the rich and mighty she used to serve. She needs Naveed's money (and handywork as the montage shows) to complete the resturant. No way she can do it on her own! Everything ends happily. Down in New Orleans...blah blah blah.

Maybe I am alone in this but I enjoyed the old Tiana more, the one who didn't take crap from anyone. She deserved a man that could handle her as she was, rather than changing onto the typical Disney princess. Productive, hard working, beautiful, blessed with good fortune. Sounds like Cinderalla to me. And that's a shame. The MRS degree is not the most worthwhile thing in the world and Disney should stop acting like it is.

Monday, February 1, 2010

In Defense of the "Disney Spell"

When I watch any classic Disney film, the experience is steeped in nostalgia. Almost immediately, I am whisked back to the long-forgotten sunny afternoons of my childhood, becoming, once again, an overall-clad little girl sitting cross-legged in front of the T.V. and staring at the fantastical images lighting up the screen with wide-eyed enchantment—images of fairy godmothers and flying carpets and even a lovable salt shaker who sings and dances.

Disney films have come to shape our modern conception of fairy tales. Mention of the tale Cinderella rarely conjures an image of Perrault’s oppressed wretch Donkeyskin, who fled home to escape her father’s incestuous advances. Rather, we envision Disney’s creation—the blond, beautiful woman who blissfully sweeps dust while serenading a troop of house-mice. Indeed, Disney has, in many ways, monopolized the fairy tale genre. In his critical essay Breaking the Disney Spell, Jack Zipes deems the pervasiveness of Disney films a cultural atrocity, writing:

“The great ‘magic’ of the Disney spell is that he animated the fairy tale only to transfix audiences and divert their potential utopian dreams and hopes through the false promises of the images he cast upon the screen.”

One of Zipe’s biggest critiques, among others (and there are many), is that Disney appropriates the fairy tales and injects his “all-American” morals and values into them. By projecting his idealistic vision onto the screen for filmgoers across the nation to watch and ingest, Zipe claims that Disney, in effect, insults the historical integrity of the folklore tradition, deceiving audiences with a highly-stylized, utopian “illusion.”

But what’s the harm in a little idealism? What’s so bad about, to adopt the cliché, “daring to dream?” To me, Disney movies were much more than a mere childhood diversion, something to entertain all those happy overall-wearing days. It was Disney, after all, who instilled me with a capacity for wonder, who cultivated my imagination, who awakened my creativity. It was Disney who taught me to wish upon a star, to believe in true love. It was Disney, above all, who inspired me to dream. Yes, such notions may be considered naïve, the product of a childish mind. But inevitably, there comes that fateful day when a child is not a child anymore and he discovers that the real world doesn’t always resembles Disney’s real world—discovers that, sometimes, the bad guys prevail and that the fairy godmother doesn’t always appear. And it’s okay to preserve a little bit of that long-lost child somewhere deep inside of you, to dream the Disney dream. If Zipes had his way and children’s movies were produced with a healthy dose of realism, we’d be breeding a generation of cynics and skeptics who lack the ability to imagine and dream and think big.