Tor.com content by

Jack Heckel

Kiss the Girls: Two Little Mermaids an Ocean Apart

“The little mermaid lifted her glorified eyes towards the sun, and felt them, for the first time, filling with tears.”

–The Little Mermaid

I know of few stories that fill reviewers and audiences with as much passion as does The Little Mermaid, originally by Hans Christian Andersen, and later retold by an obscure filmmaker by the name of Walter Disney. If you do a quick internet search for “feminist critique of”, pages of articles will appear that will explain with equal passion why the story is really quite enlightened or terribly retrograde, and why Ariel in the Disney version is either a feminist hero or an anti-feminist villain. You will also find lists comparing the two stories: “eight most significant changes” or “nine terrible truths behind” or “ten most disturbing facts about.”

While reviewers and commentators agree on very little, the one thing most do agree on is that Disney took a fairly sad and depressing fairytale and a relatively reserved main character and “Disney-fied” them both, modernizing the story to give the world a spunky, outgoing little mermaid, and of course a happily-ever-after ending.

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Charmed, I’m Sure: Getting to Know Everyone’s Dream Prince

I will admit up front that I have a strange affection for Prince Charming. He inspired the Charming Tales (available at fine book portals everywhere), and got me started on the road to a career as an author, or at least a published author. However, what made me interested in writing a story about Prince Charming was not that he was a particularly interesting character, but that he was entirely uninteresting. In fairytales filled with iconic beautiful princesses like Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty, and Briar Rose, the prince is, almost without exception, a non-entity. In fact, in fairytales prince characters are comically nondescript and interchangeable. Would the stories of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White be any different if Prince Phillip or Prince Charming or Prince “Noname” (literally—the prince in Snow White is never given a name) were swapped?

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Getting Into Into the Woods

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, are chronically late to the theater and always miss the previews, or are deathly allergic to the smell of popcorn and artificial butter and so haven’t been to movies full stop, then you are almost certain to be aware that Disney’s cinematic retelling of Steven Sondheim’s classic musical Into the Woods is being released in a few weeks as a Christmas present to lovers of fairy tales and/or Johnny Depp everywhere. As a long time fan of Sondheim and of Into the Woods in particular my initial reaction was, ‘Really? Disney?’

This is NOT because I am a Disney hater. I live fifteen minutes from the park and got a report this week from Disney’s passholder services, who were ever so gently reminding me to renew, that I’ve visited the park no less than sixty or so times in the past couple of years. No, the reason for my reaction was that Sondheim’s musical is anything but your typical Disney faire. Very adult themes are addressed in the musical including rape, infidelity, child abandonment, stealing, lying, murder, and so on. None of the characters are classic heroes, many of the main characters die horribly, and the final song is basically the moral counterpoint to ole Jiminy Cricket’s suggestion that when you wish upon a star, “anything your heart desires will come to you.”

I realize that the musical Into the Woods is now over a quarter of a century old, having made its way onto Broadway in 1987, so many readers and moviegoers may not be familiar with the story. So, let us then dive into this steamy plot so you can get a sense of the many challenges that Disney faced in making a film for general audiences from Sondheim’s original work.

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Are All Princesses Really Waiting for Princes to Come?

“Some day my prince will come / Some day we’ll meet again
And away to his castle we’ll go / To be happy forever I know.”

“Some Day My Prince Will Come” from
Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

In 1974, radical feminist Andrea Dworkin wrote a book called Woman Hating, in which she discusses some of the ways in which, in her view, culture and history work to promote a hatred of women. She dedicates an entire chapter to a discussion of fairytales. In the conclusion to that chapter she writes:

The moral of the story should, one would think, preclude a happy ending. It does not. The moral of the story is the happy ending. It tells us that happiness for a woman is to be passive, victimized, destroyed, or asleep. It tells us that happiness is for the woman who is good—inert, passive, victimized—and that a good woman is a happy woman. It tells us that the happy ending is when we are ended, when we live without our lives or not at all.

Dworkin’s view is not unique, nor even the first time that the treatment of women in fairytales was explored and criticized. In her influential 1949 book The Second Sex, existentialist Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “Woman is Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, she who receives and submits. In song and story the young man is seen departing adventurously in search of a woman; he slays the dragon, he battles giants; she is locked in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, she is chained to a rock, a captive, sound asleep: she waits.”

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Slarom, the Backward Morals of Fairytales

“I think the poets have made a mistake: because the world of the fairy-tales is a brighter and more varied world than ours, they have fancied it less moral; really it is brighter and more varied because it is more moral.”

-G.K. Chesterton

I am going to do something very dangerous, I am going to debate a point—posthumously—with arguably one of the most influential and well-respected commentators and moralists of the Western world, G.K. Chesterton, who wrote extensively and eloquently on many subjects, among them fairytales. (And also had a great head of hair.) You may not have heard of Chesterton, but if you are a fan of fairytales, which, if you’re reading this you probably are, then you have almost certainly stumbled across a quote of his that has been often repeated without attribution:

Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

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Power Corrupts? Absolutely!

In the late 19th century, Lord Acton penned the now oft quoted line, ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ At the time, he was writing about how history should judge the actions of kings and popes, but it has been lifted for so many purposes that I think he won’t mind if I use it for an observation about fairytales—namely that these stories are extremely suspicious of power, and even more so of women wielding power.

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Fairytale’s Most Wanted: The Five Most Well-Known Character Types

One of the remarkable things about fairytales is that you can know almost everything you need to know about the characters from the first few lines of the story. So, when The Frog King begins, “Once upon a time, when wishes still came true, there lived a king who had beautiful daughters,” you know that the story will revolve around one or more archetypal “fairytale princesses,” and will end with at least one of them marrying an equally archetypal fairytale prince. Or, when we are introduced to a character in Hansel and Gretel with, “suddenly the door opened, and a woman as old as the hills, leaning on a crutch, hobbled out,” then you know you have just met the wicked crone and also know that she will get up to no good.

[Top Five Fairytale Archetypes]

Been There, Done That: Why We Keep Retelling Fairy Tales

There is not a person alive that has not reacted with dread when one of their family members, usually a bit older and a bit drunker, says something like, “Did I ever tell you about the time I…” It is the inevitable prologue to the story you’ve heard over and over and over again, told with the same intonation and yielding the same punch line. Fairytales are our cultural equivalent of such never-ending stories. They are tales that keep coming up generation after generation on a sort of endless loop.

[But why?]