EP 8 Transcript: How Men Ruined ‘Once Upon a Time’: Fairy Tales Through the Ages

Jazzy Intro

Intro: Welcome to the Picture Bookstagang Podcast 

I’m Ale

I’m Corrie

I’m Kelly

And we’re the picture bookstagang! We invite you to join us here every other week while we discuss amazing books and issues  in children’s literature.  As well as Early literacy education and parenting as it relates to reading.  We can’t wait to dig in and deep and get nerdy about picture books with you.

0:36 Corrie: Hello and welcome back to the Picture Bookstagang podcast! My name is Corrie and I am joined by my two ethereal fairy godmother co-hosts Kelly and Ale

Ale: Helloooo hello I’m Ale

Kelly: Thank you Corrie… This is Kelly! 

Corrie: We have a bit of a confession. We wanted this week’s episode to be easy and in our true form of “did the whole group project ourselves” fashion – we chose a topic far more complex than we could have imagined – Fairy Tales. 

1:10 Kelly: Yeah we initially wanted to touch on this in our last episode about Gender and Stereotypes and then found quickly it might be too big a topic to use as a side topic… then we thought ehhhh we can just bang off a little episode about this… and then WOW we now realize this is massive and people are actually scholars in the history of Fairy Tales and the truth of them is deep a nuanced and layered. Because of the extreme size of this topic we are focusing on European fairy tales, there are many other fairy and folk tales that span other cultures and regions but we are focusing on traditional European fairy tales which were mostly written down by the brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Anderson. 

1:58 Ale: So let me set the groundwork for this episode…. In the form of a fairy tale haha ok so, Once upon a time, in a land, far, far away, there were two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm  Grimm, who were deeply interested in folk tales. So interested in fact that they decided to set about collecting these traditional stories from the people, many of them women, who told them. These were stories that had been passed down from mouth to ear, for centuries, or perhaps longer. The brothers were academic gentlemen, philoligists, interested in preservation.  But, when their books, freshly printed and bound, went out into the world, they were surprised to discover that there was an enormous interest in purchasing these stories for children and so, they started changing them.  

Now,  Corrie and Kelly don’t find traditional Fairy tales interesting.  As the creators of Inclusive Storytime and The Tiny Activists, they have no interest in perpetuating rigid oppressive moralist lessons.  Their interest in picture books is in its capacity and power to revolutionize, radicalize, and destroy the very boundaries that fairy tales create, enforce and internalize. Or, learn about cool stuff, like, swamps.  Fairy tales don’t really provide any of these things.

I, Ale, on the other hand, love fairy tales. Not because of the ominous warnings to behave, although I would prefer if my children had a healthy fear of wandering around the woods alone–sue me–, but because for me, I think there is more to the core of a fairy tale, than the moralist trappings that were added by the Brothers Grimm and later the Disney studios. Fairy tales are all pieces of the story of human nature, and human relationships which are inextricably linked.  The reason we see pieces of fairy tales in the best of books and movies and what have you, is because they are universal and timeless experiences. But alas, we must dig deeper, and we could never have guessed what we would have found…. 

3:57 Corrie: Oooooooh ominous but yeah this whole thing got complicated fast because we were definitely heavily influenced by our present day knowledge of fairy tales and their…misogyny – and for me understanding how much The Brothers Grimm, Whilhem and Jacob – heavily edited and revised the traditional oral stories through each edition of their book, bending them to fit into their increasingly rigid Christian patriarchal values. 

3:27 Kelly: Yeah and I think I did a bit of a “pffft whatever these are just trash” that I want no involvement in and my interest was a bit thin. I thought we were just going to get to rant about princesses and the patriarchy for 30 minutes and call it a day – until. Quite specifically. Ale brought up Hans Christian Andersen and The Little Mermaid. Which, we all immediately think of the disnefied version of – where the mermaid GIVES UP HER VOICE for a man and on the MAN FALLS IN LOVE WITH A WOMAN WHO LITERALLY CANNOT SPEAK FOR HERSELF – the disney version is a hot hot hot mess when looked at from a feminist perspective – but Ale blew my mind with what she found out about the original. 

5:14 Ale: SO. Yeah. I got into one of my research modes — and uhh yeah it got deep fast. Haha so Hans Christian Anderson, who was Danish, wrote the original version of the little mermaid which was published in 1837 along with a collection of fairy tales. So the original “The Little Mermaid” is very far removed from the modern Disneyfied version we know. The little mermaid, saves the prince, falls in love then goes to the sea witch to get legs.  The sea witch gives her legs in exchange for her voice, yes, but also every step the little mermaid will take is excruciating pain and if the prince doesn’t fall in love with her, she will turn to sea foam and just be nothing.  So she goes, she finds the prince, and he treats her like a beautiful pet basically, then he falls in love with another princess who he THINKS saved him but it was the little mermaid.  But for whatever reason, the little mermaid doesn’t begrudge them.  In the end, her mermaid sisters go to the witch and get her an out, they bring her a magic knife and tell her if she can kill the prince, she will get to go home and live out her long mermaid life.  But she can’t kill him. And so she throws herself to the sea, to face oblivion, but is instead rewarded by becoming an invisible winged creature who will one day sort of go to heaven?   So, there’s a lot happening here.  And the key piece really is understanding three things about Hans Christian Anderson, he was deeply religious, two he was Gay, and at the time of this suffering a broken heart over the love of his life Edvard marrying a woman.  

7:06 Corrie: So, like cue my brain exploding at this point too because clearly he wrote this story about himself and using his feelings of quote “feminine love” towards Edvard and personified himself as the female mermaid and used the story to work out his feelings of jealousy and betrayal – but like ultimately come to a place of acceptance of Edvard, his prince’s choice. Which is a surprisingly healthy and mature moral compared to most fairy tales? Even if the end is kind of weird with the mermaid becoming an invisible creature it really is exploring his belief that by accepting his fate and choosing the ‘right’ thing, like the mermaid did in the end, his soul would be saved.  Because another piece here is about how the mermaids (aka gay men) did not have souls, and when they died would become nothing.  And clearly he really was struggling with, all of that. This poor man, was struggling.

8:07 Kelly: Yeah like it’s actually super heartbreaking to think about it that way and there is a lot more that comes into sharper focus about some of the “original fairytales” which I you can’t see but I am using air quotes here… that Hans Christian Anderson wrote because he was stuck in this cycle of repressed identify and sort of retreated into writing these fairy tales for children to work through his feelings. 

8:29 Ale: He also wrote “The Ugly Duckling” which is it said he wrote to repressent being Gay. Although I do kind of wonder, what’s does the transformation represent? Was it finding other people who would accept him, like other LGBTQ people? I’m not sure, anyway. “Thumbelina” is also one of his stories, in which a girl born the size of a thumb doesn’t fit in anywhere, and spends the duration of the story trying to avoid marrying moles and frogs and things that she has no interest in. So, these stories were a way for him to express his feelings, and disguise them in a manner that was acceptable for the time he lived. It seems exceedingly offensive to me that his stories were redone later, to reinforce heteronormative ideals that weren’t supposed to be there in the first place actually. ….And to also give witches a bad wrap actually, like the original story the Witch doesn’t do anything terrible, they made a deal, that’s it.  Deal made, but Disney really flippin hates witches. But that’s just the thing about fairy tales, they get redone to suit the time, the place, and the person doing the make over.  

9:32 Kelly: Disney really did have a bone to pick with witches didn’t he?! Haha. So Hans Christian Anderson aside the real elephant in the room here is the darn brothers Grimm So we should get back to them.

9:46 Corrie: This is where I start getting angry about the patriarchy isn’t it?

Ale: I mean you can always be angry about the patriarchy.

Corrie: I am.

9L57 Kelly: Legit, Yes this is where we ALL start getting angry about the patriarchy, haha. So these grimm guys were kind of collectors of oral stories that were writing them down in the name of cultural and linguistic preservation, initially. German linguistics and culture specifically.  But the history of each individual story has MANY iterations that span centuries and cultures, from ancient Greece to China, and beyond. 

Corrie: And I think what’s not known about this history, really is exactly how NOT for children these stories were.  People are like, “yeah, they were a little harsher back then” but the truth is a lot of these stories were either extremely racy parlor stories told to aristocrats at parties many of which were… orgies. 

10:44 Ale: Olden time people had Orgies?!

10:48 Corrie: That’s a different historical talk. But, yes, and like let’s not sugar coat this here, these were sometimes just theatrically spoken word porn – like Little Red Riding hood…. Seriously.   

11:02 Kelly: Right and the others the non porn stories were just straight up stolen from women who had been telling these stories in their communities for generations to other audiences which again were not specifically children. Even though most writers, historically were recorded to be men because you know, female oppression, women were still an enormous part of oral storytelling traditions and truly a huge part of who shaped how the stories came together.

11:40 Ale: But like with a lot of history Men come a long and just throw their name on everything.  So Whilhem and Jacob start recording these stories and publishing them. There were over a hundred stories in their first couple of editions of their fairy tales which were explicitly released for adults – not children or general audiences. But there was an interest in purchasing them for children! So, they sold out.

12:14 Corrie: big ol’ sell outs. Right? so they turned them into “family friendly” stories. Aka Christian misogynist moralist tales. Because, the point of children’s stories then-was to impart lessons…The original stories didn’t have the same value system or purpose.

12:32 Kelly: Yeah well, some of the original ones were incredibly horrific… one was about children butchering a pig together and then eventually one of the children slits their little brothers throat!?!?! Like WHAT IS THIS. It’s difficult to even understand how a collection of stories that included things like that morphed into some of the most treasured and repeated children’s stories of our culture. 

12:52 Ale:Oh god, when I read that one about the kids killing each other it was just, oh my god what is happening here why is this being written down?

13:08 Corrie: just slightly horrifying…But somehow…. They have morphed into this pervasive collection of children’s stories. And each change really, had a huge effect on narratives that are so embedded into our culture! 

13:22Kelly: Yes! Like I was really surprised when we read that all of the “Wicked Stepmothers” that appear in fairy tales, in most of the stories they were originally the biological mothers… And the Grimms brothers thought it was too “Unchristian” so they basically invented the “wicked stepmother” trope… which also has to do with a lot of men remarrying after their wives died in childbirth and a kind of jockying for favour for the purposes of inheritance…uhhhh it was a complicated time. 

13:54 Corrie: And I also have to mention, if you’re wondering where we learned all about these changes, we ended up going down a bunch of internet rabbit holes. One of them, on top of a bunch of other interesting articles and text that we will link in the show notes was an absolutely amazing Youtuber named Jen Campbell, who does an entire series of videos delving into the individual history of each fairy tales.  They are absolutely fascinating.  

14:20 Ale: Heck ya, I was up till like three am watching her videos, they were, mind boggling.  Really made me think about absolutely everything in a new light. SHe is just amazing, please go subscribe, like now, I mean after you’re finished listening to us.

14:41 Kelly: Haha yes after you’re finished listening to us.So lots of new information here we’re not even getting onto.  Also I never thought it would be quite as interesting as it was, the old histories of fairy tales, but the next part of the fairy tale journey, is one that is one that I only mention with reluctance. The influence of Disney. 

15:06 Corrie: Yes, unfortunately Disney definitely needs to be part of this conversation because even though they produce movies and this is a book podcast, the Disney version of these stories have had such a huge effect on how these stories are retold in books at this point.  And Disney has definitely done an even bigger round of revisions and sanitized, twisted, and co-opted fairy tales to even another plateau that has turned them into something even more anti-feminist then they even were at the hands of the brothers Grimm. Which, is hard to believe, because, that was the 1800’s…

15:41 Ale: Ok, I love Disney movies and I’m not sorry. I could talk about Disney all day. I loved them as a passive viewer as a child, and then as an adult I have loved them for the depth of their connection with modern society’s neuroses and internalized messed up issues. It’s like poking around inside some kind of communal brain! And that brain is wrapped in beautiful animation with like sound tracks, and I could talk about it  for hourrsss.

Kelly: Yes you sure have but today give us the tweet length version, haha!

16:23 Ale: haha Ok well fine but I’m talking about this to you later, you’re not getting out of that.

Kelly:I don’t doubt that for a second.

16:29 Ale: Okay so here’s the twitter version of it for today is that, Disney took all of the hard parts, the sketchy parts of the Grimm’s fairy tales, and smoothed them down gave them all happy endings.  And then they added the visual elements which are where most of the inferred messages are, and those messages really bring in the issues of racism, body shaming, superficiality, etc. And of course everything is very heteronormative, always. And this is all wrapped up in the whole Disney Princess canon of movies. 

17:06Corrie: ugh… princesses, so I’m.. not a fan. I was a very rough and tumble, always outside in the mud type child, and never saw myself in any of the stories despite the fact that I’m white and naturally blond… I’ve just never found fairy tales particularly inviting-probably because Princesses never looked like they were having any fun? They were dressed fancy and liked boys. I might have had a boxful of thrift store dress up clothes but I never wanted to marry a prince, I wanted to befriend animals and build forts. 

17:47 Kelly: I felt intense pressure to like princesses and these sort of Disnified pink and girly things, and my sister liked it all but it was just truly never ever me. I am a pretty feminine cis-woman even today but I am still pretty uncomfortable putting myself in a princess adjacent box.. And like Disney was huge in my house…we had all of the movies, for sure. Which I know it wasn’t all all in your house Corrie. 

18:20 Corrie: No my mom was sending me outside to play on our farm before I could ever watch Sleeping Beauty or anything like that.

Kelly: haha …. She’s too wise, your mom. 

Ale: Shoult out to Janzy!

18:33 Kelly: Janzy! But anyway my point is that I also , like Corrie, just didn’t see myself reflected back and because I thought that’s all fairy tales WERE I didn’t see anything beyond that really.

1848 Ale: So despite being someone who wears almost exclusively men’s clothing, because pockets, 

Kelly: everything with pockets are better. 

Ale: this is true Yes. haha. Anyway I love Disney princesses, they sing, mostly the singing, and everything in the world is beautiful, and happy and magical. These old Disney princess movies are products of whatever era they are made, they’re always very typical of the white middle class ideas of the time. So that comes with a lot of problems and I’m not negating that. But I think the aspect of intense femininity embodied in the whole film genre, which is kind of what this princess genre is about, isn’t inherently problematic. There’s nothing wrong with liking stuff that’s just frivolous and beautiful, for boys or girls, it’s ok to like something that’s just about being pretty and happy, I stand by it.

19:47 Kelly: that’s your hot take and you absolutely are allowed to stick to it and I support you having your position there…

Ale: Thank you.

20:00 Kelly: And to a degree ya know I do see that the more modern disney movies aren’t focusing on the damsel in distress thing as much anymore. They are moving forward with much more compelling heroines but I think it’s still lacking in a lot of children’s literature that feature princesses – except when you get into the Fractured fairy tale genre which I personally think is where things start to get interesting.

20:26 Corrie: ohh yes, Like Maiden and Princess by Daniel Haack, I love this rewrite of a sort of Cinderella story for so many reasons – this book is everything I want in a fairytale! A maiden that is renowned in battle receives an invitation from the (Black!) royal family to attend a ball so that the prince can find a bride. Although the maiden knows the prince, and voices feeling only for him like a brother, her mother urges her to go and have a good time anyway. So she leaves her cool tiny pet dragon at home. In the end it’s the princess rather than the prince she falls for and everyone is just as thrilled! And they’re running around having adventures dressed all fancy. t’s a brilliant book to be added into rotation for young readers. We need joyful LGBTQ children’s books to normalize these feelings of love, and Maiden & Princess is truly incredible and much needed.

21:37 Kelly: So good! And think of how validating that would have been for you as a child! When we are fed all these hyper hyper heteronormative storylines that just get regergitated over and over because they are following this established formula laid out by these so called classics.. we are often losing something often… I mean I acknowledge that part of the reason we are cheering when we read princess and maiden is because it’s finally something to subvert this oppressively common story this Cinderella stormy that we feel we can’t escape… 

22:15 Ale: I like the fractured fairy tales but I don’t think the title “fractured fairy tale” is the right term, because that implies that fairy tales are rigid, brittle, and claustrophobic, which you feel a little bit, and breakable when they’re really anything but that.  They are and have always been fluid and amorphous, and ready to change and morph with the next generation and era. Fairy tales are more reflective of our society –  a snapshot of the moment in time they are written, they are fluid and adaptable and we still are using them to indoctrinate our children with our current values …whatever those values are it’s just that those values have changed. Fairy tales are a reflection of our humanity and the story lines that persist and adapt are the ones that resonate with us on a level that is always valid and relatable.  Timelessness does not mean rigid, on the contrary, to weather time is about adaption.

23:25 Corrie: but part of what I struggle with is that they have actually become a little more set in stone over the last 100 years or so. Prior to them being written down, they were this living breathing changing thing that was told orally, and as things like that go, they change with each retelling and each story teller. With publishing and like you know… little things like reading and writing becoming more mainstream and normal and then now with movies and tv shows and more and more media being accessible on a global scale, there are fewer chances for these original stories to morph and change shape like they once did. 

24:06 Kelly: right so These books – correct name for them or not – the modern fractured fairy tale books end up kind of being one offs .. like the books Reading beauty or Interstellar Cinderella – which are both ABSOLUTELY fantastic books that you absolutely should have on your bookshelf I love them …no questions asked – anyway books like them don’t get the chance to dramatically change the entire societal narrative of a single fairy tale in society like say, the Disney movie of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella did. So I feel stuck as a parent because the value system of the common fairy tales don’t align with my personal value system so I don’t teach them to my 4 year old. And I am left with the wondering what would we really be missing if we didn’t introduce our kids to fairy tales at all? What is the modern value of fairy tales? I don’t really know. 

Ale: I do tell fairy tales, mostly orally, and all the time. It’s my go to for like 9:30pm at night when my kids can’t sleep but I’m falling asleep. The Three Little Pigs, is my number one go to, on a loop. Because I can tell them coherently with half of me asleep, and at the end of the day they’re designed over hundreds of years to be memorable and easy to tell, like when you’re half asleep otherwise they would have disappeared. I think there’s something to them.

25:29 Corrie: I suppose what I struggle most with is wrestling with the feeling of whether or not we need to teach the antiquated versions of stories in order to read the updated and more inclusive versions.  Do we need to keep the older versions, or can they just be lost to history? I have a difficult time feeling like we should continue to teach these when there are non-Eurocentric tales that could be a much better replacement.  Which of course we couldn’t look at a global history in this short of an episode, but I’m left thinking about how massively other stories have been erased from history, and not feeling compelled to feel these are, for lack of a better term, worth it to take up classroom time when I could cut to the chase and use the current ones that are more reflective of my values.

26:23 Kelly: snaps to that corrie. There is this extremely rich history of global storytelling that we are missing out on – in my mind – when we stick into this rigid over and over regurgitation of these perverted and sanitized european fairy tales… and I get that I don’t have nostalgia around this I wasn’t really exposed to a lot of fairy tales beyond disney and extremely simplified versions that are just part of the cultural experience of being an English speaking person in North America. I will say that the process of researching this episode was eye opening on many levels and I am definitely more interested… as an adult human with critical thinking skills… in finding out more about the original oral storytelling traditions that these stories came from and maybe reclaim some of those stories… maybe just forget about this Grimm and Disney era in between.. Haha and YES  Everyone is absolutely entitled to like what they like…I just want people to think critically about what some of the moral lessons that are in these stories are and what they are passing on to kids with them. 

27:29 Corrie: and with that. With all of those complex and super layered and nuanced feelings, that is where we are going to leave things today! Thank you for joining us today on the Picture Bookstagang podcast for this little sliver of a starting conversation about fairy tales! You can find the Picture Bookstagang podcast on Apple, Google, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, and be sure to head over to our Instagram and let us know… what are you reading?

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