When I was in university, I learned for the first time in my life that the fairy tales I watched and read as a young girl, weren’t meant to be told in such colourful and romantic way. I learned, with astonishment, that the stories weren’t originally bright and happy but dark and sombre. That they weren’t supposed to advocate for happily ever after but served as admonition for young women; as caution of the dangers lurking in dark places (and handsome faces), and the detrimental aftermath of envy and jealousies.
Quite a few, I found, knew about this – about how the media took these stories and changed them to fit society’s palate. Specifically, the diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate, the Walt Disney Company and the way they stripped off what was deemed ‘inappropriate’ and filtered these stories to fit the bubble of fantasy and utopian Neverland. For example, the ‘original’ Disney princesses each had pleasant demeanours, were docile, married their own handsome princes and lived happily with them. Even though Disney has since then, gave life to more independent, diverse and strong princesses (such as Rapunzel in Tangled, Moana, Elsa and Anna from Frozen and Tiana from The Princess and the Frog), the classic characters remained influential.
Their influences expanded throughout the globe. Ask anyone in Malaysia, few will tell you they did not know of these princesses. Young girls grew up loving and admiring these characters and dreamed to be them. They dream of being married to handsome princes who will go through dangerous lengths for them. These princesses accompanied them as they find their life partner, plan out their wedding day and seek for that one true love (perhaps no longer true for young girls today but very much prevalent for 90s kids). Alice Niekirk writes that ‘[r]ather than being a mere reflection of societal ideals, these fairytales perpetuate Christian, patriarchal concepts as a means of maintaining the gender hierarchy’ (Neikirk, 2009) which served to enhance the hegemonic gender roles in our society today.
But many are not aware of this.
It became one of my favourite thing to do after, rereading different versions of the classic tales and pouring over their mysterious messages. I read five different recounting of the girl with a red hood who met a wolf on her way to her ailing grandmother’s house. I compared various scenes in multiple Cinderella and still could not believe The Little Mermaid would go through so much suffering and abandon her family just to dance for the prince (who eventually married another woman) and turned her into a foam of nothingness.
I became in love with the truths I found about these classic tales and even wrote some pieces interlacing the West’s fables with the local tales my father used to tell me – of Si Luncai and his labu-labu, impious Tanggang who turned to stone and the Naga of Tasik Chini. Pak Pandir became the epitome of ‘how to not be so silly’ and I was careful to not hurt my mother’s feelings lest she ran away chanting ‘batu belah batu bertangkup, tangkuplah aku, telanlah aku’.
In a recent Korean drama, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, the main character – a children’s book author with an anti-social personality disorder – Ko Moon Young told a group of patients at the psychiatric hospital she volunteered, that fairy tale is ‘a cruel fantasy that illustrates the brutality and violence of this world in a paradoxical manner’. Richard Marshall, in reviewing Jack Zipes’ The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, writes that Jack Zipes ‘sees fairy tales as still breathing. They are subversive expressions of a generosity with a long reach. They are at large in the keep of wimmin. They are used to collide against a misogynist social reality where wimmin still get a raw deal. They are from a past but not a tradition. Thus they can keep making new meanings.’ (Marshall, 2013). The idea that fairy tales as still breathing and the ability to create new meanings for its readers made it universal and timeless and could perhaps, explain why we (I) become so entrenched on them.
And why does it matter so much? Why does reading Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves created such an uproar amongst so many scholars? Why do we keep writing, talking and reading about the original, then filtered, then subverted old wives tales, over and over again?
The same questions persist then: why are we so in love with Disney and everything it encompasses? Why does fantasy has its own genre? Why is it that something a long time ago still commands us to hear its spiel?
Alice Neikirk writing on “…Happily Ever After (or What Fairy Tales Teach Girls About Being Women)” states that ‘(f)airytales have never been bedtime stories; in this day in age, they have morphed into a very effective means of exercising power over women and maintaining gender inequality’ (Neikirk, 2009). Perhaps it is wise to set the context: the Grimm’s brothers were one of the first few to have collected and compiled these lore from German spinners (women) who would tell these tales to each other to keep themselves awake while spinning. The stories they told each other weren’t meant for children at all but women like them. At most, the stories were dark, unrestrained and cruel as to warn fellow women of the precariousness they’d face in the world outside.
When Charles Perrault, the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, Joseph Jacobs and many more men compiled these stories from folk women, they placed in their own male-narratives. They changed ‘[m]any of the tales initially contained themes of ancestral rape or attempted rape of a daughter by her father [and replaced it] by the stepmother character that resents the beauty (perhaps also the perceived latent sexuality) of her stepchild and thus exploit her in one way or another’ (Marshall in Neikirk, 2009). Disney took away the sexual exploitations but furthered the male narratives by creating docile characters, abused by her cruel stepmothers or witches and in desperate need of saving from handsome princes. From 1960 onwards, female writers such as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood took away these male-doctored narratives and seek to give female voices, choices and experiences by subverting these tales. They set the platform for fierce debates on feminist movement and feminine writings and remained prominent at the centre of feminist and fairy tales discourse.
In most of my classes, I bring these revelations to my innocent students and secretly revel on the confounded look on their faces. We talked about them at length – discussing why these tales were changed and what would have happened if they weren’t. We debated on the need to censor these stories and the morale behind their lore. I told them how Cinderella’s step sister cut off her toes just to ensure her feet fit into the glass slipper. I told them how the famous red hood worn by Little Red Riding Hood symbolizes a girl’s coming of age and the wolf in the forest is man, with his sweet lies to entice little red hood to bed. I told them about Bluebeard who tested his wives, killed them when they unheeded his warning and hung them on a hook on the wall; about Hansel and Gretel being cooked alive in the gingerbread house…
And at the end of the class, the question I ask them was this: did I ruin these stories for you?
Would it be a surprise to tell you that I still did not get a clear answer from any of them? In almost every class, they sat quietly and contemplated after all of our discussion and left, without ever giving me a definite answer.
Before I end, I would like to bring forward an observation I found when pouring over the tales my father recounted to me. Unlike the West’s tales, daily life stories of Pak Pandir and his wife Mak Andeh, of Badang who ate the vomit of the Jembalang Air so he could become the strongest man on land and the swordfishes who attacked Singapore, the folk-fairy tales of the Nusantara are more diverse, less-patriarchal and heterogeneous. These tales told from the Penglipur Lara (soothers of woes), ‘[carried] with them nuggets of truth and gentle admonition as to how one should live one’s life,’ (Mutalib, 2013: 10). And on that note, I’d like to courageously state, that when it comes to creating a more fluid narrative, we did it better.
I have mused once more on a prevailing topic and must have you answer me, what is it, really, with fairy-folk tales?
Abd. Muthalib, H. (2013), Malaysian Cinema in A Bottle: A Century (and a bit more) of Wayang, Merpati Jingga: Selangor.
Marshall, R. (2013), “Subversive Fairies”, 3:AM Magazine: https://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/subversive-fairies/
Neikirk, A. (2009), “Happily Ever After (or What Fairytales Teach Girls About Being Women) in Hohonu Volume 7, University of Hawaii: https://hilo.hawaii.edu/campuscenter/hohonu/