Monday, September 22, 2008

The Evolution of Fairy Tales into Sanitized Disney Stories

"Probably because she'd expressed a firm interest in fairy wings and dresses made of tulle, my 3-year-old daughter got a plastic Rapunzel playset last year as a gift. It was a collection of bedroom furniture and three small dolls: a girl with a retractable braid, a smiling prince, and another girl, apparently a playmate. And it came with a small companion book, "Rapunzel's Tower Room," which began, "At the edge of a forest village, there was a tower owned by a kind witch."

The book went on to spin the tale of a charmed girl named Rapunzel, who spent her days in the tower sewing dresses with a friend. She loved when the witch came to visit and teach songs, including one that made Rapunzel's hair grow longer. But tension arrived: One day, Rapunzel looked out the window and saw a fair in the village nearby. She wanted to go, but the witch was off tending to her garden and couldn't let her out. Fortunately, a prince riding by in his carriage called up to her, "Rapunzel! Why aren't you at the fair?"

This was not the fairy tale I vaguely recalled from my childhood - the one with the mother who gives up her child, the vindictive witch, the powerless girl trapped high above the ground. This new version was sanitary and safe in a way that modern parents will easily recognize. In an age when some families ban the word "killed" or come up with creative euphemisms to mask the death of goldfish, it's not hard to see why a toy company would reduce Rapunzel's story to its prettiest parts. Real life, presumably, packs enough trauma for children to think about later.

Something important is lost when a child's introduction to fairy tales comes in such whitewashed form. It's not just Rapunzel: In toys, movies, and books, the old fairy tales are being systematically stripped of their darker complexities. "Fairy tale" may be our shorthand for castles and happy endings, but these classic stories have villains, too.",

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