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Hey! I'm still here. Let's talk about fairytale re-tellings. The stories we know as fairytales and folk tales have been a part ...

30 June 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 2: Mothers and Stepmothers


I think I had a mother once.
What was she like?
I forget.
- Peter Pan (1953)


Mothers in fairytales are often absent, dead, or missing without even a mention of them being gone. Considering mothers are pretty much everywhere, their absence is glaring to the audience. A major impetus for many fairytale plots is the death or absence of a parent, which accounts for many of the missing mothers, but many of them are hiding in plain sight; in subsequent editions of the Grimm brothers' Kinder- und Hausmärchen, cruel and abusive mothers were often changed to stepmothers to avoid depicting mothers as capable of doing harm or evil to their children. Victorian fairytale anthologies kept these changes, and most modern fairytale translations and adaptations continue the stepmother trend, and of course the Disney fairytale films are based on modern editions, not the originals.


In the Grimms' 1810 and 1812 editions of "Schneewittchen," the heroine's own mother is the queen pursuing her death. It isn't until 1819 that the prologue includes the death of Snow White's mother "shortly after the child was born," followed by the king's second "beautiful...but proud and domineering" wife.

Some stepmothers, like Cinderella's, seem to have always been stepmothers rather than converted mothers; the high rate of mortality in childbirth meant stepmothers were just as much a part of life for many children as mothers for other children, so their inclusion in some fairytales was in the story to begin with. As far as I can tell, Cinderella's stepmother was always a stepmother, and in fact many versions of Cinderella actually include the mother, albeit dead, as a supernatural guide to the heroine. Disney's Fairy Godmother comes from Perrault's "Cendrillon," along with the rest of the movie, but the Grimms' "Aschenputtel," the Russian "Vasilisa the Beautiful," and many other versions have the dead mother's spirit guide the heroine from a tree, a doll, a fish, etc. etc. (The Fairy Godmother in both Perrault and Disney is not mentioned as having any connection to the dead mother - whether or not that was the intention is up to the audience, but the prevailing notion is that without explicit mention of the mother, that is not the intent. I would argue Disney's is definitely not intended to have anything to do with the mother, and while I think a case could be made for Perrault's, I don't think the godmother is related to the mother.) The second wife in all these stories, however, is definitely cold-hearted.

Fairytale stepmothers' cruelty has been attributed to jealousy: either jealousy of the father's attention to his daughter or jealousy of youth and beauty in general as epitomized by the daughter. It's interesting in many cases that the father disappears or dies after marrying the stepmother. In both the Disney films, the father dies. In "Schneewittchen," the father is never mentioned past the sentence introducing the stepmother, but Cendrillon's father still seems to be around; Cendrillon "dared not tell her father" about the stepmother's cruelty, and though that is the last mention of him, it's implied that he is around but not intervening because he doesn't know it's happening (which...okay, dude, she's wandering around in rags and sleeping in the fireplace? pay attention). At any rate, in these stories the father is out of the way and more or less incidental to the story. He's needed to facilitate the stepmother's appearance, and after that, he is useless and discarded accordingly.

Of course, this saves the father from suffering a moral ending. If the father was turning a blind eye to Snow White's plight, if he was dead, if he never wondered why his daughter had disappeared mysteriously and his new wife was happily eating boiled liver for dinner, whatever it was, he has no ending. Disney's Cinderella was based on Perrault's "Cendrillon," not Grimms' "Aschenputtel," and Cendrillon's father simply disappeared. Aschenputtel's father, however, is present throughout; he tells the prince at the end that he does have another daughter to try the shoe, but she cannot show her face because it's "much too dirty" - and that's the last we hear of him. Aschenputtel's stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves (fun!) but there is no specific mention of the father's or stepmother's fate. Ignoring Disney's sequels to Cinderella, we don't really hear the end of the Tremaines in the movie, although Cendrillon invites the stepsisters (not the stepmother) to live in the palace with her. Essentially nothing awful happens to Cinderella's stepmother other than not getting what she wanted, but Snow White's stepmother isn't so lucky. Which is not to say either of them should be lucky - obviously both are guilty of terrible child abuse, and in Snow White's stepmother's case attempted murder. The lesson to act more like Snow White and Cinderella - kind, compassionate, helpful, patient - is reinforced in "Schneewittchen" and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the death of the evil stepmother and in "Cendrillon" and Cinderella by the happy ending for the heroine. Different kinds of endings, but the same moral lesson in the end.


I'm going to talk more about Mother Gothel in a later post, but I didn't want to leave out Rapunzel's mother, who, though silent, is one of the only Disney fairytale mothers we actually see. Tangled is a large departure from the Grimms' "Rapunzel," in which the girl is traded for stolen herbs rather than stolen herself. In the Grimms' version it is actually the father who trades the child in order to procure the herbs his pregnant wife desires, and the wife's reaction to her newborn being taken from her is not mentioned in the 1812 edition or any subsequent editions. We know nothing about her except she had pregnancy cravings for rampion; we don't know if she cared that her child was traded away, we don't know if she was happy to be rid of the child or if she was devastated by the loss. Rapunzel's mother in Tangled has even fewer lines than in the Grimms', but she is portrayed as a loving mother devastated by the loss of her child, holding an annual ceremony in her daughter's memory, and eventually being overjoyed at her return.

I think the depiction of Mother Gothel in Tangled was actually very well done, though I've read a lot of commentary that missed why it was so good. Gothel is consistently shown in Tangled to be addressing Rapunzel's hair, the power for which Gothel kidnapped her, when seemingly speaking lovingly to Rapunzel herself. She refers to Rapunzel as "flower," emphasizing again the power for which Rapunzel was kidnapped. Gothel's isolation and containment of Rapunzel is selfishly motivated and indicates no regard whatsoever for Rapunzel as a person; she's keeping her prize in a locked box for her own use, as it were. She does not love Rapunzel, she feels no motherly feeling toward her, she does not care about anything except continuing to use the flower's power to keep her youth and beauty. In the fairytale, Rapunzel has no magic powers which the enchantress or witch is attempting to protect or keep for herself; the witch simply keeps her locked up. Though some tellings suggest the witch kept her for help with housework, most mention no housework or anything of the like and simply say the witch has no motivation for keeping Rapunzel locked away; she's just evil. Tangled brilliantly masked Gothel's indifference to Rapunzel as a person in her loving language directed solely at the magic power Rapunzel possessed. It's a great use of a villain in its realistic depiction of an emotionally abusive parent.


This one is the most fun. It's also awful. You can't say I didn't warn you. But stick with me, it's really great.

Oddly, the opening credits to Disney's Sleeping Beauty attribute their source material not to a fairytale but to Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. The 1959 film almost definitely used Tchaikovsky for their primary source, but the interesting tidbit is that Tchaikovsky claimed to base the ballet on Perrault's "La Belle au bois dormant" while instead more accurately depicting the Grimms' "Briar Rose." Normally the Grimms have a bloodier ending and Perrault's is cleaned up, but in this case the exact opposite is true, and any Sleeping Beauty that claims to be based on Perrault's but does not end with cannibalism is in fact based on the Grimms, not Perrault.

Yes, cannibalism. Stick with me, it's just getting good.

The Grimms' "Briar Rose" is the Sleeping Beauty with which you're already familiar: the long-wished-for princess is cursed to die by an evil fairy, the good fairy changes it to a long sleep, prince wakes her up with a kiss, they live happily ever after. It is the Disney movie from beginning to end. The queen is only mentioned twice: once giving birth to the princess, once falling asleep as the princess does. While this mother is present and, as far as we can tell, good, there's really nothing to her. She's necessary to give birth to the protagonist but she's otherwise ignored.

The real motherhood plot comes in with Perrault's "La Belle au bois dormant." But the sleeping princess's mother is not the primary mother nor even the secondary mother in the story.


Perrault's Sleeping Beauty begins much the same as the Grimms', though rather than waiting for a prince's kiss, she will be awakened in 100 years when a prince approaches her castle. She awakens when he enters the room and kneels before her, not waiting for the kiss. However, instead of taking her back to his own kingdom, he weds her secretly and keeps her hidden away from his own parents. During this time, Sleeping Beauty has two children, a boy named Day and a girl named Dawn. When the prince's father dies and he succeeds his father as king, he reveals his secret family, much to his mother's dismay. His mother, an ogress, attempts to kill and eat Sleeping Beauty and her children when the new king is called away to war. The cook hides the children away instead of cooking them, and the king returns just in time to see his mother preparing a pot to cook Sleeping Beauty in. The mother throws herself in the pot, and everyone else lives happily ever after.

So now we have two very different depictions of motherhood in Sleeping Beauty and her mother-in-law. Sleeping Beauty is a very loving mother. When she is brought to the cook to be killed for her mother-in-law's dinner, she cries out, "Once more I shall see my children, my poor children that I loved so much!" On the other hand, we are told that even the king fears his own mother and we see he has good reason. Her jealousy of her daughter-in-law and her fear of being supplanted in her son's life lead her to attempt to literally consume her enemies.

Disney's Aurora clearly bears no resemblance to Perrault's Sleeping Beauty, though Aurora's mother is a similar non-entity to Sleeping Beauty's mother. Philip's mother is never seen nor mentioned in the Disney film, but it's probably a safe bet Disney didn't intend her to be a baby-eating ogress. Not that we have any other mothers-in-law in Disney films to base that on. Call it a hunch.

Overall, Disney sticks with the fairytale tradition of evil mother figures being stepmothers and good or neutral mother figures being actual mothers. Absent mothers are prevalent in Disney's films, fairytale-based or not, much like the many absent mothers in fairytales. The mothers we do see, though, are generally kind, loving, and good, while stepmothers are selfish, conniving, and abusive.

23 June 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 1: About Fairytales

I've been thinking about writing something about Disney, fairytales, and women for some time now. In reviving this blog the idea came back to me, and I've been prepping it for a few weeks. In that time I've run across several Disney movie reviews, podcasts, etc. in which people talked about women in Disney films or Disney films based on fairytales trying to insinuate that they knew the “original fairytale,” while their actual words betrayed the fact that they had never so much as read any version of the original non-Disney-written fairytales, let alone had any deeper thoughts about them. I found this annoying, and decided I had too much to say on this topic to confine it to one post. I'm not sure how long this series will be, but I definitely intend to write a few posts talking about different fairytale stock characters and tropes/devices and how those translated to Disney's fairytale films, as well as specific fairytales in comparison with the Disney versions. I believe fairytales, folktales, and mythology are valuable to study in their own right, but especially for anyone who wants to talk seriously about Disney movies, a deeper knowledge and understanding of fairytales and folklore is integral.

For this first post I'd like to summarise some background information and basic things to keep in mind about the history of fairytales, folktales, and mythology in general.

Possibly the most important thing to keep in mind is that there is no “original fairytale” when we're discussing things like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Such a thing does not exist. The Grimms are not the originals, Perrault is not the original. If there ever was one singular Cinderella story, we have no way of telling. There are at least 20, probably if not definitely more, versions of Cinderella from different cultures and places all over the world, and the only hard dates we have on any of them are publication dates, which mean nothing since these stories come from oral traditions hundreds or thousands of years old. Usually when someone refers to an “original fairytale” they are referencing the Grimms' version or Perrault's version, but those are relatively modern and heavily edited anthologies of fairytales and really cannot accurately be called originals. Now, original stories like Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen can be called such because they were written by Andersen; while the Grimms and Perrault edited the old stories in their own respective styles, they did not write the stories from scratch. So if someone tries to state a fact about the “original” Sleeping Beauty, they are full of it. A fact about the original Little Mermaid referencing Andersen's original story would be correct.

Why we have so many versions of essentially the same stories is a matter of debate that isn't necessary to summarise here, but it is worth mentioning the Aarne-Thompson classification system which catalogues different kinds of fairytales and folktales. When I say we have 20+ versions of Cinderella, the classification to which I refer is AT510A and AT510B, Persecuted Heroine and Unnatural Love respectively. Some versions fall entirely under one or the other, many versions incorporate the two. As you can tell from that list, there's just tons and tons of different kinds of stories, and the same stories tend to be repeated with minor alterations in different versions from different cultures and places. This is the main reason it's pointless to try to discuss an "original" Cinderella; it is just impossible to figure out which one of these came first, as they originated in the oral tradition. With regard to Disney, we would discuss Perrault's Cinderella as that is the one on which Disney's film was entirely based. Donkeyskin and Katie Woodencloak, though they are clearly Cinderella-type stories, have absolutely zero relevance to the Disney film.

Even discussing Grimms' and Perrault's tales isn't quite so simple. The Grimms released several editions of their collection, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, each one making changes to existing stories as well as adding or removing stories. The 1812 Rapunzel asks the witch why her clothes have grown so tight (spoiler: she's pregnant), but the 1857 Rapunzel asks the witch why it takes so much longer to pull her up the tower than the prince. The 1812 Rapunzel is merely naive to her situation while the 1857 Rapunzel seems substantially less than bright, casually disclosing her clandestine visitor to her captor. Why the change? According to Jack Zipes, "[Wilhelm Grimm] often changed the original texts by comparing them to different versions that he had acquired. While he evidently tried to retain what he and Jacob considered the essential message of the tale, he tended to make the tales more proper and prudent for bourgeois audiences" ("Once There Were Two Brothers Named Grimm," The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm xxvi). Similarly, Perrault's tales were edited with regard to his audience. The title "Little Red Riding Hood" is original to Perrault, but the story is represented in many earlier tales, such as The Story of Grandmother, Grand-Aunt Tigress, and Thrymskviða. Perrault's ending is almost entirely opposite to the tales on which it is based. In other versions, the girl outwits the beast, either escaping from it herself or killing it; in Perrault's, she is eaten, and Perrault ends with an explicit moral, telling women to be wary of beastly men. Perrault's tales were told in the court of Louis XIV, and his tales were edited to serve as moral lessons for the upper-class; for this one in particular, he was telling the upper-class women to follow the behavioural rules in their society or men will take advantage of them.

And on that note, it is important to remember that fairytales were not always intended for children. Go back and read The Story of Grandmother. Yeah. Yeah. I keep mentioning that the Grimms' and Perrault's stories were heavily edited because they were heavily edited. Generally, the earlier you go with fairytales, the bawdier and sexier they are. People like to complain about fairytale analysis "making everything about sex" in children's tales, when, in their older forms, these were stories about sex and varied adult themes that were later sanitized to become children's tales. Of course some of the symbolism remains in the children's tales, which is the proverbial thread you pull to unravel the sweater, which is why you have people talking about adult-theme symbols in fairytales. They were there all along; no one's adding them in to fit their agenda or ruin your childhood.

So with these things in mind, I'll turn next time to some specific kinds of characters in fairytales and how Disney translated them to their films. In the meantime, if you're looking for some good books on the subject, may I recommend:

The Annotated Brothers Grimm, The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, and The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar
The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes
Folk and Fairy Tales edited by Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek
Fearless Girls, Wise Women, & Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales Around the World by Kathleen Ragan
From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner

(One more note: the bulk of my study has been the Grimms and world folklore. I'm not as familiar with Perrault and Andersen, so I tend to talk more about the former group. I don't mean to ignore Perrault and Andersen, they're just not what I know the most about. I will try not to leave them out!)

20 June 2014

January 2014 Disney Trip: Part 7

On the morning of our check-out day (boooooo), I finished packing up and then took some pictures of the room. Our 2-bedroom lock-off suite in Jambo House was quite nice. If it hadn't been substantially more DVC points, a savanna view would've been worth it, but our pool view wasn't bad.




The floating head of Kitty Forman, because I forgot to turn off the TV








We got the Mirthmobile loaded up and ran over to the Zawadi Marketplace before leaving to pick up some souvenirs we'd had shipped to the hotel.



Crow T. Robot, what are you doing here?
We went over to Downtown Disney before heading home so we could pick up some last-minute souvenirs. We did lunch at Earl of Sandwich, and I'm glad I got to have one more Caribbean Jerk Chicken sandwich because I hear they've taken that off the menu so now there's literally no reason to go to Downtown Disney anymore (Kungaloosh).



I picked up a few things at World of Disney, then the guys poked around the Lego Store for a while.





On our way out we took a look at The Art of Disney.




And then we drove home. :( We had a blast, though, and I can't wait to go back.

19 June 2014

January 2014 Disney Trip: Part 6

On our last day in the parks, Ben and I headed to Animal Kingdom first thing in the morning. We had a really excellent Kilimanjaro Safaris ride - I really can't recommend enough hitting the Safaris first thing in the morning, before the animals give up on life - and actually saw the cheetahs running briefly before they noticed the jeep and promptly flopped on the ground right where they were. It was truly impressive, though. All the animals were up and about and moving around except the baby elephants, but I saw them previously so I was only like 70% bummed.






We had to take a quick detour backstage for unspecified reasons, though we didn't see much of interest, except this rare cliff hippo and cliff cheetah:


Next we went to Dinosaur, and we were really tickled to see Rex in the gift shop:


Unfortunately, Rex did not fare well against the carnotaur:


We took a walk through Pangani Forest and didn't see much to begin with. We got to the gorillas and they weren't out, and a CM was there saying she didn't think they'd be out for another half hour. We were about to walk away when all of a sudden, a gorilla walked right in front of me (behind the glass, obviously).




Next we walked over to Maharajah Jungle Trek before stopping for lunch at Ben's favourite, the counter service Yak & Yeti.






We got a message from Adam saying he was just now getting going, but after lunch we were on our way out, so we decided to meet him over at Magic Kingdom.


We met up at Columbia Harbour House because Adam hadn't yet had lunch and then headed over to Haunted Mansion.





Today's FastPass woes were the discovery that even if you don't use them, your FastPasses stay assigned to you days after they expire. So I had to do some fun wrangling with Ben's unused FastPasses to be able to get us FastPasses for Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Peter Pan's Flight. I had done laundry in our room with a new detergent that it turns out Ben is super allergic to. He made it through The Enchanted Tiki Room but then decided he needed to go back to the room. Adam and I did Space Mountain, then grabbed Dole Whips and went through the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse.





We walked through Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, and Fantasyland. We ended up in Gaston's Tavern so I could buy a stein and take some pictures.








He really does use antlers in all of his decorating.

We still had plenty of time before our Peter Pan's Flight FastPass so we did Ariel's Undersea Adventure, which has the most gorgeous queue. Eric's castle and the grounds are beautiful. Unfortunately the ride is pretty lackluster, although not as bad as I assumed from YouTube videos it would be.




It's the backside of water!!





We then went to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and the ride broke down when we were next in line, so we decided to just wait it out. We didn't have enough time to wait in line for anything else before Peter Pan, so we figured if it got close to the end of our FastPass time, we'd head over. Luckily it didn't take that long and we got to ride Pooh before Peter Pan.




After a quick detour to the Tangled Toilets, we rode Peter Pan's Flight. Even with FastPass the wait was annoying. I think the ride is charming but I cannot imagine waiting more than 15 minutes for it. Also, the ride broke down over London, and my dress glows in the dark, so, selfie time.





We hopped on the train in Frontierland and took a round trip before our FastPass for Pirates. After a run through the Emporium we met up with Ben, who was feeling better, at the hotel.


Back at Animal Kingdom Lodge we all did the night-vision goggles viewing of animals at the Uzima Springs pool. Sadly there wasn't a whole lot to see, and it was feeding time so we had to keep taking the goggles off while the truck with bright headlights came through to feed the animals. But it was still pretty cool and I'm glad we did it. We picked up dinner at the Mara and sat by the pool bar and watched Meet the Robinsons, then went back to the room and started packing while watching Monsters University.

Do yourself a favour and get this candy bar brownie from the Mara
Next and last post in this series: delightful room photos and Downtown Disney! I have a project in the works for after the trip reports, so stay tuned.