I am so, so glad that people are writing so many fairy tales. If you go into a bookstore, you’ll find dozens interspersed on the shelves in the 9-12 and YA sections. Some are lovely and mystical, like Shannon Hale’s THE GOOSE GIRL. Some are about cyborgs, like Marissa Mayer’s CINDER. And some are completely inverted, like Diana Wynne Jones’ HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE.
I have some friends who have had kids in the past few years, and several of them are determined that their girls will not grow up with fairy tales, princesses, fairy godmothers or anything of that sort. Leaving aside the part where this is nearly impossible (and also the part where, technically, it rules out Princess Leia Organa, arguably the GREATEST PRINCESS OF ALL TIME), I’m not sure I think it’s a particularly good idea. Should you teach your kids not to hang around all the time waiting for some dude to come and rescue them? Yes, yes you should. But more and more, that’s not what fairy tales are about.
Fairy Tales have ALWAYS been a shifting medium. Most of the stories we know are centuries old, drawn from multiple sources. In the Middle Ages, they were the product of the time: often presented as straight-up morality plays, where archetypes encountered each other archetypically, with archetypal results. Also, a lot of the time people are just stupid*. And, thanks to Disney, those were more or less the fairy tales I grew up with. Girls were Princesses who found True Love and Got Rescued and Lived Happily Ever After in a manner unspecified**.
The first time I was really aware of a shift in story-telling was when I saw EVER AFTER, starring Drew Barrymore and Angelica Houston***. I love that movie SO MUCH, for many, many reasons. For starters, there are almost equal numbers of male and female characters (depending on how you decide who is important). Furthermore, the relationship between Danielle and Henry is multi-faceted, and develops over the course of the movie. Also, Danielle has relationships with her step-mother and step-sisters, with the other maids, with Gustaff, with Leonardo da Vinci, and all of them are unique, well rounded, and clearly thought through.
What really sets EVER AFTER apart is the ending. First of all, Danielle rescues herself. Using her brain. And a sword. It’s kind of fabulous. Furthermore, in the final showdown with the step-mother, it’s Danielle, Marguerite and the Queen who do almost all of the talking. What makes it amazing, though, is the very last scene, where the now elderly Danielle is talking to the Brothers Grimm, she tells them that “The most important thing, was that they lived.” Not just happily ever after. Even though it happens off-screen and in a story we don’t see, they lived.
“The Modern Fairy Tale” isn’t some girl going to New York to become a fashion designer and marrying a rich dude. That’s just a fairy tale, set in New York. There’s nothing particularly modern about it. “The Modern Fairy Tale” happens when we go into those old stories and refuse to accept that everyone in them is a cardboard cut out. Remember, fairy tales are pretty much always in open season. You can do almost anything you want with them, and no one can get mad at you, because they’re all messes to begin with.
That leads us to one of my favourite trends in YA: fairy tales retold. These range from Sci-Fi (the aforementioned CINDER), to full blown fantasy (Malinda Lo’s ASH), to interpretations via non-Western cultures (Zoe Marriot’s SHADOWS ON THE MOON). And that’s before we even get away from Cinderella! There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Jackson Pearce), there’s Rumpelstiltskin (Elizabeth C. Bunce), and there are entirely new, but kind of recognizable princesses (Shannon Hale, Gail LeVine).
I picked Cinderella specifically though, for the following reason: I grew up in a sports household. A Cinderella Story is the story of an underdog team that beats Duke in the first round, and goes down in the Elite Eight to the University of Florida, having made it further than any team from their college has ever made it before. A Cinderella Story happens when someone who is poor, small, beaten down and overlooked gets lucky, gets help, gets to go to the big dance, and gets the trophy.
None of the Cinderella Stories I have mentioned so far do that. Instead, they are all about a girl in a less than pleasant situation using talents she didn’t know she had in order to survive, and finding her identity. And, yes, in some cases they still find true love, but like Danielle, they don’t just live happily ever after****. They live.
THAT is the modern fairy tale. Stories about girls who aren’t afraid of the dark. Stories about girls who make choices and live with the consequences. Stories about girls who find love, lose love, fight for love, and, sometimes, surrender to it. Stories about girls who know who they are and what they can do. And that? That is the kind of story I am more than happy to read to an up and coming princess. Fairy tales shift all the time. It’s only reasonable that the words inside them, and their meanings should shift too, to better become a product of our time.
Ursula Vernon’s hilariously annotated, relatively rare, fairy tales (Ursula usually has great links about the academics too, if you’re into that): http://ursulav.livejournal.com/tag/fairy%20tales
*Seriously. Point me to a fairy tale that doesn’t fall prey to one character being REALLY STUPID at least once, and I’ll…well, I don’t know, actually. But it would be funny!
**To be fair, Disney did manage to get both TANGLED and ENCHANTED done right. Rapunzel is AMAZING, and if you tried to play a drinking game for every time ENCHANTED subverted itself, you might die of alcohol poisoning. I am incredibly optimistic about BRAVE.
***Okay, so it totally SHOULD have been INTO THE WOODS, which I watched about a million times as a child. But I didn’t like Act II, so I never watched it (which means you miss the lesson), and I was too young to understand was subversive meant.
****OH, GOD, CAN WE HAVE THE SECOND BOOK OF CINDER NOW?