Rethinking Disney

We storytellers tend to dis Disney.

We offer many explanations for this aversion (excuse the pun). For one thing, there’s the fact that the Grimms’  versions of the classic fairy tales more closely reflected those of the German peasants from whom they collected them than do those of Disney. Of course the Grimms, too, engaged in editorializing, or, depending on your point of view, bastardization when editing and retelling well-loved stories like Cinderella and Snow White. Their agenda was to help create a bourgeoisie for the burgeoning German nation. For the second printing of their collection of Nursery and Household Tales, which was intended to engage adults as well as children, they censored the sexual content to make the volume more palatable to the parents of young children. Interestingly, they left the violence more or less intact. Likewise Charles Perrault, who popularized the French Cinderella, had his own sources and agendas.  

For another, the Disney alterations reflect not just modern sensibilities, which simply do what folklore is meant to do—change with each telling in each culture and with each individual—but they also reflect a corporate agenda. Thus while we would accept that Snow White, Ariel and their ilk  would naturally differ from their portrayals by the Grimms, Richard Burton (the Victorian who translated The Thousand and One Nights), when a multinational mega-corporation does this. we begin to suspect that someone is trying to sell us a version of truth, beauty and more than a few products to induce it in ourselves. 

And yet. I recently had the opportunity to interview the great Harvard scholar of fairy tales (and other topics) Maria Tatar for my academic journal Storytelling, Self, Society (Taylor & Francis). Far from demonizing Disney, she points out that at least they kept the old tales alive. The implication is, at least Disney’s versions (or, as folklorists say, variants) are a lot closer to those of their peasant sources than are our own.

That is to say, everyone knows and tells a version of Cinderella. Maybe it’s Pretty Woman. Maybe it’s Cinderella Man, the boxing movie with Russell Crowe. Maybe it’s your own lived experience of overcoming all odds to rise from low to high status—blue collar worker to CEO—which is the “tale type” (510A) from which the story emerges. We’ve all got what we’ve come to know as “Cinderella stories.” In very few is there mice who serve as footmen, as there are in Disney’s version. In even fewer are there birds who pick out the eyes of evil stepsisters, as there are in the Grimms’ version. (There is also the French variant by Charles Perrault that has made its way into our collective story library.) In other words, corporate versions and personal versions of these stories abound. Disney has kept the German peasant version, a more “authentic” take on the tale at least than Pretty Woman. alive.

And for that I thank them. Nevertheless, check out the great Kentucky storyteller Mary Hamilton’s 10-culture Cinderella, which are all contained in one telling. It’s amazing. It also reminds us that Disney is, after all, just one of many.

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