When my daughter was about 3 or 4, she loved fairy tales. Like most girls that age, she was going through the Disney princess thing and so we were reading all kinds of princess stories. Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella. Beauty and the Beast (my personal favorite). The Frog Prince. Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood (no princesses there). Rapunzel. Rumpelstiltskin (Paul O. Zelinsky illustrated perhaps the most beautiful edition of this story I’ve ever seen).
As a parent, I was aware that there has been a movement in recent years to “clean up” these stories. I knew that many of the stories I read to my daughter were not the original versions, and that more changes have been demanded. But even as “Disney-fied” as the tales had become, there were still some puzzling things.
What what up with these parents? In the Bad Parent of the Year category, our Second Runner Up: Little Red Riding Hood’s Mother. “Here, honey, go take this basket of yummy food through the deep, dark, wolf-infested forest to your grandmother’s house. Alone. With no weapon to protect you. No, I can’t go with you or find you anyone who can; we’re boot-strap kind of people and take care of ourselves. Zip up your hoodie and get moving.” Our First Runner Up: Goldilocks’s Mother. “Sweetie, I need you to go all the way to the other side of the deep, dark, bear-infested forest to buy me something I need. You must stay on the path and not stray. I’m asking this even though I know you are unreliable and have a tendency to walk into other people’s houses unannounced. But you’ll be fine.” And the Winner and New World Champion: Hansel and Gretel’s Parents. “Gee, kids, I’m really sorry but your mom and I have decided that you guys are just too expensive to keep, what with your eating and all, so I’m gonna take you out into the deep, dark, witch-infested forest with me tomorrow and abandon you to die. Nothing personal. We cool?”
And then there are the often sexual undertones of the tales. Not just the desperate need to marry off all these beautiful young princesses, but just look at The Frog Prince. The princess loses her golden ball, her most precious possession. (Now, in a traditional society, what is a girl’s most precious possession? Yes. Thank you.) The frog dives under water (a loaded image in itself) and gets it for her but won’t give it back unless she takes him home. Then she has to sleep with him in her bed – ahem! – and kiss him at which point – boing! – he stands erect as a man once more. Huh. This is a story for CHILDREN?
So, being the vastly over-educated person that I am, I immediately set out to do research. What was up with fairy tales?
First, history. Fairy tales descend to us from the medieval period and are part of an oral tradition that was created and carried on by travelling storytellers. These men really did brave the deep, dark, bear- and wolf-infested forests of Europe to earn their food and the occasional coin by going from village to walled town to feudal manor performing for whoever would listen. Their audience was, accordingly, not merely four-year-old girls wanting stories about princesses who live happily ever after, but encompassed the entire range of the human family: toothless elders, married couples, flirtatious young people, and of course, children. In order to entertain all of these people, the storyteller had to weave a tale with a little of everything. He needed a little horror, a little humor, a little justice to the wrongdoers, and yes, a little sex.
So the best fairy tales were like the best Pixar films. They are enjoyable by entire families. There’s a sense of completion at the end that makes everyone feel satisfied on a deep, visceral level. There is love at first sight, which every adult in his or her right mind knows is not real but secretly wants to believe in, and there is true love that heals all wounds and shatters all boundaries, and everyone – from that four year old dreaming of happy endings to her exhausted, overworked mother to her father who is terrified at the thought of being responsible for all of these lives to her grandmother who has been a widow so long she barely remembers what that kind of passion feels like – every one of them is transported with the longing, the belief, the joy of what that story means: the possibility that for someone, somewhere, maybe, that kind of love can exist. For if it can exist, then the world truly is a magical place, and life is worth getting on with.
But wait, there’s more! A psychologist named Bruno Bettelheim made a deeper analysis of fairy tales and delved into the symbology and meaning of the stories. Why wolves? Why little girls in peril? Why wicked step-mothers? Why the same motifs over and over?
Yes, why wicked step-mothers? After divorce became more common in the 1970s, there arose an outcry against all the wicked step-mothers in fairy tales, as more and more women became step-mothers by reason of second marriages after divorce. The demonization of step-mothers in fairy tales, they argued, was damaging to our children and contributed to the disrespect and difficulty they faced in their new role in the family.
Really? You’re going to blame stories for the trouble you’re having when the kids are scared and angry and confused because their lives are ripped to pieces and Mom and Dad are remarrying and giving them “new” mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and they are being put on a schedule for when they can be with their parents and friends and… OK, sorry. I was a divorce attorney for seven years. I’ll stop now, but you see my point.
So back to Mr. Bettelheim. What he said was that the wicked step-mother acts as a psychological construct that assists the young child in dealing with the fact that Mother – who for the first year or so of life has been the source of all love, health, comfort and goodness – suddenly and for no apparent reason, begins to put limits on the child. “Don’t touch that.” “Don’t go there.” “Time to go to sleep.” “NO.” And the child thinks, “But I don’t want to go to sleep now, but I want to go there and touch that and do that.” Suddenly the child and the loving Mother are at odds, and this discovery is a terrible, frightening thing. If I do what I want, will Mother hate me? Will she leave me? Bettelheim said that the child needs to split the mother psychologically, and make her into two people, essentially: the giving mother and the restrictive mother. These two mothers are represented externally for the child in the fairy tales – offered fully formed, as it were, for the child’s psychological use – in the characters of the adored (dead) mother and the wicked step-mother.
Why is the fairy tale mother dead? Because that idealized, all-giving mother is a fiction. She doesn’t really exist except in the immature perception of the child. So, psychologically, she must die for the child to move into the new stage of development.
And why the step-mother? Because there must be that new mother-figure, the one that confuses and confounds the child, the one with whom the child must deal in order to grow up.
Now, this works for the storyteller too. The mother must die and the step-mother come into play because everyone knows that no good adventures can be had while loving parents are around to comfort and protect you. The good stuff only happens after you are orphaned and abandoned.
Is Bettelheim right? I don’t know. To what extent is psychology “right?” It certainly is one plausible reading of the stories and it was a really interesting book. And I really don’t think you can read “The Frog Prince” without getting into a psycho-sexual interpretation. I can just imagine the families sitting around a fire in the 1500s, the children hearing one story, and the adults hearing quite another, laughing behind their hands. Kiss that frog, indeed.
Just for fun, Peter Gabriel’s “Kiss That Frog” which has inspired me lately: