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Fairy Tales (or why my childhood was better than your childhood)

Brace yourselves, this might get political.

Christmas in my family is a time of re-watching old movies, mostly fairy tales, from the home country. See, when I was growing up across the pond in Europe, Disney movies were picture books with accompanying audio tapes (one side in English and the other in my home language translation). I was therefore never indoctrinated in the magic that is Disney, and though I love it now, I have to say I love my own childhood fairy tales more. Here is why:

CinderellaCinderella2 Cinderella vs. Prince Charming

Everyone loves a good rags to riches story. Every poor girl dreams of being a princess. But given a choice, I would rather be a kick ass princess than, well, what Disney presented. In the animated Disney version, Cinderella has a household of mice to help her make a dress, and when it’s destroyed, the fairy godmother magically appears to save the day, giving her a beautiful carriage and horses to boot! She doesn’t have to do anything to earn it except have a magical relative. And think about it. If the godmother can do that much, why does the magic fade at midnight? Why couldn’t it last forever? When the prince goes to find her afterward, all he has to do is fit the shoe on Cinderella’s foot and the happily ever after music plays. Sweet, but eh…

In my version, Cinderella is a rebel. She goes riding when her stepmother doesn’t see, she hunts, she shoots crossbows, and she’s not afraid to stand up for what is right. She pokes fun at the spoiled prince, bests him in a shooting contest, and at the ball, when he asks her to marry him, she doesn’t say yes. She gives him a riddle and tells him that until he can answer correctly, she can’t be with him. Her magic is limited not by an arbitrary time of night, but by a number. She has three magic tree nuts, each of which holds a special disguise, and once they run out, that’s it.

The moral of the story: While Disney teaches kids that magic makes everything possible, the European version teaches that magic only gives you a chance. You still have to be worthy of the prince at the end–and he has to be worthy of you! More importantly, there is a practical limit to what it can do and you must use it wisely. Now that’s the story I would want to teach my kids.

AuroraAurora2 Sleeping Beauty vs. Thorns

The biggest question of this tale is why? Aurora is cursed at birth because (in the Disney version) the evil fairy Maleficent wasn’t invited to the birthday celebration. It seems a bit weak as an excuse, don’t you think? I mean, of all the kids being born in the kingdom, did she get invited to all of them? Was she at the king’s or the queen’s birthday celebration? Why was this particular one so unique, especially considering how antisocial Maleficent seems to be? I have no answer. Do you? How about this: Why did no one tell Aurora not to mess with spinning wheels? I mean, it seems pretty obvious, right? You don’t want someone to do something, you tell them not to do it. If I know one thing about kids, the more you try to hide something, the more determined they are to find it.  Another thing that always sticks in my craw with these princess stories is why is there never time for the hero and heroine to get to know each other? It’s like it doesn’t matter who they are. They’re beautiful and rich, and that’s a solid basis for marriage and happily ever after. Umm… no.

See, in the European version, it’s the queen’s sister who curses the child. And she does it because she was spurned by the king. He was supposed to marry the older sister, but fell in love with the younger instead. She was invited to the celebration, but chose not to attend, and when the king and queen brought their daughter to meet her aunt, she cursed the child out of spite. In this version, the king and queen rid the kingdom of all prickly things, and tell their daughter early on that she is cursed and therefore must be careful. And on her 17th birthday, they try desperately to save her by marrying her off so her prince can take her away from the cursed kingdom. Only problem is, she falls for the younger brother because the older is a douche, and when the engagement to the older is announced, she refuses him and the royal family (including the younger prince) leave. She is tricked into pricking her finger, and it is the younger prince who saves her (because the douche doesn’t think it’s his responsibility). But he doesn’t immediately know what to do, he has to learn to swim, he has to dig through a channel until his hands are bloody, he has to cut through the rose bushes while the evil aunt tries to kill him, and when he finds the princess, he sings to her first, hoping to wake her. Only when that doesn’t work does he kiss her and save the day.

The moral of the story: Love is not easy, and it is not fair, as Disney would have you believe. Life is complicated. People are multifaceted and even those closest to you can turn against you when their pride is hurt. Love needs to be found and fought for, it’s not a natural birthright that will magically happen when you turn 18, and the royal prince is not always the one who will give you that happily ever after. Yet another lesson well learned.

BelleBelle2 Beauty vs. Beast

This is one of my favorite fairy tales, both Disney and otherwise. While I love the Disney version, it has issues. For example, why was the prince cursed, really? For not letting a stranger into his house while his parents were away? Where were his parents? Why ten years for the curse? In all that time, he must have cared for some of his servants, and they most certainly cared about him, so why wasn’t that love enough to break the curse? Why did he have to get the most beautiful girl in town? Wasn’t the point that he learn beauty is found within? In the end it has to be Belle who learns it. It doesn’t seem right.

Now, the European version (or rather the Russian one, since Russia is part European part Asian), there is no prince, or kingdom. The hero and heroine are both from poor village families. The hero, a beautiful but vain and careless snot, decides to go out into the world. He encounters a magical gnome who plays games with him and gives him an enchanted bow as a prize. But the hero doesn’t thank him properly, so he is cursed into a bear for his lack of manners. He only turns back into a man when he performs a good deed (and learns the meaning of the phrase). The heroine is more like Cinderella. Her evil stepmother and stepsister force her father to take her out into the middle of the woods in winter to freeze to death because she’s prettier than the stepsister. There, she is found by the king of winter, who sees her goodness and takes her in. He has to go out to do his job, but forgets his frozen staff which turns anything into ice. The heroine touches it and freezes until her hero finds her and wakes her with true love’s kiss. But it’s not over yet! Bandits conspire, an evil witch has a bone to pick. On their way home, the hero and heroine are attacked and have to fight for their lives. Now isn’t that more believable than talking furniture?

The moral of the story: Magic isn’t arbitrary (or shouldn’t be). A good heart will get you farther than a beautiful face. Caring for people is more important than pretty dresses and jewels. What goes around, comes around. And most importantly, never mess with forces beyond your ken. R E S P E C T.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. In its quest to entertain with lovely music and pretty moving pictures, Disney has created a franchise of entertainment, but left out the true heart of its fairy tales, the lessons those tales were created to teach in the first place. Are they beautiful? To be sure. Worth watching? Absolutely. Should they be used as role models and aspirations for children? I think not. Nevertheless, they are. Every little girl wants to be a Disney princess, without thinking about what that truly means. Fairy wands and pretty dresses, and a prince charming ready to sweep them off their feet. Because Disney tells us this is a veritable guarantee. For every little girl there is a handsome prince and all she has to do is wait for him to show up–and notice all these stories have little to say about the princes themselves. What is a little boy to aspire to? Showing up and being handsome and rich?

Thanks, but I think I’ll keep my fairy tales gritty and realistic, and my expectations low enough to be achievable. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty in the name of love. Are you?

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