Fairy Tales 101: The 21st Century Fairy Tale

Foreword

Fairy Tales 101 articles discuss a hidden aspect of apparently innocent tales with happy endings. The stories tackled in this series were part of countless childhoods and helped to shape the personalities and lives of kids around the world. Due to the huge influence of these tales, these 101 series of articles aims to delve deeper into the beginning of Fairy Tales, track the original manuscripts of some of the most popular fictions, and analyze the changes made throughout the decades. The articles will also look at these fairy tales through a psychoanalytical lens, to try to decipher the implicit symbols and meanings.


Fairy Tales 101 is mainly divided into 6 articles, as follows:

The Origin of Fairy Tales

Once upon a time: The Oldest Fairytale; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Midnight Mystery: Cinderella

Cursed to Slumber: Sleeping Beauty

The Ultimate Sacrifice: The Little Mermaid

• The 21st Century Fairy Tale: A Modern Twist on Traditional Works

The 21st Century Fairy Tale: A Modern Twist on Traditional Works


Figure 1: Astor Alexander. Noir Princesses. 2018

Literature is an ever-changing domain where writers and artists are always striving to evolve and keep up with the social, intellectual and artistic developments. In this series so far, the focus was on examining the progression of some of the most famous fairy tales over time. The development of this genre is an on-going process. The modern 21st century writer is still inspired by these stories and is constantly adding intriguing twists to the original manuscript in order for it to adhere to the current way of life. Some even go as far as borrowing well-known characters of the fairy tales and placing them in futuristic or post-apocalyptic settings. The major debate nowadays, especially within the pedagogical field, is whether or not traditional fairy tales are still relevant or if they simply teach outdated morals that are no longer applicable in our modern society.

Figure 2: Beth Creates. Mirror Mirror in the Cloud. 2018

The prevalence of fairy tales till this day is a chief indicator of its moral, educational and influential power that survived the test of time. These stories have proven to be of great help to children and adults, as they boost their resourcefulness, imagination and self-confidence. In his extensive study of Posmodernism, Gladwin (2012) claims that “fairy tales give children and adults the opportunity for creativity and self-fulfillment that will allow them to narrate their own life story instead of adopting stories narrated for them” (p.9). Additionally, they improve critical-thinking skills in children as they are presented with numerous decisions or paths to choose from. Thus, children will put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes and try to choose the best action to take that will ultimately lead to the best outcome. Zehetner (2013) brings forward a psychological argument saying that “fairy tales provide answers to what the world is really like and the child’s place within it” (p.1). Therefore, it suggests that fairy tales are a necessary tool for parents to indirectly instil moral and ethical values in their children through the different magical and fictional characters.


It is imperative to mention that fairy tales are also of great significance to adults. While some argue that it is to quench a nostalgic desire to go back in time when life was simpler, others believe that it is due to the hidden complexities of these stories. Many adults enjoy fairy tales as they notice the intricacies that lie underneath the simple plot. Mieder (1987), an expert in folklore, believes that “children’s stories conceal in part the frustrations of adults, who to this day long for a better and fairer world, where people can in fact finally live happily ever after” (p.91). Therefore it is not simply an interest in children’s literature that drives adult to fairy tales, but rather the need to believe in a happy and fair ending which apparently only exists within the pages of these books.


Figure 3: Rachael Wise. Fucked up Fairy Tales. 2013

However, writers had to alter the original storylines as they did not conform to the 21st century social regime. According to Ortells Monton (2021), “with their rewritings, these authors censored reactionary attitudes and corrected customary biases regarding male and female behaviors as well as stereotypical notions of good and evil” (p.261). Thus, the modern fairy tale excludes the themes of patriarchy, gender inequality, and sexism. Instead, women have been empowered with numerous retellings through the transformation of the helpless damsel in distress into a powerful and independent fighter. Therefore, female inaction and silence have been replaced with a woman-centric plot that gives a voice to the previously oppressed princesses. The modern writer’s primary concern when it comes to fairy tales is the rectification of the gender power imbalance that is present in the majority of the popular, traditional stories. Gladwin (2012) mentions that “Cinderella, Donkeyskin, Beauty, and Psyche—these female protagonists participate in the quest to overcome a power imbalance that places them in a submissive or powerless role” (p.26). This is no longer acceptable in the present feminist society as adults are now more aware of the impact of these tales on their children, especially their little girls. The modern fairy tale is now filled with strong female leads that prioritize their family, career and honor over a charming prince. Various new princesses and even queens have appeared in the last decade and are showcased as humans rather than flawless dolls. Some examples include Queen Elsa from Frozen (2013), a story about sisterhood, Brave (2012) which includes a physically robust female protagonist, and Moana (2016) whose protagonist is an indigenous woman of color. Hence, modern parents are opting for more gender-neutral and unbiased options when choosing a bed-time story.


Figure 4: Chris Riddell. The Sleeper and the Spindle. 2014

Another significant feature that writers and readers are now taking into consideration more than ever, is diversity. This concept is applicable on the racial, cultural, sexual and religious levels. Although fairy tale authors come from various cultural and ethnical backgrounds, this racial diversity was not translated into the characters of the story. The female protagonist is often “fair” or white, and her physical description is limited to being the most beautiful girl in the kingdom. Nevertheless, this makes it harder for children to relate to them as they have no clear or identifiable physical attributes. Thus, modern fairy tales now include social, ethnical and cultural representations such as people of color, LGBTQ+ characters, and individuals with physical and mental disabilities. For instance, Mirabel from the cartoon movie Encanto (2021) is one of the few Pixar protagonists who wears glasses. This only goes to show the importance of diversity, inclusivity and range of characters, but also highlights the adaptable feature of the fairy tale as it moves from one medium to the other. In her extensive study of folklore and myths, Schwabe (2016) discusses that “while fairy tales are constantly migrating into new cultures and different media, reinventing themselves along the way, recent years in particular have seen a wave of highly innovative but also highly disputable fairy-tale retellings in popular culture” (p.1).


Accordingly, fairy tales are adapted by multiple production companies that were inspired to take these movies a step further and tell the villain’s origin story. Instead of focusing on the main plot and presenting the point of view of the protagonist, writers create an interesting twist on these popular stories and decide to dictate the story from the villains' point of view such as in Maleficent (2014) and, more recently, Cruella (2021). This isn’t limited to the small and big screen, as authors wrote spin-off books which revolve around a famous fairy tale's villain, such as Marissa Meyer’s Heartless (2016) which tell the story of the girl who became the evil Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. These retellings of villains’ stories have the same purpose at heart that writers of traditional fairy tales had: to educate the society, introduce morals and values, and most importantly to show the power of prejudice as the character, that had been ignored and despised for years, suddenly becomes the recipient of the audience’s love and sympathy.


Figure 5: Fernanda Suarez. Modern Day Belle. 2017

To sum up, fairy tales are a constantly progressing genre that never ceases to adapt to the needs of its audience. They have been proven extremely indispensable when it comes to children’s cognitive, emotional and social developments and thus should be used wisely by parents. Literature is a dynamic and perpetual field and it is not surprising to find traces of stories that were written thousands of years ago still available and used nowadays. However, writers are bound to modify a few aspects that are no longer suitable for the 21st century society, much like previous writers did before them. The altercation of myths and tales is an unavoidable phenomenon that is deemed essential for the survival of even the oldest of stories.


References

Gladwin, T. H. (2012). Beyond Postmodernism: Reconsidering the Fairy Tale in the 21st Century (Doctoral dissertation, National University).

Mieder, W. (1987). Grim Variations from Fairy Tales to Modern Anti-fairy Tales. The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory, 62(2), 90-102.

Ortells Montón, E. (2021). Rabih Alameddine, Kim Addonizio, and Kellie Wells: Fairy-Tales in the 21st Century. Lectora: Revista De Dones I Textualitat, (27), 259–273. https://doi.org/10.1344/Lectora2021.27.13

Schwabe, C. (2016). The Fairy Tale and Its Uses in Contemporary New Media and Popular Culture introduction. Humanities, 5(4), 81.

Zehetner, A. (2013). Why Fairy Tales Are Still Relevant to Today's Children. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 49(2), 161-162.


Picture References

Astor Alexander (2018), Noir Princesses [Digital Illustration], Twitter. https://twitter.com/AstorAlexander/status/1048311340605947905


Beth Creates (2018), Mirror Mirror in the Cloud [Digital Illustration], Go Compare. https://www.gocompare.com/broadband/once-upon-the-internet/


Chris Riddell (2014), The Sleeper and the Spindle [Digital Illustration], Bloomsbury. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/sleeper-and-the-spindle-9781408859650/


Fernanda Suarez (2017), Belle [Digital Illustration], Deviant Art. https://www.deviantart.com/fdasuarez/art/Belle-693718437


Rachael Wise (2013), Fucked up Fairy Tales [Digital Illustration], Tumblr. https://www.tumblr.com/blog/view/rachaelwise

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Elsa Abdallah

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