If you have a young daughter who likes princesses, as I do, it’s likely that you’ve heard of Ever After High. Like Monster High before it, these dolls have a unique look that’s somewhere between Victorian princess and 80s punk rock. Now, aside from the book series and dolls, there’s a new show streaming on Netflix that follows the story of the girls in high school.
What’s particularly impressive about the show is that it’s not your garden variety fairytale show. No doubt spurred on by other popular shows like My Little Pony and even the Tinkerbell franchise, the storylines are complex and the central challenges are far more than makeup and crushes. In fact, the central factions in the show — the Rebels and the Royals — fall on two sides of an age-old question: do you follow your destiny, or do you challenge it? If you’re born to an evil queen, does that mean you have to be the same when you grow up?
Sure, it’s a show that the ten-and-under crowd will enjoy. But at the heart it’s a show that makes you think beyond fairytale endings. If you’re anything like me, you were probably the kind of kid who questioned all the fairytales I read, and wanted more satisfying endings. I far prefer my daughter, who’s absolutely besotted with her princesses, to be given a more complicated view. I love fairytales as much as she does, but there’s a real power in changing those expectations and asking the hard questions. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they’re so enduring.
And that’s to say nothing of the fashion on the show. As in their doll form, the characters on the show have a really amazing sense of fashion — and it varies greatly from character to character. I’d personally love to see someone chasing their own destiny in some of these gorgeous outfits.
The latest re-imagining of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz book, entitled Dorothy Must Die, arrived in bookstores April 1, joining an ever growing list of dark and modern stories inspired by classic stories and fairy tales.
Created by award-winning author and former television writer Danielle Paige, the hero, a present-day Kansas teen named Amy Gumm (a tribute to Judy Garland’s “real name,” Frances Gumm), is living in a trailer with her depressed mother after her father left them for another woman. Neglected at home and bullied at school, her attitude when she hears about a tornado warning in her area is “Bring it on. There’s no place like anywhere but here.”
She soon learns to be careful what she wishes for, as her trailer is swept up by a tornado, she “crash lands” in the slum world of Oz. There she encounters a Goth Munchkin, among other characters, and learns of the lands’ downfall under “She Who Arrived on the Wind, Slayed the Wicked, and Freed the Munchkins,” the power-hungry dictator, Dorothy Gale. Gale and her twisted allies, Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Lion, have taken over the land, controlling it with fear and destruction. Gumm is reluctantly inducted into The Revolutionary Order of the Wicked—the “good guys” in this tale, to bring Oz back to its former glory. The plan involves, of course, killing Dorothy.
Expect this book to receive much attention, as Heroes creator Tim Kring is already looking at the book for a possible CW series.
It seems like more and more edgier re-tellings of the classics are popping up everywhere. Shows like Grimm and Once Upon A Time, movies like Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland and Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful, comics such as Bill Willingham’s Fables, and books series from Marissa Mayer’s Lunar Chronicles, Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars trilogy, or Gregory Maguire’s best-selling The Wicked Years series just barely scratch the surface. There is also plenty to cater to different age groups from young readers to adults.
However, the “darker” fairy tale is nothing new, and anyone who has read the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales or even L. Frank Baum’s Oz books know the familiar 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, and the Disney-fied fairy tales have been “lightened up” a little to make them more family-friendly.
Some of the original “dark” elements of stories such as the Oz books, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and even nursery rhymes have played a part in some of the later incarnations of the stories.
Here are some more disturbing standouts, bearing in mind not all of these stories were originally created as children’s tales, but rather evolved into them over the years:
• In The first Wizard of Oz story, the Tin Woodman explains how he came into being. He tells Dorothy and Scarecrow he was Munchkin named Nick Chopper, who fell in love with a widow’s servant girl. When the widow learned the girl intended to run away and marry the woodman, she went to the Wicked Witch of the East to enchant his axe. When he went to use the tool, it slipped and cut off piece of his “meat” body one limb at a time. He replaced each limb with a tin limb, but eventually his axe cut him right down the middle and took his heart.
• Speaking of woodmen, there was no woodman to save Little Red Riding Hood in the original story tale by Charles Perrault, as it was intended as a warning to never take advice from strangers. Red Riding Hood takes the wrong route to her grandmother’s, per the wolf’s request, and the wolf eats her. The End.
• The most familiar nursery rhyme origin rumor is that of “Ring Around The Rosie,” which refers the Great Plague in London in the 1660s. The “rosie,” is the rash covering those afflicted with the plague, and flowers, or “posies” were often kept in the pocket to mask the horrible stench. It ends in a happy, communal reminder of the fate of all plague victims “Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down!” Some historians and folklorists say this rhyme doesn’t actually refer to the plague at all, but was just a way for young children to create “dances” in a time when there a religious ban on dancing.
• Another favorite nursery rhyme, “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” refers to the infamously homicidal monarch Queen Mary I or England, better known as “Bloody Mary.” Her “garden” refers to the hundreds of Protestants she had executed under her rule, and the “pretty maids,” “silver bells,” and “cockle shells” are all references to some of her favorite torture devices.
• In Snow White, the Queen didn’t ask for the princess’s heart in a box, which is pretty gruesome in itself, but for her lungs and liver so she may eat them for dinner. The Queen did get her comeuppance not by being forced over a cliff to fall to her death, but having to “dance” herself to death in fire-hot shoes.
• The fate of the evil stepsisters in Cinderella includes them being so desperate to get into the glass slipper, they cut off their heels and toes to try and fit. They also paid for their selfish lifestyle, when the prince ordered birds to peck out their eyes, forcing them to live as blind beggars. This fate was shown in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Into The Woods,” which Disney will release as a feature film this winter.
• Sleeping Beauty has likely been the most manipulated. She isn’t put to sleep by a curse, nor is she awoken by a prince’s kiss (Snow White, by the way, wasn’t woken by a kiss either—the price had his horse nudge her awake). Her sleeping fate was due to a prophecy. She awakens when one of her twins sucks on her finger to remove the cursed piece of flax she got from the spindle. Wait a minute…Twins? Maybe this is a good time to mention the king raped her, and she gave birth to two children, all while she was still under the sleeping spell.
There are several other origin story variations circulating, but these are some of the more frequent ones. After discovering some of these it seems storytellers have always had a dark side, but one thing is for sure, they had some imagination.
Dorothy Must Die, is now available from HarperCollinsPublishers, with the prequel novella, No Place Like Oz available on ebook only from epicreads.com.
With Halloween fast approaching, boys and ghouls who like their books to pack a gory wallop will be looking for a seasonal treat. And Adam Gidwitz, author of the best-selling A Tale Dark and Grimm (2010) and In a Glass Grimmly (2012), comes through again with the third in his series with Dutton, The Grimm Conclusion, published this month.
Gidwitz knows fairy tales, and he’s mined both the well-known tellings and the lesser-known for his stories, which are great for fearless readers who want to know what “real” fairy tales were like. His amusing and sometimes irritable narrator reminds that “Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.” These tales weren’t the watered-down, sugar-coated stuff we’ve come to know. Instead, they were filled with cruelty, heartache, and lots of severed appendages.
While this sounds completely inappropriate for young readers, Gidwitz has confidence they can handle it. His narrator even takes a break in the action to check in periodically with the reader and make sure the little ones are out of the room. With my kids, these stories were an enormous hit for the 10-and-older crowd. My 8-year-old, however, found them scary in a can’t-go-to-sleep-now kind of way.
As Gidwitz did with the previous two books, he sets a boy and a girl out into the harsh, unforgiving world. Where first it was Hansel and Gretel, then Jack and Jill, in The Grimm Conclusion it is Joringel and Jorinda, who Gidwitz says “have perhaps the most harrowing journey of any of my Grimm protagonists.”
Amid the page-turning suspense and shocking ruthlessness (the stepsisters in Cinderella cut off their own heels and toes to make the shoe fit), there is warmth and wisdom. Gidwitz takes his readers on a dark and memorable journey, and once he’s certain he has their full attention, he drives home an important lesson all children should know: the power they possess in telling their own stories. GeekMom reached out to Gidwitz to find out more about his books.
GeekMom: What do you have against children? And where do you get off trying to scare them half to death?
Adam Gidwitz: Oh, please. They love it. You should see them at my events, screaming and clapping and crying for their mommies and then crying for more bloody stories. Not only do they love it, they need it. Children know what they need. When they’re toddlers, they demand the same book over and over again – until suddenly, they don’t want it any more. Their brains have decided that they’ve gotten what they need from the book, and now they can cast it away. Likewise, children aged 8 to 13 crave the dark, the scary. They want to test themselves against it, to explore it in a safe way. More than that, these dark fairy tales address fears that every child has, desires that grip all people, no matter their age. These tales let kids work out feelings that are deeper than words. I’ve written more on this, if you GeekMoms are really geeks: check out my essay Tears Into Blood.
GM: Now that we’ve established that you have a thing against children, why are you trying to destroy their childhood? Everybody knows that fairy tales involve fancy ball gowns and friendly bunnies. What’s up with yours?
AG: What’s up with my fairy tales? Or my childhood? My childhood was just as wonderful as you could hope for. But everyone, no matter how rosy their childhood, has feelings that are complicated that could use some working out through fairy tales. As for my fairy tales, these are the real ones, my friend. Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to get the shoe to fit in Cinderella. Snow White’s mother tries to boil her daughter’s lungs and liver in salt and eat them. What’s up with your fairy tales?
GM: When you began A Tale Dark and Grimm, did you envision a three-book series? What has it been like to take readers on this journey?
AG: This was a surprisingly attitude-less question. Backing off a bit, are we? Even while writing the first book, I knew there were so many incredible Grimm fairy tales that I wasn’t getting to, and that I wanted to use – plus some from Andersen and the English tradition, too. Also, the first book deals with issues of parents and children. I knew there were other issues I wanted to tackle, too. Peers and image, in In a Glass Grimmly, and the power of story-telling, in The Grimm Conclusion.
GM: Your stories are clearly well-researched, and your knowledge of traditional folk and fairy tales runs deep. Can you talk about the research for these projects and your creative process?
AG: The first thing I do is read and re-read my big old volume of Grimm’s fairy tales. I primarily rely on Ralph Manheim’s translation, though I cross-reference with editions collected by Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar. I choose my favorite tales, and I list them. Then I start to look at that list and think of how these stories might fit together. I start to re-imagine the stories, and then –and this is the most crucial part, I start to retell them. Each chapter of each of my books is told aloud again and again – often to students, sometimes to my resentful wife, sometimes to inebriated friends who have lost the power to stop me. Once I’ve told a tale enough that I feel confident in it, I write it down, weaving it together with whatever stories I’ve written down before it, changing it as I see fit. As I write, I’m thinking both of the psychological and theoretical underpinnings of the stories, while at the same time imagining my former students – fifth graders, mostly – sitting before me, listening to me tell the tale.
GM: With The Grimm Conclusion, children everywhere are going to be heard using the term “metafiction.” Why did you bring yourself, the author as narrator, into the story?
AG: Don’t give it away!!! I refuse to answer this question.
GM: My kids love your books, but they are a bit squeamish when it comes to gore. What kind of child were you? Could your younger self have handled the blood in your Grimm books?
AG: I think my books would have scared the bejeezus out of me. I don’t even like reading scary stories now, except for fairy tales. You see, it’s much more fun to scare other people.
GM: With Halloween right around the corner, The Grimm Conclusion makes a great read-aloud to get students in just the right creepy spirit. As a former teacher, can you talk about reading aloud to a classroom and the power of students sharing the experience together vs. reading the book independently?
AG: I can. Better than that, I can share a story with you. This story might also appear in the pages of one of my books:
In the beginning, I was not a very good teacher. You see, to be a teacher, the first thing you have to do, before you can teach the kids anything, is get the kids to shut their mouths for one second. I was not very good at doing that. In fact, I was miserable at it. I had this one boy in my class – let’s call him Jeff. Jeff used to like to play in the block corner. But unlike the other kids in the block corner, who were building castles and towers and cities, Jeff used to like to take the longest, heaviest blocks he could find and smack other kids on the head with them. I would chase Jeff around the room, begging him not to do this, but to no avail. I had another boy in my class, named Matt. While I was chasing Jeff around, Matt used to like to jump up on a table and dance. On the table. I would scream for him to get down, when I would notice a boy named Ryan. Ryan would be over in the arts and crafts. But unlike the other kids in the arts and crafts, who would be painting or making collages, Ryan would be gluing cotton balls to his face. And singing Christmas carols. In September.
Well, one day, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I sat down in the middle of the rug, as Jeff smacked kids with his block, Matt danced on the table, and Ryan glued cotton balls to his face. And four kids came up and sat beside me on the rug. Because if you’ve ever taught, you know that in every classroom there are always three or four nice kids, who will help you out, no matter how bad the rest of the kids are. So I thought, “You know what, forget these other kids. I’m just going to tell these nice ones a story.” So I said four simple words: “Once upon a time.” And as soon as I did, the strangest thing happened. Jeff, over in the block corner, turns and looks at me – his block dangling inches from an unsuspecting child’s head. Matt, up on the table, stopped dancing – in the middle of his favorite Michael Jackson routine. And Ryan – well, Ryan kept gluing things to his face.
As I told the story, Jeff, very slowly, dropped his block and came over to the rug. And Matt got down on the edge of the table, and listened. And Ryan – well, Ryan kept gluing things to his face. And by the end of the story I realized that I had one way of getting kids to listen to me – and that was telling stories. So I started doing that, all the time, and it turned out to be a pretty good class. Jeff turned out to be a brilliant student. Matt was a wonderful kid. And Ryan – well, Ryan got a skin condition. ‘Cause you can’t save them all.
GM: The Grimm Conclusion is ultimately a book about empowerment for children. What are you hoping to accomplish with your writing and say to young readers?
AG: All of my books, I think, are about the empowerment of children. Children are little balls of potential and optimism. That’s why I don’t write books with sad endings. Because no matter how hard things will be for children as they grow up, they will, in almost every case, grow up. They will gain in ability, in confidence, in power. That is the story of childhood. And the happiest, healthiest adults, in my estimation, are those that believe the process of growing-up never ends. The happiest adults remain children, in that we believe that things will get better, and that we can make them so, if only we believe. I write books so children will believe; and so that, perhaps, adults will, too.
There are few things true geeks like more than a genuine debate about who or what is the best of something. Who’s the best Star Trek captain? (Kirk) Who’s the best Doctor? (David Tennant) So it’s really no surprise that when Once Upon a Time and Grimm, two very similar shows, debuted this fall people immediately started to argue over which was better and which would manage to escape cancellation.
I started off firmly in the Grimm camp. It’s so reminiscent of Buffy that it felt a bit like going back to a high school reunion. Everyone is the same, but slightly different. In this case, the effects were a bit better but they still had that somewhat cheesy, not quite scary look of the Buffy baddies. It made me want to say “Awww!” every time a demon showed his true colors.
But the biggest similarity between Grimm and Buffy is the story itself. Instead of a slayer, you have a Grimm. Instead of a teenage girl, you have a cop. Those might seem like big differences, but the stories of the shows run so closely it’s like they’re in parallel universes that almost touch but not quite.
Once Upon a Time, however, is a bit different. Like Grimm, the characters from the world of make-believe are real and living here with us but this is not their home. They all think they’re human, and that’s how they’re living, but only because they’ve all been transported here by the Evil Queen and lost their memories in the process.
Our heroine, she’s one of them, only she’s been living outside their little town. This makes her the most human of the lot and she holds the key to putting everything back to rights. The only problem is that there’s just one little boy who knows the truth and neither our heroine nor anyone else believes his story.
This show isn’t a weekly battle with a new bad guy, it’s an ongoing struggle to put an entire world, the world of fantasy and fairytale, back in its rightful place. And although no one knows who they really are, the evil or good that formed them has carried over into their human lives. Snow White is a gentle, naive teacher. The Evil Queen is nasty and controlling and even has a tree full of lovely red apples in her backyard.
The story of Once Upon a Time unfolds in our world and theirs, through a series of flashbacks to the time before the Evil Queen cast her spell. We see how Snow White and Prince Charming met and it’s full of exactly what you’d expect, but at the same time it’s a surprise. The prince defeats trolls with a shiny sword and shoots arrows like he’s Robin Hood, but his princess isn’t cowering in fear. It’s the story we all know, but not quite the way we know it.
So, despite starting off loving Grimm, I’ve found myself sucked in to the world of Once Upon a Time. I don’t how their stories will end. I can’t imagine how it’s all going to come together and I find myself rooting for the good guys and against evil just like I did reading about them as a kid. Despite revolving around characters we’ve all know since childhood, Once Upon a Time manages to tell a new story. Whether it leads us to the dwarfs and the safety of their cottage or into the darkest parts of the forest is hard to tell, but I can’t wait to find out.
At the end of last year, just before the holidays, Disney announced that they would cease making princess movies. Women around the world took in a collective gasp, some of relief and others of horror. The era of the Disney princess was drawing to a close.
The actual statement made by Disney executives says fairy tale movies, but since the majority of Disney’s fairy tale movies have revolved around princesses, it means practically the same thing. Especially when you read further and learn the reason they are putting princesses aside: Boys won’t see movies with icky girls in them, and Disney does not want to risk alienating any boys.
I will pause long enough for you all to bang your heads against your desk. Feel better? Yeah, it didn’t work for me either.
Women often have a conflicted relationship with the princess, ranging from fond remembrance, outright loathing, and the old love/hate thing. GeekMoms are no exception. For the next few days, a number of us are going to be weighing in with thoughts as the princess makes her final appearance on the big screen.
While the adult part of me is somewhat happy to move beyond the frilly dresses, glitz, and helplessness of the princess, the child in me mourns her passing. When I was young, princesses were only an occasional indulgence. My exposure was limited to the rare outing to the kid-friendly movie and the even rarer trip to Disneyland itself. That actually worked out perfectly because, instead of being bombarded with an already assembled and prepackaged princess mythos, I got to make up a lot of it as I went along. My most vivid memory of playing princess has me dressed in the fanciest thing I owned, a red nylon nightgown with puffed sleeves and rows and rows of ruffles on the neckline. Alas, I had no glass slippers, but I did have a pair of white ankle-high go-go boots. Nor was I particularly pining for Prince Charming to come along; I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Spock (thus being way ahead of the curve on mash ups.)
As a parent, I only have sons so I honestly don’t know how I would have felt raising daughters with so much princess merchandise, DVDs, TV shows, and media tie-in books everywhere they looked. I imagine the 24/7 princess onslaught would have been a bit daunting. Perhaps the true villain in this tale is mass merchandising, rather than the innocent princess.
Although perhaps not. The princess in pop culture has taken on all sorts of unpleasant characteristics: She is vain, materialistic, shallow, and far too focused on catching the attention of Prince Charming, often at horrifying cost to herself. Not to mention the whole helpless-and-needs-to-be-saved thing.
Historically, real princesses were privileged but powerless, often nothing more than pawns in their fathers’ political aspirations and machinations, a way to cement new alliances and bridge old feuds. And let’s not forget—give birth to the next generation of the dynasty.
However, if you go back to the early folktales, the ones that Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm drew from, you will find that it was the heroine’s own quick wit, intelligence, and cleverness that allowed her to effect her own rescue. Long before Disney came on the scene, the princess’s role was being diminished in fairy tale retellings.
For all that there is not to like about princesses, princess stories also have a hugely important role in a child’s development. Fairy tales, like the myths that preceded them, codify and teach on a subconscious level. As Bruno Bettleheim explains in his book THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT, kids need to see undesirable behaviors at work in order to understand how wrong they are, but in a way that is far removed from their own selves. It is too overwhelming to recognize one’s own narcissism, much easier to see it in an evil queen who is threatening an innocent figure the child identifies with: the princess.
Even the most passive of princesses, Sleeping Beauty, conveys an important truth to today’s kids: sometimes in order to grow and move forward, we must accept moments of quiet and inner focus. Usually not as dramatic as a hundred year nap, but still. Huge growth is often preceded by periods of inactivity, even lethargy. Beauty from Beauty and the Beast not only rejects rank materialism for a simple rose, but experiences the rewards of looking beyond the surface to the richer depths below.
Cinderella’s problem with her stepsisters captures an essential truth about the daunting experience of being overshadowed by one’s siblings. It is the perfect mirror of many children’s feelings of having their chores be the dirtiest, dullest, most thankless and least appreciated. And what child hasn’t felt as voiceless as the Little Mermaid?
Fairy tales are rife with these sorts of hidden messages, a subconscious telegraph to the psyche. And before feminists everywhere scream at me, that is the point, I would like to point out that what is developmentally appropriate at five or six may seem downright creepy at twenty-five. Look at the sheer number of adults who were seriously creeped out by SpongeBob SquarePants or the Teletubbies. That is the beauty of good literature and stories—we take what we need from them based on our developmental needs.
There seems to me to be two problems pop culture princess. The first is that a lot of the negativity associated with princess has nothing to do with the princess characters themselves, but rather the word has, like b!tch, become a catchall used for the vain, shallow, materialistic, passive, and narcissistic.
The second problem with princesses seems to me one of arrested development: today’s princess never moves far beyond the Orphan stage of her archetypal journey. The orphan stage is all about fear of abandonment, looking for safety, wishing for rescue, wanting a caretaker. It’s all about quick fixes, the easy life, little responsibility. Of course, it is not only girls who spend time in this stage of human development, but popular culture geared toward younger girls focuses so much on the princess that it overshadows everything else.
However, whether you love princesses or hate them, the biggest reason princess movies are important is that they convey that girls can be heroes of their own BIG story. That girls’ interests and concerns are just as deserving of big screen time as boys’ interests and concerns. My biggest worry with Disney’s farewell to princesses is, what will step in to fill that gap in popular culture? My fear is—nothing.
Where will girls see themselves in today’s films? Where will their unique issues and interests be addressed? Where are the movies that will show young girls as the hero? This taps into the phenomenon that girls are expected to be satisfied with a steady diet of ‘boy fare’ whereas boys cannot possibly be expected to endure a single girl movie.
What if, instead of deciding princess stories were too uninteresting to inflict upon boys, studios and directors and producers worked to create stories that captured the original mythic underpinnings of fairy tales and broadened their appeal. Let’s show the heroine journeying beyond the innocent and the orphan stage into maturity, experience, and—especially—the warrior. And while it’s true that now more than ever, there are a huge variety of strong, clever girls (including princesses) in books, none of them are making it to the big screen—and won’t if studios persist on believing that a movie staring a girl won’t be interesting to boys.
Clearly I have just touched the tip of this huge subject and we invite you to joint us in our week long conversation as we discuss the pros and cons of princesses, talk about why we love or loathe them, and how we see their role in today’s culture!