Fairy tales have endured throughout the centuries due to their versatility. In spite of their seemingly simple storylines, they can be used to convey a wide range of messages and discuss a number of important issues. The themes emphasised in an adaptation of a fairy tale depend on the viewpoints of the storyteller, so it’s not surprising that some storytellers aim to use fairy tales to convey their views on a range of important social and political issues.
Fairy tales are often rooted in the oral cultures and folklore of a particular country. For example, the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm played a key role in forming a German national identity. The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, started their work in the early years of the 19th Century, when many of the fiefdoms and principalities which would later form the German nation were under French occupation. The Brothers Grimm both believed that by promoting a type of German culture which could be shared by all these different areas, they could encourage a united resistance to French occupation and the future formation of a unified German state. The nationalist sentiments which helped inspire the Brothers Grimm were relatively benign, but eventually, their work became linked with more extreme forms of German nationalism. Under the Nazis, classic Brothers Grimm tales such as Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood were frequently used in propaganda, with the heroes and heroines being portrayed as model “Aryans” in line with Nazi ideals. The popularity of fairy tales amongst children, and their role in Germany’s cultural identity, made it easy for the Nazis to use these stories to highlight a vision of a racially pure Germany – A vision which would lead to the death and suffering of millions during the Holocaust and the Second World War. After the Nazis were defeated, Allied armies banned Brothers Grimm books in Germany on the basis that they would spread “pernicious, nationalistic, influences”. This decision highlights the extent to which the links between fairy tales and their national culture could prove toxic, as fairy tales were seen as encouraging the xenophobia and prejudice which the Nazis had exploited in order to seize power.
The role of Brothers Grimm fairy tales in Nazi propaganda highlights the manner in which fairy tales can be used to spread prejudice to a wide and impressionable audience. In fact, a number of Brothers Grimm stories are loaded with examples of racist and anti-Semitic stereotypes. Probably the most infamous example of this is The Jew Among Thorns, where the antagonist is a bearded Jew who is defined by his thieving ways. This perpetuates a portrayal of Jews which aligned with familiar anti-Semitic tropes, confirming the prejudices of those who listened to and read the tale. The casual racism in stories such as The Jew Among Thorns was one of the reasons why an Arizona district banned the works of the Brothers Grimm in elementary schools in one Arizona district in 1994. However, the use of racist imagery and characterisation does not only apply to Brothers Grimm stories. For example, the Portuguese fairy tale The Maid and the Negress provides a depiction of an ugly and malicious black villain which would be unacceptable today. Even Disney are not immune to allegations of racism, as many of their older movies, such as Peter Pan, have been criticised for their stereotyped depictions of Black and Native American characters. Most classic children’s stories hail from a time when prejudice was prevalent in society, so anyone who wishes to tell them today has to choose whether to stay true to the story, in spite of its most problematic aspects, or change it to reflect more enlightened views. If the offensive parts of the story are minor, then there’s no harm in editing it to remove them, but when problematic racial stereotypes are central to the narrative, the choice becomes much more complex.
Probably the most debated aspect of classic fairy tales is their treatment of female characters. Recently, the singer Alicia Keys discussed how she would not let her children watch Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves due to the fact that its portrayal of Snow White was “sexist” and “misogynist”. Her claims were based on the belief that Snow White represented an idealised portrayal of a female servant, instead of a relatable woman who happened to stay at home and clean. By depicting female characters as subordinate to males, fairy tales can make it seem like demeaning portrayals of them are normal and expected. That said, not all fairy tales promote sexist depictions of women and some fairy tales, such as Fitcher's Bird, feature strong female protagonists perfectly suited to modern demands for independent and proactive female leads. However, many iconic fairy tales, such as Cinderella, happen to feature relatively passive female protagonists defined merely by their beauty and innocence. This reflects the moralistic approach of fairy tales, where virtue is rewarded and villainy ruthlessly punished. However, as more sophisticated views of gender roles have become dominant, storytellers have to find a way of promoting positive traits in women without reducing their agency or depicting them in a stereotyped fashion.
For all the discussion of the problematic aspects of classic fairy tales, storytellers can choose to alter them to promote more progressive beliefs. Many recent Disney animated movies, such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas, have featured clear anti-prejudice messages which were not in the source material. These films teach audiences that people should not be judged based on their race (or species, in the case of The Little Mermaid) or appearance. The anti-prejudice messages used by Disney have two main purposes. First of all, they reflect the positive and idealistic worldview which has helped make their films so iconic. However, they also highlight a model for behaviour which audiences can learn from and emulate. This anti-prejudice mentality is made appealing to audiences by incorporating it into a high-quality story with relatable characters, encouraging those who enjoy the film to challenge negative stereotypes and support more enlightened views instead. Storytellers can also promote tolerance in more subtle ways. The pressure to increase diversity and representation in recent years has led to a variety of fairy tale films, such as Moana, which depict foreign cultures. Many different fairy tales and folk stories are similar to those told in other countries, something which the Brothers Grimm acknowledged when they took note of the foreign variants of their stories, including tales from Ireland and Japan. Emphasising the stories of foreign cultures can lead to a more nuanced understanding of these cultures and the people which inhabit them. As long as stories which encourage positive and respectful views of other races and nationalities are made available to a wide audience, then the viewpoints which they promote will be highly influential.
In spite of our interest in analysing fairy tales, it is possible that placing too much focus on their political and social messages dilutes the atmosphere of fantasy which helps them to stand out. One fairy tale trope which is prone to being over-analysed is the portrayal of the monarchy. For the most part, kings and queens are depicted positively (although there are a number of exceptions to this rule), and a great deal of happy endings feature the protagonist marrying into royalty. This can seem to promote the problematic message that monarchs are inherently superior to other people. However, the responsibilities of managing a kingdom are seldom mentioned. This is because discussing politics can distract from the clarity and simplicity which makes these stories appeal to a wide range of audiences. The old-fashioned fantasy nature of fairy tales was apparent as soon as they were published. Storytellers such as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen collected and wrote their stories in the 19th century, when there was increasing opposition to the absolute power of the monarchy. The fact that republican sentiment continued to grow in spite of the popularity of their tales suggests that their depictions of the monarchy were accepted as fantasy with almost no bearing on contemporary political issues. This means that attempts to portray monarchy in a more modern fashion (such as an update of Cinderella from the 1970’s which ends with her setting up a labor union for maids, and emigrating to America, a country free from kings and queens) usually seem like an unnecessary distraction from the simplistic, idealised visions of the source material. Therefore, whilst storytellers can alter stories to suit their political views, they should always be aware that the most important reason for the popularity of fairy tales is their status as escapist fantasy.
Fairy tales can be used to promote a wide range of viewpoints on political and social issues. In their original incarnations, these stories aimed to provide escapist entertainment whilst delivering simple but powerful moral lessons. Unfortunately, they could also reinforce racial and gender stereotypes which are unpalatable today. In the years since they were first published, fairy tales have been substantially altered to suit the contemporary social and political climate, whether this involves reinforcing an extremist ideology or sending progressive messages. The appeal of fairy tales lies in the fact that they can be changed in a variety of ways without ever losing the qualities which make them interesting. Ultimately, it’s the storyteller’s decision to choose which messages to emphasise, and the extent to which they dominate the story. However, the primary requirement for any adaptation of a fairy tale will always be to provide an engaging and appealing story which can entertain a wide audience.