Disney’s recent release of a live action version of “Beauty and the Beast” has sparked new criticisms of this ancient tale, with some writers decrying it as misogynistic. As a result, some parents are opting out of taking their kids to the film. According to The Observer, the story “portrays a fairy tale romance as a product of Stockholm Syndrome.”
Why would we want to expose our kids to something like that?
Are Fairy Tales Sexist?
Feminist critiques of fairy tales aren’t new, of course. In The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence, Collette Dowling used Cinderella as a symbol for women who depend on men because they lack the moxie to change their own lives. Peggy Ornstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter is written from the perspective of a mother of a princess-crazed preschooler. She argues that marketing “girly” values has pernicious effects on the self-esteem of girls. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch is a children’s picture book that turns the traditional tale on its head: the heroine, wearing only a paper bag, saves the prince from a dragon. When the prince subsequently scorns her shabby attire, this Cinderella tells him to hit the road.
And yet Einstein is famously quoted as having said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
What’s a parent to do?
If we understand “Beauty and the Beast” literally, it does indeed seem like we are giving our daughters the message that if you stay with the abusive, beastly guy, your endless feminine love and patience will transform him.
Yet that feminist interpretation doesn’t do justice to the profound psychological truth conveyed by the tale.
Like myths and dreams, fairy tales are products of the creative unconscious, and they utilize the same strange, symbolic language. Understood symbolically, “Beauty and the Beast” illustrates an inner dynamic, whereby a split-off beastly part of us can be transformed when we are able to stay in relationship to it.
Of course, most of us aren’t consciously aware of the symbolic import when we read fairy tales. Children – and adults – respond to the beauty and deeply-felt archetypal significance of these tales even without consciously comprehending their message. As with dreams, fairy tales don’t need to be interpreted for them to work their healing magic on the psyche. We instinctively respond to the underlying patterns that let us know our troubles are universal, and that we are not alone.
Fairy tales are a rich storehouse of images that portray collective psychic patterns. They allow us to relate to our inner lives by giving us access to symbolic language through which our common human sufferings can be expressed.
Tales such as “Beauty and the Beast” are nuanced creations, layered with meaning. If we understand them too narrowly, we shut ourselves – and our children – off from a precious source of collective wisdom. Modern film adaptations of fairy tales often err in just this regard, flattening the story into a vapid romance and thereby squeezing out much of the symbolic juice.
My advice on Disney’s new film? Go or don’t as you wish. But don’t deprive your kids of the original tale or its many variants. In this era of the “Disneyfication” of fairy tales, it is more important than ever to give our children the experience of these timeless stories in their original form.
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