Academic Writing

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Modern Day Fairy Tales

The Fall TV landscape this season has two supernatural and fantastical dramas based on fairy tales.  ABC's Once Upon A Time and NBC's Grimm are narratives which rely on familiar tropes and themes that have been in public parlance for decades, if not centuries.  Additionally, in another couple of months there will also be two similarly themed films coming out, both telling the story of Snow White.  I find this intriguing, but it's nothing new to retell old stories, in fact it seems as though that's all Hollywood's been doing lately. But it feels like something deeper going on here.

Fairy tales are deeply cultural and reveal many social anxieties. I have not yet seen either Snow White film iterations so I cannot comment on those, but I have been watching both Grimm and Once and have had some thoughts on them. Allow me to indulge.

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In Grimm, our protagonist is Nick Burckhardt (David Giuntoli), a detective who recently learns from his dying aunt that he comes from a long line of Grimms, essentially monster hunters.  He acknowledges and accepts his legacy and fate as he has recently realized that he has the ability to see beyond the human exterior many of these werewolves, "blutbads" and other creatures that have been hiding in plain sight as humans.  The show is unraveling as a case-of-the-week serial with an overarching mythology as he explores who he is and where he comes from.

Once is similarly fantastical, although narrates through two parallel story lines rather than one linear story. In one story line Snow White and Prince Charming are forced to send off their infant daughter to escape the wrath of the Evil Queen who wants to kidnap her and kill them.  To punish them the Queen enacts an evil spell which causes everyone to forget who they really are.  Concurrently, the parallel story is about a little boy name Henry who lives in "Storybrooke, Maine" and has discovered that the evil witch has exiled of the fairy tale characters, including Snow White, to storybook and has made them forget who they are.  This little boy is now tasked with ensuring his family and those around him remember their true selves (and ultimately fulfill their destinies).

Some questions to ask include why is self-discovery such an important theme of these shows and why are fairy tales the method in which they are delivered to audiences?  Further, why are they important messages to be imparting?

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Fairy tales are centuries old stories, which, for generations, were passed down orally.  Secondly, they are usually lesson-laden. Often tales of warning and caution, they reach deep into our psyches about things we fear.  Traditionally offered to children as cautionary tales, these stories are being marketed to adults. Be it regarding kidnapping (Hansel and Gretel), mommy/daddy issues (Snow White, and any other stories with a wicked step-parent), and the list goes on.  What these shows seem to be conveying is the sense that as a society we are like vulnerable children: unsure as to our place in this world and what the future will hold.  However, unlike children, we adults do not have the wide-eyed naivete that our young counterparts do.  We do not need the warning that bad things are out there; we are all too aware of the unfortunate realities that lie out there for us.

Therefore, are we as a society being infantilized by being given these once child-oriented stories?  Or are we as adults craving the comforts of out childhoods by seeking out these recognizable stories? Generally familiar stories are like brands and have a built in audience as people know what they will be getting. Studio and network heads know this, but it seems like it's popularity is relying on something a little more. They have also been relatively successful in an otherwise disappointing fall TV-launch season, also garnering some of the biggest buzz.

Moreover, and I think this is probably closer to the heart of the meaning behind these shows, perhaps these stories are currently important for adults to see to teach them the dangers of being too confident and not heading warnings.  We live in a world where the mistakes of those who were supposed to be taking care of the financial well being of the "99%" have wreaked havoc and caused immense financial breakdowns.  However, it is also the social and economic responsibility of every day citizens to care for themselves and for others in times of need.  Perhaps that is the underlying lesson of these modern day retelling of fairy tales.

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