Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Radio: NPR's On Being with Maria Tatar

While I often post about radio interviews with fairy tale experts, few of them come close to this NPR interview with Maria Tatar. In the NPR series, On Being, which explores the big questions in human life, Tatar explores the world of fairy tales with Krista Tippet, an excellent and incredibly knowledgeable interviewer. They discuss the origins of fairy tales, the structure of fairy tales, fairy tales in popular culture, and fairy tales and children, all topics we have heard before, but they bring an immediacy and relatability to the discussion, bringing everything back to the big ideas we explore in our lives. (Click Here to Listen)

They discuss the idea of "Once Upon a Time," and how that phrase gives us permission to explore, to do things you would be afraid to do, to question things you wouldn't normally question because you are in a new and theoretical place.

They explore the "operatic beauty and monstrous terror" and the promise of "Happily Ever After" that combine to create fairy tales. The "Happy Ever After" is important, because it promises that there will be a way out. This, Tatar says, is why we can read them to children. No matter how dark it gets, there will be a happy ending.

Maria expounds upon her idea that fairy tales are not sacred texts. They are part of the "great cauldron of story." There is no original version, and each generation and culture changes the tale to speak to what they value and fear.

She states that there are no morals to fairy tales. The morality is highly ambiguous. However, there is wisdom to be gained from the tales. They discuss big ideas: sexuality and innocence, poverty and wealth, action and inaction, etc. She laughs that, in our modern cultures, we adapt the fairy tales so that we befriend the monsters, rather than defeating them. Fairy tales allow us to explore our values and ideas in a safe place.

She reflects on the fact that fairy tale themes are everywhere, in reality TV, Sex and the City as well as the fairy tale themed tv shows. Fairy Tale tropes are so entrenched in our culture, so primal, that they pop up in almost all of our stories. She feels that, in this time of great transition, we need the ancient wisdom of old stories to guide us, make us feel rooted.

She also discusses the very personal power of fairy tales to help you face your inner and outer demons. They are full of mysteries and puzzles that fascinate our brain that we use to help us figure out the world.

She tells of how she asks her students what books from childhood they brought to college. Most of the students don't remember the exact plot of the stories very well, but they always have a nugget of story that they cling to, something they strongly related to, a talisman they carry with them into this new place.

Finally, they talk about children, and how the liminal moment of bed time is a perfect meeting of generations, where those carring the nostalgia of fairy tales meet those who are hearing them for the first time. It is a co-storytelling, a time for asking questions and exploring what ifs, and what the story means for the world, and if it means anything at all.

It is an excellent interview, well-crafted and personal, bringing out the intimate and human nature of fairy tales.

And it ends with a clip from Game of Thrones, which is a mark of excellence in my book.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Female Trickster and "Strong" Heroines

"What ya got in your basket, little girl?" "Weapons." - Buffy, "Fear Itself"

One of our favorite topics here in The Dark Forest is the idea of "strong female characters." In The "Empowerment" of Snow White, I wrote about if giving the leading lady a sword makes her "strong." In "Passive and Dumb" Heroines, I defended the more conventional fairy tale princesses. Recently, two articles came to my attention discussing very different angles of this issue:

Maria Tatar wrote an interesting article in the New York Times about two types of female characters: the Sleeping Beauty and the Female Trickster: While I find the Lady Gaga paragraph a little out of place, the rest of the article explores manifestations of both archetypes in popular culture:
"We've come a long way from what Simone de Beauvoir once found in Anglo-European entertainments: “In song and story the young man is seen departing adventurously in search of a woman; he slays the dragons and giants; she is locked in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, she is chained to a rock, a captive, sound asleep: she waits.” Have we kissed Sleeping Beauty goodbye at last, as feminists advised us to do not so long ago? Her younger and more energetic rival in today’s cultural productions has been working hard to depose her, but archetypes die hard and can find their way back to us in unexpected ways."
After listing many versions of the female trickster in pop culture from Buffy to Hanna to Lisbeth Salander to Katniss, she also makes a troubling observation:
"If male tricksters have traditionally been fixated on satisfying colossal appetites of all kinds, our new female tricksters—orphans, loners, and outsiders—are beleaguered and needy. At work, they become Cassandras, confident and shrewdly prescient women whose intuition and brashness cut through thickets of bureaucratic procedure. Yet, once work stops, they seem utterly lost. There is clearly something compensatory in the psychological fragility of these women warriors: their gains in intellect and muscle are diminished by moments of complete emotional collapse. Vulnerability continues to attract. Hence the intransigent presence of the sleeping princess, who remains central to many films and novels, despite the rising numbers of female avengers and investigators."
I wish I knew the heroinesTatar was thinking about when she said this. I do not think this "complete emotional collapse" occurs with all female tricksters. Hanna certainly never showed a loss of emotional control that was unwarranted. Certainly, there are some cases when this instance occurs, but there is a difference between voyeuristically delighting in a strong woman's vulnerability and creating compelling flawed characters. If a female trickster was a badass all the time, and never lost, and never wavered, she would be highly uninteresting. The same would be true of a male character. I do not think that moments of weakness of vulnerability diminish a character, but enhance it. The second article, published later, echos my feelings exactly.

The Hub's article,  "What We Talk About When We Talk About Strong Heroines in Young Adult Fiction," embraces all kinds of female strength:
"When we talk about strong heroines in young adult fiction, let’s celebrate the quiet(er) strength of realistic characters as well as the dramatic, death-defying strength of sci-fi, action/adventure, and fantasy heroines. Strength is more than physical prowess or fighting skills. There’s no universal way of being “strong,” and a character’s weaknesses are often what allows a reader to relate to him or her.
In my opinion, strong heroines are dynamic: they struggle, and through those struggles, they change. They are agents of action, rather than passive or reactive. Female characters can fall in love and still be strong. They can be bold or reserved. They can be feminine or they can be tomboys. There is no one way of being strong, just as there is no one way to be a girl. When we talk about what it means to be a strong heroine in young adult fiction, let’s make room for all the ways girls can exhibit their strength."
The article goes on to list many books that have female characters with other kinds of strength, not just the strength to fight and survive physically.

While I know this does not directly discuss fairy tales, it is an issue close to my heart, and an issue we encounter again and again as we see new fairy tale adaptations take the screen, and reread the originals. Is Cinderella not a strong female character for surviving years of physical and emotional abuse and then taking destiny into her own hands? Do movie executives think that the only strength needed to create a compelling heroine is to give her a sword? Don't get me wrong, I love me some chicks with swords, but we need to celebrate other strengths as well.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Movies: NPR's Bob Mondello on Fairy Tales for Millennials and Upcoming Adaptations

Molly Quinn in Hansel and Gretel get Baked

Bob Mondello over at NPR examines the new fairy tale movie adaptations that cater to teens and young adults coming out this year. He remarks upon Jack's lack of initiative in Jack the Giant Slayer, possibly commenting on or catering to the image of the millennial generation (I do not necessarily subscribe to this stereotype, being a cusp of millennial myself). They don't take destiny into their own hands, like Jack from the original tale, but are swept up in events beyond their control. This is perhaps appropriate for teens and young adults entering a work force that has no jobs for them:
"At age 6, as Disney long ago established, abandonment by your parents is terrifying. So is illness, so is the unknown, and so is that scary old dude down the street. But when you're 20, there's a whole new set of fears — fear of commitment, fear of getting pregnant, fear of unemployment. Or maybe of getting busted for drug use.
In the upcoming Hansel and Gretel Get Baked, a witch lures teens with marijuana, then eats them to stay young. It's a horror movie — clueless teenagers getting in trouble because they're clueless teenagers, just going with the flow, passively.
That's different from the more active tykes who populate storybooks. In the old English folk tale Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack is maybe 12, and a schemer. He steals gold from the giant, chops down the stalk, killing the giant, and lives happily ever after with his stolen gold. I'll leave it to parents to find a moral in that, but at least he went up the stalk on purpose; it was his idea.
In the new movie Jack the Giant Slayer, Nicholas Hoult is playing Jack as a 19-year-old who's kind of a slacker and is trying to impress a girl when the beans sprout under him and he gets carried up to Giant-land very much against his will. Once there, he proves less incompetent than you might expect, but he's basically reacting to things, not making them happen.
The girl is the one who's looking for adventure, though for plot purposes — she is a princess, after all — she'll spend most of her time getting rescued.
There's no real "risk" in any of this. The Brothers Grimm wrote stories that were actually grim — designed to scare children. Hollywood's new grown-up fairy tales may quicken your pulse a little, but they're centrally soothing. Yes, there's an army of giants coming, but pluck and optimism will carry the day — a reassuring thought if you're a 20-something and staring nervously at an uncertain, recessionary future. It's especially reassuring if that thought is couched in a fairy tale so familiar and comforting, you've half-forgotten it. So get ready for lots of grown-up bedtime stories."

He also updates us on the upcoming fairy tale movies:
"I was going to say we're not in Kansas anymore, but we kind of are. There are nine — count 'em, nine — Oz movies currently in the pipeline, including the prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful, a story involving Dorothy's granddaughter that's just called Oz, and a martial-arts oriented Oz Wars. Also dueling Pinocchios, from Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton, the horror-masters behind Hellboy and Beetlejuice. Not to mention Angelina Jolie assaying the title role in Maleficent, which tells the Sleeping Beauty tale from the evil stepmother's point of view."
 NINE???? NINE Oz movies. Geeze, think of something original, people.