Guest Post: Fairytales—A Postmodern Twist [JAB]

And now! By special request of the Hogwarts Professor himself, a special presentation from HogPro’s own Cat Woman–Arabella Figg! But let us let her tell it in her own words:

Fairytales—A Postmodern Twist

By Deborah Chan (Muggle alias)/on this site All-Pro Arabella Figg

By now we’ve seen fairytales amusingly upended with postmodern twists in such films as the Shrek franchise and Hoodwinked. For the past few years, almost every treasured fairytale component and character has been fodder for brilliant parody.

And not just standard fairytales.

Santa Claus has also been postmodernized in films such as foul-mouthed Bad Santa and Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause franchise.

In December’s amusing TV Christmas special, Shrek the Halls, Shrek learns how to “do Christmas” according to a textbook. Despite the mayhem that ensues, he at last fulfills the final necessary instruction—to read to his children “the Christmas story,” which turns out to be . . . Clement Moore’s poem, The Night Before Christmas.

Most Christmas specials are decidedly secular, but this was rather breathtaking. A Charlie Brown Christmas in reverse. (Although, in a “diagonal” sense, wouldn’t fairytale characters celebrate a mythic seasonal being? Whoa, reality and fantasy way too mixed up in this one!)

Returning to regular fairytales, though, our Western myths are up for grabs, to be gleefully deconstructed for a cynical, irony-soaked 21st century audience. Will the original source fairytales be appreciated and recognizable in a few generations? Can traditional Snow White top ninja Snow White of Shrek 3? Should she? A Time magazine article, “The End of Fairy Tales?” discusses this intriguing issue.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I saw Disney’s delightful film, Enchanted ( This site has a brief nonspoiler review of the story). Beyond this point, SPOILER ALERT.

(Quick note: in an interesting Harry Potter twist, Timothy Spall, who portrays Peter Pettigrew in the HP films, marvelously and Wormtailishly plays, in Enchanted, evil Queen Narissa’s henchman Nathaniel, although his character gets a fun ending, hand intact.)

After seeing Enchanted, as we walked from the theater, I remarked, “Disney’s first postmodern fairytale.”

But, upon reflection, is it really?

Hunting for Disney spoofs/references I might have missed, I found this great The Times of London article (be sure to read the response comments).

In the comments, Poppy of Dundee complains about Enchanted’s traditionalism, which she finds “incredibly disturbing.” Giselle’s handsome 21st century rescuer, lawyer Robert, buys his a 6-year old daughter, Morgan, books about Madam Curie and other great women, holding up his successful businesswoman fiancée, Nancy (a lovely person), as an example. Disappointed in love through his wife’s and Morgan’s mother’s abandonment, he’s become a practical man who wants his little girl to grow up and take her place among strong role models, unhindered by romantic illusions.

But to Robert’s dismay, Morgan doesn’t want to be Madame Curie. She wants to be . . . a princess! Horrors! She loves fairytales and has a paper crown on her bedroom door.

Do 6-year old girls want to be Madame Curie? No, they want to be princesses and Barbie, and wear glitter and fairy-wings at Halloween. They may love karate classes and soccer, but they still adore girly Disney princesses and sparkly pink nail polish. (Give them a few years and they’ll be interested in more noble role models, such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.)

Poppy grouses that Giselle is “this infantile naïve caricature of femininity.” A valid point here, as Giselle is pretty, poufy of hair and dress, innocent and “most sincerely” sugary. Still, she has winsome traditional virtues of love, generosity, kindness and character (and interestingly, postmodern acceptance of all people and creatures, no matter how hideous).

Inevitably, Robert falls in love with Giselle from animated Andalasia; his professional (but closet romantic) fiancée Nancy, wowed by Prince Edward’s romanticism, jumps 21st century ship with him into Animatedfairtytaleville, Poppy scornfully notes, “to live Giselle’s old life, talking to animals and being saved by her prince.” In the end sequence, animated Nancy and Edward kiss at their wedding in glorious Disney colors, while Giselle, in the real world, has her own fashion business, assisted by live animals, and is a wonderful wife, homemaker and stepmother who dances with Robert and Morgan through their home.

In this fish-out-of-water tale, all the traditional fairytale stereotypes abound—good and evil; love at first sight; one or both parents absent; spirited, singing, spunky girl; one-dimensional prince(s); traditional male/female roles (and role models), moral character as critical, defeat of wickedness and children as innocents instead of snarky know-it-alls (Morgan is almost a Giselle in miniature).
And, in true Disney fashion, the good are pretty and the evil are ugly or at least homely. One wonders if postmodern Robert would give refuge to an ugly Giselle or take her straight to a psych ward.

But there are strong postmodern touches as well (thanks, John, for the chapters on postmodernism in Unlocking Harry Potter)— the genre-blending and ironies, the referential self-spoofs.

Here are some specific PoMo examples:

  • dashing, poufy-sleeved Prince Edward, who has followed Giselle from Andalasia to rescue her, “slays” a transit bus, is chewed out by the driver and then run over by a pack of bicyclists;
  • Giselle informs the fearful Morgan that not all stepmothers are evil where she comes from;
  • instead of sweet animated creatures, marginalized real vermin help Giselle clean Robert’s apartment, including a toilet (now there’s a PoMo moment!);
  • Giselle emerges from Andalasia, then physically and emotionally “de-poufs” to become a self-actualized “real girl” (Pinocchio nod) and appears at the ball as a sleek Nicole Kidman clone while the others are dressed in 18th century costume. Nancy, hearing Edward’s ardent introduction of Giselle at the ball, wonderingly asides to Robert: “And he said that without a hint of irony.”
  • More, Giselle’s singing is a point of perplexity and hilarity to the real world; there’s an elaborately surreal Disneyesque song and dance sequence in Central Park in which a vast crowd of New Yorkers seem to know their parts while the embarassed, bemused and amused Robert declares, “I don’t dance; I don’t sing,” Robert saves Giselle, then Giselle saves Robert; Nancy isn’t the love-at-first-sight critic she seems—after hints of her romantic nature, she meets Edward at the ball, explosively deconstructs and quickly jumps down the well to Andalasia (Andelusia?) for a happily-ever-after with him (or does she? Is Enchanted 2—PoMo businesswoman adjusts to fairyland—on the horizon?).

    Now, is Enchanted, a film rife with postmodern spoofs, but extremely traditional themes and characters, postmodern or one that celebrates tradition? Consider this: it both does and doesn’t endorse love at first sight.

    Apart from the innovation of putting animated figures in the contemporary real world, and the PoMo aspects, I feel the overall message of the film is decidedly traditional.

    Had Robert fallen for a Shrek-like ogre-Fiona, the evil Queen Narissa or (heaven forbid) Prince Edward; had Nancy fallen for a homely Edward or henchman Nathaniel, had nobody fallen for anybody and Giselle died after eating the apple, then Disney would have turned it’s traditional pumpkin metanarrative into a sleek postmodern Mercedes.

    So—a traditionalist postmodern film with ironic non-irony? Or the other way around? My head whirls. Perhaps what we have is a Prius.

    According to the Times article, even the director doesn’t seem to be sure.

    However, in the ultimate PoMo twisty twist, Disney has created for themselves a new Disney princess in Giselle, who never was a princess, only a princess-to-be. If Disney’s really smart, they’ll also cash in on the legitimately-by-marriage Princess Nancy. Wow, two for one! Who says irony doesn’t sell?

    So, fellow All-Pros, John and any “lurking professors,” with the articles provided as a jumping-off point, what do you think about the postmodern effect on fairytales and how this might impact the future of original fairytales? What did you think of Enchanted and its message?

    The girl kitties all love Puss-In-Boots, traditional and postmodern…


    1. Robert Trexler says

      I thought ENCHANTED was an enchanting movie. I saw it twice. A fun and funny spoof with good acting from the leading lady who was nominated for best actress in one of the movie award competitions.

      Thanks for bringing it up for discussion, Arabella. I imagine that when you whistle and sing – all your cats and kittens rush around to clean your house and prepare new dresses for you to wear every day.

    2. I loved this movie. I love Disney, and what’s better than Disney poking fun at itself? Turns out it’s one more thing they do well. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of how it fit in the PoMo description–I was enjoying it too much.

      But actually that is just what I enjoyed the most. It showed how all those old things from the old fairy tales wouldn’t work in our world, and then it turned it all around so that we could still have a fairy tale with all the romantice moments, good over evil, as well as saving poor Nancy. In the old fairy tales, I think she’d have just been left there at the ball in her costume, wondering how she lost out to Giselle. So that was one of the nice twists.

      Parts of the movie were so funny, which is something that the traditional fairy tales don’t have. But Disney, with Enchanted, managed to give us funny and sweet all in one.

      I loved the impromptu parade through the park. Being a frequent kid at Disneyland, I saw a new parade for at least one of the Disney parks, already done. All they have to do now is tranfer the whole new parade to Disneyland or Magic Kingdom. Or turn it into a stationary live show as they’ve done with High School Musical 2 and Block Party Bash. (Erm, yes, I probably spend too much time in Disneyland.)

      That actually was something I worried about with the mordernization of the fairy tale–at least before I saw it. I was afraid that they would lose the sweetness and charm of the old fairy tales, but they didn’t at all.

      I find the complaints from Poppy of Dundee interesting. Those comments are true about the movie, but it shows that the person who wrote them has, IMO, a very cynical view of life. Must everything be so politically correct in order for it to be considered good? What that person didn’t like was just what I liked the best. My hope is that some of the other studios will see that they can have successful movies that still retain the charm of the old traditional fairy tales.

      Thanks for bringing up Enchanted. It was one of my favorite movies last year. And one that I plan to buy as soon as it’s out on DVD. Actually, my daughter and I have been looking for a theater that’s still showing Enchanted as we’d like to see it one more time.


    3. I saw “Enchanted” and liked it very well. For me, the message-underneath had to do with roles that constrict genuine emotional life– the irruption of the Andalasians into New York broke up a lot of those barren patterns, for the New Yorkers primarily but also for the Andalasians. Robert clearly was pitching female empowerment and career success to his daughter as a defense against emotional loss, to the point that he completely failed, or refused, to see the side of Nancy that did want to be cherished romantically and un-ironically. In comes Giselle to break up that ice floe of grief, but she doesn’t become a “real” enough girl to be an intimate emotional partner to Robert until she’s able to feel anger.

      As for the couple that goes to Andalasia, it looks to me as though Andalasia has just exchanged one strong female executive for another, albeit a non-evil one. The Queen is dead! Long live the Queen! Can you really doubt who will really be making the decisions there from now on? And do you think Edward will mind? It’s the fairy-tale couple that’s really a role-reversal: one that happens in real life, and often works out quite well. Sometimes it is the man who’s the romantic and the woman who’s the practical thinker. It happens in literature too, or at least that’s how I read Orlando and Rosalind in the forest of Arden.

      At its heart, “Enchanted” works quite well as the most traditional kind of romantic comedy, and it ends with wrongs righted and balances restored.

    4. Great post Arabella!
      It may be that I am beginning to look for things that are not really there, but I owe it to Harry Potter, John, and all of you here at HogPro. I was initially tempted to post these thoughts in the “How has Harry Potter changed your life” thread, but am pleased to post it here.

      Before Harry, I read very little literature of the great tradition since I read Hamlet and MacBeth in high school. But since tuning in to Harry, John’s books, and this blog, I’m reading Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, and Dickens. I plan to read more of these as well as others. Exercising my mind in this way has caused me to view the world and entertainments from a totally different perspective.

      Now for my views on postmodernism/existentialism in the Disney movie Enchanted, which I thoroughly enjoyed…
      I recently read the Lord of the Rings for the first time and loved it! As a follow up, I have been reading “Lord of the Rings and Philosophy” published by Open Court. One of the essays discusses Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” Apparently, Tolkien equates the “happily ever after” ending of fairy stories with imagery of the everlasting life promised in Heaven. If that is the case, then what has Disney done with the “happily ever after” and promise of everlasting life? On one hand, has Giselle declared along with Nietzsche that “God is dead”? Has she decided that everlasting life would be a bore and that she’d prefer to try her hand at happiness through earthly existence? On the other hand, has Nancy chosen to take a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” to try to know God and eternal bliss in Heaven? If you think of “happily ever after” endings in terms of “the life everlasting,” then clearly Giselle’s choice is a rejection of God’s plan for us. However, Nancy’s choice toward the life everlasting is not panned in the movie. So is Disney trying to subtley send a postmodern message that “we’re all OK” whatever our spiritual leanings may happen to be? Or are they saying Heaven is for those who can’t handle reality? I’m not entirely sure what the message is, but I’m sure there’s one there.

      One other thing that struck me is that when Prince Edward and Nancy leave the real world for fairy land it is by a descent rather than an ascent. True, they ascend at the other end, and when people leave fairy land they descend into the well and ascend into the real world through a manhole cover. However, the imagery of a descent into eternal bliss still struck me as an inversion.

      I may be reading way more into this than is there, but as I said, thanks to Harry and all of you fine folks, I look at the world very differently now. Sometimes its scary!

    5. No, I don’t think Giselle has rejected Heaven in favor of New York. She brought her happily-ever-after value system and her fairytale abilities with her to New York, and retained them. She is, if you like, a one-woman outpost of ever-after joy in the midst of mundanity, and she’s wreaking transformation in every direction. While, conversely, Nancy threw her cell phone away– while Giselle is promulgating the virtues of fairyland and incidentally providing work for the underemployed pigeons and squirrels of New York, Nancy is leaving the values of New York behind and adopting those of her new land. Nancy’s a convert. Giselle is an apostle in tulle.

    6. Well I didn’t mean to suggest that Giselle had abandoned her values or her “goodness”. I was thinking more along the lines of “humanist” arguments implying that eternal bliss would be unendurable or that people can live moral, happy lives without God. I think we agree that Nancy is a convert, and I am almost willing to accept that Giselle could be an “apostle in tulle.” But my misgiving about that position is that despite the transformations she may be wreaking as a result of her decision to stay in the real world, her motivation for staying was driven more by her desire for self-fulfillment through her new-found humanity than by her desire to transform humanity.

    7. We need to remember that the “happily ever after” of fairy tales is an image of the bliss of Heaven, not the thing itself. Even Andalasia knows loss and death– otherwise it would not be ruled by Edward’s stepmother, proof in her own person that Edward has been bereaved successively of his mother and his father. And Andalasia has a church. Or at least it had a mitred officiant available to marry Edward and Nancy.

      Giselle would never frame her motivation as a desire for self-fulfillment. She just doesn’t think in those terms. She wants to stay with her true love for always. She wants to enjoy the fellowship of the critters, even when the only critters available are park pigeons, rats and cockroaches. She wants to bring joy into the lives of little girls by making princessy dresses for them. In short, she wants to love and be loved, and all the transformations come as a result of that want.

    8. Arabella Figg says

      I’m so pleased by the interest in this essay and thoughtful comments, and hope more of you will join in. And, yes, Robert, the kitties have just stitched me up a dazzling gold lame number. As for dusting, that’s what tails are for!

      I like the idea, Helen, of Giselle as “apostle in tulle,” but disagree about Nancy as convert. I see her as a traditionalist at heart who has cloaked her true self to function in a cynical, postmodern world in which traditional desires are ridiculed (I’m sure there’s a paper crown in her childnood memento box). Is Nancy going to Andalasia or, “Andelusia”? I think she went to Andalasia, although I found her impulsive choice hardest to swallow. What about when that “honeymoon glow” wears off? Alpha partner will start wanting flush toilets.

      I don’t see the well/manhole as a descent/ascent metaphor. I see it more as a wormhole–a sideways transition between imperfect worlds which operate on different perspectives. Such as what “happily-ever-after” means.

      Since fairytales were morality/cautionary tales (good character wins, bad behavior gets its comeuppance, beware of strangers, look for motives, don’t abuse hospitality, etc.), they stil resonate today, despite their exaggerations, such as spitting pearls and toads. And their themes continue to be told in literature and film (and, alas, urban legends).

      What do we make of Prince Edward? Giselle “de-poufs” as she makes observations and emotional connection, integrating into the “real world.” Edward, although puzzled by this new world, never seems to question it nor himself as Giselle does, nor show real interest in it (symbolized by his staying poufy?). His only “aha!’ moment comes when he reaizes he’s not Giselle’s “own true love.” However, he quickly and happily latches on to another woman he doesn’t know (just as with Giselle in Andalasia) and down the manhole they go. So Edward is untouched, untransformed. Does this make him the die-hard traditionalist who refuses to give up the meta-narrative? Or is he actually kind of Andalasian Po-Mo himself in his laid-back acceptances of everything and everybody whether animated or real?

      The only transformation the kitties want to see is empty kibble bowls to full…

    9. Arabella Figg says

      And a Harry Potter connection thought. The comings and goings of Andalasians remind me of Muggle-borns who easily transition between two distinct worlds, and Muggle parents who accept both worlds.

      What kitties don’t accept, they shred…

    10. Arabella Figg says

      Back to the postmodern twist on fairytales, if anyone’s still out there, how will children react to Anderson’s The Little Mermaid’s poignant and spiritual ending after being introduced to the story with the Diz flick? Will they reject the real, sad ending for the fake happy one? Will the Disney version become their “true” version?

      The Little Mermaid has a tail; that’s all the kitties need to know…

    11. Arabella,

      Fortunately, Rankin/Bass did not cave into the obligatory happily ever after theme when they did the movie version of The Last Unicorn. So, Disney may have ruined Anderson’s tale for the kids, but Peter Beagle’s story still stands as a down note for them.

    12. Will they reject the real, sad ending for the fake happy one? Will the Disney version become their “true” version?

      I have hope. My students in my “History and the Gothic Imagination” class fell in love with the original Undine, deliciously dark and chilling as it is, and rejected Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Don’t even get me started on what they want to do to Pocahontas once they know anything about Native America… 😉

    13. Arabella Figg says

      Oh, warm welcome to this topic, Dr. Sturgis! Why did your students reject the Dizzyfied mermaid? What did they see in the original that they embraced?

      Side note: we didn’t see Pocahontas; expected another Native American massacre. By the way, I devoured Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation by David Price, and also Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Ccommunity, and Wwar by Nathaniel Philbrick.

      Back to fairytales. I read the 2003 editon Annotated Hans Christian Andersen by Hans Christian Andersen, Maria Tatar (Editor & Translator) and Julie K. Allen (Translator). How delightful these stories were and how droll Anderson could be, particularly in his satirically biting introduction to The Snow Queen.

      But I wondered, and wonder, what today’s children think of these and other original fairytales, after having been brainwashed as toddlers by their Disney (et al,) DVDs. If fairytales are never read in their original form, but are dumbed down and made safe, do they lose their power?

      So far this month I’ve read Dracula (powerful), recommended by John and just finished The Little White Horse, recommended earlier on this blog (charming, with lots of alchemic colors); am I headed for Undine next? What an amazing path my reading is taking because of this site.

      Howliony’s peering out from the bookshelves again, with knowing eyes; really, she makes me wonder…

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