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The Disneyfication of Children’s Media

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Child reading Bros. GrimmI’m not the first person to notice that Disney and other media interests in America have made great inroads into sanitizing and “cleaning up” stories presented for consumption by children.

Happy endings have become de rigeur; darkness may be present, but only ever in the clearly labelled villains (who are typically dark-hued in skin or clothing as well, so there can be no mistaking that they are Evil); nothing lastingly terrible or fatal may befall the protagonist – and on and on. Reams have been written about this elsewhere.

What I want to share here are some thoughts inspired by a discussion on G+.  The topic was the Rapunzel fairy tale in movie form called Tangled, and the representation of villainy in it. Someone remarked that Disney had to sugar-coat the stories, otherwise they would not be marketable. I’m not sure the issue is quite that simple.

Children’s Stories and the Happy Ending

I think this notion that fairy tales must be Disneyfied for the sake of commercial viability is a peculiarly American sensibility we see in the representation of our stories for children. I’m not so sure that there isn’t a market for fairy (and other) tales that cleave closer to the original, but we don’t have a way of knowing that until someone has the balls and commercial backing to go in that direction and test the market response.

Right now American producers of fairy tale-based content by and large operate under the assumption that “if it’s for kids it must have a happy ending,” and proceed to strip it of anything that might be construed as “adult themed” or “unnecessarily dark.” And yet, I suspect that there is still rich ground to be offered to children (and their parents) with material that retains the darkness (where present) of the original.

Classic German Counter-Examples

The quirks of such tales have not harmed millions of European children growing up with far more twisted fairy tales in written word and dramatic forms than Americans are ever exposed to. For example, one short tale from the original Grimm that, I have noticed, is virtually never translated into English, is a brief cautionary tale called “Frau Trude.” The point of the story is that a young girl who never listens to what her parents tell her ignores them when they tell her not to visit the evil old woman Frau Trude who has caught her interest. When the girl goes there against their wishes, the old witch turns her into a log, and throws her on the fire, and simply burns her up, relaxing in the light and warmth of the fire.

While this might not provide enough substance for a movie, it does present real evil and real danger (and a real cautionary tale about the dangers of not listening to your parents!). I think we could probably use more things of that nature in children’s media than we presently have in this country.

Harriet and the matches - Struwweltpeter
This very short tale (less than 300 words) is typical of a motif famous in German children’s literature: the deadly moral tale. Another example of this is found in Heinrich Hoffman’s famous “Struwwelpeter” book, written in 1845. Billed as “merry stories and funny pictures” for 3 to 6 year-olds, it turned into a raving success. (Title was translated by Mark Twain into English as “Slovenly Peter.”)

This delightfully illustrated book told stories in rhyme, like the tale about the little girl who played with matches – and burned to death; about the boy who won’t quit sucking his thumbs, until a tailor chops them off with his long scissors…and so on. (There’s a great illustrated English translation here at Project Gutenberg.)  Merry stories? I’m laughing at that concept, for sure. If  by merry we mean, “bizarre and oft-times deadly, with entertaining twists,” then merry they are, indeed.

The Value of Grim Tales

Yet there is an odd effectiveness about such tale-telling, and an enduring entertainment value.  I don’t think Germans are striving to give their children nightmares any more than we do ours by sharing stories of this sort, but it is a certainty that children have displayed horrified fascination with these dark stories for centuries, now – and when they are adults, they share them with their children, too. I think we have lost sight of the value of these raw tales, as a different set of sensibilities have become entrenched in American media.

I’d like to rethink those approaches from the ground up.  I think our tale-telling would improve by doing so, and maybe American adults would develop the capacity to deal with things that children already seem well equipped to.

What has your experience been with darker fairy tales, if you were exposed to them at all, as child or adult? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Struwwelpeter by H Hoffmann

Reader Feedback

One Response to “The Disneyfication of Children’s Media”

  • Venetia_Sjogren says:

    I never saw a Disney movie until I was a teen. Panamanians don't approve of that type of silliness. I was too busy reading Shakespeare when was seven and drawing. Additionally, i lived in Germany twice as a kid, and was exposed to the original children's stories told to German kids. When I came back to the USA, I was shocked by my peers. I found them rude and disrespectful and frankly, ignorant. They watched television instead of reading. If I had not met kids of a similar mindset to mine, in the honors classes I was enrolled in, I would have been friendless.

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Author Deborah Teramis Christian

Teramis wrote her first book at age 9, but like all good literary lizards has taken her time charging upon the market. Finally in a situation where she can write full time, she is becoming the Dragon, Unleashed, or a close facsimile thereof. Roar, said the saur.

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