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Transforming Our Understanding of Fairy Tales | Anne Duggan | TEDxWayneStateU

so I get some interesting looks when I
tell people that I teach courses and I
do research on fairy tales and those
looks seem to be asking why would
someone study fairy tales and my answer
is because they’re quite literally
everywhere we find them in the books we
read our children at night in the movie
theater on television in ads for washing
machines and in Halloween costumes from
because fairy tales seem to be
everywhere they feel so familiar to us
like we really know them and yet we make
a lot of assumptions about fairy tales
we assume that fairy tales have happy
endings handsome princes and beautiful
but passive princesses we assume we know
what is supposed to happen in a
particular tale so Little Red Riding
Hood is saved by the woodsman beast
overcomes his rival Gaston and
Cinderella finds her glass slipper and
marries a prince but learning about the
history of fairy tales is truly a game
changer it reveals aspects of tales that
completely transform our understanding
of them we learned for instance that
fairy tales are not innocent tales for
children that in fact they often weren’t
written for children at all fairy tales
can speak to a range of issues in
different social and historical contexts
traces of a tales history are often
still present in contemporary
adaptations in film television and
advertisement and becoming aware of
those traces in that history can elicit
aha moments when we suddenly come to
understand a familiar tale in new ways
I love teaching about fairy tales
because I often hear students saying
things like I will never watch a Disney
film in the same way again
so in order to give you a sense of what
I mean
let’s take the example of the familiar
tale of Little Red Riding Hood
the earliest written version of the tale
that we know if for the most part is
familiar to us a little girl in a Red
Riding Hood goes to her grandmother’s
house and she goes through the woods and
when she’s in the woods she encounters
the wolf and then the wolf races to
grandmother’s house
gobbles her up and then he waits in bed
for the little girl the girl comes to
grandmother’s and she goes inside and
she crawls into bed with the wolf and
she starts saying Oh grandmother what
big arms you have what big legs you have
what big whatever you have and then the
wolf gobbles her up unfortunately in
this earliest written version of Little
Red Riding Hood no woodsman comes to
save the day not many people realize
that this earliest written version of
Little Red Riding Hood was penned by
Charles Perrault in 17th century France
for an adult audience of aristocrats
Perrault was a very important man in the
age of Louie the fourteenth he had
important positions in the government
and he told fairy tales and so Perrault
and other female and male aristocrats
would hang out in French salons and they
would all tell each other fairy tales
and one of the tales Perrault presented
to his aristocratic listeners and
readers was Little Red Riding Hood so we
have to imagine Perrault telling the
story to an elite group of women and men
in a luxuriously decorated aristocratic
home at the end of the tail Pro a Penza
moral to the story which in fact
recontextualizes the tale for such an
audience and it reads as follows we see
here that young children especially
young well-bred ladies should not listen
to any sort of person it is some strange
that a wolf eats so many of them up
I say wolf for not all wolves are of the
same kind
some are of a comely humour who follow
young ladies into their homes into their
salons but alas who does not know that
these smooth-talking wolves are the most
dangerous wolves of all so puros moral
makes the wolf into a smooth-talking
aristocrat who follows young ladies into
salons to devour them which we could
understand in terms of seduction
in fact some scholars have argued that
this is a story about rape given the
violence of the tale in the 17th century
French incarnation of Little Red Riding
Hood the wolf clearly is a male seducer
who roams around French salons ready to
pounce on unsuspecting young ladies it
is an allegorical tale about seduction
or rape and those connotations can play
that can play out in very suggestive
ways in different media Little Red
Riding Hood is often sexualized which
could suggest that she brought the
tragedy upon herself taking her familiar
tale and displacing it into an
unfamiliar context highlights certain
aspects of the tale that we might also
find in other versions so let’s look at
another version of a Little Red Riding
Hotel a very different one the Fogler
espalda LaRue published an oral folktale
collected from peasants and rural France
in the 19th century nearly a hundred and
fifty years after Perrault published his
version of the tale until the rue called
it the story of grandmother so in this
version of the tale a mother sends her
daughter off to her grandmother’s house
with a loaf of bread and a bottle of
milk so the girl goes to her
grandmother’s house and she’s in the
woods and she encounters the wolf and in
this version the wolf says he asks her
will you be taking the path of the pins
or the path of the needles and the girl
says the path of the needles so the wolf
races to grandmother’s house and as we
might expect he kills her
but what’s a little strange in this
version as he takes her body and he cuts
it up a little bit and he puts some of
her flesh in the pantry and he puts some
of her blood in a bottle when the girl
arrives she company the wolf disguised
his grandmother has her come in the
house and the wolf says why don’t you
eat some of the meat in the pantry and
drink some of the wine from the bottle
so the girl unknowingly eats and drinks
her grandmother then the wolf tells her
to take off all of her clothes throw
them into the fire and crawl into bed
with him the girl does so and then she’s
start saying Oh granny how hairy you are
but before the wolf can devour her the
girl says I have to relieve myself so
the wolf ties the rope around her ankle
lets her go outside and the girl goes
outside takes the rope ties it around a
tree and flees and runs to her
grandmother’s house before the wolf can
catch her so the cannibalism of
grandmother is a bit surprising in this
version but let’s keep in mind the tale
was told in the context of Catholic
rural France this scene could be playing
on Catholic Eucharistic ritual in which
bread and wine are transubstantiated
into the body and blood of Christ which
believers consume and that incorporation
is something that brings strength so it
could be precisely because the girl
ingests her grandmother that she is able
to outwit and outmaneuver the wolf she
quite literally incorporates her
grandmother’s strength and wisdom if we
go back to the scene where she’s in the
woods and has to choose between the path
of the pins and the path of the needles
these are the tools of the peasant woman
so her choice of needles her ingestion
of grandmother and her outwitting of the
wolf could all be
read in terms of a girl’s initiation
into womanhood so this version of the
tale focuses on female initiation and
even empowerment rather than the
successful seduction by a male
aristocrat of a clueless young lady as
is the case of Perrault’s tale so these
two very similar tales communicate two
very different messages but the theme of
seduction remains a thread in both
versions this is a perfect example of
how knowing the history of a tale
completely transforms our understanding
of it the wolf is predator takes new
form in the film freeway with Kiefer
Sutherland playing the role of Bob
Wolverton he’s a school counselor and
serial killer of women who uses his
counseling skills to lure in his prey
much like the smooth-talking aristocrat
of puros Hill but like the wily young
girl of this story of grandmother the
Little Red Riding Hood character Vanessa
played by Reese Witherspoon is able to
overcome her abuser while viewers might
recognize the Little Red Riding Hood
motifs in the film being familiar with
these other earlier versions of the tale
enhances our appreciation of the film
and gets us to realize that each version
communicates somewhat different messages
at the same time that they all play on
our expectations and knowledge of the
story there’s something enticing and
exciting about learning about
discovering new meaning in a familiar
tale almost like discovering a new side
to an old friend
surprise joy astonishment even disgust
are some of the emotions different
versions of tales elicit when I talk
about their history a beauty who quite
literally sleeps with a filthy peg birds
who Peck out the eyes of Cinderella’s
stepsisters or a Cinderella who saves
the day welcome to my wonderful world of
fairy tales
and may you never understand Little Red
Riding Hood in the same way again
thank you [Applause]
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