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Fairy Tales Are Getting Flipped on Their Heads
What this says about our changing morality
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Fairy tales have traditionally been an entertaining way to impart moral lessons to children and adults alike. Though they often featured fantastical elements like witches and magical creatures, the core of these stories was a struggle between good and evil. They championed virtues like bravery, honesty, kindness, and perseverance and demonstrated the consequences of bad behavior.
But it’s a brave new world, and fairy tales, not to mention morality itself, are passé. Today, we are called to be critical. We must problematize, deconstruct, and disrupt all types of traditional knowledge and thought. All values must be critiqued with the ultimate goal of upending power dynamics, real or imagined.
This week on one of my favorite shows, Disaffected, Josh Slocum explored exactly this kind of reversal.
At the 51:32 mark, Josh introduces a brief segment on fairy tales:
Fairy tales have been the vehicle that we use to pass down foundational moral lessons to children, cross-culturally; every culture has fairy tales. They teach about bad parents, bad families, good families, and about predators…
Little Red Riding Hood teaches children that costumes are not character. Wearing the clothes of a grandmother does not make a wolf a grandmother. But modern culture is reversing the moral of fairy tales. Today, parents and adults are deliberately breaking children's intuition and reprogramming it to make the children vulnerable. They're teaching their children not to assess danger, not to question someone wearing a grandma costume. It's depraved.
Josh then put this picture up on the screen.
Here is a fully grown man, has to be in his 30s or 40s, wearing a little girl’s flouncy dress with a petticoat that goes down just a crotch level and features great big girl diapers coming out from underneath. And he's hugging a dolly. Isn't that a nice little girl? You wouldn't want to be mean to her by refusing to play with her, would you?
Twitter user @LabelFreeBrands puts it this way:
“Imagine a girl comes across this person at a park.
Any immediate intuitions like ‘creep alert’ would lead to thoughts of ‘oh no, I’m being a transphobic bigot.’
As such, the girl will be afraid to offend and more likely to approach it the person says “‘come here, little girl…!’”
This reminded me of a video posted three years ago by Amy Sousa in which she discusses a children’s book called Brenda is a Sheep.
According to the publisher, this modern fairy tale is apparently meant to show kids that “things aren’t always as they seem.” It tells the story of a wolf who sets out to enjoy a feast of sheep but who changes her mind, at least temporarily, after the sheep are nice to her and welcome her as one of their own.
Amy slammed the story for the horrible lesson it is teaching children:
Things did not go according to plan for Brenda. But let's not be confused. Brenda had a plan. Brenda, throughout the book, was making a plan.
Brenda was sharpening her teeth. Brenda had a cookbook called 101 Ways to Cook Sheep. Brenda was practicing chasing sheep. Brenda referred to the sheep as “yummy.” This whole entire book, Brenda has been planning to cook up and eat some sheep in some delicious mint jelly sauce that she's been preparing.
In the end, because of all the things that the sheep did for her, she didn't follow through with her plan. So, I don't know if that means that because on this specific day the sheep pleased her, she didn't go through with cooking them up and eating them.
But, for whatever reason she is pleased by their behavior so she doesn't eat them apparently, but this does not negate the fact that the entire time, Brenda was planning to cook and eat those sheep. The story ends here, but in the life of these characters, Brenda's a freaking predator and Brenda has shown this behavior the whole time.
The sheep should have been paying attention to it, and they weren't. The fact that she doesn't eat them now doesn't mean that she won't eat them later. She is practicing this behavior over and over again throughout the book.
Whatever happens at the end of this story, it does not make Brenda any more of a sheep and it does not make Brenda any less of a predatory animal. It does not make Brenda any less of a wolf. Heads up, Brenda is a wolf!
Amy, with her excellent insights, is a regular contributor to Gender Critical Story Time, where we here at The Distance explore the source stories of culture in search of timeless lessons.
For my part, I am interested in these discussions of fairy tales because I think what is happening with society’s view of fairy tales today is reflective of exactly what C.S. Lewis saw coming in The Abolition of Man.
In this text, considered to be one of the most influential of the 20th century, Lewis argues against moral relativism and for the reality of a proper moral orientation to the world. In a morally relativistic world, he says, subjective desires and emotional impulses will reign supreme.
Well, we’ve slid firmly into a morally relativistic world, and I would argue that Lewis was right. I would also argue that we’ve replaced objective morals and values with nothing but an analysis of power. In other words: who is oppressed and who is the oppressor?
In this analysis, the oppressed can do no wrong and the oppressor can do no right. For example, rather than holding to the blanket rule that violence is morally wrong, violence is often excused when carried out by those considered to be “oppressed.” (Think men in dresses holding up signs about punching TERFs.)
Or, let’s return to the story of Brenda. A classic tale might warn kids to be wary of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. However, in Brenda is a Sheep, the predatory wolf is positioned as a sympathetic outcast. The privileged sheep, if they had tried to protect themselves against Brenda, would have, by the modern analysis, been oppressing her.
Classic fairy tales do not teach this kind of moral relativism, and for good reason. While it is virtually impossible to get everyone to agree on what objective morals and values are, it is a mistake to abandon the quest entirely, especially in favor of the kinds of analyses used today.
There are differences between good and evil, right and wrong. It is good and right to protect children against predators and to teach them to trust their intuition, even if it might hurt the feelings of the grown man in the dress.
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