I’d like to open by saying that when I refer to “my kids” in the title, these are very very very theoretical children. As in I don’t intend to have kids. Certainly not in the near future. Quite possibly not ever. So this is, by no means, a commentary on parenting style. What it is is a commentary on the shortcomings and the deep-seeded problems with the stories fed to our kids from day one. It’s also important to note that the fairytales I’m talking about here are the Disney-rendered modern versions of the stories, not the Brothers Grim originals, as these have very different intentions and often different plots.
Just like pretty much everyone, I cut my teeth on fairytales like The Little Mermaid (a personal favorite, for living in the ocean reasons), Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, the whole nine yards. But the first stories that I remember being struck by were dystopias. And I read them all, long before I could fully understand their implications. I was fascinated by the ways societies fell apart and the worlds that were left in the shambles of past worlds (though I’m sure ten year old Anna would have described this very differently). I was, to put it lightly, significantly less fascinated by castles and princes and crowns and the like (which at the time was certainly partially due to internalized misogyny, but I digress). These worlds never struck me as real or meaningful for reasons that I couldn’t put into words until much later.
What I know now that ten year old me didn’t know is: 1) fairytales are steeped with all kinds of hidden failures, 2) a “happy ending” is a social construct that is rooted in the erasure of people, and 3) dystopias tell us a lot about how our societies fail and, maybe, how we can prevent some of these failures or at least work to counteract them. To address each of these points in a (hopefully) sensible and coherent fashion:
Fairytales are built to be the pinnacle of success stories. Hence the “happy endings” (*insert huge eye roll*). The princess marries the prince, and they live “happily ever after” in their castle. What the stories neglect to talk about (I mean, they neglect a lot of things) are the ways in which aristocracies (since most fairytales are aristocracies) fail their subjects. The king and queen (prince and princess? I don’t know how these things work) sit on their thrones and look out of their castle windows onto their subjects who are inevitably poorer than the royalty and many of them are probably struggling to survive. If the castle is a metaphor for the infrastructure of the government here, the castle walls are riddled with cracks. The system, as it so often does, is failing its people because a system that uplifts royalty is inevitably devaluing those who are not royal, but hey at least the mermaid gets to marry the prince. According to the fairytales, they sit in their castle, “happily ever after,” ignoring the cracks in the infrastructure and continuing to treat a super classist world as some sort of utopia. And this is what we tell kids their “happy ending” should look like. From day one. Problematic? Duh.
And here comes the part where I yell about the eternal erasure of whole groups of people. A “happy ending” in the Disney princess, Cinderella gets her glass slipper, sense is built for heterosexual, generally white (though there are notable exceptions to this), conventionally attractive, and gender role and gender binary conforming humans. Not to mention the fact that they all seem to fixate around the ultimate goal of marriage, which is hugely problematic for feminism reasons. As in, why on earth should I spend my valuable time trying to find a husband when I could be, say, using that time to dismantle oppressive power structures? Anyhow, these images teach kids who a “happy ending” is built for at a very young age, and more importantly it shows them who a happy ending isn’t for. There have been a number of excellent articles written on this, but the villains are typically the only diverse characters in fairytales (for article on villains, see here and for article on lack of female diversity in Disney movies, see here), and this paints the picture that “happy endings” aren’t for people who look like this. Villains are often the fat, the old, the queer-portrayed, etc. characters in the story. By portraying these people as the villains, they’re portrayed as the “other” on the outskirts of society, which is certainly not something that I’d like to tell young kids (or adults, for that matter). Alternatively, if you’re like both young Anna and adult Anna, this could make you just like the villains in the story better than the heroes. Oops.
So, how does this all relate to dystopian literature? Well, what I love about dystopias is that they don’t pretend to be anything close to ideal. They acknowledge the problems with societies in the most blatant way possible, and if you care to read into this, they can be a great guidebook for predicting and analyzing the ways our own society can fall apart (see: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood). This is to say that, unlike the fairytales that ignore the cracks in the castle walls, the dystopias tear the cracks open and look at how the things that start as cracks can break whole societies. I’d like to also acknowledge that it’s not like dystopias don’t often also center around heteronormative, often white love stories (because they do) or that dystopias properly delve into all of society’s problems (because they don’t), but at the very least they don’t ignore the fact that society has failings. And I think dystopias often have a hopeful element to them because they’re frequently centered on the ways a society can be rebuilt out of the shambles of a broken world. And there’s a power to that. And there’s power in seeing that not everyone has a perfect life or a “happy ending” because that shows people who aren’t in an ideal living situation (AKA the majority of people in the world) that they’re not alone, and that sometimes good things can come out of broken worlds.
I’d rather my kids read about broken worlds to learn about what’s wrong with our own and see that it can be, if not fixed, at least vectored towards being better than read about idealized “happy endings” that are coded as only being for a select few people. I’d want my kids to know that “happy endings” as they exist in fairytales aren’t real (hence the quotes around them) and that’s ok. Because there are a literal billion ways to be happy in this world and I see absolutely zero reason why giving up your fin to marry a prince should be the one that we place on a pedestal. I’d want my kids to know that their happiness shouldn’t have to be defined by anyone else, and that their right to happiness should not be defined by their identity. To close, I’d like to acknowledge that I by no means even scratched the surface of all the issues with fairytales and our society, and that dystopias are by no means anywhere close to being without their own host of problems. But that being said, I’d want my kids to know that this world is so far from perfect, but that we can work towards a better one. And I found that in dystopias, not in fairytales.