I recently attended a seminar hosted by Jack Zipes on fairy tale film research. It was an informal meeting where he showed us several obscure film clips on fairy tale interpretations and invited us to give our responses. It was a wonderful event offering interesting perspectives on familiar tales such as Cinderella and Blue Beard, and new insights into Red Riding Hood that I would love to work into my ongoing SlutWalk narrative.
The event was open to the public and there were students and faculty there, but the group also included teachers from outside the University, staff members and a surprising number of story-tellers. Story-tellers, what a wonderful sounding label – it wasn’t anything I had really heard of before, although I’m certain that title has existed for hundreds of years. I immediately wanted to go over and quiz them on the minutiae of that occupation.
Throughout the course of the session, however, I was struck anew with how immersion in the Academy has completely shifted my manner of thinking. And while it is an unforgivable and gross generalization to imply that those outside of academia never engage in critical analysis of the media, popular culture and the like, I have to admit, I rarely did so prior to beginning this degree.
While discussing some of the subversive aspects of the films – for example applauding the feminist interpretation of Red Riding Hood baiting the wolf by innocently skipping through the woods, then turning and confidently killing him with her machete – it is easy to forget that not everyone necessarily appreciates these alternate interpretations. One of the storytellers openly rebelled at the cold-heartedness of BlueBeard’s new wife Medusa casually discarding his former wives bodies out the window and threatening him with her stone-turning gaze.
Zipes discussed a village in England that is systematically filming classic fairy tales such as Rapunzel and posting them on the Internet. He queried whether such projects should be obligated to consult in some way; and while I pondered the notion of creative freedom versus the perpetuation of culturally oppressive standards, a lively discussion ensued regarding the logistics and politics around the project. Suddenly one of the storytellers proclaimed that she was really disturbed with the general assertion in the room that fairy tales should be adapted through a contemporary lens; as she would far prefer telling her daughter the “original” or “traditional” versions of the tales.
At this point, I had an internal debate with myself. She is a guest to the University, and not necessarily an academic (however, the logical response here is: how do we define “academic” and just how important is that distinction anyhow?) and may not have the same background in critical theory and folklore that many other members of the audience do. However, should I not point out that if we’re not going to “update” the tales, then I think we have an obligation to contextualize these “traditional” narratives to our children so they understand that these are not the values that modern-day society embraces?
This internal dialogue led me to question my own attitudes as a so-called Academic. Am I right in feeling that I should correct her thinking? (Emphatically no.) Am I right in thinking that I should be treating a “guest” with more consideration? (Not sure.) Either way, I felt pretty condescending. I mentioned to the woman next to me (a faculty member from the Languages Department) that I found it challenging to “shut off” my critical analysis when I wasn’t with other members of the Academy, and she looked surprised and asked me why I would want to.
However, I struggle with how to balance my own experiences within Western society versus that of many other people around me. I’m accused of taking things too seriously, of not having a sense of humour, or taking away their fun. Am I? I don’t always know how to balance that – I feel that I am occasionally speaking a completely other language, leaving people slowly blinking up at me perched on my soapbox. I can appreciate that most people won’t share my adoration of Kristeva or Weedon or Bordo, but while I can pretty easily refrain from waxing poetic about semiotics at the dinner table, I don’t know how to read a book like 50 Shades of Grey without ranting about the re-entrenchment of heteronormative privilege and the violence such a text does to alternative sexual lifestyles.
Truth be told? I’m feeling pretty elitist even just writing this piece.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed