Fables and Fairy Tales

Posted November 21st, 2013 by Deepa and filed in Annika, Books, Raves and Rants
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photo 3Americans tend to be excessively politically correct. They shy away from using words that may have even the slightest hint of a negative connotation.  For example people are not fired from work—the company is merely rightsizing.  Stocks don’t crash – they underperform.   There are no beggars—they are panhandlers.  There are no poor countries/areas – these are low resource settings.  Janitors are now called custodians, secretaries are administrative assistants and so on and so forth.  The need to put a positive spin on everything is somewhat amusing in normal conversation but it takes on ridiculous proportions when it comes to children.

I realized that while I was watching Barney with my two year old.  Fairy tales that I knew very well had undergone a small but significant change. In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf follows Red Riding Hood home to get the cookies she has forphoto 4 Grandma. Grandma runs away instead of being killed and Red Riding Hood escapes the wolf because the wolf needs to drink water after he eats sour lemon cookies. In the story of who bells the cat—the cat is so thrilled about getting the bell and he and the mice become friends forever. I did a quick web-search and was pretty taken aback at the  number of folks who thought that most fairy tales were not suitable for children. In fact several parents have completely stopped reading these books to children. Several parents seemed to think that Cinderella promotes gender inequality/slavery, Snow White is not sensitive to plight of dwarves, Goldilocks encourages vandalism and trespassing, Rapunzel has a kidnapping theme and so on.

Of course children are incredibly protected here and are kept as far away from realities of life.  [I have a whole rant set aside for what constitutes bad parenting –but that’s another post!]  While I do understand the importance of not burdening a child, in many cases while obsessing over these details, one can lose sight of the big picture. Children do recognize fantasy from reality and it all depends on how the story is told to the kids and what points are emphasized. Then again, I am sure the stories have undergone several edits throughout the years and the original version was probably more gruesome and contained more adult themes than the kids’ versions that we grew up with. Disney has done a great job in sanitizing fairy tales further and placing them in today’s context, so this generation will always grow up with the idea that each of the princesses in not just a generic blond blue eyed beauty but has a distinct name, looks and personality.

photo 5I suppose the contrast is even more striking because Annika has two sources of story books—the ones that I buy in US and the ones that I buy in India.  And believe me when I say that political
correctness is not something most Indians bother with.  And there is no dumbing down the stories to provide a gore-free version as well . The few books I bought from India tell stories from the Panchatantra.   Some of the stories that I tell Annika are  about the  hungry wicked lion who hunts and eats animals in the jungle till a clever hare outwits it.  And the story of the turtle who falls to its death because he cannot keep his mouth shut.  Or the one about the singing donkey who is beaten by the villagers for singing at night.  These stories always have a  gruesome end (some animal always gets killed or beaten—a difficult concept to explain to a two year old), I do find myself sub consciously mellowing or using milder words while reading aloud.  But the bigger issue that I have is that I simply don’t agree with some of the morals. There is a story about an unusual friendship between a frog and mouse where they both end up being eaten by an eagle because of their friendship with the moral of the story being : Do not be what you are not OR Be friends with your own kind.  There is the story about the pair of geese that innovate a way to carry their friend -a tortoise – across the land that has the moral “Destiny cannot be changed”.  There is another story of a fox-cub reared by lions that has the moral : A coward will always remain one!

This is where I am kind of confused.  While I am all in favor or monitoring your child’s activities, I feel like a line is crossed when fairy tales  get a complete make-over — they are too old and too entrenched to change them!  Kids have been growing up with those stories for generations – it seems a bit of a sacrilege to change the stories written by the Grimm Brothers or Hand Christen Anderson just to make them politically correct. On the contrary, the Indian books based on Panchatantra or Aesop’s fables don’t hold back at all. In fact some of the “moral of the story” that they state are so out of touch with today’s world that I feel compelled to soften the message myself.

I guess the best I can do is expose Annika to all kinds of books. Hopefully she will start reading on her own very soon and then she is going to realize the big bad wolf did gobble up Grandma!

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