“Fairy tales are for little girls.”
So says my thirteen-year-old brother, scorn filling his eyes. He and his little sister are locked in another battle over which movie to watch, and Beauty and the Beast has just been taken off the table. In retaliation, my little sister has banned all Marvel movies. This battle over Sunday night movies is a constant problem, the two kids primeval forces, bound to eternally oppose one another. This in part stems from the fact that my little brother, a young teen, is incredibly watchful over what is and isn’t manly. He plays football, lifts weights, plays Overwatch, and does anything else the boys do in Tennessee. Thirteen-year-olds may have a skewed view of masculinity, but their incredible gender sensitivity highlights an implicit gender bias in our culture. While fairy tales are not necessarily just for little kids, given the new edgier takes on fairy tales like Grimm and Once Upon a Time, fairy tales certainly seem to lean towards female audiences. I asked him if there were any fairy tales he liked, and while he could mention a few, (I think one was Aladdin) almost every story came from the Disney’s princess line of movies. Yet in a recent study by Joana Jorgensen, a majority of fairy tales were told from a male perspective. So how is it that fairy tales are now for women? And what happened to the boy stories?
Writing on this same topic, Maria Tatar, a Harvard professor of Germanic Languages and Literature and head of Folklore Studies, wrote of this feminization in America:
“Boy heroes clearly had a hard time surviving the nineteenth-century migration of fairy tales from the communal hearth into the nursery, when oral storytelling traditions, under the pressures of urbanization and industrialization, lost their cross-generational appeal. Once mothers, nannies, and domestics were in charge of telling stories at bedtime; it seems they favored tales with female heroines.”
Meaning, boy’s heroes went out of fashion here after women became the primary story tellers. After the immigration wave of the 1800s however, a new art form and a new genre appeared to fill the shoes of the absent boy hero: The Superhero.
Superheroes in TV
While much can (and probably should) be written on this topic, I’d like to discuss superheroes as fairy tales in light of the modern resurgence in interest in superheroes. There are more superhero shows currently airing than have ever aired simultaneously, with nine current live-action series and several animated series. Interestingly enough, this coincides perfectly with the recent resurgence in interest in fairy tales (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2017), Once Upon a Time, Supernatural, etc.). I’ll confine my sample to a few at the beginning of this surge, (Static Shock, Teen Titans, Young Justice) and two of the most current live shows (Flash, Gotham).
Fairy Tale Characters in Superhero Stories.
Many of the characters in these shows have direct corollaries from fairy tale stories. Gotham features seductresses and queens of the night like Fish Moody. Some characters are from children’s stories, like Solomon Grundy , a character from 1600s nursery rhymes. Static Shock features Ebon, the show’s main villain who looks awfully close to the boogey man. Many characters are clearly inspired by fairy tales and folktales; Young Justice has its fair share of magicians (like Zantanna), underwater people (for instance Aqualad), and even features Robin Hood, sorry, the Green Arrow, a green-clad archer superhero.
Many of these characters, even the ones not easily identifiable in fairy tales, share origin stories similar to fairy tale or fairy tale-like stories. A common theme for many heroes in fairy tales is to have missing parents. The Flash, Bruce Wayne, Robin, the Huntress (Young Justice), the Green Arrow, and Speedy (Arrow) all have dead parents. In addition, Flash’s origin involves him holding mysterious chemicals, opening the skylights during a thunder storm, pulling a chain, and being struck by lightning, a scene highly reminiscent of Frankenstein’s coming to life. While not necessarily a fairy tale, Frankenstein has become an often used children’s scary story, and his scene coming to life is also terribly similar to Cyborg (Teen Titans), who is half-robot, half-man, sewn together by his dad, an angry scientist.
Worlds of Wonder and New York
The worlds of fairy tales and superheroes are incredibly similar too. New York and Jack’s beanstalk might seem miles apart, but before any of the wonder, Jack was just a normal peasant boy, starving like most peasants have. Heroes in both stories see incredible, bizarre things happen without blinking an eye. Fairy tales were usually set in the worlds they inhabited. Sinbad from One Thousand and One Nights starts his adventures in Baghdad, and the Grimm’s fairy tales are set in rural German towns. Static Shock is set in Midwest USA. Static often hits the malls and is only mildly annoyed when a super-villain attacks, or some magic thing flies down from the skies. All of these stories and their origins serve to bring the magical or supernatural to us, to close the gap between worlds.
Most importantly of all though, these stories are all about real problems.
Fantastic Heroes for Far-Reaching Problems
Marina Warner, a prominent folklorist, wrote that fairy tales “speak of poverty, scarcity, hunger, anxiety, lust, greed, envy, cruelty, and of all the grinding consequences in the domestic scene and the larger picture.” Cyborg deals with the painful realization that after his accident he will never be considered normal. In Young Justice, the heroes struggle with their identities. Superboy has two dads, one of which is a super-villain Lex Luthor, and the other, Superman, doesn’t want him at all. Ms. Martian bases her identity off a sitcom, hiding her appearance to hide her own race, a monstrous minority on Mars, and she fears she will never be accepted .
Often the heroes of superhero stories are normal people, getting by with their wits till they get magic solutions or powers to solve their problems, much like Puss in Boots or Aladdin. Like the brave little tailor, Superheroes fight impossible odds, or, like Cinderella, they dream of a better life or power till magic gives it to them one day. Cat from Gotham is a prime example of the trickster hero. She is often immoral and cunning, but she has every reason to, and she gets a sympathetic treatment even though she is often bad.
These heroes deal with the problems of the day. For instance, in the second season finale of Static Shock, Static musts deal with a school shooting, and suffers intensely from survivor’s guilt. The parallel I would draw is that of the story Bluebeard, the story of a serial killer who would marry women then eat them on his honey moon. It is believed that this story has its origin in a man named Gilles de Rais, a war hero who fought alongside Joan of Arc and eventually retired to his own castle in France. However, children started to go missing. Eventually he was brought to justice and in his castle were found the bodies of 50 horribly tortured children. He confessed that he had killed more still, upwards of 100. Fairy tales are built for the world they inhabit.
I haven’t enough time or space to continue geeking out and analyzing the connections, but I think a lot more could be said about a connection between superheroes and fairytales, or more broadly, superheroes and folklore. I realize a lot of my examples are closer to legends, but overall, I think that the point holds—these heroes have connected to the American people in a way that at the least, shares commonalities with the roles and motifs of the thousands of orally communicated wonder tales from ancient days. These stories are a uniquely American genre, and just as much as it may have been connected to stories of yesterday, even more so do these stories influence today and tomorrow.