Four Secret Allusions to The Ballad of Mulan in the Live-Action Remake

Both the 1998 animated Mulan and the recent live-action remake draw from an ancient Chinese poem entitled The Ballad of Mulan. This poem is not as well-known to audiences as the European texts that serve as fairy tale fodder for other movies. Western audiences are primarily familiar with the story through the animated film and may miss the allusions that help to shape the 2020 Mulan. These shout-outs add character depth and underscore the gender themes of the classic Chinese poem. Knowing what to watch for can level up your viewer experience and keep this from playing like yet another live action reboot.

Hare-Brained Scheme

two hares run across a field
At the conclusion of the poem, Mulan is visited by her army buddies, who are shocked to discover she is a woman. They muse among themselves that if a female and male hare run alongside each other, you can’t tell which is which the way you can if they stand still. Similarly, how can you tell a woman is a woman if you see her in action alongside men? This moment is echoed towards the beginning of the film. Mulan rides spirited and carefree through an open field past a pair of hares. When she arrives home, she excitedly tells her parents how she kept pace with the hares and puzzled over their genders without coming to a conclusion. Her family is not impressed by this gender-neutral wildlife report and inform Mulan that she has an appointment with the matchmaker.

Weaving and Leaving

The poem opens with Mulan working a loom, a traditionally gendered activity, before she abandons her work and goes shopping for war gear. The live action film ditches this domesticity and introduces a young Mulan as she chases a chicken up a three-story roof in a feat of martial parkour. Meanwhile, the loom is operated by her younger sister, Xiu. This foreshadows Mulan’s martial pursuits while Xiu sticks to a feminine, domestic role.

The Power of Sisterhood

Xiu (left) accompanies Mulan (right) to the matchmaker

The 1998 animated film robbed Mulan of her siblings, an unnamed older sister and younger brother too little to go to war. Only-child Mulan is by nature less heroic than Mulan-with-siblings. With Mulan as the second-born daughter, it seems that she must be braver and more capable than her older sister because she answers the call to arms even though there’s a more mature person around to do it. Her taking up the role for her younger brother further underscores her heroism and masculinity.
In the remake, her brother is still AWOL, but she now has a sister, Xiu, who is younger than Mulan and in need of protection. Dainty Xiu serves as a foil to her tomboyish sister. She takes Mulan’s place at the loom, has a deathly fear of spiders, and gives her parents no grief about her marriage prospects.
Mulan’s characterization as a defender is enhanced during the matchmaker scene, when she destroys the tea set to kill a spider that sends Xiu into a panic. She protects her sister both from small-scale and large-scale defenders. While the cartoon Mulan only had an aged, disabled father to protect, this Mulan would lose a little sister if the enemy stormed her village compound. When Mulan returns home a victor, she interrupts Xiu’s own matchmaking appointment. The matchmaker has found Xiu a man to kill spiders for her—a position that didn’t need filling until Xiu lost her female defender.

Reconciliation to her family

In the ballad, Mulan’s family life holds center stage while her time in the war is only given a few lines. The 1998 film featured an individualistic heroine coming into her own. This purportedly didn’t resonate with communally-minded Chinese audiences. Disney madeeffort to court Chinese favor in this remake. This new Mulan isn’t interested in self-reflection. She has a family to honor. Introspective musical numbers “Reflection” and “True to Your Heart” are replaced by the credit song “Loyal, Brave, and True,” which traces Mulan’s quest for integrity. The Chinese characters for the three virtues are inscribed on Mulan’s sword and her commander uses them as a rallying cry before battle. Mulan is so unsettled by her own deception that she nearly confesses her cross-dressing to Commander Tung. Being untrue makes her a dishonorable warrior and a dishonorable daughter.
As in the poem, Mulan turns down a promotion to return home and reunite with her family. The poem leaves her reasoning ambiguous. She could be worn down after years of war or simply missing everyone. But the new movie explains that Mulan feels the need to apologize to her father for stealing from him and living a lie. Her family accept her repentance and welcome her home.
There is one key difference to her return. In the poem, Mulan pointedly returns to her femininity, donning her old dress and applying her make-up. Assuming her family haven’t blabbed about their daughter’s cross-dressing to the whole town, she could slip back into her old life without anyone knowing of her deception. Now, she’s followed home by the emperor himself, who presents her with a new, virtue-inscribed sword in the compound courtyard as the entire village looks on. And in addition to the three virtues Mulan is familiar with, this sword contains a fourth: devotion to family. This personification of the patriarchy goes out of his way to show Mulan’s community that he doesn’t view masculine valor in a woman as unvirtuous, especially when it saves kin and country.
While this new Mulan has been hailed as a revisionist take on the nineties cartoon in keeping with 2020 gender sensibilities, it also represents a return to the story’s classic roots as the live action film weaves in references to the original tale.

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Why Mulan Can’t Empower Other Women


The recent release of the live action Mulan has generated a buzz on whether this new film’s plot and character changes constitute a step forward or a step back for women. Filmmakers made the controversial decision of cleaving Li Shang’s character in two. Her romance with a commanding officer was seen as a problematic power dynamic, though both the animated Mulan and the live one had very little actual romantic interaction with him due to her cross-dressing. The new film features a blunt shoutout to the #MeToo movement, with male soldiers chorusing “We believe Mulan” (about the invasion, thankfully, not assault). Most significantly, this Mulan chooses to reveal her gender herself rather than being discovered through injury. But this self-unveiling has already been done twice in Disney television, and neither instance was empowering.

The FTTV project primarily tracks fairy tale adaptation in television, not just film. Though she has a presence in Chinese TV, Mulan’s presence in Western television in our current database is limited only to Disney affiliate shows. She appears in Once Upon A Time and Sofia the First. Both inclusions feature awkwardly shoehorned sexism that doesn’t make sense in the overall feminist contexts of both shows. Once Upon A Time stars the rough, competent Emma Swann, a bail bondswoman turned sheriff. Emma’s mother, Snow White, is a capable warrior who leads a band of outlaws, and, later, her country. But after a solid first season establishing warrior femininity as a cultural norm in the Enchanted Forest, the opening episode of the second season introduces Mulan as a veiled, helmeted warrior. It’s obvious enough to the audience that we’re watching a woman walk around on screen, but Princess Aurora assumes her to be a man until she removes her helmet. Aurora, Mulan, and Prince Phillip then have the following dialogue:

Mulan, veiled and helmeted

Aurora: You’re a girl?

Mulan: Woman. My name is Mulan.

Phillip: In your absence, she has helped me like no other. We’ve fought many battles together.

Aurora: With a woman.

A woman warrior? Gasp!

This unveiling dismantles the gender equality the first season of Once Upon A Time set up so thoroughly. Why should Mulan’s warrior status come as such a surprise when Snow White (and many other princesses introduced later) are regularly seen in action? It’s not standard for woman warriors in this show to go veiled. But because Mulan’s tale is rooted in gendered themes, sexism is injected into the otherwise gender-progressive Enchanted Forest to justify her story.

Similar sexism problems arise when Mulan guest stars in an episode of Sofia the First. Eight-year-old Princess Sofia and her gal pals regularly save the kingdom of Enchancia with the help of Sofia’s magical amulet. Sometimes, the amulet summons adult princesses to give her guidance. On a trip to the Chinese-inspired kingdom of Wei-Ling, Sofia and the Wei-Ling princess, Jun, are left behind when their brothers go treasure hunting. The girls’ fathers set out to stop the boys before they encounter the dangerous Jade Jaguar that guards the treasure. When Sofia learns her brother is in danger, she offers to go with. But the emperor of Wei-Ling tells her, “This is far too dangerous for princesses.”

This is followed by a scene cut where their brothers gleefully speculate on the dangers that await them in the treasure cave, bragging, “A couple of princes like us should have no problem figuring it out.” Prince and princess are used as not-so-subtle replacements for “boy” and “girl.” Age, quite frankly, would be a fitting justification for why the eight-year-old girls should stay behind, but gender is cast as the problem to lay the grounds for Mulan’s appearance.

A helmet Mulan brandishes a sword before a row of statue guards

A helmeted Mulan appears before Sofia

Both their brothers and fathers soon fall victim to a booby trap, leaving the princesses the only ones to rescue them. They encounter magical statues blocking the path to the cave and can’t find a way around them. Mulan then shimmers into existence, decked out, once again, in a helmet. She takes it off in a matter of seconds, so it’s clearly worn for neither defense nor disguise, but to force an unveiling. A woman warrior? Gasp! She shows the girls how to climb overhanging vines to bypass the statues and save their menfolk. A grateful emperor then tells them, “I know I said this journey would be too much for you girls, but clearly, I was mistaken. Today you have proven yourselves to be smart and brave.”

Actually, they prove that every day.

Princesses Sofia, Jun, and Amber are counseled by Mulan

This episode’s title? Princesses to the Rescue! This title could really be applied to any episode of the series. Sofia the First consistently teaches young girls that plucky, spunky ,adventuring princesses can save the day. Injecting artificial sexism into a world without it to “empower” girls can have a nasty reverse effect. Subverting gender expectations is not empowering to a preschool audience because little girls don’t know these norms exist yet-until this Mulan episode teaches them. Before she takes leave of the young princesses, Mulan tells Sofia, smugly, “I believe there are some kings and princes that need rescuing,” implying that girls saving the day is not a cultural norm. Because Disney versions of Mulan’s story depend so much on sexism, she can’t be included in any other princess universe without hurting the rest of princesskind. In a movie by herself, she functions as an empowering icon. But introducing her into a gender-progressive setting immediately sets the whole fictional universe back.

Sorceress Xianniang uses qi

How does Mulan compare to other women in her 2020 film? In the 1998 cartoon, she was the only young woman character. Now she’s joined by a sister and a sorceress. Her sister, Xiu, serves as a foil, following gender norms and making a marriage match while Mulan is off winning a war. Xianniang is an outcast of society, scorned as a witch, serving as a lackey under Bori Khan. She tells Mulan, who also has magic (called qi) that she will never be accepted for her power and gender. Is there a reason rooted in Chinese culture for women not to use qi? Not really.

Qi is a facet of the body, a kind of life force. Writings about qi were written and read by men, so technically the subject of a qi text could be assumed to be male. But it’s no less gender-specific than the blood in your veins or the air in your lungs. 

live action Mulan fighting

Mulan fights with free-flowing hair

Mulan, of course, proves sorceress Xianniang wrong. When she finally unveils herself, her comrades are more concerned about her being a female soldier than a woman who uses qi. Mulan ends up victorious, Xiu ends up matched, and Xianniang ends up dead. By magicking Mulan, filmmakers have instantly set her apart from other women, both in the film and in the audience. The cartoon Mulan came to strength with the rest of her army. In my early teens, when I began to look critically at my childhood favorite princess, I thought the training montage scene was awfully empowering. I got to see her start off just as weak as I would’ve been if I ran off to join the military and then grow strong. 2020 Mulan is “not like other girls.” She has magical super strength that gives her a leg up in military matters. Ordinary females, whether they’re the age of Sofia the First or Emma Swann, can’t relate to that.

There is much that is brave, virtuous, and empowering about the various incarnations of Mulan, including this new, live-action Disney one. She shows tremendous strength of body, mind, and character. But even as Mulan takes control of her gender by unveiling herself, one message is clear: for Mulan to be empowered, other female characters can’t be.

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The Return: An Ongoing Transformation

In fairy tales, transformations from one creature to another are wonderful and instantaneous. Change is rarely so instantaneous or painless in reality. We have been working behind the scenes to prepare a fairy godmother worthy transformation of the Fairy Tales and Television project.

We at the FTTV are excited to announce that we’ve returned to our home here on the blog and at our website! Things around here will be in process of changing for the next few months as the project shifts gears and focus.

Here’s what you can expect going forward:

The Website

Our homepage is getting a makeover! It has yet to go into full effect but be on the lookout for the new and improved fairytale and television hub. Our television filmography (teleography, if you will) is still active and maintained, and will be available throughout the transition process.

A sneak peak of our new, beautiful website, with many thanks to Brian Croxall, Tory Anderson, and countless others at the Digital Humanities office here at BYU.

FTTV logo

The TV in FTTV stands for television.

The Blog

The blog, hosted here, will be returning to full activity. In connection with our database of fairy tale television, graduate and undergraduate students working with Dr. Rudy, the head of the project, will continue to present, analyze, and discuss fairy tales, TV, and everything in between. In addition, the blog will feature work by students in Dr. Rudy’s ongoing classes as they explore adaptation and folklore.

The Book

Did you know the director of this project literally wrote the book on fairy tales on television? Published earlier this summer by Routledge, the appropriately named Fairy-Tale TV is an instructive introductory text and guidebook by our own Dr. Jill Rudy and her co-writer Pauline Greenhilll of the University of Winnipeg.

Routledge guidebook cover

The Fairy-Tale in Fairy-Tale TV stands for FT.

We will be covering some of the topics presented by the new book on this blog in the coming weeks. So be on the lookout!

Thank you for sticking with us and we hope to see you soon!

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Fairy Tale Feminism: Bring Back the Knights in Shining Armor

“Are there any men in this show?” my dad asked. He’d walked in on me watching a scene in season two of Once Upon A Time, where Emma, Snow White, Mulan, and Sleeping Beauty team up for adventures in the Enchanted Forest without a man in sight. I explained that yes, Snow White was married to Prince Charming, who was currently handling problems in another realm. I was a bit irked that I had to justify this fairy tale girl squad like that. Didn’t he know that fairy tale adaptation was all about empowering women?

Fairy tales and their often-conflated Disney adaptations are held up as feminism’s Public Enemy No. 1. Supposedly, they teach men to be misogynist heroes and girls to be damsels in distress.

But, women worldwide are in distress. Not just from spinning wheels and candy house witches, but from abusive relationships, sexual assault, and education disadvantages and childhood marriage in third-world nations. What’s so wrong about media that portrays men as knights in shining armor helping women out of their distress, so long as female characters are interesting and three dimensional in their own right?

Continue reading

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Nostalgia and Fairy Tales

Image retrieved from

Ever wonder why there are so many fairy-tale remakes out right now? It’s not because the original was terrible. It’s because the nostalgia hit is a powerful thing, and it’s a very easy way to make money.

Millennials in particular are the target audience for people who want to capitalize on nostalgia. It’s an odd feeling, considering that millenials were born barely over twenty years ago. Twenty years is nothing in the grinding wheel of time, but in that twenty years, there has been a lot happening.

Rima Mandwee said that “Millennials have grown up in one of the fastest evolving decades of technology in human history. Our formative years grew parallel to the rise of Internet and all of the technology that developed along with it.” Basically, we’ve seen significant change. We were born in the generation when cell phones were still blocky devices that were bigger than our heads; now they are sleek computers that can fit in the palm of our hand. In twenty years, technology has grown faster than we did.

Even though the distance between past and present aren’t far for us, we yearn for the past because we suddenly don’t even understand the present.

Then, all of a sudden, we don’t understand ourselves.

But there was a time when we did understand ourselves. The past used to make sense, so we seek it, and marketing has taken notice. Studies have shown that marketing companies are attracted to millennials because of their purchasing power and their desire to understand where we fit in the world. “Throwback” has been the name of the game, and we have seen the rise of vintage technology, such as old school logos, typewriters, and even record turntables. Entire companies have risen and fallen in the last decade alone based around the formula of millennial nostalgia.

The media loves this formula the most.

Image retrieved from

Fairy tales in particular are a target for this kind of thinking. With the birth of live action Disney revivals, the rise and fall of Once Upon A Time and bestselling series such as the Cinder series, fairy tales have proven to deliver on the nostalgia high. “Beauty and the Beast”, a remake of the old Disney movie that was, in turn, a recreation of the original fairy tale, made over 1 billion dollars just in its theater release.

We are obsessed with these fairy tales because fairy tales are our first encounter with magic. They are our beginner’s guide to morality, love, courage and excitement. We learn quickly that life doesn’t deliver on what fairy tales promised us. Life isn’t always black and white, love often falls short of a happy ending, fear conquers us day after day and our jobs are dull. Most importantly, there isn’t a fairy godmother to remove the mounting problems that millennials are facing. So it does our heart good when we see fairy tales on the screen again, because it reminds us of a time when life was a lot easier. It’s a safe place, a comfortable place where good beats evil and Goldilocks doesn’t have to worry about getting a job (even though she has a Bachelor’s degree in the Culinary Arts).   

We travel backwards, and we feel safe.

Image retrieved from

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A Farewell to Charms: Looking Back from Once Upon A Time’s Final Season

After stretching on for seven years, 155 episodes, and roughly 9% of our database entries, Once Upon A Time finally bade viewers farewell this year. Jennifer Morrison, who plays Emma Swan, jumped ship at the end of season six,though not before marrying longtime-lover Captain Hook and giving CaptainSwan fans some closure. Without Emma as the main character, OUAT screenwriters had to restructure the show. The solution? Age up Emma’s son, Henry, and send him on adventures of his own. Writers branded this new season as a requel: half reboot, half sequel. Aside from a few Frog Prince characters, all characters new to the show are new interpretations of minor characters we’ve already seen in previous seasons: Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Alice, and Cinderella. Since its beginning, one of OUAT’s major themes has been duality. The show followed a flashback format with each episode sporting a dual plot line. Most characters are amnesiac doubles of fairy tale figures. Jekyll and Hyde featured in the sixth season, prompting Evil Queen Regina to split herself into an evil half and good half. The most prominent example of duality in the series is the Wish Realm, a wish-created version of the Enchanted Forest where the Dark Curse that set off the events of the series was never cast. Both the Wish Realm and reboots of past characters are utilized in this requel to emphasize OUAT’s focus on duality. Some duplicates of characters past help tie up loose threads left by previous seasons, but others are troubling to watch.

Ashley Boyd, the first Cinderella (left) and Jacinda Vidrio, the new Cinderella (right)

The old Cinderella, Ashley Boyd, was a minor character who showed up in four of the first 136 episodes. She seemed set up to become a major character. She first appeared in the fourth episode in season one, rather early for a guest star when the main cast was still being established. Before OUAT’s Snow White overwhelmed our data, Cinderella was the most popularly adapted tale type in TV. Fans often cried out for more of Ashley, but she was never made central to the plot. The new Cinderella, Jacinda, stars as Henry’s wife, a much more major role for TV’s favorite princess.

Jacinda’s roommate, Sabine, is the alter ego of Tiana, princess of The Frog Prince. Tiana is the only Official Disney Princess (aside from the problematically real Pocahontas) who never appeared in the previous six seasons. Including her shows that OUAT was still interested in exploring new frontiers, to an extent, and not just rehashing old material.

Jacinda’s daughter, Lucy, functions as a genderswapped version of young Henry, as predicted in a previous post. Like Henry, she’s the first believer in a community of amnesiacs, the center of a custody battle featuring an evil stepmother, and spends time in a magically induced coma.

This January, we focused our annual Unbirthday Tea Party on the evolution of Alice adaptations’ treatment of madness. This second Alice has more to do with madness than her predecessor. While the first Alice was imprisoned in an asylum during the first episode of the spinoff, madness wasn’t a feature in the rest of the episodes. This Alice is a young homeless woman who is thought to be mentally ill because she retains blurry memories of the world before the curse. Her dialogue in episode four of the season also cleverly incorporates lines from the Jefferson Airplane song White Rabbit, which has influenced OUAT’s portrayal of Alice characters before.

Old Alice (left) and New Alice (right)

Though the new Alice helps expand OUAT’s take on madness, her very existence is problematic. First off, her presence overwrites the original Alice, who had an entire spin-off to herself, making her a much more major character than four-episode Ashley. Then there’s Alice’s troubling parentage. If there’s a plot device even more central to OUAT’s than amnesia, it’s messy families. Alice is the result of a one-night-stand between Mother Gothel and Captain Hook. No, not the Captain Hook who’s married to Emma. His Wish Realm double, who’s cheekily dubbed Nook (New Hook). Nook keeps Hook actor Colin O’Donoghue on screen when Hook has to be back in Storybrooke with Emma. It’s nice to see a familiar face, but the tradeoff isn’t worth it. We know he’s not the same Hook, and that CaptainSwan are living happily ever after in Storybrooke, but seeing him alone– or worse, having a one-night stand–makes it feel as if our ship has sunk.

While CaptainSwan are marooned off-screen, fans’ beloved Rumbelle get some bittersweet closure. After traveling the universe with their son, Gideon, Belle and Rumpelstiltskin settle down and build a house together in an age progression montage filled with shoutouts to Pixar’s Up. And like Ellie in Up, Belle dies, leaving Rumpelstiltskin alone. Previously, we’ve known him as a trickster and dealmaker who’s quite power-hungry and nasty, even when he’s not supposed to be a villain at the moment. His goal has always been preserving his own power and immortality, but with his beloved dead, his goal is to find someone to kill him so he can be with Belle again.

Meanwhile, Regina’s old crimes catch up with her again. When the Wish Realm was introduced in season six, Regina believed that because it was created by a wish, it would cease to exist as soon as she and Emma, the wish-maker, were out of it. In a ploy to convince Emma of this, she rips out the hearts of Emma’s parents and crushes them. When Emma expresses concern over her slaughtered parents, Regina tells her, “Oh, they’re not real. I didn’t actually kill anyone.”

Regina crushing Emma’s parents’ hearts

When she removed Emma from the realm, the Wish version of Henry lost both his mother and grandparents in a single blow. Also, he’s stuck ruling a kingdom at age fourteen. The writers abandon poor Henry in the Wish Realm. Even after Regina sends her Evil Queen doppleganger there, proving it did not cease to exist, she never addresses the fact that she slaughtered a real boy’s grandparents in cold blood. As a viewer, I found this terribly sidetracking as well as just terribly terrible. Fortunately, this is addressed in the requel.

After vanquishing all the new villains the seventh season has to offer, including new versions of Cinderella’s stepmother and Hansel, writers call back Wish Henry for the series finale. He’s been orphaned, he’s been abandoned, and now he’s out for blood. Regina is forced to fight her own son, echoing parent-child conflicts from previous seasons (Rumpelstiltskin against his father, Peter Pan, and Gideon against Rumpelstiltskin). Ultimately, as shown by six previous seasons, love conquers darkness and light wins. Henry’s heart is turned to mercy, Rumpelstiltskin sacrifices himself saving the others and reunites with Belle, and fans get one last glimpse of Emma, Hook, and newborn daughter Hope.

Emma, Hook, and Grace, aghast at arriving late to a townwide celebration

The requel functions as an extended epilogue to the show that reigned as queen of all televised fairy tale adaptations. It marooned fans’ beloved CaptainSwan for most of the season, killed Belle, and rehashed old tales rather than incorporate any of the hundreds of other tale types in our database. Duality kills an opportunity for diversity. And as our story closes, season seven carried on old themes of family, love, good and evil, and duplicity, and tied up loose ends before bidding a happily ever after to both new characters and those fans have been following for seven seasons.

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Edutainment Strategies: Sesame Street’s Story Book Community School

The first of four case study posts about my presentation for Western States Folklore Society’s Annual Meeting in April 2018. Introduced here, the presentation was titled Princess and the Letter P: Fairy Tales and Edutainment in Preschool Television. The other case studies can be found here.

Sesame Street started in 1969 as one of the most groundbreaking shows in preschool television, originating the form of the pedagogical, publicly funded children’s show. The creators of Sesame Street had everything from a “pedagogical master plan,” to a team of educators, child psychologists, researchers and focus groups. The original goal is to help make up for the gap in the education inner city kids have access to and to prepare them for kindergarten and first grade1.

Each episode is “sponsored” by a letter and a number, and after the plot of the episode, the second section is made up of short segments and songs that focus on the letter and number of the day, including the clearly folklore-adjacent segment with Count Von Count.

I must qualify that the ways that Sesame Street uses fairy tales vary greatly from episode to episode. The co-existence of fairy tale characters like Baby Bear with Sesame Street originals like Oscar the Grouch makes some episodes seem much more fairy-tale-ful than they actually are. An analysis of Sesame Street’s relationship with fairy tales could fill a book, but this specific case study focuses only on the edutainment factors in this episode.

In “Baby Bear’s First Day of School,” Baby Bear attends the Story Book Community School and meets Hansel and Gretel, Jack and Jill, Little Red Riding Hood, Little Bo Peep, Peter Piper, and Mrs Goose.

This segment uses fairy tales as the in-between entertainment value between the lessons that Baby Bear learns. Unusual for a normal episode, this plot part introduces the letter and number of the day as well as the “soft-skills” lesson. Baby Bear learns that it is okay for him to miss his parents when he is at school and that it is totally normal to feel a little bit sad. This lesson isn’t connected in any way with the familiar story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” nor are any of the plot points of that story hit by this episode, (unlike the deconstruction of the story that happens in “Who’ll Replace the Big Bad Wolf”).

The fairy tale characters are used for little self-referential jokes throughout the episode. Jack trips and “breaks his crown.” Hansel and Gretel throw breadcrumbs around. All the students recognize “once upon a time” as the phrase that begins their respective stories. These jokes rely on the familiarity of fairy tales in order to make sense out-of-context, so Sesame Street assumes that the audience these jokes work for is already familiar with the stories.

The familiarity factor of fairy tales is harnessed, but the historically didactic function of the fairy tale itself is swept aside, with the learning falling on the shoulders of a plot unrelated to fairy tales at all. The question remains, are there fairy tale shows that use fairy tales to teach the same lessons that the stories themselves teach? Or are preschool shows too caught up in their own educational agenda to bother with the subtleties of the themes of existing fairy tales? To answer this question, we will turn next week to the most straightforwardly teaching-, literacy-, and skill-focused show in this project: Super WHY!

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Preschool Edutainment and Fairy Tales: The Groundwork

My last big project was about fairy tale mashup episodes in children’s television, and took a large-scale data approach. In choosing a new research topic, I remained interested in the phenomenon that, currently, fairy tales are marketed as “kid stuff.” If marketers want adults to watch their content, they usually sell it as either “gritty” or as nostalgic. TV uses fairy tales because the audience is familiar with the plots and motifs, but what about a child’s possibly first interaction with a certain story? If fairy tales are common cultural stories we all recognize, what can we learn from the way they are presented to children so young that they may not recognize them yet?

For this project, I researched in the realm of children’s television, but focused specifically on television for preschoolers. Generally, preschool television is made primarily for children from ages 2 to 6. The shows are not intending to be interesting to older children or adults, because they are attuned specifically to the developmental stages of their audience.

blue's clues with paw logo

Preschool television shows use simple, repetitive narrative formats and bright colors to engage their audience.

Preschool television is expected to be “informational and educational.” Even now, when most parents of young children grew up watching TV themselves, there are still doubts about the worth of television. Preschool television, especially shows made by public television networks like PBS, gains funding by being educational and teaching specific skills. This sets it apart from most other television, since few fiction-based shows for adults are expected to teach the viewers skills, from phonics and rhyming to addition and subtraction.

dora the explorer and backpack and map

Dora addresses the audience directly, asking questions like “Where should we go next?” and pausing as if for an answer. This show is developmentally appropriate for young children because it encourages interactivity.

Preschool television operates under an “edutainment” model, and this dual purpose of education and entertainment is locked into every episode.

What does this have to do with fairy tales? Fairy tales are just entertainment, right? The fairy tale tradition is not as far removed from education as you might think. Fairy tales have been culture-making for as long as they’ve existed. When told in the oral tradition, fairy tales taught oral literacy, the skill of being able to listen and remember information.  More broadly, they are meant to teach what we care about and value as a group (beauty, ingenuity, hospitality).

black and white a family gathers around a fire outside

Stories around a fire, the pre-literate context and origin of all of our favorite traditional fairy tales.

When fairy tales were shifted into the nursery as children’s media with the Grimms and Andrew Lang in the 1800s, the role of the teaching shifted. Fairy tales were moral tales, using fear or rewards to teach children how to behave (don’t disobey your parents or you’ll be eaten by a witch).

cover of vintage children's and household tales Grimm's fairy tales

With the Die Kinder-und Haus-marchen (Children’s and Household Tales), and the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang, fairy tales were written down, illustrated, and marketed with a child audience in mind.

These two different models of education seem to be at odds. Preschool television is trying to teach reading and numbers, hard skills that will prepare its young audience for school. Fairy tales are involved in culture-making education, discussing values and morals and soft skills like sharing and asking nicely. I seek to find an answer to the following research question over the course of four case studies: Barney and Friends, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and Super WHY!

How do preschool television shows use fairy tales in their educational missions?

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FTTV Takes Western States Folklore Society: 2018 Edition

The second week of April this year found the FTTV team in sunny Los Angeles, at the Otis College of Art and Design. Western States Folklore Society was having its 77th Annual Meeting, and we had been working on our panel for months. We applied as a complete panel, “Fantastic Realities of Fairy-Tale TV,” which gave us the opportunity to synthesize a panel that gave a diverse look at many different research approaches to studying fairy tale television.

Erica’s opening slide as Dr. Rudy, who served as our panel chair, introduces her

We had more attendees to our panel than expected, since there wasn’t another panel at the same time as us and we were the first panel on the first full day of the conference. Presenting in front of highly qualified folklorists can be intimidating, but the Q&A afterwards is always enlightening and adds new exiting layers to the research we’ve spent so much time polishing and forming. It was fun to get the input from folklorists who were unfamiliar with the digital humanities element, especially as a contrast to our experience at Digital Humanities Utah two months ago.

Ariel asking the hard-hitting questions of our entire project.

Our panel introduced our project as a whole and then we shared our research: Lauren on preschool television and edutainment, Erica on the fairy tale and media strategies that the British Royal family uses in connection with royal weddings, Cortlynd on the unexpected and lingering darkness of Revolting Rhymes, and Ariel with masculinity and monster transformations.

The whole team at Otis College! Lauren, Cortlynd, Dr. Rudy, Erica, and Ariel.

Though we unfortunately had to return home during the second day of the conference, the first day was full of panels on various elements of folklore, including Dr. Rudy’s presentation about folklorist’s career paths. We divided up for most panels and then chatted over lunch about what the others had missed, a foolproof strategy and the best reason to attend a conference with a close-knit team.

The conclusion of the Archer Taylor Keynote Lecture entitled “Trauma and Art Making” by Daniel Wojcik, connected well with the environment of the folklore conference being hosted by an art college, which was quite a different experience than attending at UC Berkeley two years ago.

The trip was a quick 2-day whirlwind, but we packed so much conference and learning into the short amount of time! It’s always such a thrill to share our research, check out the blog in coming weeks for updates on our individual projects!

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Fairy Tale Group Accepted to Present at Western States Folklore Society

Come join us for a run-through of our panel we are preparing to present at Western States Folklore Society conference in LA next month. We are so excited to present all of our hard work and would love feedback as we prepare to present at the conference. Our panel is titled Fantastic Realities of Fairy-Tale TV

B003 JFSB on April 6 from 3-5 pm

Check out our abstracts below to get excited for what we are presenting about!

The Princess and the Letter P: Fairy Tales and Edutainment in Preschool Television. Fairy tales have been used for teaching children for centuries. From oral and written literacy to moral lessons on honesty and sharing, fairy tales act as a vehicle for defining and creating the culture that uses them (Jack Zipes). Television uses fairy tales because they are powerful and well-known stories, but how are their didactic functions utilized? Preschool television is produced to be both entertainment and education, which separates it from most television. Preschool television teaches hard skills like counting and reading alongside the socialization in order to prepare children for school (Jeannette Steemers). What can we learn by studying the approach of shows like Sesame Street, Super Why!, Dora The Explorer, Sofia the First, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to fairy tales? I propose that preschool television use the narrative power, familiarity, and visual nature of fairy tales to produce programs that effectively teach children in a variety of ways.
–Lauren Redding

Prince Harry to Marry Sleeping Beauty: Royal Weddings and the Televised Fairy Tale. Since the 1840 wedding of Queen Victoria, British royal weddings have functioned as media spectacles and royal publicity stunts. Real life royal weddings are referred to in the media as fairy-tale weddings. Styling these weddings as fairy- tale events reduces fairy tales to three stereotypical elements: romance, royalty, and the “happily ever after.” Televised fairy tale adaptations on shows like Once Upon A Time look to royal weddings, such as Grace Kelly’s, for inspiration. With Prince Harry engaged to marry Meghan Markle, an American actress who once portrayed Sleeping Beauty, fairy tale television and real-life royalty are more intrinsically entwined than ever. I will argue that maintaining their fairy-tale image is advantageous to the British royal family, who would otherwise struggle to maintain their relevance in a world that currently has more Disney princesses than countries in Europe that still have monarchies.  — Erica Smith

Fairy Tale: A Dark Past and a Darker Future. In contrast to its bright animation and script full of rhyming couplets, 2016’s Revolting Rhymes (based on Roald Dahl’s poetry collection of the same name) could not be any further from traditional animated fairy tales. The violent and corrupt characters echo those found in dark, older versions of the tales, with which some viewers may be unfamiliar. While most adaptations focus on the catharsis of “happily ever after,” Rhymes is more lifelike—using the familiar genre of fairy tale to comment on issues of terror and modern anxieties. The show’s avoidance of the type of ending the viewer expects leaves a lingering sense of unease, evoking a connection to reality. Instead of wrapping up neatly in an epic showdown or a wedding (as fairy tales often do,) the show ends but never concludes, leaving the viewer to wait and wonder with Red Riding Hood: “will I ever feel safe again?” — Cortlynd Olsen

From Monster to Man: Animalistic Transformations of Male Protagonists in Fairy Tales on TV. Most fairy-tale protagonists on TV are female. Females star in most of the leading fairy-tale roles, from Once Upon a Time to Sofia the First. Snow White appears 294 times in our Fairy Tales on TV database, while Iron Henry/Frog King appears only nineteen times. However, except for Grimms’ Nick Burkhardt, men rarely appear on-screen as human protagonists: when men do appear, they are animalistic. This animalism usually serves to transform and develop the main character. Yet female transformation is minimal, as from a female worker to a female princess. Male transformation, on the other hand, is from monster to man. Does portraying males as talking animals make men less human? I propose that fairy-tale shows don’t necessarily need male tales to legitimize fairy tale studies; however, we must consider that domesticated and emasculated tales lend understanding to how we culturally value televised male protagonists. — Ariel Hubbard

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