Ending the year going Into the Woods

I’ve never been one for the obvious. If it’s too easy, it’s boring. If everyone is doing it, something must be wrong. So there’s no reason I should like Into the Woods. It’s so blatantly a metaphor for a life lesson. You go through the woods naïve and afraid of the unknown only to emerge smarter and warier of the road ahead. Red Riding Hood learns about the dangers of straying from the path. Cinderella finds her voice. The baker realizes he’s not alone. Jack loses a friend but gains independence. Even writing these lines I want to yell “DUH” at the screen.

But I love it. I love the music. I adore the Witch. The message is clever even while being obvious. When I saw the production as a kid I thought it was so cool that someone decided to mash all these fairy tales together. Now as an adult I’ve gained new insight into the lyrics. It’s an honest to goodness family movie mostly because you can watch it all your life and get something new each time. This time I learned about reluctance.

We’re days away from the New Year and that means the dreaded list of resolutions. Last year I did away with the entire idea of it with the notion that making a list is just a way to make me feel bad by April (or March) because I’ve lost interest in them. My resolutions are usually related to moving more and exercise. Despite my best efforts, I am generally a sedentary creature preferring to read and write more than move and sweat.

I searched fairy tales for a good story on reluctance, but I have yet to find one. Reluctant heroes are not a problem in fairy tales. Princes chase down maidens who gratefully accept the assistance. Tailors seek adventures on the basis of having downed seven flies with one hit. Little girls with bold outerwear head to Grandma’s without a thought for the hungry wolf that lies in wait. Reluctance is not something fairy tale characters are acquainted with.

Except in Into the Woods. Only kids have no fear of the woods. Adults are very aware that the unknown could hold danger or at least disappointment. They’re all reluctant to enter, but they go because it’s the only way to get what they want. Hemming and hawing are allowed, but the woods are still waiting. Just like the New Year and my resolutions. So, I’ll make my resolutions yet again and work to get past May with them (at least).

No more hemming and hawing…the woods await.

Ducktales by the ghyll in UK

A touch of whimsy in the woods.

Happy 2015!

 

 

Losing it

I’ve been thinking about loss and fairy tales lately. It’s the prologue to most stories, shaping the hero’s or heroine’s current misfortune. Be they motherless, fatherless, or orphans loss is the beginning of a story in fairy tales. Disney has made this fact into a cliché. It’s been joked that Frozen didn’t become a true Disney movie until (spoiler alert) the parents are lost at sea. I almost think it’s pointless to warn you of the spoiler because as I mentioned before, it’s Disney’s hallmark.

So what can fairy tales tell us about loss? Is it the impetus that makes ordinary people into heroes? Do princesses (or would be princesses) jump at the chance to marry royal strangers because of “daddy issues”? Are feelings of abandonment just the push a boy needs to take on giants and consider thievery as a way of life? Maybe yes, but maybe nothing so blatant.

As a historian, I’m aware that these stories were written in a time when disease, war or poverty would likely tear apart families. But fairy tales don’t care about the mundane. They focus on the fantastical, spinning tales that take us out of the everyday. Wouldn’t you want to escape a reality in which becoming orphaned probably only meant a life of impoverishment and servitude? In the real world, Cinderella would have grown old and haggard at the beck and call of those three spiteful cats. Or she would have run away to the city and been forced into prostitution to survive.

Am I the only one who sees a face?

Am I the only one who sees a face?

But I’m not just a historian. I’m a person with whimsy who sees imprisoned souls in strangely shaped trees. All it takes is a too bright moon and I immediately start to spin a tale about a community of nightwalkers affected by its phases, collecting magical Moonshine. Not all the ideas become a full-fledged story, but more than a fair share get filed in my ideas folder. And one of the most basic things everyone wonders about is death and loss, so why isn’t it a prominent feature in fairy tales? Sleeping Beauty side-steps it with a sleeping spell meant to keep her in suspended animation for a century waiting for her “true love.” Snow White is barely cold in her glass coffin before Prince Charming comes along and dislodges the chunk of apple the dwarves were clearly too short to Heimlich. Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are swallowed whole by the Wolf only to be cut out of his belly by the Woodsman. Even the newest old story, Frozen, gives us a heroine who sacrifices her life and is rewarded by it being returned to her.

In my search for loss in fairy tales, I came across a story from my childhood. It falls under folklore and legend more than fairy tale, and is a popular story in Puerto Rico. It’s called La Leyenda de la Piedra del Perro, or The Legend of Dog Rock. Not far from El Morro in Old San Juan there’s a small beach with a long natural rock wall. At its tip is a rock formation that when looked at from the right angle resembles a sitting dog.

The story goes that a soldier, Enrique, from back when Puerto Rico was part of Spain, was stationed there, far from home and lonely for companionship. One day he finds an injured and emaciated puppy whom he nurses back to health with food and love. In return the dog never leaves his side and becomes his best friend. As is inevitable with all soldiers, Enrique is called to a battle which requires him to leave the dog behind. They part tearfully and as the boat carrying his human companion sails away, the dog (called Amigo) swims to the rock wall and sits there from sun up to sundown awaiting his return. There’s a brutal battle in which all hands, including Enrique, are lost. The dog overhears the news and rushes out to the wall waiting without respite. He stays so long and so still he turns to stone and remains there to this day.

I’m not sure what that story teaches us. On the one hand loss is something that can’t be gotten over and you can remain stuck in a moment of despair without moving on. Or it could mean that loss forces out the very nature of a being. For the dog, it was loyalty. It could be said that for the characters of popular fairy tales, it was a desire to be more or escape their current situation. In both cases, it led to profound change. Fairy tales teach us that no matter how mundane today might seem and yesterday was, tomorrow could be extraordinary–either good or ill. They teach us that loss is not the end of the story.

The Hidden Minority

I have to say that I am encouraged by the current push of contemporary fairy tales. They give women a voice and often make them front and center as heroes in their own stories. The LGBT community finally has a glimmer of hope in seeing protagonists that have the same thoughts and feelings as they do. Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, and myriad cultures are being discovered within the pages of novels which before had almost ignored their existence. I don’t think we’ve reached the goal of true diversity in stories, but I can see light at the end of the tunnel.

Except for one slice of the underrepresented pie…

Now, I’m willing to be proven wrong on this front, but I think stories have failed to acknowledge a particular segment of society. It’s one that exists across all borders, within every culture and comes from every socio-economic background. I speak, of course, of the Plus-Sized protagonist. In an age where we worry that the population is overweight and health issues like diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease are of serious concern, I understand why we are reluctant to glorify a state which could bring about all of these things. Then again, we glorify the bad boy who after years of being a dick can find his heart because of the love of a nice girl.

Here’s the deal. I don’t hate skinny girls. I will admit to the occasional bouts of “big girl rage” when I skip dessert but want to chow down on some cake. But I can’t be angry at someone who can eat anything they want while I have to exercise in order to stay in my favorite jeans. Everyone has something! I just don’t understand why every heroine (and hero for that matter) has to be willowy thin with athletic abilities. How is it that the bookishly smart hero, who spends all his time in the library also manages to have a perfect BMI? Is the chubby sister any less deserving of a prince than her wasp-waisted sibling?

I suppose I can imagine anyone as Sleeping Beauty or the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin. That’s the power of an immersive story. But then I see the story come to life on screen. Yes, I’m one of those annoying people who whispers “The book was so much better”, but we live in a visual age. Even if I don’t want to see the movie version of The Great Gatsby, I can’t help but think of Leonardo DiCaprio whenever I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book. So unless I want to live under a rock, the actors cast as my favorite characters tend to stick in my imagination. Would it be so wrong to hope for The Zaftig Mermaid (something to keep her warm in the big ocean) or a pleasantly plump set of sisters in Frozen (for the cold winter nights)? Red Riding Hood and Cinderella were work horse, traipsing through the woods with heavy packages and cleaning house for an exacting step-mother, respectively, so I understand their thinness. Couldn’t Belle have been just as…belle…if her voracious reading came with a chocolate and croissant habit? Rapunzel was looked up in a tower, for goodness sakes, and you’re telling me she couldn’t have been cute if she were full-figured? Yes, I’m fixating on Disney, but it has given us the most popular versions of these heroines.

This doesn’t only have to apply to fairy tales. I would love to hear about a popular YA series featuring a sassy and shapely girl or a handsome yet husky guy. They would have to be just as capable as their lean counterparts and most importantly not apologize for their size. Just a thought.

Diversity Fantasy?

I remember being 4 or 5 and going to get my picture taken with Santa. My uncle took me and I didn’t want to stand in the Macy’s line, so we went elsewhere. I don’t think I was concerned with telling Santa what was on my list or even meeting the man, himself. All I knew was that I had on a cute outfit and would get my picture taken. After waiting in a line shorter than the one at Macy’s, I finally had my chance to indulge my vanity. But there was a problem. I had been lied to by my family.

We came home, my uncle and I, with a photo. In it, I was stiff and frowning. When my mother asked why I didn’t smile, I promptly replied “Santa Claus no es negro. Santa Claus es blanco.” My mother and other relatives who heard the story and saw the picture laughed to hear my explanation of how I didn’t smile because the real Santa Claus is white. Inadvertently, I had stumbled upon an idea that led me to this post.

Unimpressed with fake Santa

Unimpressed with “fake” Santa

Later, when I was a little older, I played pretend with a friend. Snow White had just been re-released. It was as good a pretend game as any. It took a turn, however, when I said I wanted to play Snow White. My friend turned to me and without malice said “You can’t play Snow White. You’re not white.” I didn’t know what to say to that, but we moved on to some other game.

Put together, it just sounds like some funny anecdotes from my childhood, but I’m betting I wasn’t the only one to have this experience. Despite myriad options to watch and read in fantasy, it has remained a rather uni-ethnic genre. Like Friends, uni-ethnic! I don’t want to soapbox, but what’s up with that?

Why in fantasy–where the limit is the entire spectrum of imagination–does the world look basically white?

There are exceptions–like BBC imports that practice colorblind casting—but very little to reflect all of us. Is it out of the realm of possibility for fantasy movies and TV to imagine a protagonist that isn’t northern European? I know our collective consciousness is based on fairy tales and fables from Germany and England, but they were meant to reflect the public at large. Now that we embrace revisionist mythology, fractured fairy tales if you will, shouldn’t we revamp the picture?

Rapunzel can be an African-American girl with super strong weave.

Jack the Giant Killer could be strong, brave, and gay.

Cinderella could be looking for the perfect pair of glass shoes to fit her size thirteen feet, supporting her plus-size frame.

Maybe Snow White could be Hispanic.

In that reality, maybe a girl would smile if she sat on Black Santa’s lap.

I would love to hear from other readers and writers about diversity in fantasy. Have you seen a book, TV show or movie that reflects our new world geared towards teens or adults?