Thursday, September 12, 2013

Abigail: The Upside Down Princess

Disney haters, welcome! Just adding a little hyperbole, so calm down. Now, I don't want to sound harsh, but I have a difficult relationship with Disney. The post-2001 marketing gimmick of getting all the princesses together on merchandise really rubs me the wrong way. As someone who was a child when classic films like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and Pocahontas (1995) were released for the first time, I've lived through the first wave of licensed character stuff. Although the consumerist heart of this popular culture 'cult collecting' is troublesome to me as a parent, it's not where I find myself fighting battles. Helping my kids develop a life-long interest in enduring tales will build cultural capital that will resource them for life.

Illustrator Jerry Pinkney

What is a fairy tale?

Let's define fairy tale before continuing. Fairy tales were originally spoken tales, told by adults for adults. This explains the ribald double-entendres and gory details of Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and The Sleeping Beauty, for example. I won't write about which details here; just think about it! Tales were told when adults gathered for shared work, like harvesting, or as evening entertainment.

'Pure' tales

Then, in the late 1700's and early 1800's, tales began to be written down as children's stories. The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault stand out as the initiators, but Hans Christian Anderson and others followed. Supposedly, the Grimms and Perrault searched for the origins and interviewed many in order to arrive at a 'pure' tale. However, their written tale collections represent just one version at one moment in time, since oral story details change over time, or even with the audience. The number of fairies at Princess Aurora's christening or their gifts change, for example. Furthermore, philosophers of the Enlightenment like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, had influenced the way children were viewed with the theory of tabula rasa. In the view of writers in the 1800's, these off-color adult tales had to be tamed down and made suitable for children as child-centered approaches became increasingly important. By the time Walt Disney arrives on the scene with new animation technology, he is continuing the taming and reframing of tales for an audience of children. Lastly, in the background for both the Brothers Grimm and Disney is social and political instability and revolution: Germany was simply a loose collection of 19 states and conflict was frequent between Napoleon's rule in 1806 and the rise of the Third Reich in the 1930's. Germans craved a national identity. Disney's first film is Snow White in 1937, a tale for socially and politically uncertain times. Tales had always been tweaked by the teller, but once tales were written down or brought to life via animation, the author controlled more content and the enduring morals of the tale. My role as an educated parent is to orally tell stories, and especially to read and show artwork from a variety of Cinderella tales... basically, to debunk Disney as the curator of 'genuine' fairy tales.

Fairy tale experts today

If you would like to know more about the evolution of folk and fairy tales over the centuries and even today, there are some great professors. An early theorist is Bruno Bettelheim, an Austrian psychologist, who wrote The Uses of Enchantment. Either you love or hate his work, as he can be very criticized. A later contemporary, Jack Zipes is a recognized expert. He's written works like Don't Bet on the Prince, Breaking the Magic Spell, and Why Fairy Tales Stick. There's an interview here in which Zipes defines a fairy tale from a moral tale or allegory. What I like best about Zipes, is that he's considering tales from every angle. Give the interview a read!

Illustrator Errol Le Cain, Aladdin

Abigail: the upside down princess

On the bookshelf sits the Bible, with all the other storybooks. Is it tale? Is it real? As Christ-followers, Nick and I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and these people really lived, believed, died, and now live eternally with God in heaven. Is such a sacred work safe from the princess marketing wave? Nope! Our daughter, Abigail, has a book called Princess Stories: Real Bible Stories of God's Princesses. As a woman, I am delighted that my daughter has an edited Bible with all the stories of women in one place. As a woman, I am dismayed that all the women have been cast as 'princesses.' So, when we read from it, I focus my words less on the princess aspects and more on the actual woman and actions.

The Biblical Abigail is found in 1 Samuel 25. The name 'Abigail' means 'Joy of the Father' and she is the namesake of our daughter for many reasons. Beyond the meaning of her name, the Biblical Abigail knew the right thing to do, and was courageous enough to buck social convention in order to pursue what is right. Abigail's story seems upside down when compared with traditional princesses like the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, or Beauty. Abigail is described from the first verse about her as 'beautiful and intelligent, sensible, and wise.' Abigail is married to a wealthy fool, and even the fugitive, and future king, David behaves rashly and foolishly. When Abigail hears of the wrong (notice she is the one whom the servants inform, not the husband) she immediately springs into action. Abigail publicly admits her husband's wrongs, yet still ultimately acts in his interests. She's not betting on a man; she is trusting in God to judge what is right. Abigail speaks at length (no silent beauty), and appeals to David's reason, heart, and love for God. Abigail takes no vengeance, doesn't add further shame to her foolish, brash husband, and simply informs him instead of rebuking; the Lord judges Nabal for his insult to David, and strikes him dead. David asks Abigail to become one of his wives, but she is just the second of seven wives. Abigail ends up captured in battle (David recovers all things and people who were taken), and shares spousal rights. This doesn't fit a 'one true love' or 'happily ever after' princess paradigm, but neither is this a 'fitting and honorable' moral tale for how women are to relate to men. How else would a rich fool like Nabal have married such a smart, beautiful woman like Abigail, other than in a very patriarchal, arranged-marriage society? I see David's marriage proposal as his faithfulness to his promise to remember her help, and as a culturally-bound act that provides for a widow in a patriarchal society. Her life after she makes right Nabal's wrong insult is no cake walk; Abigail's smart actions are rewarded by God and David, his anointed, future King.

We're leaning hard into teaching our kids that the Bible is true, and God's Word. That it is trustworthy, and not just another storybook; we're deliberately contrasting characters with 'princesses' in tales. Bible stories have their own special time in our house, and we love that Abigail's preschool and Sunday school are reinforcing the truth and applicability of the Bible.

A parent confession

First Day of Preschool, with lunchbox...
Debunking Disney as the curator of 'genuine' fairy tales has been difficult around our household. Abigail has watched two feature-length films in her 3.5 years (Brave and Prince of Egypt), but because she sees Disney merchandise around her, she considers Disney 'the best and the most beautiful.' Her words are possessive, "I see my Disney princesses!" regarding Band-Aid displays in the grocery store. Her words are covetous, "Next, you'll buy me a Jasmine doll, just like Julia has an Ariel doll." As a parent, I'm struggling to find the line between healthy perspective and encouragement.

In the midst of moving, I've been going through files from my favorite college courses. One that I excelled at was a cross-listed Comparative World Literature/German course on fairy tales in context. So, one night I'm reading Jack Zipes out loud to Nick. Then, a few days later, I confess to buying a Disney princess lunchbox (featuring sexy Merida, unfortunately, and Mulan, fortunately) for Abigail's first week of preschool. She's thrilled to own her second piece of Disney merchandise and have a lunchbox almost like, but not exactly like the other girls'. Lord, help me! Thank goodness the preschool environment is devoid of licensed characters, other than kids' lunch boxes. How wonderful that generic Playmobil princesses exist!

Cowgirl and princess hat...
If there is a way through the murkiness here, it is to sharpen our kids' truth barometers, orienting them towards God's Bible. A second tool is likely to tell fairy tales out loud, as such tales had been to suit various audience needs. Telling a tale out loud lets the listener imagine and reenact (3 year olds are champs at this) as he/she wishes. We tell Goldilocks out loud over our breakfast oatmeal. We play Rapunzel at the playground... it really isn't fun sitting in a tower all day, is it? We occasionally read through a Disney Press storybook that is terribly written and which includes irrelevant and confusing plot progressions just so Abigail can recognize characters that other kids talk about. But the past few months we've been checking out any fairy tale collection from the library that has beautiful artwork. And by some stroke of luck, Abigail prefers to retell the stories with the names and details that she hears first. It's Beauty and her three sisters, not Belle and Gaston. It's Aurora and Carabosse, not Maleficent. Abigail creates her own 'costumes' from dress up clothes, not licensed character high heels. Unlike the fixed faces and poses of the new 2013 Disney princess line up, Abigail is a 3.5 year old imagining and dancing in action!

And yes, she is also occasionally upside down ;-)

Dress up clothes, tap shoe slippers - she's already entered the story

PS - tell our kids stories!

PPS - show them tales and characters beyond Disney!


  1. As the person responsible for the "princess Bible", I feel like I must apologize for it. However, when I purchased it, I was thinking of the concept that we're sons & daughters of the King. :)

  2. The best thing about A for us is that she loves Mulan. It is her favorite "disney princess" and it isn't on anything! She has also started liking Tiana from Princess and the Frog.

  3. I'm not familiar with Tiana. What's the movie like?

    Nick was very happy to see Mulan, Merida, Belle, and Aurora featured on Abigail's lunchbox. Of all the princesses, Mulan and Merida are our faves, and Belle/Aurora are stories that she prefers in a more original (less Disney) form. It'll probably be a while before she watches any more full length films; for now she's very happy to browse Disney books from the library!