For the child — and the adult who knows there is still a child in all of us — fairy tales reveal truths about ourselves and the world.
As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim stated in his extraordinary study titled The Uses of Enchantment (1976), "the fantastical, sometimes cruel, but always deeply significant narrative strands of the classic fairy tales can aid in the greatest human task, that of finding meaning for one's life." Children who are familiar with fairy tales understand that these stories speak to them in the language of symbols — not the reality of everyday life.
Children know that the fairy stories are not "real," yet the real events in their lives become important through the symbolic meaning that is attached to them. They know that the events described in these stories happened "once upon a time," in a "world far from here." The old castles, the magical fairies, and the enchanted forests exist in a unique fairy-tale time — a time described in the opening lines of the Brothers Grimm's "The Frog King" as a time that was long, long ago, "when wishing still helped."
The original fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm always had a moral message — a warning that we must be virtuous or else horrible things will happen to us. The classic fairy tales always ended with the wicked punished and goodness overcoming evil. And although Disney has distorted some of our most beloved fairy tales — like their most recent production of Sleeping Beauty, replete with a morally ambiguous character like Maleficent — Sony's newest version of Cinderella promises to create even more chaos in the child's mind. Just as there should not be shades of gray in a truly evil figure (like Maleficent) in a fairy tale, it will be even more difficult for children to understand how the Fairy Godmother in Sony's new Cinderella can be what some reviews are calling a "fierce and fabulous" man wearing a dress.
Releasing on Amazon Prime today, Sony's Cinderella features Billy Porter as Cinderella's beloved and magical Fairy Godmother. Rather than the grandmotherly fairy godmother of the original Disney classic Cinderella, children are presented with a young gay man wearing a ball gown, high heels, and carrying a magic wand. Claiming that "Magic has no gender … we are presenting this character as genderless … At least that's how I'm playing it. And it's really powerful."
The creators of what reviewers have called the "queer" Cinderella claim that the "next generation is already more than ready to see this kind of representation in their favorite media … You know this is a classic fairy tale for a new generation, and I think that the new generation is really ready. You know, the kids are ready. It's the grown-ups that are slowing stuff down."
The saddest part of all of this is that Billy Porter is correct — many children are indeed ready. For those children who are enrolled in progressive public schools throughout the country, gender fluidity has been taught to them from their earliest days in kindergarten. They may have attended Drag Queen Story Time at their local libraries, or even had visits from Drag Queens at their schools.
LGBTQ issues have been a part of their public-school curriculum for nearly a decade now, and in some school districts, parents can no longer opt out from having their children exposed to the LGBTQ ideology. They have read that Heather has Two Mommies, and they have been introduced to the idea that they, too, can change their gender anytime they want to. There are gay-straight alliances for children even in the primary grades K-5 in many school districts, as children are encouraged to embrace whatever gender and sexual orientation they may choose.
Next month, Sony will make it even easier for the LGBTQ community to reach an even younger audience — those in pre-school. And although Billy Porter curtly responded to a reporter for Page Six by saying, "If you don't like it, don't watch it," when he received criticism for wearing a dress for his appearance on PBS's Sesame Street, it is difficult to ignore the constant media barrage targeted to very young children — even pre-school children. Now that the ideology has reached into Sesame Street and our most beloved fairy tales, it is almost impossible to avoid.
This is sad because fairy tales are important. They speak directly to the child at a time when the child's major challenge is to bring some order to the inner chaos of his or her mind. These stories help children understand themselves better — a necessary condition for achieving some congruence between their perceptions and the external world. Confirming their inner experiences and thoughts, fairy tales help children feel validated.
In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote: "My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learned in the nursery … The things I believed most in then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales." Chesterton is speaking of the morality of fairy tales:
There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer," that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride … There is the lesson of "Cinderella," which is the same as that of the Magnificat — exaltavit humiles (he lifted up the humble). There is the great lesson of "Beauty and the Beast," that a thing must be loved before it is loveable … I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by fairy tales.
When Chesterton says that fairy tales are "entirely reasonable things," Bettelheim said he "is speaking of them as experiences, as mirrors of inner experience, not of reality; and it is as such that the child understands them."
While they are moral tales, fairy tales are more than "fables." Fables tell us what we ought to do, and although they can be entertaining, they make real demands on us. They are a call to action. In contrast, the message of the fairy tale operates in the unconscious — offering children solutions to problems they cannot even acknowledge to themselves. The best ones — including classic ones by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen — address the existential predicament. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim states, "the fairy tale reassures, gives hope for the future, and holds out the promise of a happy ending … That is why Lewis Carroll called the fairy tale a 'love gift.'"
These stories are still important today. In fact, they are probably more important than ever as we try to find meaning in our increasingly bereft lives. Increasing numbers of children are no longer raised within a loving community in which the Church provides a source of meaning. Fairy tales are "fully moral" because the listener of the fairy tale understands that true happiness and peace rely upon certain moral precepts or conditions. When these are broken, there can be neither peace nor happiness.
As one writer has said: "The condition may vary according to the tale, but the tales mimic the great understanding of Genesis when it declares that God Himself predicated all future happiness on one and only one condition: from all other trees thou may eat, but from this one thou may not." When Eve defied the condition, death entered the world. As Chesterton reminds us, the best fairy tales — like all the best stories — "document the moral imperative that there exists a condition, and that if the condition is broken, then all hell may well break loose."
Billy Porter's Cinderella is not a Lewis Carroll "love gift." Porter and the LGBTQ community know the power of the fairy tale, and this is why they are attempting to reshape it into their own image. They cannot allow children to embrace the idea of love between a man and a woman as natural. They cannot have children seeing that falling in love and getting married is "normal." Billy Porter and the LGBTQ community — among Sony's biggest supporters — know that distorting a beautiful fairy tale like Cinderella needs to occur in order to promote the deviant and destructive ideology that gender is a choice — not a gift from God.
Anne Hendershott. "Cinderella’s Genderless Godmother." Crisis Magazine (Sepember 3, 2021).
Reprinted with permission from Crisis Magazine.
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church, The Politics of Deviance, The Politics of Abortion, and Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education.Copyright © 2021 Crisis Magazine
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