Another Bite of the Poisoned Apple: Why Does Pop Culture Love Fairy Tales Again?

As Snow White and the Huntsman joins the new roundup of fairy tale-inspired movies, TV shows and books, we wonder: How did these dark, female-led stories become the Next Big Thing?

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From left: Relativity Media; Warner Bros,; DC Comics

Snow White and The Huntsman — a somewhat modernized take on the familiar fairy tale featuring Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart as the titular Snow in conflict with Charlize Theron’s demonic Evil Queen — hits theaters this Friday, something that you may already know if you’d seen the commercials on television while watching ABC’s Once Upon a Time, the show that features Big Love‘s Gennifer Goodwin as Snow White in conflict with Lana Parrilla’s melodramatic Evil Queen. Of course, Snow White and The Huntsman is the second Snow White movie released this year; in March, we had Mirror Mirror, in which Lily Collins’ Snow had to deal with Julia Roberts’ bitchy Evil Queen. (Disney, meanwhile, just shelved its own Snow White movie last week.) Clearly, a trend is underway.

It’s not just a Snow White trend, though; The director of the original Twilight — there’s that name again — Catherine Hardwicke followed up her über-successful love story about a girl and a vampire with an updated Red Riding Hood, a love story about a girl and a werewolf. Later this year, The Golden Compass‘ Philip Pullman is releasing his own versions of stories such as Cinderella, Rapunzel and, yes, Snow White made famous by the Brothers Grimm. DC Comics’ Fables, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, has become the biggest success for the publisher’s Vertigo imprint since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in the 1990s, spawning multiple spin-off series, graphic novels and even a prose novel. NBC’s Grimm (a series about supernatural menaces that is loosely based, in part, on the Grimm stories) has just been renewed for a second season. And Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer is scheduled to be released in March 2013. Pop culture of all kinds, it seems, is banking on fairy tales as the official Next Big Thing, raising the obvious question: How did that happen?

It’s a question that perplexes many; in March, as Mirror Mirror was preparing to be ignored by audiences nationwide, the New York Times‘ Terrence Rafferty argued that the genre was out of step with today’s world:

The world from which fairy tales and folk tales emerged has largely vanished, and although it pleases us to think of these stark, simple, fantastic narratives as timeless, they aren’t. Thanks to video games, computer graphics and the general awfulness of everyday life, fantasies of all kinds have had a resurgence in the past few years. But the social realities on which the original fairy tales depend are almost incomprehensibly alien to 21st-century sensibilities; they reek of feudalism. And the lessons they’re supposed to teach our young don’t have much force these days. Kids learn to be skeptical almost before they’ve been taught anything to be skeptical of.

That last point may have been disproved by a February survey in the United Kingdom which revealed that one in four British parents wouldn’t read fairy tales to their children until they were five years old because they were too scary. That same poll backed up the idea that the stories were also too old-fashioned for their intended audience: 52% of the 2000 adults surveyed admitted that they thought that Cinderella set a bad example to children because she did housework all day. (Never mind that that is supposed to be a bad thing in the story itself; maybe the survey should’ve asked the parents whether or not they remembered what actually happened in the stories.)

But, of course, none of these modern fairy tale movies, television shows or comics are for children, as the Snow White and The Huntsman trailer makes clear with its grime, violence and self-important menace:

Whether it’s the look of that trailer (or Red Riding Hood, which offered a slightly more colorful aesthetic), or the extra-martial affairs and primetime soap operatics of Once Upon a Time, there’s one thing that today’s fairy tale revivals want you to think: These aren’t the sanitized fairy tales of the Disney Princesses. These are the same stories for grown-ups. In that respect, they could be seen as returning to their roots as folktales shared by adults that often (and somewhat gleefully) included sex or any amount of shameless, tasteless violence and grisly death in order to maintain the audience’s attention. As Neil Gaiman once wrote, “Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, to pick two writers who had a lot to do with the matter, did not set out to collect the stories that bear their name in order to entertain children.” The censorship and selective editing to make the stories more suitable for younger ears came from market forces throughout the years.

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Gennifer Goodwin, star of Once Upon A Time, has a theory as to why adults need fairy tales today. Talking during an appearance at the Paley Center earlier this year, she explained “I understand why society, especially American society, is gravitating toward fairy tales given our economy. We’ve been exploring the world of witches and wizards for years. We’ve been exploring the world of vampires for years. Clearly the public — I mean, I feel like all of this was ushered in by Harry Potter — in my own fannish beliefs. But the world has been responding in the last 10, 12, 15 years very strongly to fantasy. I think it’s always a reflection to where we are as a society.”

It’s a nice theory to consider, and it definitely has merit, but I suspect that there’s more to the trend of reviving fairy tales than simply an escape from the the everyday world. (After all, doesn’t all fiction offer that kind of release valve?). That said, pop culture has historically developed a tendency to infantilize the audience, something that may have reached its zenith with Hollywood’s reliance on superheroes. It’s tempting to draw parallels between the mainstreaming of superheroes and the apparent mainstreaming of fairy tales — Is the Pullman book going to offer the same kind of literary legitimacy that Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay did for comic books, for example? — but there’s another trend that the most well-known fairy tales tie into, one that could also explain their current popularity beyond the superhero connection.

Maria Tatar, who chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, put her finger on a potential lure of fairy tales as pop culture source material in a piece for the New Yorker earlier this year: “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,” she wrote. “Once mothers, nannies, and domestics were in charge of telling stories at bedtime; it seems they favored tales with female heroines.”

It’s true; with the exception of a few stories — Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel — fairy tales tend to focus on the females. Not only do we get female heroes and villains — even if the heroes tend to be somewhat passive at least at the start of their stories — but we also get objectified males who work more as personifications of the goal than as individual characters. They don’t even have real names; they’re all Prince Charming, which leads to the fun meta-joke in Fables wherein each heroine’s Prince Charming is the same man, a lothario who has worked his way around all the female characters before the story has started and been discarded in disgust by them all). Alyssa Rosenberg, cultural critic for The Atlantic and ThinkProgress, wrote once that one of the strengths of Once Upon A Time was that “[t]he show doesn’t hammer it in obsessively, but it is nice to spend time in an environment where the normal assumptions about who controls things are flipped.” The same could arguably be said of most of the new breed of fairy tale projects.

(READ: Mirror Mirror: A Snow White That Wants to Be Funny, and Isn’t)

For decades, science fiction and fantasy have proven to be the dominant genres in terms of money making, but they’ve constantly been accused of being too male-centric or overly reliant on male power fantasies. That’s been shifting slowly as shows like Buffy and, more importantly, movies like The Hunger Games and, yes, the Twilight Saga demonstrate the audience hunger for female-led fantasy projects (and, perhaps as importantly for the executives, that hunger can produce as much money as male-dominated traditional projects). The very idea of, maybe not feminist fantasy, but female-led fantasy, at least, feels like it answers a particular need to broaden the focus of, and audience for, some of the most financially successful films and television shows.

Fairy tales become a triple threat in terms of appeal for pop culture creators. First, they’re firmly in the fantasy genre, and so provide a particularly successful kind of eye-candy-esque escapism. They’re also filled with the kind of nostalgic appeal and familiarity to anyone who encountered them as a kid — which, thanks to Disney, is most likely everyone who’ll be seeing the new project — that makes them a much easier sell to the audience. But what fairy tales have as a sub-genre that potentially gives them an edge over superheroes or Star Trek revivals is that they theoretically appeal to both genders equally thanks to the female leads and focus of the story and the male-centric appeal of violence, special effect spectacle and action. On paper, at least, that’s a magical combination.

Whether that magic on paper translates to reality, however, remains to be seen. Red Riding Hood and the more traditional, much campier Mirror Mirror both flopped at the box office, suggesting that while the appeal seems simple, the execution is anything but. Once Upon a Time and Grimm both found varying amounts of favor with television audiences — enough to return for another year, at least — but both also hid their “fairy tale-ness” within other existing, successful genres, making it harder to estimate how much appeal the source material actually had. Given that uneven win/lose ratio, it’s possible that Snow White and the Huntsman will be looked upon as the project that will prove whether or fairy tales hold enough mass appeal to escape the pop culture purgatory of being considered a passing fad. Here’s hoping that the combination of star power, special effects and frowning proves as potent for fairy tales as it did for superheroes in Avengers just a few weeks ago.

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