Monthly Archives: July 2005

Recomplicating Fairy Stories

Jadelennox commented on our first Willy Wonka entry, saying in part: “Dahl uses grotesque or extreme descriptions of body types to represent wickedness, venality, villainy, and stupidity.”

This comment hooks neatly into something we were thinking based on the movie, which is how many fairy tales and folk stories are based on a cruelty of incompleteness. The fat child, the ugly stepsister, and the crooked man are all nasty simplifications based on visuals: the underlying stereotype is that if you know what someone looks like, you know what they are like.

African-American academic and critic Michael Eric Dyson talks about stereotypes, archetypes, and antitypes. Jumping off from Dyson’s definitions, we can say that a stereotype is an oversimplification based on one characteristic, an archetype is an overarching way of looking at a characteristic or set of characteristics, and an antitype is a lens through which to complicate, confuse, or examine a stereotype.

In general, antitypes don’t show up much in fairy tales and children’s stories. Most “trickster” figures are antitypes, and complex retellings of familiar stories include antitypes. Jo Walton’s dragon culture in Tooth and Claw provides superb antitypes to both our stereotypical expectations about dragons and to stereotypes of mid-19th-century Victorian literature. Some of the late 20th-Century reframings of superhero archetypes (like Frank Moore’s Dark Knight take on Batman) are perfect examples of antitypes.

Stereotypes exist to make things easy for people (Dyson calls them the “lazy person’s way”), and when they are allowed to run free, one effect they have is to enforce the cruelty of incompleteness. No matter how you look, if I think I know the important things about you by looking at you, I am undoubtedly trivializing you. That trivializing can first of all be cruel in itself if my stereotypes are negative; if my stereotypes are positive, they will still be potentially cruel. (I might assume that because you are conventionally beautiful you can’t be smart, or that if you look extremely kind, you can’t be able to take care of yourself.)

Most of us are introduced to an array of stereotypes very young. We begin by hearing stories, frequently fairy tales, and placing ourselves in those stories. We see ourselves as the beautiful brave princess or the heroic handsome prince. As young children, we tend to become the heroes when we read … and at some point, the cruelty of incompleteness creeps in to cut us down.

This happens at different times for all of us. As Queen T’hisha said in Women En Large, “I found out I was a girl at age eight. I found out I was African-American at age fourteen. I was told I was fat at age twenty. I had been a professional dancer for four years.” On the whole, she was pretty lucky.

When did it happen to you?