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?

3 thoughts on “Recomplicating Fairy Stories

  1. H’mmm. It occurs to me that there’s a play here between stereotyping and the archetype we know as Sherlock Holmes: he who really _did_ know the important things about people by looking at them.

    What I think is being played on here is this. To the extent we buy into stereotypes we expect to know about others by looking at them. But we do not expect others to be able to know about us, because we are never stereotypes to ourselves. Holmes can know all about a person by their appearance; the individual is amazed, as are we. But when Holmes explains, each of the observations he makes prove to be little stereotypes (judgments based on a single fact: “the ink smudge on your glove proves you to be a clerk,” kind of thing), and so Holmes’ great perspicacity turns out to be something we can beleive (if only for the length of the scene) we could do for ourselves, were we only a bit cleverer.

    The play then is between the reader’s identification first with the client, seeing him- or herself as an individual, and then with Holmes, seeing the client as a collection of facts ==> stereotypes ==> deductions, a transference mediated through Watson’s narration.


    The cruelty of incompleteness: If I’m understanding this, it’s also a very old artistic tool, which in a more traditional terminology would be referred to as a part of the arsenal of iconography. Fat is an obvious, even metonymic way to represent gluttony; thus it generalizes and becomes a visible for a vice-ridden lifestyle (viz. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen). This is quite aside from, but tends to reinforce, the stereotyping you’re talking about here. Together, they give fat, ugliness, etc., the burden almost of a moral failure. In most extreme form of this, certain diseases (leprosy, AIDS) take on the character of a moral taint.

    No conclusion, just meandering.

  2. Sorry this is a late comment. I was camping most of this week.

    I loved the whole Holmes stereotype/archetype conversation. Context changes things.

    The iconography of fat is an interesting topic. Historically it can be really complicated. I learned a lot during the historical art research for “Women Large” and for “Familiar Men”. I think we’ll be discussing it in the future.

  3. There was a comic book called “Baker Street,” set in an alternate London, featuring a punk female ex-police detective who works in the Holmesian mode. (Highly recommended, and perhaps the collected trade papers are still available in better comix shops.)

    The series included a side story where the alternate Holmes and her Watson (an American medical student) run into Holmes and Watson in an antique store. They end up facing off, running each other through the visual analysis routine. Both sides walk off completely satisfied with their logic and themselves, and both are completely wrong.

    Very funny, and dead on the strengths and weaknesses of the approach …

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