The fairy tale is one the bedrocks of western culture. Cautionary tales of wonder and delight, they were created, and eventually written down, to provide moral or simple lessons to live your life by and became of particularly significance for the education and socialisation of children in the early Nineteenth Century. They are about more than just entertainment, but imparted disguised wisdom and common sense.
The Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson twisted their purpose a little, to make them fit the aspirant middle classes and the gender roles of the Nineteenth Century, which were becoming steadily more separate as women were pushed into the home and men became the principle bread winners. In Jack Zipes' Fairytale and the Art of Subversion, he notes that in just two years, 1810 and 1812, Snow White goes from simply having to tend the Dwarves' house to keep her place there, to a long list of chores and the threat of punishment for failing to do so, for example. This was a trend that largely continued up to the end of the Victorian period, though elements of it have never quite disappeared; they crop up frequently in early Disney films for example, and are part of what caused the German Democratic Republic to create The Singing Ringing Tree in the 1950s.
Others kicked back against it too, Angela Carter famously created The Bloody Chamber, a feminist reading of the stories, which spawned Company of Wolves in the 1980s. This opened the gates to other interpretations, a trend that continues to this day. Horror writers have become keen to reinvent the form, embracing its darker side; returning it to what they see as its roots. While the original stories were certainly darker than the saccharine versions dreamt up by writers convinced they were only fit to be read by children, who must be protected from the rigours of the outside, grown up, world I am unsure that modern authors can recreate the originals with any success. Our culture is inured to horror, to an extent, and we go further even than children baked into pies or girls devoured by wolves. You only have to look at Saw and other slasher films to see that.
But while there have been developments, there has also been a backlash, possibly an unconscious one. The fairy tale has become increasingly associated with one market: teenage girls. The Hollywood blockbuster machine has created and recreated Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood so many times that it's almost hard to believe that other stories exist. They tread the familiar boards too, there's nary a hint of the idea that 'if there's a beast in man, there's a beast in woman too' that Carter espoused. No, woman has become again the holder of civilisation, the tamer of the savage beasts and men.I suspect that this is because Hollywood is incredibly conservative, relaunching franchises is safer than expanding their repertoire: everything boils down to money, Given how expensive films are to create, it's hardly a surprise. They make what sells and part of the rise of the fairy tale, in this form, is that it gets bums on seats. The core of the story, even sexed up for an all too knowing generation, remains the same.
What's interesting is how focused on girls and young women things have become. Nobody is suggesting making a film of The Boy who Learned to Shiver, or The Tinderbox; fairy tales are for girls. Marina Warner's Fairy Tale: A Short History, notes that in the last thirty years the form has become more and more focused on the female, to the extent nothing is aimed at boys at all. I admit this saddens me, I like Fairy Tales and think they're quite magical. One of my favourite poems is Neil Gaiman's Instructions; Company of Wolves gets a regular viewing at our house.
This begs the question, what do boys have now that fills this gap? I know there's a wide range of media that's targeted at young males, from Saturday morning cartoons to superhero films. I'm aware too, that girls and young women are more than happy to claim them for their own, and without the unfortunate overtones that have accompanied young men adopting My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I'm not going to judge either group; fair play to them if that's what gets them through the day. My concern though, is that the things that fairy tales teach are perhaps missing from boys' lives now. Does a superhero film fill the same space that the fairy tale does? It might teach about being resourceful, about standing up to bad things, even about realising when something is a monster that needs to be defeated; having seen Antman recently, I think those themes are present within that film, so are they simply repackaged for a world where boys largely view fantasy with suspicion?
What concerns me here, is that at the end of the day the solutions in superhero films boil down to violence, to hitting and punching until your problem is defeated. They are no more revolutionary than the fairy tale films. Both genres are serving to further the socialisation process begun by the Grimms. Add to that a culture that increasingly embraces toxic masculinity and femininity, whether that's pink everything or boys clothing that glamourises violence and war and it seems as if the split between the sexes is growing larger and more pronounced.