Some thoughts on Fairytales and Nursery rhymes and politicizing children’s literature

The discussion in the comments at Krish Ashok’s blog got me thinking about this. In his post he referred briefly to “politically correct” nursery rhymes, and some of the commentors expressed their opinions of the idea. A few (unconnected to each other) thoughts:

1. Baa baa rainbow sheep is a hilariously bad idea. It does not scan. It is quite odd when visualised (though I may be prejudiced in saying this – there are references to striped and spotted goats in the Bible, aren’t there? That Jacob creates through divinely inspired selective breeding?) Whoever came up with it seems to think “black” has political connotations but “rainbow” does not (either that or they have a very odd notion of normalising homosexuality). Sheep of indeterminate colour? Neutral beige? (If you got rid of the completely unnecessary “baa baa” this would sound fine).

2. Most of the time when people talk of “reworked”, “politically correct” tales/rhymes/songs disparagingly, they’re taking for granted the existence of an “original” version (the version they grew up with, of course) that fell perfectly formed from the sky but now has been profaned by this modern belief that children’s stories are, you know, politically relevant. Which is rubbish, of course, and if you’re interested enough in the history of fairytales or nursery rhymes you can trace them back, and they do change over time (I used to think modern fairytales were watered down versions of Grimm’s. Only as an adult did I learn how much watering down the Brothers Grimm had done themselves), and they changed because the world around them changed, and if that’s not political I don’t know what is.

Also, lots of fairytales have had very visible morals, and the morals are not always fluffy, context-free things like “be nice to everyone”. Witness the much sexualized Perrault “Red Riding Hood” (don’t have sex, girls! With wolves, or anyone. Don’t talk to strange men, and don’t wear bold colours.) – How on earth is that not politicized when removing the golliwogs from Enid Blyton is?

3. Earnest EngLit students (myself included) often focus too much on these aspects of children’s literature – where do they come from? What did they originally mean? And so on, and completely ignore the fact that they’re not just about indoctrinating/twisting innocent young minds (hah) but they’re part of children’s earliest encounter with language and sound and rhythm, and all those things are probably more important. (If you can see literature for children only as indoctrination, I suppose at some point you’d become one of those people who thinks the gay penguin book would cause ‘rampant’ homosexuality).

4. There’s this bizarre argument that since children aren’t aware of the potential offensiveness of what they may read that it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying this. I remember sitting through a seminar on children’s literature in my first year of college as two of my seniors clutched their pearls and asked us if we were not shocked, shocked at the idea of little children reciting rhymes about the Black Death. I was unmoved – unless you’re telling them where it came from (and there’s an interesting little area- what if you did?) I can’t see why it would matter. But this is because said children would be unlikely to meet people for whom the Black Death was an emotional issue unless some serious time travel occurred. On the other hand, it’s very possible for children to pick up certain attitudes about things like class and race and gender and sexual orientation that might later lead to great awfulness since these things continue to be real issues.

5. I remember someone on a messageboard I used to read complaining that everything nowadays was so PC that books about mothers who baked cakes were practically taboo.
I’m not sure how far this is true, since the vast majority of the books I read (for children or otherwise) stick to traditional class and gender roles.

6. Rewritings of fairytales, nursery rhymes, etc are far more interesting to adults since we can see what ideas are being adapted/reversed. The PL is currently pleasing me by reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Then there’s the marvellous “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman. And lots more.

7. I wonder if the people who dislike PC rewrites enjoyed Shrek?

8. Gak, this is a ridiculously long post.

12 Comments to “Some thoughts on Fairytales and Nursery rhymes and politicizing children’s literature”

  1. Rewritings of fairytales, nursery rhymes, etc are far more interesting to adults since we can see what ideas are being adapted/reversed

    Hmm. What if the children only heard the reversed/reworked tale?

    I think there’s a difference between a reading that is politically aware and the story which was written by someone whose politics are either unconscious or deliberate.

    Most kids absorb the politics of stories subliminally. So if there are only cookie baking moms or boys constantly telling the girls that they can’t do something because they’re girls, this is what children will see as the norm.

    How it’s read to them or how parents intervene in interpreting all of this is crucial. I think.

  2. Of course, it doesn’t matter that there are actual black sheep? And black swans?

    This is like the Narnia issue. I read the books when I didn’t know (or care) about Lewis – or his ideals. And I loved them. Friends who read them after knowing about the symbology in them, didn’t. It’s what you take out of things I guess.

  3. While I see the point of worrying about what messages / stereotypes children take away from traditional rhymes / fairytales, I’ve never understood why people think the solution is to ‘correct’ said rhymes / fairytales or suppress them entirely. It’s not just that the end result of that kind of correction is too often a lifeless version of the original, it’s more that I don’t see the point of a head-in-the-sand approach that shelters children from stereotypes / prejudices that are out there. What we need, I think, is not politically correct versions of the old stories but new stories that compete with the old stereotypes, providing alternate narratives / points of view while matching the simplicity and delight of the old tales (I’m much more distressed, for instance, when new writing for children seems to play into the old stereotypes – witness Harry Potter). Children need to know that these stereotypes are out there, and they need to be better prepared to resist them. As Space Bar says, “How it’s read to them or how parents intervene…is crucial”.

    Having said that, I do think it’s easy to overemphasize the importance of attitudes formed in childhood. Personally, I’m unconvinced that childhood prejudices play an important role in driving adult opinion. Even if there is a causal link, I think there are many, many social / media influences that are far more critical than nursery rhymes.

  4. ??!: Because everything is itself and something else. It depends on what you’ve selected to show and in what light.

  5. One example of a reworked rhyme my kid actually liked was Humpty Dumpty.She had heard the older version and preferred the modified one. No PC reworking but more of a feel-good ending.A bunch of kids use glue and stick him up together again.Most kids really don’t care about these rhymes nor do they internalize them after the age of 6 0r 7.I think Disney Channel , toy ads, and lately (my petpeeve)stereotyping Dora the explorer and TV shows do more damage than harmless nursery rhymes.

  6. The Bloody Chamber all by itself is a good argument that “politicized” retellings of fairytales are not of necessity watered down or lacking in teeth. Of course, as you point out, that’s not a children’s book, but it hardly needs repeating at this point that the view of fairytales as being just for kids is a recent phenomenon. (And I’ve told “Bluebeard” to kids using Carter’s ending, to great success; they love the blood and death, of course, and they love having Mom ride in as the cavalry too. It’s deeply satisfying on a number of levels.)

    Jack Zipes (whose translation of Grimm is the one on my bookshelves) did an anthology a while back called Don’t Bet on the Prince which was aimed at kids, and was delightful (I can’t recall now if Will Shetterly’s “The Princess Who Kicked Butt” was in there or not, but it ought to have been). It was well out of print by the time I discovered it back in the 90s, but the Internets may yield up a copy or two for a diligent searcher.

    (Dammit. Now I have to dig out my Carter collection again, which it’s been too long since I read. This is not a Bad Thing, mind, but it’s playing hell with the books already lined up in my reading queueueueueue.)

  7. Space bar – I’m a little confused about what qualifies as “a reading” and what qualifies as the “written” story in your comment. Especially with something like a fairytale, which has taken so many different forms through the ages, each of which might be seen as a reading. (Ugh. Convoluted sentence)

    Most of the time children do hear only the revised tales, I think. I mean, they don’t normally seem to know how HCA’s Little Mermaid ends, or that Cinderella’s sisters cut off large chunks of their feet trying to fit into the shoes.

    Agreed that a lot is absorbed subliminally. Also agree that the role parents play in how children read is a huge factor.

    ??! – Well honestly, I felt slightly betrayed (and very stupid) when I grew up a bit and reread Narnia. But more than the Christian symbolism it was the racism and the sexism that the books are thick with – the realisation that these books were not meant for brown females (brown atheist females, no less!). And while Lewis did not make me a Christian, some of his attitudes on gender in particular tied in with similar attitudes in other books I was reading, and it all just fitted into a larger system.

    Falstaff – Hmm. I’m mostly with you on the need to create new and interesting stories to compete with older ones, rather than trying to amend (and often drain the life out of) the older ones. But the fact remains that people end up reading the traditional stories because they’re the traditional stories (never mind that the actual stories have changed) – why does Disney choose to make versions of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast instead of wholly original plotlines?

    (I remember having a similar discussion with someone over the changing of the words to certain hymns. The changed versions are generally unlovely, yet it’s hard to write new hymns and sing them when the old ones have all the weight of tradition behind them.)

    People who write new versions of things aren’t writing the old stories out of existence – they’re just adding more stories and poems, and if they’re any good they’ll survive and if they aren’t they won’t.

    Re. making children aware of stereotypes, I think that progressive literature for children generally takes a sort of two-pronged approach. On the one hand you have stories that don’t engage with stereotypes directly but undermine them just by having characters and situations that are not stereotypical and presenting them without commenting on their unusualness, thus making them seem normal. On the other hand you have books that deal directly with the stereotypes – there’s a good bit of children’s lit that focuses on things like gender and race related discrimination. I think both types are necessary.

    As for Harry Potter, well there’s an interesting case. Here are books that seem at times to be consciously written against stereotypes, and yet still manage to play into them to such a huge extent.

  8. Vidya – I have not heard this version of Humpty Dumpty. Send me words, please?
    Oh I’m not laying all the blame on nursery rhymes by any means, only that these political undertones do exist and may be subliminally absorbed this early. I agree that toy ads and the like (I am annoyed at the Dora the Explorer thing as well) probably do far more harm.

    Dan – Did I know you were a Carter fan? I’ve always thought that the ending of the Bluebeard story was ideal for kids. :)

    I read Jack Zipes in my first year of college, and he’s one of the first writers to really get me interested in studying children’s lit (I envy you your translation of Grimms!) I’ve been wanting Don’t Bet on the Prince for a while now.

    (I’ve been putting off gigantic reading list for Wodehouse’s Psmith books. I’m reminded that I’m due a Carter reread too. Sigh.)

  9. Aishwarya: True, but that brings us back to Space Bar’s point about how you interpret the story. After all, a child doesn’t know what’s traditional and what isn’t – if you tell him / her the old story the same way you would a new one, how will he / she know? Besides, ‘traditional’ is (or can be) just another word for ‘hopelessly out of date and uncool’.

    The truth, I think, is that it isn’t the stories children are getting these attitudes from, it’s the people telling the stories to them. Take Enid Blyton, for instance. Hardly the most politically correct author around, but for me, personally, the key takeaway from the Famous Five series (at least partly due to the way they were read to me) was that George was so cool and Anne was such a wuss. I can see how, in the hands of someone who felt the opposite, the story could lend itself to being deeply sexist, but the point is that someone with the right politics can easily use the same text to make all the standard stereotypes about ‘girls’ vs. ‘boys’ look deeply ridiculous.

  10. Falstaff – Interesting, all I ever picked up from George as a child was that for girls to be tolerable they had to act like boys.

    then I read them as an adult and noticed that George was still expected to do the cooking and washing up with Anne when they were all away together. Now that was educational.

  11. Falstaff may have a point. I loved George as a kid. She showed that one needn’t be all pretty and nice to have fun, or be popular. It meant I could climb trees and fight with siblings and that was all okay. This was so different from the message I was getting from adults around me.

    So I’d say each kid picks up their own message, whether from Enid Blyton or baa-baa black sheep.

  12. What Dan said wrt both Carter and Zipes.

    otoh, the overly Freudian crap (for one approach) can kill the elusive something that makes fairy tales -work- stone dead. Bruno Bettelheim, for instance. imnsho, etc.

    also worth checking out if you’re into crit on such subjects: “From the Beast to the Blonde” and “No Go the Bogeyman” by Marina Warner.

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