Monday, May 5, 2014

When Fairy Tales Stray Beyond Their "Borders"...

This is a funny (as in a little skewed and strange) thing that people have latched onto: that a certain tale belongs in a certain cultural context only. As such, people get very territorial when it comes to certain tales. To me, it's means they're missing one of the best things about fairy tales - that they belong to everyone. Fairy tales show us our differences and our similarities across the world and I think it's one of the reasons they're so important for children to learn when they're young. People everywhere - in every place, culture and society - are just like you, but also unique.

As fairy tale people, you're very likely aware that there are, for example, versions of Cinderella in almost every culture in the world, meaning that the tale type is - by and large - the same, but the context and details are different. Cinderella doesn't "belong" to any ones place or peoples. only the versions of them do (and that could be debated as well, considering how those tales came to be).
There has been a lot (a LOT) of "gender-bending" illustration of Disney characters (and non-Disney fairy tale characters too, but less so) and recently I came across a "race-bending" set of illustrations by an illustration student who hosts a Tumblr titled Let There Be Doodles. While I like imagining what the stories would be like set in a different cultural context, it was the questions and responses that followed the posting of these illustrations that caught my attention.

And I was delighted to find SurLaLune being linked to as a resource for the many versions of different stories as well (Heidi - your work is so very, VERY important and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. xx)

People really are concerned and curious and I'm grateful that this exchange, at least, was done with respect and courtesy! (I left all typos and phrasing intact to keep the original spirit of the exchange):

Anonymous asked: So I want to appologise before I ask if this sounds mean spirited, I'm trying really hard not to be. But WHY would you do race bent disney characters? Like, I get wanting more POCs and that's hella. I'm all for it. But fairy tales don't make since out of their cultural context(i.e. Meg as an Egyptian, Cinderella as a Geisha, even Jasmine as African instead of Middle Eastern). So why that change? Sorry again if this sounds mean, I'm just really confused here.
(( No, you’re fine, no worries! :)
Before anything else, I’d like to point something out. Fairy tales are constantly being taken out of their cultural context. Most of the fairy tales that we know now were taken out of their original cultural context and altered. Aladdin was originally set in China. The Frog Prince was Latin, and was altered over and over again in several countries. The stories have been and can be altered in many ways. *shrugs*
Anyway, I’m not necessarily trying to alter an entire story (although it would be fun) I’m just working with character design. I create racebent characters simply for fun and because I’d love to see more diversity in our media. :) ))
To the anon who said fairy tales don’t make sense outside their cultural context…
There are actually many variations of the Cinderella story. 
As well as Sleeping Beauty. 
The Little Mermaid is a story by Hans Christian Andersen, but there are a fewvariations on that theme as well (though not nearly as many as the previous two, but I’m sure there are more.) 
There’s like a bunch of them for Snow White. 
I’m not gonna touch Hercules (or, as he’s more properly called since the movie takes place in Greece, Heracles) or any of the Hans Christian Andersen based stories like The Snow Queen/Frozen (except, of course, for The Little Mermaid.)
Fairy tales don’t have to make sense. It’s all about the story, or the message contained within it (like with Aesop’s Fables.)

And, in case you're wondering, there were people that had a problem that it wasn't just white princesses that were getting "race bent", but that's actually the point. The tales belong to the world. The variations of the tales can crop up anywhere and the tales will still be "the tales".

I don't think I really need to add much more commentary to this. I'm just really glad the conversation is happening out in social media (and going viral as a result). It's another way people are learning that there are many, many tale variations all over the world and that we share more with each other globally than many people realize.

What are your thoughts on this?


  1. This is amazing! Just when you think there's nothing new for artists to do to Disney characters, they manage to go even more creative. Simply stunning!

  2. I think some people just mentally pat the Disney company on the back for having a token Disney Princess representing each major continent, but how they are presented is a big issue too. Aladdin is often accused of being racist, despite having a supposedly Middle Eastern cast-the heroes are more Americanized (although Jafar is not very Middle Eastern either, he has a British accent), Jasmine's outfits are incredibly historically inaccurate, and of course the whole line about "where they cut of your ear if they don't like your face."

    Obviously when you look into the history of fairy tales you see no one can claim any of them-we can't really even pin down where any of them originated anyway. I liked the image of Cinderella, I thought it was an intentional reference to Ye Shien

    1. Well, you also have to realize that most Disney movies aren't meant to just be straight-up representations of cultures or adaptations of old tales (it's the people that think they are that bother me). Aladdin, specifically, was also supposed to be Disney's homage/riff on the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes type cartoons. You can see it in some of the animation and also, well . . . big, blue wisecracking genie who does impressions. Since they're trying to ape something that wacky, you can expect something over-the-top like that to spill over into their representation of the setting/culture.

  3. I get what you're saying. The stories travel and change and become new stories. Cinderella stories exist all over the world and all that. Jack tales have migrated from England to the Appalachian region of the Southern United States. And then there's fun modern stuff like The Lunar Chronicles which sets Cinderella and Red Riding Hood-like characters in a post-apocalyptic future. However, I do like there to BE a cultural context and for it to be used appropriately. For example, I don't like it when they trans-literate the names of non-European creatures. Like when they use "ogres" in the tale of "Momotaro" instead of "oni". Ogres are a French monster, so unless you're setting "Momotaro" in France, it should be "oni". The thing is that for me, folk tales are a way for me to travel around the world. I may never travel to France or Germany or China or Japan but I can read and tell tales from France, Germany, China and Japan.

    And I always thought setting Aladdin in China was weird. I mean, the story has djinn, which are Arabic spirits. It's like some strange Arabic view of Chinese culture. Is there some kind of Chinese creature that's similar or equivalent to a djinni? Might that be what it really is?

  4. So cool. Just love those images :)

  5. It absolutely IS an Arabic view of Chinese culture. Aladdin is not a Chinese story. It is an Arabian story set in China. The setting was chosen because the African magician (Jafar) looking for the lamp is supposed to have traveled as far as humanly possible. At the time, traveling from Africa to China seemed pretty impressive. Thus, the story takes place in China, though those who told/retold/composed the story likely had little to no knowledge of the country or its culture (much like many a book set abroad by a writer with no personal experience with the country/culture/history involved such as Sherlock Holmes, TinTin, or, well, half of literature really). It's set in China really in name only with Arabic social structures, daily life, culture, etc filling in the fairly large gaps.

  6. I think this is awesome that you are really showing us that fairy tales belong to the world. But that means they belong to White people too. (Sorry that was blunt) so I think variety means a what you're doing and also the original ones. Too much of the new leaves no room for the old and we're back where we started.

  7. Every single one is beautiful.

  8. Would the story still sell if instead of "Snow White" it be called, "Tropical Puerto Rican Brown" ?