Once again this morning, in reading my daily dose of social media, news and blogs, I ran across the term “Wizard of Oz”, used as a pre-determined phrase, a metaphor, if you will. And it made me think of just how ubiquitous that story is in American society. We can use that term and everyone knows what we mean by it, because the Oz story is a meme in American culture – its meaning, or message, has become just about independent of Baum’s little novel from the year 1900. You just have to say “Wizard of Oz” or “Wicked Witch of the West” and people know what you mean, the whole story pops into their heads. There is a word for that – it’s a literary device, and I can’t think of what it’s called right now. Oh – here we go (thank you, Google): it’s synecdoche, which, as I just found out, is not pronounced SIN-eck-doak, but sin-ECK-do-kee. You learn something new every day.
And then I kept thinking about the fairy tales I’m studying, and how much this “the-part-represents-the-whole” thing is the case for them, too. Probably even more so than for Oz. We ALL know about Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty & the Beast, and the Frog Prince, right? Right. But what do we know about them? There is one core meme, one key part to each story that sticks with us. You can sum up each story in one sentence. Here, let me give it a try.
Cinderella: Girl is made to work as slave by her stepmother, but magically gets to go to the ball where she meets the prince.
Sleeping Beauty: Girl falls asleep for a hundred years in a rose-covered castle, and is kissed awake by the prince.
Beauty and the Beast: Girl hooks up with really ugly guy, who turns out to be a prince.
The Frog Prince: Girl kisses frog, who turns into a prince.
Okay, that’s just one key meme for each story. There are other, secondary ones – for Cinderella, in particular, there’s the lost & found slipper, of course, and the pumpkin coach, which are also used memetically; but for the most part, when we speak of someone “having a Cinderella experience”, we mean the rags-to-riches, ashes-to-ballroom transformation.
And then there’s the fact that not every version of every story contains exactly those elements I mentioned. Take the Grimm’s version of “The Frog Prince”, for example: no kissing whatsoever takes place in that on, froggy gets chucked against the wall (splat!), which very effectively unfroggifies him. I’m sure most enchanted princes are grateful that the meme which took hold of our imagination is the kissing one, not the Grimm’s version – can’t you just see all those princesses going around hurling innocent amphibians against the walls of their bedrooms? Uh, no, let’s stick with kissing. Much tidier, and less work for the chamber maids. (I haven’t found out yet where or at what point in the development of the story the kissing came in; I’m not getting to “The Frog Prince” for a while yet. But it’s definitely one of the things I’ll have to look into.)
So, one thing I’m wondering: what is it about those memes that made them memes? Why do they stick so hard in our minds? Lots of thinking to do yet.