More Gripes About Zipes

I’m getting to the point where I’m quite seriously annoyed with Professor Jack Zipes, he of the erudite fairy tale scholarship whom I’ve considered, recently, my academic guru. I was reading his 2011 book The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films (New York: Routledge). And what I was almost afraid to call “intellectual snobbery” in my last griping post (because, after all, who am I to disagree with Zipes?) is just constantly tripping me up in this book, and it’s no longer deserving of the gingerly approach I gave it then. It’s got to be called what it is: SNOBBERY. Okay, I’m skipping over quite a lot of what he says because it’s not relevant to my current study, and I only have so much time to read right now, so I’m zeroing in on what matters. But over and over he is scathingly dismissive of some works of adaptation, while highly praising others. And what is it that draws down Dr. Zipes’ ire the most? The name “Disney”.

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, for example, is castigated as “a banal adolescent love story” in a “rendition [that] is so stale, stiff and stupid [alliteration much?] that one must wonder why the film was such a success when it premiered in 1959.” Well, one must wonder that he still wonders, as in the preceding paragraph he is dismissing the film’s hypotext, the Grimm’s version, so much tamer than the Basile and Perrault tales of which it was an abridgement, as “a boring fairy tale” (88). Excuse me? Why does Zipes think this story has endured as one of the perennially favourite fairy tales, as part of the Western Canon? Why is it that it’s the boring Grimm’s version that’s stuck with us, not the (presumably) exciting French/Italian one with rape and hidden children and baby-eating ogresses? Well, maybe it’s because the common people like boredom. Or is it that there’s something in these stories that Zipes just fails to see?

My bet is on the latter. Here he is on “Cinderella”: “[T]he musical adaptation of Perrault’s tale that truly ignited filmgoers’ hearts [well, at least he admits that much] was Disney’s animated Cinderella (1950) … It is difficult to understand why this film … had so much success. The music is mediocre; the plot is boring; and the themes are trite” (181). I’m afraid it’s not at all difficult for me to understand why Zipes finds it difficult to understand. He’s just answered his own question. He fails to comprehend the film’s success because he finds the story boring. Condemned from your own mouth, Dr Zipes.

Now, I don’t mean to put Disney on a pedestal – far from it (far from it!). I have my own complaints about those insipid airheaded princesses and cardboard princes (“Someday my Prince will come”, indeed! Get a life, girl!), and the commercialism of the Disney enterprise just gives me the willies. But that does not lead me to write off the films that they made and their enormous success as just a case of the masses falling under the spell of the culture industry. People ain’t all that stupid, you know! And I think it’s a piece of bloomin’ arrogance to talk as if they were. Not just arrogance, ignorance. It’s missing something vital about those stories – the main, core reason that they have been popular for centuries, and keep getting told over, and over, and over, and over.

The reason we love “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” and all those other stories, and one of the biggest reasons the Disney films were the blockbusters they were on their first release and are still being watched by little girls today with unabated fanaticism – in the case of Cinderella sixty-four years later, sixty-four! – is that there is something in the story, in the “boring” plot, that speaks deeply to us. And to dismiss the films because they happen to be made by Disney is, and I’m going to stick out my neck and just say it, folly.

As I said before, folktales are tales of the folk, of the people. The common people. And today’s commoners love the Disney versions. There is no way around that. And if Dr Zipes has nothing but scorn for those films, I’m afraid I must think that he is, somehow, missing a point.

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10 thoughts on “More Gripes About Zipes

  1. Love your writing – you rock! You have hit the fundamental nerve……..that even Disney obviously strikes a deep, archetypal chord within us. 64 years? Wow.

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    • The funny thing is that Zipes has written extensively on “Why Fairy Tales Stick” (one of his book titles) and all that – he just doesn’t seem to be able to see it when it comes to Disney or any other fun, *popular* adaptations.
      Yeah, 64 years. 77 for “Snow White”. We’re into the third, if not fourth generation of kids who watch these movies.

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  2. Love this post! I suppose it’s probably that phenomenon where when you dislike something that’s wildly popular, you get into this whole WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE mindset. Of course Zipes should be above that! But I bet that’s where this is all coming from.

    (Ugh, Snow White. In retrospect, my sisters’ and my contempt for Snow White and Cinderella — all our games about them involved mocking them for being helpless idiots — must have warmed my mother’s heart.)

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    • LOL on the fairy tale games. That’s like my daughter’s Barbie play – she used them for dinosaur bait.

      Zipes is a big Frankfurt School follower – you know, Adorno and The Evil of the Culture Industry, all that. Of course, Disney fits into that very neatly; they’re about as culture-industry-ish as you can get. And yes, there’s a certain amount of that attitude of “If it’s popular, it must be trash” in Zipes’ writing (which I actually sympathize with, to a point), but what he seems to mostly miss is the understanding of *what* makes these movies popular, and a willingness to consider them on their own merits.

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  3. So, a young fellow finished work at the grocery store, and went to a party he’d been invited to. When he got there, I’m sure he greeted and was greeted. I’m sure he must have smiled at people. He didn’t walk in drooling down his chin with wild hair and unfocused blood-shot eyes. Nope. He was just a regular guy, at a regular house-party, for some regular students who were celebrating the end of the university year. He then went into the house’s kitchen and got himself a knife. Then he went out into the party and stabbed five people to death.

    A few days ago, a Korean ferry sank. The captain told the passengers that no boats were coming to rescue them and that they should stay on the ship. He then took a life boat and saved himself, but the ferry went down with over 200 people. Later on, he tried to pass himself off as a survivor.

    Not too long ago, a pilot of a passenger airplane was sitting in the cockpit with his co-pilot having lunch as he watched the news on the stock market–where he was a big player. He discovered that his stocks had taken a nose dive and he was out about a million dollars. He got up and went out of the cockpit. He returned, telling the co-pilot that one of the flight attendants was have a flood issue with a broken water faucet and to go out and fix it. The co-pilot, a young newbie, complied. When he was out of the cock pit, the pilot closed and locked the door. He then put the airplane into a steep dive, and crashed into an Indonesian jungle, killing himself and taking over 100 passengers and crew with him.

    We live in a world where we are bombarded with horrible news about men that rape 6 year old girls, about teenagers who take loaded shotguns to school, about bombs going off in shopping malls, home invaders beating elderly women to death, and where the good guys finish last. This is our 21st century reality. We have learned to be afraid and suspicious. But in the world of Disney fairy tales, the captain of the ship acts with courage and honor. Integrity is rewarded, and the good guys always win. This, we know, is not the real world. But it’s a world we still desire and part of us identifies with it. Even though Prince Charming is as real as a cardboard cut out, and although the Princess is usually a maudlin air-head just waiting to burst into song at the sight of a butterfly, they give our sensibilities what we need–rest. That is why they never go out of style. That is why we still watch them, even though we see through them.

    I think perhaps this is a detail Zipes forgot.

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    • Exactly. And what’s more, the folktales don’t just give us rest, they give us direction: *this* is how it should be. People should not be killing other people for no reason, that’s what the bad guys do. Good guys fight for what’s true, and right, and lovely. And the other thing they give us is hope: if Cinderella managed to survive the abuse she was under, and not only survived but triumphed over it, maybe we can, too. If Sleeping Beauty endured for a hundred years, and the evil spell didn’t kill her, and she came back to life and love, maybe that’s in store for us, too. It’s the very simplicity that speaks to us.

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  4. I just discovered your blog! I look forward to digging into more of your posts! I too have had issues with some of Jack Zipes’ writing. I think you’re absolutely right. These stories are powerful in their core, even the “dumbed down” and “sanitized versions,” although so often people complain about how lame Disney versions of fairy tales are, and they’re actually still quite scary for young children. Even Disney couldn’t take all the darkness out of fairy tales! I think people are really upset, not that family friendly versions exist (nothing wrong with that!) but that the general opinion now is that fairy tales are ONLY for children

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    • Great to see you over here! I discovered yours in the course of my research; I can’t remember what post it was – something about Sleeping Beauty, I think.

      As far as Disney goes, his versions are actually often darker, or at least scarier, than the original. “Sleeping Beauty” in the Grimms certainly hasn’t got any freaky witch that needs to be battled by the Prince; and the queen in the Grimms’ “Snow White” doesn’t turn into a hag who cackles in dungeons.

      Zipes is still pretty awesome, in lots of ways, but I’m finding his dogmatism (“This is how it is, because I say so!”) is starting to rub me the wrong way.

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  5. It’s natural for fairy tale fans to have mixed feelings about Disney. My issue has never been with the Disney versions existing but with how many people seem to think of these films as a sort of “fairy tale canon”, as in “Disney did it this way, so that’s the way it must have gone” (of course, that could easily devolve into a complaint that people don’t read enough and I just won’t go there).

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    • Yes. Having come to the Disney films later in life (I didn’t grow up on them, while I *did* grow up on the German printed tales) I don’t feel the same allure in them that Americans do. (I don’t understand the draw of Disneyland, for example – every family of my acquaintance here in Canada has gone at least once. I mean, why?) But the more I study the Disney movies, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that they’re bona fide folk culture. Just like there’s a Perrault version of the tales, and a Grimms one, and neither is superior to the other, there is also a Disney version. So I guess what we need to do as fairy tale fans (or folklorists, if you want to use the fancy term) is to spread the word that there’s more than one version out there – but not dismiss Disney in the process.

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