Coming Off the Pedestal

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last ten months. A lot. And in the course of that reading, I found myself going through an interesting process. I learned things. I found theories and scholars I had never heard about before, but they made heaps of sense (very exciting!). I eagerly lapped up what they had to say. I put them up on a pedestal. I read more stuff. And more. And one day, I found myself disagreeing with a Great Scholar. Just on one small thing; I shrugged it off. I read more, and learned more. And thought more. And I disagreed again, this time more strongly. And repeatedly. As I kept learning, my ideas changed. Not only did the pile of books on my desk grow, my thinking did, as well. And now here I am, nearing the end of my studies, and I have – opinions. Okay, I know anyone reading this who knows me personally is laughing now – I’m not exactly known for my scarcity of opinions and shyness in expressing them, in a general way. But now I have opinions on a particular subject, which came from actually studying it. I do, in a small way, have something to say about folkloristics. Perhaps I’d even go so far as to call myself an embryonic folklorist – or maybe just, like some, a fairy tale fan. And as such, I disagree with some of the Greats in the field, on a few things.

Okay, with one Great in particular (I’m sure you already know where this is going): Jack Zipes. I first started reading him back in September, on my prof’s recommendation (and very grateful I am for that recommendation, too). I was thrilled, I loved what he had to say. And really, he is great. The amount of insight I got from his writings is quite staggering. I was wishing I could go study under him, but quite apart from the fact that he was working at the University of Minnesota, which is a long ways from here, he’s retired now. Too bad. I kept getting more of his books out of the library, and then bought my own copies for keeps; they’re that good. But as I kept reading, amid all the wonderful stuff I was learning I ran across points where I didn’t like what he was saying. The first thing was his disparaging opinion of Harry Potter. I was ready to make excuses for him – he’d been pushed into expressing an opinion, he wrote about the series when it was only half finished, etc. But then I delved deeper into the study of fairy tale film adaptations, and got a hold of one of his latest books, The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy Tale Films (2010). And as I kept reading, some of what he was saying kept rubbing me the wrong way. I found myself getting annoyed with his dismissive tone, his hypercritical and condescending attitude to particular popular culture products. And finally, here I was, just this afternoon, reading the chapter on Beauty and the Beast and Frog Prince adaptations, and I was loudly disagreeing with half the chapter (“That’s baloney!” “Gimme a break!” – yes, I know I’m weird, but my family is used to it) – that’s when I wasn’t rolling my eyes at what he was saying. That’s right, the guru has come off his pedestal.

Don’t get me wrong – I still have enormous respect for Dr. Zipes, and probably 95% of his writings are excellent. But there are certain topics where I just find myself at odds with his opinions, and they are just that, opinions. Specifically, it’s dealing with popular culture where my ideas clash with his. Now, as I mentioned before, I’m not a big Disney fan. I’m not sure if any real fairy tale buff can be. But Zipes, it’s like you mention the name Disney, and the shutters come down. “What good can come from Disney Studios?” Nothing, apparently. By definition. He goes into enormous raptures about the Cocteau Beauty and the Beast, which I personally find so-so (okay, I’m hampered by my lack of French; I can only follow the story with the subtitles, but still, I don’t quite know what the fuss is about), but the Disney version, which I love, is in Zipes’ opinion pretty much despicable. The feminist themes in it are a sham, the whole thing is same-old-same-old Disney flatness, the music is trite, etc etc. In fact, reading what Zipes says about it, I can’t help but get the feeling that as soon as he sees the name “Disney” on a screen, he doesn’t even bother paying attention to what he is watching, because his mind is already made up. Some of the comments he makes about the movie are plain old wrong. For example, he says that the Beast rescues Belle and then dies in her arms, which is baloney – the Beast’s battle with Gaston is for his own sake, Belle is neither threatened nor anywhere close by at that moment. Dismissing a text for something that’s not even in it is, I’m afraid to say, just shoddy scholarship.

On the other hand, I found myself slightly amused to find that Zipes is very much in favour of films that came out of the old Eastern bloc countries. Now, I do agree that the Czech and DEFA (East German) films are pretty fabulous. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a scholar whose work is based on the ideas of the Frankfurt School (a form of Marxist scholarship) likes movies from communist countries? And dislikes anything that is commercially successful such as Harry Potter and the Disney empire?

About the only movies I find myself agreeing with Zipes on, other than the Czech/German ones, are the Shrek series. Well, he can appreciate their subversiveness and humour, because DreamWorks isn’t Disney. The subversiveness of Disney’s Enchanted, on the other hand, doesn’t count…

So those are some of the thoughts that ran through my mind this afternoon as I was loudly arguing with Dr. Zipes in an empty room. He’s come off the pedestal I stuck him on (entirely unasked for on his part, I might add). The learning curve of finding a guru, and then un-finding him again, has been interesting. It’s an empowering thing to be able to look at what even the greatest scholars say with a critical eye, to find in yourself the temerity to disagree with authority.

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