Violence in Fairy Tales: Just or Unjust Desserts?
The role of violence in children’s entertainment remains controversial. While studies have extensively charted the negative impact of exposure to violent imagery in video games and television programming, specialists in the field of fairy tale literature — from the Brothers Grimm to contemporary critics — have been relatively reluctant to censure acts of scenes of cruelty, even when they are not justified on cathartic or moral grounds.
After decades of research, it is now widely accepted that children who watch televised or cinematic depictions of violence are more likely to engage in violent behavior themselves. As Anderson et al. put it in 2003, “the scientific debate over whether media violence increases aggression and violence is essentially over” (81). As a newer medium, video games have been less comprehensively examined as a cause of increased aggression, but violent acts (from firefights and martial arts encounters to more localized punching and slapping) appear to be prevalent in several genres, even those marketed to and explicitly rated as being suitable for children (Thompson and Haninger 591). Because the video game experience encourages players to go beyond the role of passive observer and actively participate in aggressive displays, some research suggests that this medium sets up a “continuous cycle of reward” (Funk et al. 24) that children in particular may be tempted to repeat with siblings or playmates.
However, fairy tale criticism often chooses to celebrate the violent content of its subject matter, even in contexts where the primary audience is composed of children. In his epochal Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim acknowledges that a story like “Little Red Riding Hood” is quite gruesome in its original form — girl and grandmother are devoured, the wolf is cut open and skinned — but praises its very violence for providing a memorable demonstration of consequences and responsibility:
With its violence, including that which saves the two females and destroys the wolf by cutting open its belly and then putting stones into it, the fairy tale does not show the world in a rosy light. [â€¦] the girl has learned her lesson (182).
Compared to this bloody lesson, Bettelheim dismisses explicitly non-violent children’s literature as “shallow” and relatively unmemorable.
Other critics have likewise argued that violence is an intrinsic part of the fairy tale tradition, but take pains to note differentiate between “folk” literature aimed at primarily adult audiences and its adaptation as entertainment for children. Jack Zipes notes that the original stories that the Brothers Grimm and others collected presented the stark realities of power politics without disguising the violence and brutality of everyday life. Starvation and abandonment of children, rape, corporeal punishment, ruthless exploitation — these were some of the conditions that are at the root of the folktale, conditions that were so overwhelming that they demanded symbolic abstraction (7-8).
Adult aficionados like Zipes and his readership may appreciate these “stark realities,” but as the tales were edited and revised for a juvenile audience, their brutality becomes much more problemmatic. Maria Tatar confesses after rehearsing the self-explanatory plot of a relatively obscure story, “How Children Played Butcher With Each Other,” (Grimm 650-1) that “much of the material that came into the Grimms’ hands was hardly suited for children” (181), and would likely disturb many adults.
There is some evidence that parents have always censored the worst incidents from the stories they tell or read their children. In a discussion of Taiwanese variants of a “Little Red Riding Hood”-like tale involving a tiger, Wolfram Eberhard notes that relatively few oral accounts linger on the tiger actually devouring people: “Perhaps mothers did not want to frighten their children by telling this detail, an additional violence in a violent story” (31). Most commercial adaptations for juvenile markets have adopted a similar approach; in some versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, nobody is eaten and even the wolf simply runs away when his scheme fails (Shavit 155).
For their part, the Brothers Grimm eliminated some violent imagery from their “nursery” tales as the primary market for their work evolved from adult folklorists to bourgeois families. However, while many of the gorier stories disappeared outright, the Grimms opted to retain much of what modern readers would consider “cruelty” as long as it could be justified as retribution (often “poetic”) for a deliberate crime:
A woman who proposes to abandon her stepdaughter in the woods is torn to pieces by wild animals. There is no casual capriciousness in the selection of appropriate punishments or in the means of establishing justice. This is the Old Testament logic of an eye for an eye. In fairy tales, getting even is the best revenge (Tatar 182-3).
Thus, in a story like “Aschenputtel” (Cinderella, Grimm 86-92), the Grimms preserve the sequence in which the stepsisters mutilate themselves in order to fit into the glass slipper, ostensibly because they deserve to be punished for their “foolishness” and, implicitly, their abuse and exploitation of Cinderella. (the more gruesome punishment of having their eyes pecked out by pigeons was removed from late editions.) by establishing a punitive, moralizing context for violence, the Grimms allayed criticism that their work was not fit for children (Tatar 15).
However, there is still a great deal of what could be considered “gratuitous” violence in the Grimm tales in particular. In the name of justice, witches are burned alive (“Brother and Sister,” Grimm 41-6), false brides dragged in barrels studded with nails (“The Goose-Girl,” Grimm 322-7), wicked brothers sewn up in sacks and drowned (“The Singing Bone,” Grimm 88-9). These are baroque punishments for gruesome crimes — cannibalism, murder — and as such are unlikely to encourage children to imitate them in the way that they might be encouraged to imitate violent game behavior.
Bettelheim would argue that these bloody lessons teach responsibility and discourage immoral behavior: The wolf’s punishment demonstrates the consequences of wickedness, and so on. But it is striking that the punishments sometimes persist even when the “crimes” have been de-emphasized. Attempts to reconstruct an original Chinese (and global) Cinderella narrative concede that at its basis, the story begins with abuse: “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who suffered. Her sufferings were various and terrible” (Jameson 73). In the ballad tradition, for example, proto-Cinderella may well have been murdered (“Twa Sisters,” Child 141-69). However, by the time the story reaches the Grimms in the form of “Aschenputtel,” the cruelties the stepsisters commit become relatively petty exaggerations of normal sibling relationships, and the extent of their punishment (whether blindness or mutilation) seems curiously outsized.
Furthermore, in most other “traditional” versions of the story — including Perrault’s “Cendrillon” (60-9) and the various “Native American” and “African Cinderellas” (Bascom 154-6) — no violent punitive episode is necessary at all. The rivals do not mutilate themselves in their attempts to pass the test; confirmation that their neglected sibling was the most “beautiful” of all is punishment enough. Even by Bettelheim’s standards, the “blood in the shoe” sequence is inarguably striking (memorable) but in the absence of a transgression of equal weight, it simply seems both confused from a didactic perspective and, more importantly, potentially disturbing to a juvenile audience.
At best, it is simply gratuitous, and while children love the slapstick or “preposterous” violence of cartoons and some fairy tales (Twitchell 23), gratuitous violence also leads children to consider violent behavior normative. While they might not actively imitate the dream-like pranks the inanimate world plays on a “Herr Korbes” (Grimm 157-8), for example, evidence shows that they will still be desensitized to it. Fairy tales may or may not operate on something like the level of a dream, but so do modern video games, and here the literature is unambivalent:
If the viewer develops the attitude that violence is normative, they may become desensitized and callous to violence in real life. Media presentations of justified violencemay also change the belief that violent behavior is wrong, encouraging the development of pro-violence attitudes. [â€¦] Violence is acceptable because it is not real, therefore “victims” do not really suffer (Funk et al. 26).
Given this serious — and well-documented — consequence of even imaginary violence, writers and readers of fairy tales should exercise care that their depictions of violence are truly relevant to the moralistic issues at stake. The “blood in the shoe” must be justified; otherwise, it simply desensitizes the (often juvenile) reader to no real advantage.
Anderson, Craig a., Leonard Berkowitz, Edward Donnerstein, L. Rowell Huesmann, James D. Johnson, Daniel Linz, Neil M. Malamuth, and Ellen Wartella. “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4.3 (2003): 81-110. Print.
Bascom, William. “Cinderella in Africa.” Cinderella: A Casebook. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982. Print.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred a. Knopf, 1977. Print.
Funk, Jeanne B., Heidi Bechtoldt Baldacci, Tracie Pasold, and Jennifer Baumgardner. “Violence Exposure in Real Life, Videogames, Television, Movies, and the Internet: Is There Desensitization?” Journal of Adolescence 27 (2004): 23-39. Print.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Complete Fairy Tales. Trans. Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam Books, 1987. Print.
Jameson, R.D. “Cinderella in China.” Cinderella: A Casebook. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982. Print.
Perrault, Charles. Complete Fairy Tales. Trans. Neil Philip and Nicoletta Simborowski. New York: Clarion books, 1993. Print.
Shavit, Zohar. “The Concept of Childhood and Children’s Folktales: Test Case — ‘Little Red Riding Hood.'” Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Print.
Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003. Print.
Thompson, Kimberly M. And Kevin Haninger. “Violence in E-Rated Video Games.” Journal of the American Medical Association 286.5 (2001): 591-598. Print.
Twitchell, James B. Preposterous Violence: Fables of Aggression in Modern Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.
Zipes, Jack David. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
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