I’ve been thinking lately about fear, and how fear has been used to make people behave in a certain way. People have the power with the words they say or write to induce fear when they feel it is needed to control others. This is true in politics (Smear campaigns between politicians try to force people to choose between a “lesser of two evils”), this is true with the work force, (show up to a job to keep it or get fired.) and this is true in Children’s Literature.
Children have always been controlled by adults. It’s different from the control which politicians exert over citizens or bosses exert over workers because unlike adults, children are smaller, powerless, and they are completely dependant on others. They are unable to really understand that they have their own ideas, and they don’t have a voice. The way that children’s literature has been used to control or frighten children into behaving is horrifying.
Augustus who did not eat any soup- an illustration from the Struwwelpeter story- He was alive for five days and then died.
Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman is a collection of German children’s short stories.”The manifest purpose of Hoffman’s illustrated storybook is to frighten children into being good.” (Griswold, 37). It is introduced as a “Pretty Picture Book” for “good children” and is filled with morals. According to the author, “When children have been good…good at night and good all day, they shall have the pretty things that Merry Christmas always brings. Naughty, romping girls and boys…deserve no Christmas box. Such as these shall never look, at this pretty picture book.” This introduces the collection of stories as a gift- it is a good thing to read these stories or have them read. These stories often centre around a child not listening to a warning from their parents and then dying a painful death because of it, or not following the normal rules of society and dying because of it. Like in the story of Augustus who wouldn’t eat soup- he does not follow “the rule of time and schedule…he is supposed to eat the right thing at the right time” (Savelsberg) and as he doesn’t, he wastes away. It may seem funny now to think of Augustus simply refusing food and ending up dead; but that’s because we are in a different historical and cultural context. We are used to being able to grab microwaveable meals- we don’t need to worry about food because we know that we have the option of being able to grab something in an hour or two. In 1875, when this poem was made- I can guarantee that microwaves didn’t exist. Rather than pleading with a child to eat, it was probably easier to read a child the story of Augustus to show that if they didn’t eat, that is what could happen. Fear is a good thing in this case. It isn’t only about making a child behave and forcing them to listen to their parents, but about following the rules for their health.
Beatrix Potter’s famous The Tale of Peter Rabbit has an anthropomorphic rabbit named Peter making mischief and trespassing into McGregor’s garden. His mother gives him a warning, he goes off, gets nearly caught, and loses his clothes in the process. He comes home sick, his mother finds out and sends him to bed while his sisters eat. Nothing bad happens to him because of his disobedience to his mother-by which I mean he doesn’t die. He just has to miss out on the dinner that his sisters have. The punishment aspect of the story lessens, and the message is that he could have gotten hurt. And it would not have been from his actions, but from the strangers. The message is changed from “Don’t do this because you could get hurt,” to “Don’t do this because someone else could hurt you.” They aren’t capable of hurting themselves- strangers are. (or if they do hurt themselves, like when Peter jumps into the watering can and gets wet it was just his ignorance- he didn’t know it was filled with water, so it’s not his fault.) They are meant to fear strangers, not their own ideas to disobey their parents. One similar aspect which it carries from the idea of Struwwelpeter is that being naughty will get you into trouble like Peter, but being good like Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail will be rewarded.
There is a specific reason for this. Peter Rabbit was written in 1902, when the cult of the child was very strong. The Cult of the child, in the briefest terms; is the view that children are innocent. (Which leads to the belief that they are ignorant, and sheltered- or should be.) Peter Rabbit is, although “naughty” made into a loveable character-his adventures are exciting, not horrifying; he nearly gets caught, but he makes it out safe. The fear is placed upon the idea of an unknown person hurting him, he gets out only because of help from other animals. Children don’t fear Peter’s actions, they fear the possible outcome. His antics were endearing, and it is only the introduction of the stranger which causes fear.
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory written by Roald Dahl, I couldn’t help noticing that as in Struwwelpeter, one of the children is named Augustus. More specifically Augustus Gloop. Unlike Struwwelpeter, this Augustus will eat anything. His parents are proud of it though, and his mother brags to newspaper reporters; “I just knew Augustus would find a Golden Ticket… He eats so many candy bars a day that it was almost impossible for him not to find one. Eating is his hobby, you know. That’s all he’s interested in. But still, that’s better than being a hooligan and shooting off zip guns and things like that in his spare time, isn’t it? And what I always say is, he wouldn’t go on eating like he does unless he needed nourishment, would he? It’s all vitamins, anyway.” (Dahl, 22). Augustus Gloop is most likely a satire of Augustus who wouldn’t eat any soup. His parents are proud that he has found a golden ticket, which allows him to be one of the five lucky people to join Willy Wonka in his chocolate factory for a tour. His parents are also blissfully unaware of the fact that Augustus Gloop is actually not healthy (he’s as unhealthy as Augustus who doesn’t eat any soup, only to the other extreme.) It is because he has no nourishment that he is constantly eating candy bars.
Instead of using fear to make children eat meals, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory employs the use of humour to teach children about the importance of a healthy diet. The Oompa Loompas who work in the factory serve as the chorus, chanting the wrongs of the boy as he meets his fate in the fudge room. “Augustus Gloop, Augustus Gloop! The great big greedy nincompoop. How long could we allow this beast to gorge and guzzle, feed and feast on everything he wanted to?” (Dahl, 78). They have no sympathy for him, however they do state in the middle of the chant that “Augustus Gloop will not be harmed, although of course we must admit he will be altered quite a bit…we’ll boil him for a minute more until we’re absolutely sure that all the greed and all the gall is boiled away for once and all.” (Dahl, 79-80). They are stating quite explicitly that his greediness is not a good thing and will get him into trouble; but he won’t die from it. Mr. Wonka, who owns the factory assures the rest of the children that the Oompa Loompas are “charming” and that the children “mustn’t believe a word they said. It’s all nonsense, every bit of it!” (Dahl, 80). Charlie questions whether they really are joking, and as Mr. Wonka is known early on to be eccentric (he is called “dotty” (Dahl, 20) by Grandma Josephine before he is even introduced to the children), he has less authority than the Oompa Loompas. Once Augustus comes out of the factory he is “as thin as a straw” (Dahl, 148). He goes through a change like Augustus in Struwwelpeter, but it is not as horrifying because Dahl uses humour to dissolve what fear would usually be present. The use of fear in children’s literature is no longer about controlling children, but alleviating their fears by using exaggeration to be a source of comfort.
Walt Disney has been widely criticized for his interpretation of fairy tales such as Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The adaptation of the fairy tales for the screen has drastically changed the way these tales are viewed; they are often the first insight a child gets to fairy tales, and it is surprising to see the change from the text to the screen. The basic plot of the story is not changed, but the meaning of the story is. “In the Disney adaptation, the elements of the fairy tale remain recognizable, but superimposed are typical elements of Disneyfication and a happy ending that contravenes the moral intention of the original tale.” (Hastings). Fairy tales are meant to teach certain morals. In Perrault’s Cinderella, the moral is that charm is worth more than beauty. In Beauty and the Beast, beauty is not as important as merit. These aren’t bad morals, but they get glossed over because of the happy ending and the villain-hero fight being the main point in the films.
The characters are not helpless, and although they are beautiful, they posses other qualities which help them, and reward them by way of a happy ending. Disney’s characters are also selfless, but the plot is the primary concern, rather than the moral. The focus is not on behaviour, but the plot. It is more about having things done unjustly to them; and rejoicing in the overcoming of their trials instead of looking at their character. The tales have been stripped of their didacticism to focus on entertainment. Rather than risk scaring children (because the medium of film is visual) Disney has simplified the tales, and made them soothing, ignoring the use of fear in fairy tales used to teach morals, and made them happy. If there is fear in a Disney film, it comes (for the most part) from a villain to offer conflict; it is not the child’s fault if something happens, but the villains fault. In the Little Mermaid, Ursula (who is unnamed in the original story) is the bad sea witch who took Ariel’s voice- all because Ariel wanted to be with Prince Eric. In the story however, Ariel is not looking for a man, she is just trying to go up to the sea. She wants to go up to the sea badly enough that she forgets about her father and family, goes to the witch, and makes a deal. She initiates the confrontation in the story. In the movie, it is Ursula who knows of Ariel’s unhappiness before she even meets her.
The Little Mermaid swimming to the Witch’s lair- The Witch is not named, and not shown, but it is clearly a threatening place associated with death- There are dead bones on the ground and it is dark- The fear is from the little mermaid going into the unknown- not the fear of the witch herself. Illustration by Edmund Dulac
By keeping her unnamed in the original story, Anderson makes the villain seem more frightening. She could be anyone. She could be a stranger, or a family friend, it doesn’t matter what the connection is. She could be dangerous, or helpful, or even both. Ariel has “always been so much afraid” (Anderson) of the sea witch, but she knows that “she can give [her] counsel and help.” (Anderson) so she chooses to face a fear, and see someone whom she does not know. Ariel seeks her out and makes the deal to give up her voice and endure the pain of walking, which “will feel as if [she is] treading on sharp knives” (Anderson). It is her own fault for seeking out the sea witch; she chose to go even though she had mixed feelings about it. In Disney’s version, Ursula finds Ariel. Ariel has never even heard of her so does not know whether to fear her or not.
In Beauty and the Beast, the story is changed with the removal of the two sisters who offer a foil to Beauty, and with the addition of a villain. In the fairy tale her character is revealed by the use of opposition to her sisters’. “All of his daughters were pretty, but the youngest was especially admired by everybody. When she was small she was simply known as “the little beauty” and this name stuck to her, causing a great deal of jealousy on the part of her sisters.” (de Beaumont, 171). She is given a past and a family, and described in contrast to her sisters, first in terms of her physical traits, and then in terms of her behaviour. She is described as “not only prettier than her sisters, but very much nicer. The two elder girls were very arrogant as a result of their wealth…Every day they went off to balls and theatres, and for walks in the park, with many a gibe at their little sister, who spent much of her time in reading good books.” (de Beaumont, 171) She is able to clearly be seen as a good person because the fairy tale mentions the lazy and selfish actions of her sisters. “Presenting the polarities of characters permits the child to comprehend easily the difference between the two.” (Bettelheim, 329). The two elder sisters take advantage of the father, but Beauty is content with the way things are. “They begged him to bring back dresses, furs, caps, and finery of every kind. Beauty asked for nothing, thinking to herself that all the money which the merchandise might yield would not be enough to satisfy her sisters’ demands.” (de Beaumont, 172). She finally asks her father to “bring [her] a rose, for there are none here’ Beauty had no real craving for a rose, but she was anxious not to seem to disparage the conduct of her sisters. The latter would have declared that she purposely asked for nothing in order to be different from them.” (de Beaumont, 173). She is not greedy like her sisters are, but because she wants their approval she asks her father to get her something which ends up endangering him. She goes to the Beast’s house in the place of her father because it was her mistake which allowed the conflict to start. She goes to the Beasts’ house not only to save her father, but to make amends for her mistake. In the movie, the rose is present, and is important to the plot, but it is a magical rose. Human error does not play any part in the conflict. By changing the significance of the rose; it is clear that it is not Beauty who causes the conflict to start. It is already present before she is introduced.
She is also easily persuaded by her sisters to break her promise to return to the Beast after he allows her to return home on a visit. She feels guilty however, and after a nightmare says “I am indeed very wicked…to cause so much grief to a Beast who has shown me nothing but kindness. Is it his fault he is so ugly, and has so few wits? He is good, and that makes up for all the rest. Why did I not wish to marry him? I should have been a good deal happier with him than my sisters are with their husbands. It is neither good looks nor brains in a husband that make a woman happy; it is beauty of character, virtue, kindness, All these qualities the Beast has. I admit I have no love for him, but he has my esteem, friendship and gratitude. At all events I must not make him miserable, or I shall reproach myself all my life” (de Beaumont, 180). She makes mistakes, and she feels guilty for them and she learns from them. Through this fairy tale, it is seen as okay to make mistakes, as long as they are recognized and there are amends made for them. Beauty is aware of her shortcomings, and she feels apologetic for them. Her sisters are not aware of their own mistakes, and because they have no awareness of their jealous feelings, they are cursed by a fairy who says that “Your doom is to become statues, and under the stone that wraps you round to retain all your feelings… Only when you recognize your faults can you return to your present shape, and I am very much afraid that you will be statues forever. Pride, ill-temper, greed, and laziness can all be corrected, but nothing short of a miracle will turn a wicked and envious heart.” (de Beaumont, 181). What happens internally is as important or more so than external forces. Through the fairy tale, the message is that people need to be able to help themselves. Nobody can do anything for them, they are responsible for their own behaviour, choices, feelings, and actions.
With the introduction of the villain Gaston, the conflict has changed from internal to external. The battle is no longer Beauty’s, but the Beast’s. Beauty is turned into a passive hero, her only goal was to care for the Beast. She does not undergo any change, and the fear is not for her- instead it has been replaced with suspense following a physical fight to the death between the two male figures. Change is not internal, and it cannot be shown. Characters don’t change in Disney films until something physically happens.
Fear is also lessened in Disney’s versions of fairy tales by introducing new friends of the heros/heroines who help and guide them. In fairy tales the heroine is mostly alone, therefore they have to undergo the transformation alone. Disney makes companions for the fairy tale heroines, Aurora has the three fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather to protect her; Cinderella has mice who make her dress for her, Snow White has her animal friends to help to clean, and Ariel has Flounder to explore the ship with. Let’s not forget Belle has all of the enchanted household objects on her side, they are all working towards a goal to break the spell put on the Beast by an Enchantress.
Most fear comes from the feeling of being alone. By giving the characters companions, they are not alone in their troubles; someone is always able to comfort them or help them, much like in Peter Rabbit, where the animals all help escape Peter from the garden narrowly missing McGregor. The fear again has been undermined: There is nothing to fear as long as you are with people (or objects or fish or fairies…) who can protect and motivate the heroine to stay on the path they are supposed to. They don’t get in trouble for straying from the role they were in, but they are positively encouraged to stay where they are supposed to.
The Little Mermaid often goes out alone to see the prince- something which is never seen in the film- In the film, Ariel always has her sidekick Flounder- Illustration by Margaret Tarrant
The trouble with Disney films is that it leaves us with binary thinking. “A typical ending of a Disney film denies evil’s reality: all wicked characters are banished, leaving a world in which kindness and sympathy always prevail… Disney’s films do not so much deny the reality of evil as present a … world of moral absolutes in eternal warfare, from which- in the Disney version good always emerges triumphant.” (Hastings). Everybody is either good or evil, a hero or a villain. Good people have good things happen to them; and they rarely make mistakes. They go after what they want, and because they know they deserve what they want, and they don’t make mistakes; they have nothing to fear. They may fear someone, but that is only because that someone is clearly bad. “Disney was a man that believed we “recognize good and evil instinctively and he supposed that any retellings of fairy tales could be approached in this simplistic manner. But the power of the tales is that they are not that simple at all… They are…as many-faceted, as disturbing, as slippery as dreams. They offer a moral, they speak to the human condition, but it is not always the condition or the moral one immediately sees.” (Yolen). Children aren’t seen as people who can do bad things, they are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or meet very bad people, ignorantly follow them and they always have the best of intentions. Things always work out well for them because of their resilience and faith that everything will be all right.
In Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, a spell is cast saying that if the princess touches a spindle, she will fall asleep for a hundred years. The same happens in the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. However, in the original tale, when the princess sees the spindle, she is careless and that is what causes her to prick her finger and fall asleep. In the Disney movie, she is in a trance, and it is caused by the villain. Illustration by Edmund Duloc
Disney ultimately accepts the idea of the cult of the child, through the creation of characters whom children aspire to; and manages to produce the message that people don’t make mistakes; but choose to be evil or good. Only evil people do evil things, and if there is a battle between evil and good, good will always win.”Many parents believe that only…pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child…There is a widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures- the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety.” (Bettelheim, 327). Bad things happen only because of bad people in the Disney movies, not because of the characters actions. They are also never alone, and will always have someone to support them whether they accept it or not. In Disney films, to identify even on a superficial level with a character is unrealistic, because they don’t have realistic personalities.
Fear is still used in Disney, but it is mostly to teach children to be scared of “bad people” and to trust “good people”. Most people aren’t all “bad” or “good”. This creates black and white thinking which can be dangerous. To immediately label someone as “bad” or “good” within minutes of meeting them; that is what Disney is teaching. It is easier for children to be controlled then because people (strangers mostly) have been so simplified for them, to superficial levels.
It’s normal to be afraid. Everybody gets afraid sometimes, it’s what makes people who they are. It can be used to control people, showing that if a law is broken, there needs to be retribution. However, Disney, uses fear by making use of villains and companions for the heros, to show that what is to be feared isn’t an act, but people. If a mistake is made, it does not have to have consequences- if it wasn’t intentional and nothing needs to be done to correct it. I believe that fear is not really meant to scare people though, it is to get people to be aware of the knowledge that they are responsible for their own actions. That is what Struwwelpeter tries to teach. That is what Charlie and the Chocolate factory tries to teach (in a humorous way), and that is what Disney ignores in favour of making films with a constant conflict between villains/heros. However, Disney then also chooses to ignore the idea that if adults are supposed to be responsible for their own actions, then children should be as well.
IMAGES (In order of appearance. Everything else in alphabetical order.)
- Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Struggle for Meaning.” Folk & Fairy Tales. By Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek. 4th ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 323-35.
- Dahl, Roald. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. New York: Puffin Books, 1998.
- Griswold, Jerome. Feeling like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.
- Leprince DeBeaumont, Madame. “Beauty and the Beast.” Folk & Fairy Tales. By Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek. 4th ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 171-81.
- “Struwwelpeter.” Slovenly Peter or Cheerful Stories and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1900. N. pag. The Story of Augustus Who Not Have Any Soup. Virginia Commonwealth University. Web. 22 Sept. 2012. ;
- Beauty and The Beast Prologue (English) Prod. mochixmochi Youtube January 29 2009. Web. October 24 2012
- Beauty and The Beast: beast fight scene, transformation, and ending. Prod. VampiregirlLoves Youtube August 17 2010 Web. October 25 2012
- The Little Mermaid-Under the Sea- [remastered] Prod. maxstratos Youtube October 26 2009 Web October 19 2012 ;
- The Tale of Peter Rabbit Prod. PictureStoryBook Youtube March 27 2011 Web. September 22, 2012 ;
- Anderson, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid” (1836) Web. 19 Oct 2012. ;
- Hastings, A. Waller “Moral Simplification in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.” The Lion and the Unicorn 17.1 (1993): 83-92. Project MUSE. Web. 19 Oct. 2012. ;.
- Savelsberg, Joachim. “Struwwelpeter at One Hundred and Fifty: Norms, Control, and Discipline in the Civilizing Process.” The Lion and the Unicorn20.2 (1996) 181-200 Project Muse. Web. 22, September 2012. ;
- Yolen, Jane. “The Eye and the Ear.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly6.4 (1981): 8-9. Project MUSE. Web. 19 Oct. 2012. ;