In ethnomusicology they have a saying: Radio happened. It’s basically short hand for pointing out that you can spend all day lamenting the fact that radio interfered with the age old face-to-face methods through which music used to be passed, but it won’t do any good. The world changed and we need to come up with new ways to study it. Rather than fighting the radio, we’re better off incorporating it into our studies.
I’ve recently decided we need an equivalent in folklore: Disney happened.
This became clear to me this week when I was discussing ABC’s new show Once Upon a Time with a colleague. Now I didn’t find the show to be particularly great; it has more cheese and cliché than are probably helpful. But keeping in mind that pilots are often the worst episodes of a series, the pilot entertained me enough to make me watch a second episode. But not so much that I’ve added it to my DVR. My colleague on the other hand has higher standards. Her response was, “OMG, it was horrible. The writing sucks, the acting sucks (I’m not sure they suck worse than most of what you see on TV, but she’s not totally wrong) and OMG they used DISNEY VERSIONS of the fairy tales.” (Please note: this is a bad paraphrase of what she actually said)
Putting aside her use of the totally non-scholarly term “fairy tales”; she’s not wrong. They did use a fair amount of imagery and variation that, to my knowledge, is found only in the Disney versions of certain folktales. For example, Snow White (or her modern day incarnation to be precise) has a bird land on her hand. (I admitted it was cheesy) No, that wasn’t in the original. Except… wait… what was the original?
And here we get to my point: folk tales have always changed. Hell, variation across time and space is one of the major things us folklorists study about folk tales. Given that most folk tales probably circulated in some form in oral tradition long before the earliest written versions we have (there are some who debate any folk origin for folk tales, but… such theories are not widely accepted) it’s a fair bet that what we think of as “the original” form of a given folk tale is not completely accurate. And if we don’t know what the original is and we know the tales have always evolved, how to do we crucify Disney for continuing the process?
Yes, I understand complaints that Disney sterilized their tales to appeal to modern sensibilities and children (like for example, taking the whole rape-mance out of Sleeping Beauty). But it’s not like Disney invented that idea either. That too was a process that goes back at least as far as the Grimm brothers. When we look at variations in folk tales we generally analyze them as reflections of the particular culture that produced them. They are a product of when and where they were told and tell us a lot about those cultures. Like it or not, Disney variants do the same damn thing. Maybe it’s easy for me to say this because I don’t have the emotional connection to folk tales that a lot of folklorists do. I never had a collection of Grimms Tales as a kid and I didn’t even watch the cartoon versions very much. But sometimes distance helps give perspective.
And no matter how sad we think it might be, the Disney versions are the ones most familiar to most Americans today. So if you’re trying to evoke a folk tale and get a contemporary American audience to recognize it, of course you’re going to reference Disney (unless you’re afraid of getting sued for copyright infringement*). The fact is that the writers of Once Upon a Time also had to deal with the fact that Disney happened. If you really want your television show to educate contemporary American audiences on the “real” versions of these stories, that’s great. But it’s going to take a lot of exposition. And given the infant mortality rate of primetime shows, who has time for that?
So anyway, while the writing and the acting and the high cheese content may be totally valid complaints about the show, I think we have to let the Disney one go. It may be sad, but those movies happened and were watched and beloved by many. We need to accept that and work it into our analyses.
*MTVMPB concedes there are many legitimate reasons to hold a grudge against Disney, most notably their control of our copyright code.