I’m preempting my blog on “Big Fish” for a moment to give response to an article posted by my dear friend, and fellow mythologist/Disn-o-phile, Dr. Priscilla Hobbs-Penn.
This article came from the University of Chicago Magazine, a deeply respected academic institution, known for its prowess in the humanities–particularly in religious studies and anthropology. Generally, I respect them too, although I do find them guilty of the same kind of soulessness as the rest of the academy, which is especially egregious as in these fields the soul is THE THING.
This article is fascinating! I’d love to read Dr. Maggi’s book. It sounds to me that he has a lot of good insights (lest you think I’m bashing him before I’ve even considered his ideas). This article does, however, make something even clearer to me than it already was. I am becoming increasingly aware that many in the academy are completely out of touch with an authentic experience of mythology, not to mention humanity’s wider partipation with it. Arguing that an audience’s laugh at Snow White’s tittering response to Prince Charming’s entrance indicates that the stories no longer have resonance they once had just doesn’t add up for me.
Furthermore, suggesting that the fact that these are “made up stories” somehow belittles their archetypal essence doesn’t make sense to me either. All stories are made up stories. All stories reflect the time in which they were made. I will give Dr. Maggi that these stories NEED to be retold in a way that speaks to the now, but what we need is not exactly (and simply) a new mythology. I’m not even sure there is such a thing. What we need is a new authenticity. Joseph Campbell once said that he did not believe people were looking for the meaning of life, but rather they were looking for an experience of life. Fairy tales can offer one avenue into that experience.
The reason why these fairy tales stick with us is NOT because we feel some duty or responsibility to them. It is NOT because they are part of some cultural heritage that we cannot eject. The reason why they stick with us–why we continue to remake them and renew older versions of them–is because they allow the imagination to play. Fairy tales give us permission to leave the duldrums and anxieties of our world behind and simply engage with their magic. And Disney fairy tales, in particular, have no qualms about presenting stories by and for believers.
Believer: this seems like a dirty word these days. Particularly in the academy…forgive us if we believe in anything!!
What we need are tales, a mythology in fact, that return the experience of myth and humanity’s old stories in a new way.
Example: ABC’s Once Upon a Time. This show irreverantly rips apart traditional Disney fairy tales and beyond (my favorite is Rumple killing Cinderella’s fairy godmother). Frankly, this show does capitalize on the Disney versions, and there have been plenty of times when I’ve been sitting there watching and thought to myself things like, “Really dudes? Really? A chipped teacup? That’s just pandering.” Beyond all of this is a show about believers and the magic that can occur when people work with and for each other.
Now, before you get all diss-y on me about this, let’s look at the numbers. In a time when reality TV dominates the small screen, this crazy show about fairy tale characters trapped in a curse has become ratings gold (pardon the pun) for ABC. It became 2011/12’s top rated ABC drama with an average of 11.8 million viewers! This year it topped that number, returning to a stunning 14.5 million viewers. This show has an incredibly devoted fanbase (My favorite being the new Captain Hook fans who call themselves “Hookers”. HAHAHA!).
Why is that? Is it because Americans feel linked to Disney versions of fairy tales? Not really, since this show has integrated all different kinds of fairy tale characters (many never touched by Disney) since day one. And, by the way, it intends to continue, suggesting that Oz might be next to arrive on the Once stage. Is it because the show is full of all kinds of interesting special effects? Well partly…some of the imagery is super cool. Is it because of the action? The romance? The pathos? What IS it?!!
I think it is because of the believers. At their core, fairy tales still need believers. As a wise woman, Dianne Wiest as Aunt Jet Owens once said in the wonderful film Practical Magic, “You can’t practice witchcraft while you look down your nose at it.”I often think that we are so busy trying to analyze mythology that we have forgotten how to experience mythology…how to believe in the magic…
Once Upon a Time does that, as Entertainment Weekly’s James Hibberd notes, “it is the most optimistic show on tv.” THAT optimism is central to Disney’s participation with fairy tales. As Prince Charming says, “Good can’t just lose, can it?” And that optimism is what humanity has come to love about Disney’s fairy tales. Because optimism is hope, and hope is in short supply these days. Disney sees Pandora’s world for all its damage, but they are also not afraid to practice what, at this point, I see as being the most radical act of optimism: belief in humanity and faith in love. Call me a Christian…that’s fine! I’ll take that one (seeing as how I am one), but redemption IS possible folks.
We need to rediscover our store of fairy dust.