Fairy Tales as Resistance to ConformityBy Derek Newman-Stille
Fairy tales are often presented as messages of conformity, telling us what we shouldn’t do. They were re-written with moral messages attached to them: don’t go out in the woods alone; don’t take what isn’t yours; don’t trust strangers. Conform, conform, conform. But, fairy tales are really just oral narratives. The moral messages were tacked on as the tales were re-branded for children.
Despite this re-branding to try to achieve the conformity of children, fairy tales have always been complex things, imbued with ideas of uncertainty and complicated questions. Fairy tales are tales of enchantment, of the impossibilities of the world, and this influx of impossibility invites readers to question their reality, to ask themselves what might be possible. When we ask what might be possible, we resist conformity. We look for new potentials and new ways of living in our complicated world instead of conforming to it.
Fairy tales are tales of change. They often feature a change of circumstance, a shift in possibilities, fate, and potential to give a character a new path through the woods, taking them off of the well-worn roads. Fairy tales represent the uncertain path, where everything is in flux, everything flowing and changing, and nothing certain or mundane. This potential for change is part of the resistance narrative of fairy tales – the potential to open up new possibilities that wouldn’t be considered in the strictly ‘normal’, ‘mundane’ world.
In addition to the changes within the fairy tale, fairy tales themselves, having come from oral narratives (tales told out loud) have – embedded in their very nature – the potential to shift and change with new audiences. Experienced storytellers shift their stories to fit with the audience in front of them, sharing the core of their stories but also changing parts of the message so that the message speaks to each listener, engaging them and making them feel like they are part of the story, a watcher in the woods. But this adaptability of oral narratives may account for the reason why fairy tales continue to be retold to new generations. These tales were made by a narrative that is about changing to fit the audience, and perhaps that has left a germ of potential within the fairy tale for it to continue to adapt to new social circumstances, new societies, new geographies, and new groups of people.
Fairy tales are fluid tales. They can adapt and flow into areas where there are stories that need to be told. This is one of the reasons why they have so much potential to take up marginalised voices, to represent voices that are often silenced. They have the ability to present people with a familiar tale but also with the expectation that that tale is going to be full of the magic of change, that it is going to do something different and take them out of their ordinary, everyday comforts. Fairy tales can be ways for those of us on the fringes, whether they are disabled and queer like me, or asexual, transgender, a person of colour, a person from an ethnicity outside of the majority, an aboriginal person, an aged person, or any other under-represented group, to speak back to the narratives that have shaped our lives. We can use fairy tales to shift the narratives about us – those messages of conformity that I mentioned at the start of this post by proposing something different and using the power of fairy tales and their adaptability to express new messages and resist those conformist messages that have been projected upon us.
Fairy tales are often called a Tradition, and many of us have been told in the past that we are untraditional, that we represent a degradation of traditional values, or that we should respect traditions. Fortunately, the adaptability of fairy tales explains to us that traditions are meant to change and that our tales are meant to open up possibilities for new traditions.