Modern Fairy Tales: Archetype vs. Stereotype

Since 1923 The Walt Disney Company has been making animated films, building theme parks, and accessing all other forms of entertainment. Much of the Disney Company’s box office success has come from their re-visioning of fairytales into animated events. Typical childhood memories include Disney’s renditions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and many others. Marie Louis Von Franz describes the position of fairy tales in society in the following statement from The Feminine in Fairy Tales:

Fairy tales express the creative fantasies of the rural and less educated layers of the population. They have the great advantage of being naïve (not “literary”) and of having been worked out in collective groups, with the result that they contain purely archetypal material unobscured by personal problems (1).

In short, Fairy Tales are organically grown with the creative material of a collective group. Though immensely popular, The Disney Company has also been subject to continued criticism by a variety of interest groups. From religion to gender, sexuality to animal rights, and pro-life to racism, Disney has been accused of promoting an agenda beyond simply making a profit.  Von Franz continues on to state:

Until about the seventeenth century, it was the adult population that was interested in fairy tales. Their allocation to the nursery is a late development, which probably has to do with the rejection of the irrational, and development of the rational outlook, so that they came to be regarded as nonsense and old wives’ tales and good enough for children (1).

Von Franz’ statement helps to clarify why so many parties other than children are interested in discussing, interacting, and engaging with the fairy tales depicted by the Disney Company. According to a recent New York Times article, “Her Prince Has Come. Critics, Too” written by Brooks Barnes, the latest Disney film is being received and questioned by the American public. Specifically, the article reveals and questions the hidden narratives and unconscious motives of both creator and audience, and how von Franz’ structural method of reading fairy tales can re-orient the imagination in new mythic and psychological ways.

“The Princess and the Frog” is due to be released in December 2009 and maybe one of the studios’ last hand-drawn animated films since the company’s acquisition of Pixar in 2006. The basic plot of the film is described by IMDb as follows:

A fairy tale set in Jazz Age-era New Orleans and centered on young Princess Tiana, a frog prince who desperately wants to be human again, and a fateful kiss that leads them both on an adventure through the bayous of Louisiana. (ImDb)

Princess Tiana is Disney’s first African-American princess to grace the royal Disney court. Her suitor, Prince Naveen “hails from the fictional land of Maldonia and is voiced by a Brazilian actor; Disney says that he is not white.”  The film is being celebrated by some for its return to classic animation, a plurality of races, and imaginative use of classic fairy tales. One African-American mother applauds Disney’s efforts to add diversity, “I don’t know how important having a black princess is too little girls—my daughter loves Ariel and I see nothing wrong with that—but I think it’s important to moms.”  However, the film is also being severely criticized. In her article, Barnes interviewed a number of people regarding the film’s reception and shares their concerns with her readers, “Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince,” “The princess’ story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community,” and “We finally get a black princess and she spends the majority of her time on screen as a frog.”  Disney executives respond to this criticism by stating that “people should stop jumping to conclusions about [the film]. In regard to the development of the film, characters, and plot one writer states “that the idea for a black princess came about organically. The producers wanted to create a fairy tale set in the US and centered on New Orleans, with its colorful past and deep musical history. ‘As we spent time in New Orleans, we realized how truly it is a melting pot, which is how the idea of strongly multicultural characters came about.’”

The critical debate that is surrounding “The Princess and the Frog” reveals that the issue of race, mixed races, and class are issues with which Disney viewers are engaged. Over the years Disney has been accused of perpetuating stereotypes, and it is currently argued that this film is continuing to do so. Which leads us to ask, what is the difference between a stereotype and an archetype? A stereotype is defined as a “widely held but fixed and oversimplified image of a particular type of person or thing.”  In Interpretation of Fairy Tale,s Von Franz explains that fairy tales “represent the archetypes in their simplest, barest and most concise form. In this pure form, the archetypal images afford us the best clues to the understanding of the processes going on in the collective psyche” (1). Clearly, it is the perception of the receiver that recognizes an archetype rather than a stereotype. Disney’s ability to become successful has been in its ability to negotiate the boundary between fairy tale as archetypal art, and bigotry. The question is whether it will be able to continue to do so within the current cultural climate.

In her books, von Franz outlines her psychological method of re-orienting the imagination in new ways in order to perceive a phenomenon in a more mythically attuned manner, rather than in a purely reactionary one. She explains that there are many different ways of looking at a fairy tale including literally, ethnically, archeologically, mythologically, and historically. However, she also adds that “If you start with the world tree, you can easily prove that every mythological motif leads to the world tree in the end” (7). Likewise, if you begin to look at the new Disney film for signs of racism, sexism, or classism, then you will find support for your argument. By doing so “you just get lost in the chaos of interconnections and overlapping of meanings which all archetypal images have with one another.” To avoid the chaos, confusion, and deterioration of seeing, von Franz suggests looking at the fairy tale through the four functions of consciousness, thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. By developing these four perspectives, interpretation becomes more engaging and colorful (11).  In reading the criticism and counter-criticism of  “The Frog and the Princess,” it is clear that while the creators were using an intellectual or thinking lens, many African-Americans are responding from a feeling perspective and creating a hierarchy of values. An additional complication for the existing interpretations is that only a short preview of the movie exists. This preview could be considered a sensate interpretation in that it just looks at the symbols of the film and amplifies them into a generalized conception of plot, conflict, and personified ideas. For the film to be a success, it must be viewed as a whole and interpreted intuitively by synthesizing all the different perspectives. If the writers and producers did their job well, then there will be substantial content to sustain a plethora of perspectives. If they did not do their job thoroughly, then the film will tend toward stereotypes and succumb to criticism.

© 2009 Cerena Ceaser

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