Gender Roles

When Did Fairy Tales Lose Their Edge?

“Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre” was everything Disney’s “Frozen” and the new “Cinderella” are not—and what’s been lost in the process is much more meaningful than tiaras and gowns.

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Though readers born after 1980 may not be familiar with her, Shelley Duvall was one of the most recognizable presences in the late 1970s and early ’80s, in part because she was so delightfully odd, and in part because she was so prolific. Appearing in everything from Robert Altman’s Nashville and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, to her breakout leading roles in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King thriller, The Shining, and, perhaps in a stroke of perfect casting, as Olive Oyl, opposite Robin Williams, in Popeye, in 1980, Duvall managed to parlay her eccentric fame and her passion for fairy tales into hosting (and occasionally starring in) a five-year TV series that began airing on Showtime in 1982 called Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, and which cast nearly every famous actor imaginable—Eric Idle, Leonard Nimoy, Liza Minnelli, Teri Garr, and Brain Dennehy, to name just a handful.

At the beginning of each tale, she wandered onto a fantastical set—an enchanted forest or a bucolic kingdom—and announced, “Hello, I’m Shelley Duvall. Welcome to Faerie Tale Theatre.” Sometimes she was in costume; sometimes she was outfitted in 1980s sweaters with shoulder pads, and a perm not unlike the one my mother had at the time.

I grew up watching Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre with my sisters. We even tried to re-create a few of them as home movies. When I found out that all 26 episodes were available on Hulu, I powered through them, reveling in their darkness and kookiness. The opening montage and synthesizer music are so bound up in my youth that watching the series again was like consuming a low-budget, creepy Proustian madeleine.

The transmission of fairy tales has long been a female business. Scholars have noted the connection between the literal and metaphorical spinning of yarns. In 19th-century France, farm families gathered for veillees, where socks were darned, clothing was mended, and stories were told. In some parts of the country, these meetings became sex-segregated, involving only women and their marriageable daughters. Old wives’ tales, tall tales, fairy tales, winter’s tales—these narratives were passed down from one generation to the next, communicating communal values through their morals.

With Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, Duvall took up this tradition of female storytelling. These are “Shelley Duvall’s” tales, and her brand is the first clue that the show has something to say about female authority. Watching it again, all these years later, I realized that I remembered the witches and evil queens more clearly than the princesses. Dynasty’s Joan Collins plays both the stepmother and the old crone in Hansel and Gretel, protecting her property from a young Ricky Schroder and his sister. As Cinderella’s stepmother, Eve Arden is a practical and non-nonsense woman. To me, she was the teacher in Grease (1978) who tried to keep Danny and his crew in line. As Henbane in “Sleeping Beauty,” Beverly D’Angelo is a diva to Carol Kane’s scatterbrained and sing-songy Good Fairy, and her dragon is downright terrifying. (At the time, I’d only known D’Angelo as the mom in National Lampoon’s Vacation, which had come out the same year.)

Contemporary fairy-tale culture can’t handle witches and evil queens. Duvall did a far better job 30 years ago. On March 13, Disney released its live-action Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Lily James, who plays Lady Rose on Downton Abbey, indeed another kind of princess. Corseted down to a Barbie doll waist and outfitted in a glittering, bright blue CGI-esque gown, James is a reincarnation of the Cinderella from Disney’s 1950 animated film. This exercise in corporate self-worship opens with a profoundly unfunny short Frozen sequel and ends with another Frozen echo: Cinderella and the prince’s wedding in a snow-covered kingdom. Cinderella is Disney’s homage to itself. It’s also the logical end of princess culture: the transformation of an actual woman into a cartoon.

Branagh’s film is nostalgic for Disney’s past, but its departures from the animated film reveal how ill-equipped he is to reckon with the so-called “evil” female characters in the story, particularly the stepmother. Cloaked in shades of sickly green that recall Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959), Cinderella’s stepmother (Cate Blanchett) has a cool disdain for the man she has married and for his inconvenient and adored daughter. But crucially, she is given a backstory that is absent from the animated film: she has lost another husband (so, including Cinderella’s saintly father, two total); she is in debt and worries about her financial future; and she fears that her plain and unlikable daughters will fail to marry. Sitting in the shadows of Cinderella’s attic room and clutching the glass slipper she has stolen, this stepmother speaks bitterly and angrily about the injustices she has faced.

So why does the film include this information? Is her history supposed to render her viciousness more understandable or to provide depth to her archetypally evil character? Hardly. We are supposed to recoil from her anger and condemn her nonetheless. Cinderella’s resolutely positive endurance is the only acceptable feminine reaction to adversity. In this sense, this retrograde film could not be more contemporary: Cinderella leans in. Her stepmother does not lean in. And the viewer is to laud the former approach, ignoring the very structural injustices the film introduces only to cast aside. If the stepmother’s failure to master her anger isn’t bad enough, she tries to secure herself a position at court, as well as advantageous marriages for her daughters. This will to power is the last and most complete sign of her depravity. She is the antithesis of Cinderella’s dead mother, whose final advice to her daughter—“Have courage and be kind”—sounds like nothing so much as a self-help best-seller.

Faerie Tale Theatre doesn’t shy away from the darkness that has been purged from contemporary fairy-tale culture, where the cheery optimism of Disney’s 2013 animated film Frozen is the dominant model. Frozen has nothing in common with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” There’s no evil sprite breaking mirrors into people’s eyes. In fact, a jaunty and idiotic snowman named Olaf provides near-constant comic relief, as if the film is at pains to be as upbeat as possible. As in Branagh’s Cinderella, the adversity women face is simply something to be overcome—as the Snow Queen Else’s anthem “Let It Go” professes—not a legitimate issue. Are those around you terrified that you’re unable to control your powers? Suck it up, as Else does by retreating to her palace. The poster child of self-loathing, Else models how a woman should react to her own difference: with disgust and fear.

Referring to the richly drawn Satan of Paradise Lost, William Blake maintained that Milton “was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Duvall was also of the Devil’s party, although maybe she knew it, and Faerie Tale Theatre’s “The Snow Queen” is the anti-Frozen. Lee Remick’s queen does not repent her power or attempt to limit it, and she’s duly scary and commanding, wrapped in her white furs and guarded by gray-faced men who resemble Storm Troopers.


The problem with Elsa is that the cold does bother her, despite the song’s now-famous line to the contrary. But Remick’s queen is at ease in her frosty world, the embodiment of authority, as opposed to her flighty and emotionally needy sister the Lady of Summer, played by Lauren Hutton in a hoop skirt. The Snow Queen’s palace turns the little boy Kay a sickly shade of blue as he freezes, and when I was younger, I thought he would die. Conversely, Anna’s frozen heart is never really threat in Frozen. You know her happy fate is assured.

Branagh’s insipid moralizing and Frozen’s mawkish sentimentality suggest that we want our fairy tales to be sunny and bright. But Duvall was a traditionalist. Charles Perrault’s and Hans Christian Andersen’s tales are at ease with tragedy and misery, and the Brothers Grimm added violent episodes to successive editions of their 1812 Nursery and Household Tales. They couldn’t get enough of atrocities. A little boy is cooked in a stew. Doves peck out the eyes of Cinderella’s stepsisters, after they cut off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. The princess flings the Frog Prince against the wall. Why only tell the story of the successful prince in “Briar Rose” when you can elaborate on all the guys who died horrible deaths in the brambles? All those poor bastards, bleeding to death.

Faerie Tale Theatre embraces its witches and evil queens, refusing to explain away, or edit out, cultural anxieties about unsanctioned female authority. In “Rapunzel,” a dim-witted candlemaker (Jeff Bridges) creeps into a witch’s garden to steal “repuns,” or radishes, for his pregnant wife. This cemetery-like space is presided over by a statue with human eyes, and it is the property of Gena Rowlands.


Rowlands’s witch is less than thrilled to find a man pulling up her vegetables, and she threatens to cut off his fingers and plant them in place of the pilfered goods. With her shock of curly blonde hair, gold talon-esque fingernails, and flowing robes, she is part glamorous drag queen and part Medusa, shooting a beam of green light out of her eyes that freezes the fleeing Bridges in his path. Ultimately, she determines that he’s “too stupid to raise a baby girl,” demands his child as recompense, and then transports her to a large penis tower intended to keep her away from men.

Likewise, in a gold lamé gown and a lavender wig, the Sea Witch in “The Little Mermaid” seems bored with the ordinary mermaids that populate her waters, including the lovesick Pearl herself. This witch is clearly happier sequestered in her domain, plotting ways to destroy the subjects of the king’s legitimate empire. “He’s never going to fall in love with you if from the waist down you look like a seafood special,” she explains to the hapless Little Mermaid.


In Andersen’s tale, the Sea Witch cuts out the Little Mermaid’s tongue and feeds her a potion made of blood: “The witch kept popping fresh things into the kettle, and when it boiled up properly it sounded like a crocodile in tears.” A crocodile in tears. This Ina Garten of the deep is not messing around. Duvall’s tale ends as Andersen’s does: The prince marries someone else—Helen Mirren, so you can’t really blame him—and the Little Mermaid is transformed into a “daughter of the air” (or as Duvall has it, into sea foam). When I was a kid, I found this ending confusing, subject as I was to the 1989 Disney film and the near-constant assurance that one requires only determination to succeed. Now, I see that the Sea Witch had it all figured out.

But this is not a position that recent fairy tale adaptations have taken. Maleficient (2014) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) shift their focus to the perspective of evil queens, but in both films, female desire for power is the result of ill treatment at the hands of men, and so it is still aberrant, still to be corrected or punished. In Snow White and the Huntsman, we learn that a former king replaced Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) with another woman; she rages against men who “use women” and vows revenge. Likewise, in Maleficient, Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is drugged by her treacherous love Stephan, who cuts off her wings and becomes king himself. She avenges this rape by cursing his daughter.

Neither film successfully explains these characters’ desire to destroy. The characters are simply rewritten and transformed into something they are not. This Maleficent repents her curse and becomes kind and maternal towards Aurora, morphing into a fairy godmother as the girl grows up. Like Wicked, these films ask us to imagine the “untold” lives of these characters, but we don’t need to invent untold lives for them: We just need to be more comfortable looking at their actual lives—and at the horrors that are such a part of fairy tales.

Duvall also understood the humor of these horrors, and she had a light touch with her dark materials. Humor is almost entirely absent from contemporary fairy tale culture. Maleficent and Snow White and the Huntsmen are dead serious, as is Catherine Hardwicke’s 2011 werewolf Red Riding Hood. Frozen is the least funny film on the planet. Duvall loved fairy tales, but she produced adaptations that are aware of their absurdity. The actors are engaged in a playful enterprise. As the evil queen’s mirror in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Vincent Price is haughty and bored. You sense that the ultimate voice of patriarchal approval would prefer another job.


Vanessa Redgrave likewise embraces the humor of the vain queen, toting two hand mirrors as she wanders around her bedroom, consumed by her own perfection. Snow White is flat because she lacks desire, but the queen’s appetite for destruction is entire. She relishes her own awful plots, falling into an almost orgasmic faint when she sees her nemesis’ supposed heart in a bejeweled box.

She also understands that she needs her beauty to maintain her power. This is her world. When she stumbles across the prince on her way to the dwarfs’ house, she forgets that she’s disguised as an old peddler woman and flirts with him. Catching her own reflection in his mirrored pendant, she remembers too late that she’s a hideous crone. Horrified to find herself no longer the adored object of the male gaze, she flees into the forest to murder the young and vacant Elizabeth McGovern, whose domestic servitude seems far inferior to the queen’s daily existence.

Redgrave’s performance represents a self-consciousness that runs through Faerie Tale Theatre and reminds the viewer that these are stories to be told, not realities to which to aspire, as princess culture today would have it. At the end of Perrault’s version of Cinderella (“Donkeyskin”), the narrator acknowledges that, “The story of Donkeyskin may be hard to believe…”. Like Perrault, Faerie Tale Theatre didn’t need you to believe. It was all “theatre,” and that was just fine. The spells of witches and the spells of performance must eventually be broken, but until then, we dwell in the dark shadows long enough to see them as familiar.




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