Researchers have indicated that as one of the longest existing genres of children’s literature, fairy tales play an important role in shaping the self-image and belief system of children.
Dorothy L. Hurley, an American researcher, argues that Western fairy tales like the Brothers Grimm stories and their visual Disney film versions, can negatively impact the self-image of children of color. These fairy tales continue to reinforce a perspective that white equals goodness and beauty, and black is evil and ugly.
Fairy tales are powerful.
But what happens when these fairy tales travel to non-Western cultures? Do they lose their power to influence beliefs about beauty and goodness?
Lebohang Kganye is a young South African photographer living in Johannesburg. In her most recent work, B(l)ack to fairy tales, she photographically deconstructs fairy tales that played a defining role during her childhood.
I was intrigued by the images in Lebohang’s collection: her face, painted black, a decapitated doll with a blackened face and other images of herself as a clown and a flower. Throughout her collection, she places herself in the role of the fairy tale princess. I wanted to understand the motivation behind her work.
As a child, one of Lebohang’s favourite fairy tales was the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White. She believes that this fairy tale shaped her understanding of beauty, goodness and happiness, “She[Snow White] represented what I understood to be ‘beauty’, she was fair skinned with long, flowy hair…As girl children , we place ourselves in the fairy tale by identifying with the lead ‘good’ character, often the princess, and wish for a Prince Charming that is going to save us so that we live ‘happily ever after”
Lebohang yearned to possess these characteristics of beauty and in Grade 6, she auditioned for the part of Snow White, “I wanted the white skin, long hair, perfect figure and maybe the blue eyes.” But Lebohang not only wanted to possess beauty but goodness as well by embodying the character of Snow White in her school’s annual play. She writes, “As a child, fairy tales had convinced me that those represented beauty and beauty equated to being good and of right moral standing.”
This is disturbing. If Lebohang equated white with goodness, did she perceive herself and her black community as bad?
Also,I am puzzled: How is it possible for Western fairy tales to have such a damaging impact on a black girl growing up in a country with a black majority population?
Like Lebohang, I grew up in a country with a majority black population that had a history of colonialism–the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. I enjoyed watching Disney versions of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. I never longed for white skin or blue eyes. And the princess I remembered role-playing was Pocahontas, a woman of color.
However, I recognize that the South African context is different. Unlike the Caribbean, South Africa suffered under the oppression of apartheid until 1994.
Is it possible that apartheid created fertile ground for the fairy tale to acquire power?
A recent BBC article, Africa: Where Black is not beautiful, in which a famous singer lightened her skin through bleaching suggest that a colonial past has contributed to a general preference in South Africa for lighter skin.
But Lebohang does not mention apartheid. She believes that attending a multiracial school with very few black children and the school’s annual plays about fairy tales damaged her self-image.
“As a child in a multiracial school, with very few black children,that held annual plays about fairy tales, re-instilled my dislocation in this space and I started wanting the long, straight hair and I wished my skin was lighter…”
She speaks about being taught to hate herself.
I would like to know a little bit more about Lehohang’s school experience. What was she taught? How did her classmates and teachers treat her?
Perhaps, the fairy tale became powerful because it functioned in an environment that stressed Western values and ideals of beauty.
But what happened when Lebohang arrived home? Weren’t images of black beauty reinforced? Weren’t African folk tales told?
Lebohang describes a reality where she arrived home from school and played with a white Barbie. And her mother, would arrive home from work too tired to tell her stories.
Yet, Lebohang believes that the power of the fairy tale can be curtailed if it is countered by a culturally specific narrative.
“…fairy tales become dangerous when they aren’t balanced by an equivalent effort by your family to teach you your own stories.”
Growing up in the Caribbean, not only did I watch Western fairy tales but I also read American and European novels like Famous Five, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. However, unlike Lebohang, I attended a predominantly black school and the stories we read were written by Caribbean authors. When I arrived home, I played with my Barbies, they were black and white. Also, my mother, a high school teacher, exposed me to the works of Derek Walcott and other black Caribbean writers.
Western fairy tales weren’t the dominant narrative during my childhood. And therefore they weren’t influential in shaping my beliefs about beauty and goodness.
What do you think:
Does the fairy tale retain its power when it migrates to a non-Western context?
Is the power of the fairy tale neutralized by ensuring that our own stories are the dominant narrative?