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  • Fear of Faerie:Disney and the Elitist Critics
  • Lucy Rollin (bio)

Who's afraid of the fairy tale? I suggest that many people are, especially elitist scholars. I further suggest that their fear is of the religious kind—awe of the tales' power to charm, to cast a spell, to make us unreflective and accepting. This kind of fear has most recently affected the feminists, the Marxists, and, of course, Bruno Bettelheim, all of whom respond directly to the socializing power of the folk fairy tale: as surely as church, school, and the legal system, they believe, the folk fairy tale tells us to be satisfied in our world. But these scholars and critics fear something else even more: they fear Walt Disney. To these critics, Disney represents all that is dangerous about the folk fairy tale and about our society. Their rhetoric reveals their fear, and their arguments are often moral when they purport to be aesthetic.

Feminist critic Marcia Lieberman traces a direct line from Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book (1889), the prototypical mass-marketed fairy tale collection, to Disney's tales: "Only the best-known stories, those that everyone has read or heard, indeed, those that Disney has popularized, have affected masses of children in our culture" (333). For Lieberman, Disney's power over the masses is such that the beauty contest motif, as interpreted by Disney in his versions of the tales, can do harm on a grand scale. Other feminists have been more direct in their attacks. In the Journal of American Folklore, Kay Stone comments that Disney heroines are not only passive but "barely alive" in a "cloying fantasy world" (44). She interviewed forty women in Winnipeg, Minneapolis, and Miami about the fairy tale heroines they most remembered, and was dismayed to find that their memories included only those passive Disneyfied [End Page 90] ones. Stone takes Disney to task for the "false magic" he has substituted for the "powerful fantasy" of the folk tale (44), and complains that "Walt Disney never told us" that there were spunky heroines on whom women could model themselves—she refers specifically to those in the Anglo-American tradition—whose "freedom does not always end at midnight" (50). Such arguments as Lieberman's and Stone's about Disney's choice of tales get rather circular: he chose them because they were popular, and his versions made them more popular, so more people knew them, etc.

Jane Yolen, an excellent critic as well as a fine artist, is more direct than Stone. Since Disney published his version of Cinderella, she avers, "the story in the mass market has not been the same" (302). She excoriates such mass-marketed books as Golden Press's Walt Disney's Cinderella because they "masquerade as literature but make as little lasting literary impression as a lollipop," because the texts are "coy and condescending," and because they present American children "with the wrong dream" (300-302). The Disney versions are "heresies of the worst kind" which "cheapen our most cherished dreams" (299). Like Stone, Yolen accuses Disney of "falsifying magic." The "true magic," she states, is the "magic inside us all—the ability to change our own lives" (299). Yolen thus claims to know the "true" meaning of the tales, and their "true" magic, and what the "right" dream for American children is, and she is terrified of those Disney lollipops which make such an ephemeral literary impression but, one presumes, such a persistent and insidious psychological one. While Jane Yolen is a talented and sensitive writer, these comments seem to be pseudo-literary criticism, using literature to press her own moral view.

In 1965, a famous personal blast at Disney was released by Frances Clarke Sayers, a librarian, storyteller, and writer of children's books. Her salvo was in response to an article by California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Max Rafferty, in which Rafferty praised Disney as "the greatest educator of this century" and Disney products as "lone sanctuaries of decency and health." Mrs. Sayers responded in a letter to the Los Angeles TIMES and shortly thereafter in an interview with the public relations director of the Los Angeles Public Library...


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