Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood


My son Ben, who just turned six, is learning so much in kindergarten that he comes home every day breathless with facts. "Wanna know how long an Apatosaurus' neck was?" "Wanna know how an axle works?" "Wanna know how far Mars is from Earth?" My three year-old, Eli, soaks it all up, a disciple at his big brother's knee.

I'm proud of them, but a bit wistful that most of what they're interested in right now - space travel, Lego, dinosaurs- they've identified as Daddy's area of expertise. Ben puts it this way: "Daddy knows about science and building; you know about words." A simplification, perhaps - their dad knows plenty about words, he just doesn't make them his work - but it gets to the heart of things.
So I was pleased recently to watch a movie with the boys and discover a subject in which I am an expert, and they are interested students: the fairy tale. Although I was never a particularly princess-obsessed little girl, I certainly know my Cinderella from my Snow White. I can recognize the different tone of Disney, Anderson, and Grimm. I'm familiar with poison apples, spells that lose their power at the stroke of midnight, fairy godmothers and evil stepmothers. I'm as comfortable with the tropes of fairy tales as my sons are with the smooth click of Lego blocks, and my pulse quickens a bit when I hear the magic words, "Once upon a time."

"Once upon a time in a magical kingdom known as Andalusia, there lived an evil queen. Selfish and cruel, she lived in fear that one day her stepson would marry and she would lose her throne forever. And so she did all in her power to prevent the prince from ever meeting the one special maiden with whom he would share true love's kiss."

So begins Enchanted (Kevin Lima, 2007), and so began the questions.

"Mama, what's a magical kingdom? Why is the queen evil? Why will she lose her power if her stepson gets married? What's true love's kiss?"

We were barely through the opening credits and I had to pause for a quick fairy tale run-down. Of course, neither of my boys has any problem with some of the common elements of the filmed fairy tale, the richly animated world in which animals talk and plants participate in human life, and they are beginning to hear stories with good guys and bad guys. But the particular spin of a fairy tale, in which children are generally motherless, struggling to protect themselves against a new family member (the evil stepmother) was new to them, and troubling.

Well, it troubles me, too. I don't like stories in which young kids are forced to fend for themselves, even with sweet animal helpers. Fairy tales don't present such a world to be anti-mother; they present this world to help children who did, when these stories were first written, commonly suffer the death of their mother, gain stepmothers, and learn to navigate the world independently at a young age. And although we might like to think our world is a lot different now, divorce and remarriage can still destabilize a family as thoroughly as maternal death used to.

So what can fairy tales teach us today? And what can fairy tales, with their typically passive girls waiting for romance, teach two boys who watch Toy Story again and again, breathless at the action sequences, snorting their milk with laughter at the blowhard Buzz Lightyear, but don't know their Belle from their Mulan from their Ariel?

Enchanted offers a terrific opportunity for parents to talk with their children about fairy tale expectations and where they fall short. The first character we see, as the pages of an animated pop-up book slowly turn and the camera zooms into a cartoon world, is the lovely young Giselle (a magical Amy Adams), who lives alone and sings dreamily about searching for her fantasy man. Next we meet Prince Edward (James Marsden), a handsome and slightly witless prince, out troll-hunting with his friend. The hunt bores Edward, and he confesses in song that he really wants to find his true love, the woman made to "finish [his] duet." Giselle and Edward meet moments later, join their song, and agree to marry.

But as Giselle arrives at the castle for the wedding, followed by bunnies and bluebirds and the classic Disney menagerie of animal friends who flutter around to tie her ribbons, she meets up with a wizened old woman who urges Giselle to make a wish in her wishing well. Giselle peers in and whispers her desire for happily ever after. Faster than you can say "evil stepmother," Giselle is pushed down the well. She tumbles down and finds herself, now three dimensional, at the bottom of a sewer; wrenching aside a manhole cover she climbs out into a place where, cackles the fabulously wicked Narissa (Susan Sarandon), "there are no happily ever afters:" live action, present-day New York City.

Enchanted's New York is populated by a rainbow of tough-talking bus drivers, brawny construction workers, and assorted colorful street vendors and buskers. Its portrayals of ethnicity are stereotyped, for sure, but it's a big step for Disney to present a world that's not lily-white. It's a pretty world where everyone in Central Park will join in a song and dance about finding true love, and my boys and I were entranced. It works because of Amy Adams' glorious performance; singing without a hint of self-consciousness or irony, she carries away even the most cynical viewer.

As the film details Edward's search for Giselle, Narissa's attempts to keep them apart, and Giselle's developing relationship with the family that befriends her, it takes full comedic advantage of the culture shock of the innocent Andalusians. Prince Edward tries to slay a New York City bus; Giselle's animal retinue is made up of vermin. She's momentarily grossed out when the flock of pigeons, rats and roaches arrives but swallows hard and says, "Well, it's always nice to make new friends" before launching into a "happy working song" that rhymes "mildew stain" with "hair ball from the shower drain." It's not your typical Disney musical material, but this is one of Enchanted's pleasures: its ability to take up the familiar Disney tools and winkingly refresh them.

Giselle is befriended by Robert (Patrick Dempsey), a good-looking divorce lawyer and single father to a six year-old daughter, Morgan (Rachel Covey). In true Disney fashion Morgan's mom is absent, but in a nod to contemporary realities, she has left the family rather than died. Robert takes Morgan to karate lessons and gives her books about famous women in history instead of the fairy tales she wants; "I don't want to set her up to believe in this 'dreams come true' nonsense," he tells Giselle bitterly. His dream -- marriage to Morgan's mother -- having failed, he's in a long-term relationship where he has evaluated all the couple's strengths and weaknesses ("It sounds like you're building a bridge," his assistant remarks dryly) and is moving cautiously toward marriage. But his girlfriend Nancy, a fast-talking fashion designer with dark hair and dramatic lipstick, is clearly all wrong for the family; her entire affect reads "career woman," and in Disney-land, that still means you can't be a mom. Even my romance-impaired boys could tell that sweet Giselle and wounded Robert were a better couple than Robert and the hard-edged Nancy -- not to mention Giselle and dull Edward -- and were interested to see how it would all work out.

The climax of the film comes at a ball, of course. Edward has found Giselle, who agrees a little reluctantly to return to Andalusia after the dance; Narissa arrives, planning to poison Giselle and whisk her stepson impotently home; Robert still thinks he's going to propose to Nancy. Disney action movie kicks in then, bringing with it many of the formula's plot twists and turns: the evil stepmother gets her comeuppance, but at the hands of the heroine rather than the hero. The clever dialogue keeps pace with the plot as the two couples realize their proper partners and everyone (except Narissa) finds a happy ending.

Narissa and Nancy's endings are problematic, in different ways, for a feminist viewer; Disney puts the full force of fairy tale redemption on Giselle, who manages to recuperate both the stepmother and the working mother image by joining Robert and Morgan's family and taking over Nancy's design studio (with her rodent retinue on staff). Anyone who wants to see a Disney heroine choose an independent life will be disappointed here -- Disney won't stray that far from its formula. But Enchanted works the formula well, and reminds us that there's something beautiful and important about wanting love. I certainly don't mind seeing my boys add that kind of story to their repertoire; it's not the kind of factual story they adore right now, but Enchanted's myths about gender roles operate powerfully in our culture. It's important to understand them, and then to know how much more men and women can be.

Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.

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"the particular spin of a fairy tale, in which children are generally motherless, struggling to protect themselves against a new family member (the evil stepmother) was new to them, and troubling."- Really? I bet if you thought about it more you'd recall other stories they've read/seen with that standard plot device.Did you know that in the brothers grimm first versions of Snow White & Hansel & Gretal it was a mother, not a stepmother. Interesting, huh? Motherless/orphaned kids are everywhere in kids lit & movies. Even Totoro that you reviewed has the missing mom. And Narnia with the witch witch - the epitome of the wicked stepmother! And like every Shirley Temple movie has a dead mom and evil stepmom/orphanage director etc. Luckily her singing mitigates the misery of it all! In Dex's k class they studied Cinderella's from around the world - persian, chinese, mexican etc. - it's a universal story. Since losing a mom is such a primary fear of children, experiencing it through fiction is a safe way to work out those feelings. It seems like nearly every chapter book Sophie reads has at least one absent or dead parent (Little Princess, Secret Garden, Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Unfortunate series of events series, James & the giant Peach, Babar, Bambi, Boxcar Children, etc)I like reading modern takes on fairy tales with my kids too. Try Prince Cinders or The Paper Bag Princess for a feminist spin.
Thanks - that was a fun and illuminating explication of that movie. I enjoyed it immensely, with my kid (4) and her cousins (6 & 9), but more for the anti-saccharine Disney poking fun at itself. Your analysis of the gender issues just adds icing to the cake.
Hi Julie – thanks for the feedback! We do have loads of parent-less stories in our repertoire, of course, and we love them (read Libby Gruner's column on why kids books don't have parents), but this was the first I recall with my kids in which the mom had chosen to leave the family, which troubled Ben. Most of the books you name are ones I'm looking forward to reading with my boys but either haven't gotten to or are a bit too old for my kids still. Enchanted was also the first story in which there was a serious conflict between a parent and child (Narissa and Edward); a conflict over more, that is, then taking a bath or getting home for dinner on time. I'm not saying fairy tales aren't incredibly common and culturally significant, just that – perhaps because I have two boys (perhaps because I'm always looking for new books) – we haven't read them before, or seen any fairy tale movies. You mention the absent mom in Totoro, but the kids do visit her during the movie; I know some for whom that's a movie about an absent/dying mother, but Ben viewed it as an adventure story. That's a lot of the fun of this, isn't it – seeing a story anew through your child's response.
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