Does censoring Fairytales ultimately harm our children?
The issue of censorship in children’s literature is one, which will always be present, parents and teachers will always be worried about exposing children to the harsh realities of the world before their time. Although a debate which will most likely never be solved, it is important for us to understand the consequences of both censoring our children’s lives, and over exposing our children. I want to explore why it is literature – specifically fantasy – that always draws such great conflicts between the masses, and why it is a question that will never be solved.
The printing boom of the 18th century brought tales from central Europe into a permanent form. Writers such as Charles Perrault and Madame LePrince De Beaumont were recording printed copies of oral tales that will have the opportunity to live on forever. However when writing these tales they were directed at adults, Beauty and the Beast was written in the parlours of Paris for outlandish audiences of often drunk women. Perrault was hired to write his tales for King Louis XIV of France. These original French tales were written for the upper classes and featured murder, rape and incest. Although this may sound almost unheard of for fantasy tales in the 21st century, Perrault was writing in a time riddling with superstition and genuine belief of magical creatures and worked as a warning towards those of an upper class audience of what could happen if you loose your wealth and security in life.
A famous theorist Bruno Bettelheim wrote a classic study ‘The uses of enchantment’ in 1976. This study talks of the importance of fairytales in popular culture and a child’s growth. This psychoanalysis of the child and fairy-tale teaches us about how children use literature for growth. ‘The uses of Enchantment’ talks us through a child’s growth. We learn through Bettelheim of a child’s need to restrain their primitive urges, learning to respect people, value social relationships, gain individually and self-esteem. Young children however are often unaware of what they are going through, they rarely understand the source of their confusion, and even if they did understand they would not have reached a level in emotional development to express and face up to it. Children therefore need a way of dealing with these developments, which they can understand, using fairytales and enlightenment they can confront the confusion in their unconscious by bringing them to the conscious without being overwhelmed. This is the point in which a fairy-tale becomes more than just a shiny Disney film with a ‘happily ever after’.
With this in mind, we realize that fairytales are a vehicle for unconscious material to become conscious stories offering symbolic representations of a child’s deepest wishes and fears. Through reading and watching fairytales children can empathise unconsciously with the characters and narrative, putting themselves into the plot of a story. These stories are of course, filled with so much magic and fantasy that they make beautiful stories to keep the child transfixed in an enchanted world, and letting themselves feel safe and opening up their unconscious to themselves.
Using Freud’s characters of the Psyche we can see how the unconscious messages in fairytales help the growth of a child’s ID, Ego and Super-ego. On the surface the Super-ego is fed the simple morals, told that it is bad to kill, good to love and respect. However on more unconscious levels the ego is given a physical representation and body to help the child understand the importance of moral compromise. The ID however is something, which the fairy-tale must try and contain, a child must learn to control their urges and animal instinct, to let go of their oedipal complex (if you so believe in it). A fairy-tale provides a child with a distance between their own emotions while giving them the reassurance to deal with them.
It is impossible to notice that the most popular and remembered fairy-tales of the 20th and 21st century is those produced by Walt Disney. The Disney fairy-tale is one that has taken over the printed fairy-tale and given children a physical enchantment to emerge themselves into. However it is often argued that Disney have abused their power, and expurgated the fairy-tale to a point of being unrecognisable. So why are they still so popular with both parents and children? Disney have produced a shiny fairy-tale, with a happily ever after, however by editing out the sexual relationships, the anger and murder and most importantly the empowerment of imagination Disney has taken away the unconscious of a child. There is no longer the unconscious messages teaching children how to deal with the Oedipal complex and any mention of incest or rape is not present. By removing these it also removes the growth of a child’s ego. The child is not given multiple scenarios of how to deal with their growth, but simply told that ‘this is right’ and ‘this is wrong’. When we look at the messages that are being sent by these films we see that although there is not physical violence or abuse towards women, there is mental abuse towards women. The Disney tales lead girls to believe that they will become princess, but what does that consist of? Getting married and living in a castle, and no doubt looking after that castle. These films are not giving children, especially women the belief that they can make something worthwhile with their lives, there is no mention of careers or doing something for themselves, they must live for their husbands. This lack of exposure may lead children to believe that their wishes can’t come true, unless their wish is to get married to a prince.
There is the argument that children who are raised in a bad environment grow up to be bad themselves, children of alcoholics often end up alcoholics themselves etc. If there are enough bad things already surrounding our children why should we introduce more to their lives through literature? Although expose to death, rape and murder are not something you would ever initially dream of showing your child at a young age, a lot of people believe that using arts and modern media would be the best way to expose your child to these things. Lateralization of brain function has been studied for the past 100 years and has proven how our brain functions in two separate hemispheres. Using scientific advances such as MRI scans we can see how the brain reacts to different situations. The right brain deals with the unconscious, symbolism, morals, religion, literature, arts etc. and the left-brain deals with the literal and logistics of life. We see that when exposed to a negative situation, our brain will try and use the arts to understand what has happened. Therefore if a child is exposed to the death of a loved one at a young age, seeing this represented through stories will help the unconscious to understand and mourn. Dr. Harry Eiss writes in Metaesthetics of children with sever mental disabilities, these children all manage to express themselves through right-brain functions, from ballet to drawings. If we censor these from our children then where will they turn when exposed to these difficulties in later life? Children need to use these right brain functions to express things that they have not yet learnt to deal with.
However an argument for censorship in fairy-tales is that rape and murder doesn’t need to be in stories the story can continue without the terrible doings. Disney has managed to recreate all fairytales without violence or rape, you can still have sleeping beauty without the rape, Cinderella’s sisters do not need to cut off their feet and Little Red certainly doesn’t need to be murdered. These things do not bring anything to the story, except unneeded fear to the child. We must also no where to draw the line, if we let children read fairy-tales filled with murder then are we any different to the parents that teach their children neo-Nazi beliefs? Every parent has their own ideas of what is right and wrong for their children, and it will never be possible to please every parent. Yet all parents can agree that they never wish for their child to witness murder or rape so surely we should censor these tales that include them.
No matter how far we come with science and phycology we will never truly understand the human condition or what is truly beneficial to how we live. Therefore where some people will believe that it is bad for their children to read anything controversial, it is there choice, we can not control how parents raise their children. However this also means that other parents should not control how others raise their own children, and requesting to ban books in libraries and schools does this to a child as it restricts other parent’s choices for their child. Although I believe there is a level of which parents should censorship their children, it is a completely personal choice from a family to family basis and therefore do not think there will ever be a complete out ruling of certain books, films or video games. There are arguments both for and against the censorship of fairy-tales, yet using psychoanalysis and physical experiments on the brain we can see that often, it would be more harmful to our children to not be exposed to the negativity and violence in fairy-tales.