For hundreds of years, stories have been used to teach children about morality and ethics. Indeed, many of the same myths, legends and fairy tales have been handed down from generation to generation, remaining largely intact.
However, these myths also contain hidden meanings that illuminate the cultural or historical aspects of their origin.
The first part of this paper studies the literature examining hidden meanings, cultural norms and morals that are embedded in myths and fairy tales.
The second part of the paper looks at how these meanings and cultural norms get imbued and reproduced in the minds of their audience - primarily children.
Aside from serving as a vehicle for reproducing cultural norms, this paper looks at the psychological and social uses of storytelling. In the third part, this paper looks at how psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim maintain that storytelling can serve a therapeutic value for the individual. Finally, the paper studies literature concerning how myths also serve an ideological purpose and, through critical appropriation, how these stories could also have a subversive value.
Since this paper examines the transmission of cultural norms through stories, it becomes necessary to define what constitutes "culture" itself. In The Silent Language, Edward Hall (1973) defines culture as "the way of life of a people, for the sum of their learned behavior patterns, attitudes and material things" (20). As such, culture encompasses a wide body of a people's practices, behavior and beliefs. Furthermore, Hall maintains that though individual cultures may vary through time, people search for stability and continuity by locating parts of culture that remain constant. This is done through "identifying a common particule or element that can be found in every aspect of culture" (20).
One aspect common to all cultures is the aspect of mythology. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell (1988) defines a myth as "stories about gods" (22). These stories, however, serve two distinct functions. Myths serve to explain natural phenomena and help people to locate their place within the natural order. Myths also serve a sociological purpose, by linking a person to a particular social group.
In Myth and Meaning, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1979) believes that as the world undergoes rapid technological change, myths are no longer needed to explain natural phenomena. After all, modern science has served to colonize many aspects of human life, and many things that our ancestors had found mysterious and unknowable had been de-mystified and explained.
However, Levi-Strauss argues that not all explanations can be reduced to their smallest particles, the same way a piece of music is not reducible to its separate notes. In culture, the meanings are not necessarily linear or sequential. In addition to science, Levi-Strauss suggests that all cultures possess the same essential sophistication of thought. A culture's myths hide perceptions that are no longer needed by modern society or individuals. For example, most human societies no longer explain thunder as a result of the actions of gods.
However, myths get passed on, largely because they continue to hold meanings. Though these perceptions may no longer explain natural phenomena, Levi-Strauss argues that they could still be read as explanations of cultural phenomena.
Jack Zipes is the foremost authority on the social and cultural meanings of stories and fairy tales. Through an approach heavily influenced by Marxism, the Frankfurt School and Walter Benjamin, Zipes has written several works that tease out the social-cultural content of European fairy tales.
In The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, Zipes (1988) examines the social conditions that served as a backdrop to the Grimms' stories. The early chapters focus on the lives of the brothers Grimm and the culture in which the original storytellers grew up. These biographies serve to illuminate aspects of their tales that may seem peculiar, such as a girl chosen over her brothers to be heir to the family's wealth.
Through this collection of essays, Zipes (1988) illustrates how fairy tales are, in a large part, shaped by society. To understand the tales, Zipes provides a guidebook through the enchanted forests of their creation.
In another example, Stanley Rosenman (2000) examines the social roots of the Pied Piper fable in his journal article "The Pied Piper of Hamelin: Folklore encounters malevolent cults." Rosenman traces the Pied Piper back to the medieval fairy age and suggests several social reasons for the story's dark resolution.
Rosenman looks at the various historical circumstances that may have contributed to the story.
For example, in 1212, during the Inquisition, thousands of children were taken from the Byzantine Empire and never returned. The Black Death spread through Europe from the mid-13th century, resulting in a plague that killed half of Europe's population. Since labor in the grain and milling center of Hamelin became scarce during this time of death, many members of the nobility sought youngsters as workers by falsely promising good wages and a better life.
However, Rosenman believes that the foundation of the Pied Piper lies in the society's "mesh of self mutilating behavior (and) merciless childrearing." The middle ages, after all, saw the treatment of children in ways that would be considered brutal in any culture. Infanticide was common and children were often sold as slaves or used as hostages to pay debts. Rosenman sees that "in the creation of...the Pied Piper of Hamelin, folk wisdom tried to confront the torquing of psyches from the maltreatment of children that was in fashion during the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe."
Feminist theorists have looked at how these fairy tales expose cultural norms regarding patriarchy. In their study of classical fairy tales like Cinderella, Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber (2000) conclude that these stories "recount true female experience under patriarchy, a world in which innocent young women are set against their sisters and mothers in rivalry for the affection of males."
More recent fairy tales or children's stories also reflect prevailing cultural norms regarding race. In her study of the 1920s Brownies' Book series, Fern Kory (2001) exposes the racial undertones of new children's fiction in the early part of the 20th century. Kory observes that the prevailing children's fiction enforced racist assumptions through non-existent African-American children and adults. When presented, African-Americans were stereotyped as the "dark cooks" or the "colored workers." The more overt forms of racism include the practice of spelling "Negro" with a lower-case n and through the strategic use of estranging dialect.
In summary, these studies have shown that in addition to overt moral lessons, myths and fairy tales also contain hidden meanings. Campbell (1988) and Levi-Strauss (1977) both believe that many of these meanings are cultural and social, and that the social constructions of myths are a cross-cultural constant. In a few case studies, Zipes (1988) and Rosenman (2000) tease out the social events and practices that underlie the construction of many fairy tales. Fisher and Silber (2000) and Kory (2001) contribute to the field by illustrating the patriarchal and racial assumptions that are embedded in classical and modern children's tales.
Transmission of Cultural Norms
In addition to the identification of these cultural norms, many studies have been done to see how these ideas are transmitted to their main audience - children.
Elizabeth Yeoman (1999) finds many examples of how dominant discourses get imposed on the minds of children. For example, when asked to draw a princess, a young girl with dark skin drew a figure with yellow hair. When asked to explain, the girl said "Well, (the princess) was good, so I wanted to make her pretty."
Despite the proliferation of alternative images in children's literature and other media, Yeoman observes, "white images of goodness and beauty are still vastly more pervasive." Among other factors, Yeoman cites storylines and exaggerated images in Disney cartoons that serve to reproduce racism (Yeoman 1999).
In addition to racial stereotypes, the Yeoman study also identified several ways in which classical fairy tales provoke a gendered response.
For example, she found that the girls favored "upside down" fairy tales with independent heroines while the boys preferred more traditional male heroes. Yeoman believes that the girls' preferences were due to their greater familiarity with "alternative gender images." The difference lies in the boys' and girls' different need to identify with a hero/heroine of the same sex. The girls therefore tended to identify with the independent heroines while the boys did not. In addition, the boys did not align themselves with the weak and silly princes typical of this genre. Yeoman concludes that there is a need for more engaging alternative heroes for boys and that a more in-depth study of children's engagement with heroes and heroines would enrich our understanding of this complex area.
Not every psychologist, however, subscribes to role socialization theory. Bruno Bettelheim (1989), for example, insists that in the story of Rapunzel, there is no reason why a boy should necessarily identify with the prince over the imprisoned Rapunzel. He writes, "a fairy tale -…