Don’t you love Freud? Neither do I. Too bad I’ve got to work with him, since I’m writing a paper about fairy tales and psychoanalysis. Hah! How about that?

Here’s the thing: even though I hate to admit it, there’s more to psychoanalysis than finding phallic symbols. If that was all there was, it’d be easy to snap my fingers and dismiss the entire field. “What, that stuff? Useless for fairy-tale scholars. Pass me some of those cookies!”

But it isn’t that simple. Those darn psychoanalysts won’t stop coming up with useful concepts. Especially that Lacan. Darn that man! After the jump, you’ll find some musings I recently presented about fairy tales, psychoanalysis, and what happens when the two meet.

Let’s start with a little Lacanian mirror-theory. When a fragmented subject looks into a mirror, it perceives a non-fragmented whole with which it then identifies itself. For Lacan, this is an illusion. We are actually fragmented, and the idea that we are somehow “whole” is one we get by seeing “whole” people walk around, or by looking at ourselves in a mirror. Lacan calls this process “imaginary,” and it’s part of his great Trinity of registers of experience: Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real.

But that’s a little beside the point. What we care about is this so-called “mirror stage” which, according to Lacan, is part of childhood development. But I (and others, like Bettelheim, who we’ll get to) think this “mirror stage” also happens when children read fairy tales.

Think about it. How many times have we seen young girls watching Disney Princess movies or gazing at brightly-colored storybooks, identifying with perfect Princesses, wishing themselves into the depicted happy endings? In this work I posit that the ways in which this identification occurs – and the reigning psychoanalytic interpretation of this event – is extremely problematic. I pose a solution to the problem that abandons neither the fairy tales nor psychoanalytic interpretation, but rather seeks to de-simplify their relationship.

I’m not the only one who sees the mirror-stage in fairy tales. Bruno Bettelheim (his book, The Uses of Enchantment is a “classic”) directly relates the mirror-stage and the experience of reading fairy tales, saying: “As soon as a child begins to move about and explore, he begins to ponder the problems of his identity. When he spies his mirror image, he wonders whether what he sees is really he, or a child just like him standing behind this glassy wall. […] The child asks himself: ‘Who am I? Where did I come from? How did the world come into being? Who created man and all the animals? What is the purpose of life?’ […] Fairy tales provide the answers to these questions, many of which the child becomes aware of only as he follows the story” (Bettelheim, p. 47).

Of course, this reading ends up being very problematic. The fairy tale characters that the child is using as its mirror image are not in fact pondering these questions, and neither does the traditional fairy tale genre. Does Cinderella spend periods sunk in introspection, asking herself who she is and what her search for a prince means for her identity? No. As a rule – at least in the German canon of which both Bettelheim and I are speaking – fairy tale characters are types (Princes, Witches, Miller’s Daughters and Youngest Sons) and act according to a pre-determined script (young moderately well-off girl loses her mother, endures hardships, eventually wins prince). What they do not do is act as self-determined an self-reflecting individuals, out to seek out their identities. They don’t do this because they don’t need to. Their identities have already been given to them by their place in the fairy tale’s hierarchical world.

So…thinking of these characters as deep-thinking subjects, and identifying with them in this way, is extremely problematic. Having a role model who is literally and figuratively 2D is a bad plan. The problem is compounded when psychoanalysts like Bettelheim read things like identity and motivation into fairy-tale character’s unexplained and sometimes unexplainable actions, encouraging the type of “imaginary” identification which young children – such as my cousin Madison, who thinks Sleeping Beauty is *fantastic* – are already prone to. How are we to combat such identification, which can actually – as everything from fairy tale weddings to restrictive gender roles shows – be quite dangerous?

One possible “solution” is to write different fairy tales, and do away with the old ones. If we want to build a new society with liberated individuals, we should provide them with new heroes to emulate, ones who represent more progressive gender-roles, perhaps. The former Soviet Union did this with a vengeance, creating an almost entirely new fairy tale culture. (If you’re interested, see this post.

But of course, this solution doesn’t get rid of the problem of imaginary identification. It just ignores it.

Another solution would be to embrace the classical canon as it is, since it is already so wildly popular, and advocate that children consume a wider variety of fairy tales than they currently do. Instead of focusing on the Princess/Prince tales, which present one type of typological hero and, ergo, the same narrative, one could advocate for exposing children to the classic comedic tales as well, and even classical tales that subvert traditional paradigms, like “The Peasant’s Clever Daughter.” Again, this “solution” does not eliminate imaginary identification, but rather seeks to work around it by exposing children to what amounts to many mirrors; instead of being presented with one whole, shiny and transfixing self/happy end, they can see that a wide variety of narratives are possible. Bettelheim’s “who am I?” question does not always have to have one answer. I lean towards this solution, since it subtly redefines what is considered to be the typical fairy tale narrative – Prince and Princess, Witch and Kiddies – without ever actually leaving the classical canon’s familiar terrain.

Yet a problem still remains. How is one to grapple with the fact that it is still possible for a child who is exposed to all sorts of fairy tales to identify with “the wrong one” – to see herself as a Snow White to be rescued by a Prince – and then, through an act of self-insertion into the fairy-tale narrative, end up living a make-believe happy-end story in the real world? I do not think that such a possibility can be avoided entirely, especially when dealing with a genre so deceptively simplistic as fairy tales. However, after we have stipulated that children be exposed to a wide variety of fairy tales instead of to just one typological narrative, the role of psychoanalysis in relation to the fairy tale begins to change. Psychoanalytic readings of fairy tales cease to be psychoanalytic readings of fairy tales – hunting for phallic symbols here, asking questions like “What is the meaning of life?” there, and promoting imaginary child-to-fairy tale type identification. Instead, psychoanalytic readings of fairy tales become psychoanalytic readings of visions. Psychoanalytic readings no longer promote subject-to-type identification, but instead analyze that identification when it occurs. If the analysis takes this form, psychoanalytic readings no longer focus on imaginary identification – or the fairy tale as acting upon the subject – but on the subject expressing him or herself through the fairy tale; their identification with the tale becomes a way for the subject to express, in pre-existing literary form, a piece of their core self. The fairy tale’s use by the reader thereby comes into the forefront. I am not suggesting that this method of reading fairy tales is unproblematic, but I do believe that it represents a step forward from looking at imaginary identification with fairy tales as a positive, uncomplicated and unharmful process.

…Whew. And that’s that. These musings are by no means finished…tomorrow I’m delving into Freud, and writing an intricate, brooding paper about what to do with fairy tales and psychoanalysis. After that, I’ll write a snarky, less brooding post about it. 🙂

So what do you think? Just how problematic is imaginary identification with fairy tales?

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