Today we’re wrapping up our series on “Disney, Fairy Tales, and Feminist Theory”—a Theological and Cultural Engagement class taught by Dr. Kj Swanson last summer. In this interview, Katie Lin, MA in Counseling Psychology student, reflects on fairy tales (like dreams and play) as an avenue to the unconscious, and how this class complements the rest of her learning at The Seattle School. You can catch up on posts by Dr. Swanson and other students from the class here.
What first drew you to this class?
I’ve always been drawn to imagination and fantasy and children’s stories. I grew up in the Czech Republic, so I remember as a little kid noticing that different cultures have really different fairy tales, and that the kinds of fairy tales that I would hear from school, from my peers, were really different. They were influenced by Slavic, more Russian fairy tales, compared to the Brothers Grimm and Disney.
And the fact that I am pregnant and am going to have a baby soon. I was thinking, if it’s a girl, I want something to help me think through Disney princess culture. There’s a lot of stuff that I find problematic, but at the same time I don’t want to deprive a child of mine of a lot of joy that can come from that whole world. And if it’s a boy, I thought the class might still be helpful. Because patriarchy has harmed both men and women, even if men don’t always recognize it.
For example, we were watching Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and the group I was in was looking at how men were portrayed in the movie. I noticed that Prince Charming has very, very few lines—in fact in his song at the end, he’s saying, ‘I have but one song…but one heart, steady and true.’ He only gets to play one role. He really doesn’t need to be on screen at all, because we already know what his role is. He’s in some ways just as restricted as Snow White is, in terms of his choices and options. Like, what if he didn’t want to save the princess? What if he wanted to, I don’t know, go be a poet?
How do you see this class complementing the rest of what you’re learning at The Seattle School?
I’ve been thinking about my internship—I’m hoping to work with kids. And even though fairy tales weren’t originally written for children, one thing I really liked in the class was paying close attention to stories that are often about children and are often dealing with deep, primal human longings and terrors. As I think about working with kids therapeutically, the main way that children communicate is through play. Fairy tales, play, and dreams are all areas that the larger culture tends to see as meaningless—at best neutral, at worst frivolous. But I think all three of those areas have almost a direct line to your unconscious. In our Psychopathology class I learned that every dream is significant, and I think the same thing with the stories we tell and the way children play. This class was a great, practical way of giving me sharper ears, or at least a desire to pay closer attention to those avenues to the unconscious.
“This class was a great, practical way of giving me sharper ears.”
What did you focus on for your final project?
We were given the option: you could either write a research paper or do an artistic project, like writing (or rewriting) an original fairy tale. I wanted to rewrite Cinderella, but from the perspective of the stepmother. We had studied one modern retelling of Snow White by Neil Gaiman, where it’s from the Queen’s perspective, and you end up sympathizing with the Queen, but at the expense of Snow White. That’s one thing you see a lot in fairy tales—it’s the psychological concept of splitting. A lot of the characters, especially the female characters and mother figures, are usually just purely good and angelic, or like demonic and totally evil and one-dimensional. There’s not usually any room for any nuance. As I’m becoming a mother I think about all the emotional baggage with my own mom that I’ve been processing over the last couple years, and I’m struggling with bringing the split together. How can the same mom who I received comfort and nurture and affection from also be a mom who, in some ways, neglected me and harmed me?
So I was somewhat personally invested in wanting to write a story where we’re exploring how we can bring the split closer together, without sacrificing Cinderella for it. I wanted to find a way that the stepmom and Cinderella—that you still are rooting for both of them, and yet hard stuff still happens, where the stepmom is put into a place where she has to make some really terrible choices because of things outside of her control.
It seems really meaningful to take a concept like splitting, which you’re learning about theoretically in other classes, and explore it in a new form that feels so alive—both the writing of a nuanced, complex story and the art of oral storytelling.
A good friend of mine, Aubrey, is an amateur oral storyteller. Starting in middle school she composed elaborate, detailed stories in her head and just kept them all in her head, and in college she would tell these stories out loud to another friend and me. So I very much wanted to try to do that, to tell it orally, because I had never experienced anything like that—it was so engaging and immediate, more addicting than a really good TV show. When we’d hear her stories, it felt like this must be what it would have been like in the village around the campfire, after the huntsmen came back, all the feasting and telling stories. It was really bonding. So I wanted to try my hand at that.
One writer I like, Lois McMaster Bujold, once said in an interview that the way she writes her plots is she gets her characters, and then she asks herself, what is the worst thing that could happen to this character? She does that twice, and then she works them out of the mess. I wanted my story to still be recognizably Cinderella, so I had to get them into a position where Cinderella has to do drudgery and manual labor most of her life, but I didn’t want it to be because the stepmom is really cruel. Only desperation would drive them to this situation where you would actually recognize it as Cinderella, so I had to think about outside systems and supernatural circumstances that might make them that desperate.
On the final day of class there was this fairy tale festival—classmates and guests gathered together to witness the final projects. What was it like for you to finally share this story?
It was scary and exhilarating. I had worked really hard to memorize it, not word for word, but to be able to tell the story without any notes, because I wanted to give the people in the class the experience that I got to have with my friend Aubrey—the experience of that eye contact, the immediacy of the story. If I were to have read it, then I think that puts the text itself as the main focus. Whereas if I’m telling it off book, then it’s the connection between us, between me as the storyteller and you as the listener, that’s the main attention and the main focus. It ended up being really exciting, and I felt the energy in the room. I could sense people’s responses, both at the pit of despair of the story and the eucatastrophe at the end—it was really special to share that.