30 September, 2017

Conservative Fairy Tales & Liberal Allegories ?

An interesting video essay titled "How CGI Changed Animation" has been making its way across the internet this week. If you have not watched it yet, you really should. The essay's content reaches further than its title would suggest. It is really less about technology than it is about stories--specifically, how the archetypes in our children's stories have changed over the last thirty years. The essayist (Sage Hyden) describes these changes as a shift from "conservative fairy tales" to "liberal allegories." I do not agree with this characterization, but I do think this is a good starting off point for analyzing the stories we raise our children with.

The video places most of the traditional Disney films, ranging from those produced by Walt Disney himself to the Disney Renaissance musicals of the '90s, in the "conservative fairy tale" camp. Hyden does not use the word "conservative" in the familiar sense of "right wing," but rather to mark the  attitude these stories have towards social change. This attitude is subtle but recurring. Film after film suggests that society should be kept more or less as it is. The traditional Disney movie either equates a happy ending with the restoration of a disturbed social order (e.g., the closing scenes of Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, or Beauty and the Beast see the literal restoration of castles and towns to their former beauty), or with the succession of the next generation into a "circle of life" whose roles and rules stretch back through time immemorial (e.g., Bambi, Lion King).

Perhaps a better phrase for these films would be "Mencian fairy tales." Ancient China nerdery is strong among my readers, and most of you probably understand the reference. For those who don't, an explanation: Mencius is a famous philosopher who discoursed his way across the central Chinese plains back in ye olde ancient days. In the textual record he is depicted as the first great Confucian after Confucius himself.  One of his big ideas was that the most important way to ensure stability and happiness of a kingdom is cultivate virtue in its ruler:
Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang. The King said: “My good man, since you did not think one thousand li too far to come and see me, may I presume that you have something with which I can profit my kingdom?” 
Mencius said: “Why must you speak of profit? What I have for you is humaneness and fairness, and that's all. If you always say ‘how can I profit my kingdom?’ your ministers will ask, ‘how can we profit our clans?’ The elites (shi)  and the common people will ask: ‘How can we profit ourselves?’ Superiors and inferiors will struggle against each other for profit, and the country will be in chaos.” 
“In a kingdom of ten thousand chariots, the murderer of the sovereign is usually from a clan of one thousand chariots. In a thousand-chariot kingdom, the murderer of the sovereign is usually from a clan of one hundred chariots. Now, to have a thousand in ten thousand, or one hundred in a thousand is not a small number. But if you put justice last and profit first, no one will be satisfied unless they can grab something.” 
“There has never been a humane man who neglected his parents, and there has never been a just man who put his prince last in his priorities. King, can we not limit our conversation to humaneness and justice? Why must we discuss profit?” [1]
Those are the opening words of the Mencius text, and the rest of the book follows the theme:  if the ruler is a benevolent man who lives up to his responsibilities and plays the role in the political order that ritual, custom, and righteousness dictate he should, then his kingdom ands it people will prosper. For Mencius, politics is ultimately personal. The rise and fall of kingdoms and countries is a matter of character. But this is hardly an idea unique to the Chinese tradition. When Hamlet struts onto the stage and declares that there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark” he does not mean that the state of Denmark needs to adjust its tax rate, or that it the bureaucracy is overstaffed and inefficient, or that the Danish peasantry are being oppressed by the yoke of entrenched intersectional prejudices embedded in its structures of power. Hamlet means that the court of Denmark has nosedived into moral decline, and that the stench of the court’s moral depravity poisons all of the kingdom around it.

So it is with most of these Disney stories. A ruler’s character has a direct effect on his entire realm: In Beauty and the Beast, Beast’s pride and cruelty transforms his picturesque chateau into a ghoulish keep. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s selfishness threatens the entire ocean realm with the terrors of rule by witch-queen. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora’s sulking disobedience leads to a kingdom-wide curse. In The Lion King, Simba’s refusal to shoulder the responsibilities of rulership turns a verdant savannah into an ashen wasteland. In Frozen, Elsa’s fear freezes her people to the point of their starvation.

In the world of Disney fairy tales, character defects have catastrophic consequences. However, the consequences a Disney protagonist's decisions have on his or her subjects is never the focus of these tales. The Lion King is about the king, not his kingdom. In these stories, the kingdoms are used as a visual mirror for a ruler’s character (just as many artsy films use background color templates to suggest what their protagonists are feeling). The focus of Simba’s tale then is always on Simba's soul. The tension that drives its plot forward is not found in a quest to improve the animal kingdom, but in the difficulty Simba has accepting his role within this kingdom. This conflict is resolved when Simba decides to put the obligations he has inherited above his more selfish desires. This is a pattern that repeats across Disney's many Mencian fairy tales.

In the video essay, Sage Hyden notes that traditional Disney fairy tales revolve around issues of identity. But this is really only half the story. Key to the Mencian fairy tale is the recognition that every identity carries with it obligation. This is the message of what may be the most powerful scene in the entire Disney oeuvre:

Simba's path towards reclaiming the savannah begins with the recognition that who he is matters more than want he wants. This tension between desire and duty (in Disney films sometimes called “destiny”) is a recurring Disney fairy tale theme (see Mulan, Frozen, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Brave, Sleeping Beauty). Other Mencian fairy tales take a slightly different tack. In these films identity and destiny are still the main themes, but instead of fielding heroes and heroines who shirk their duties, they follow protagonists whose sense of identity—and by extension, sense of obligation—is torn between two different worlds (see Jungle Book, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Little Mermaid, Hercules, Fox and the Hound). In this case divided loyalty drives the story’s dramatic tension, and the resolution of the story often comes with the protagonist choosing to live in one world or the other.

If we were to condense all of the above into a short outline of the standard Mencian fairy tale story beats , it would go like this: The fairy tale's protagonist is a person who, usually by right of birth (but occasionally because of some innate power or by dint of extraordinary circumstance), carries the weight of an entire social order on her shoulders. The fate of her society depends on the strength of her moral character and her ability or willingness to play the singular role fate has given to her. Her commitment to this role will be tested by her fascination with the world outside of it. A love interest from across this divide will complicate the general picture. Seeing her commitment waver, a villain will take advantage of this attraction with the outside world to unseat our heroine from her rightful place and upturn the existing social order. What was once happy will become troubled; what was bright will be filled with darkness. Victory comes when the villain has been defeated and the world is restored to the joy and color it had of old. The heroine and her love interest then must make a decision as to which of their two worlds they will choose to rule in the future. While the heroine's actions clearly have dramatic consequences for the world at large, the focus of the story has been, from beginning to end, on the heroine’s journey or self discovery and moral development.

That is the basic story. There are variations. Many protagonists are male. Some heroes and heroins are from outside the system (e.g., Aladdin, Mulan, or Belle), though in such cases their love interest will be firmly inside it. The Jungle Book manages to fit this entire journey into its final scene. Frozen replaces a love interest with a sister, and Brave replaces romantic with maternal love. But in the end the decision the heroines of both these films make is essentially the same sort of decision made by their more romantic counterparts: love and duty carry the day, even if the love is of a familial sort. [3]

The story beats of Hyden's "liberal allegories" are very different. His video essay describes the liberal allegory with much more depth than it does the fairy tales,  so I will not take up too much space explaining it's features here. Like the Mencian fairy tale, the liberal allegory starts with the depiction of a happy, functioning social order. However, the workings of this world are always shown in far greater detail than the Mencian fairy tale. These worlds are built up as an integral part of the story, not painted in the background. The protagonist of this allegory is one of two types. He is either what the Hyden dubs “a master of the universe” or an "outcast." The first is a hero who knows how this world works. He has mastered its rules and conventions and is admired and liked by almost everyone around him. If this society has an MVP, he is that man. The second is a character who exists at the margins of the social order, defined by some character trait, skill, idea, or eccentricity that puts him at the bottom of society’s dregs. In either case, disaster soon ensues. This crisis will either force the ‘master of the universe’ character to confront the dystopian underbelly of his society, or it will give a chance for the ‘outcast’ character to show to everyone that his special brand of weirdness is exactly what his society needs to overcome the emergency before them. This sort of story can have a villain, but it does not really need one. The real enemy to be vanquished is a flaw within the social order. This flaw can take many shapes. It some allegories it is social conformity or a stifling class system; in others it is explicit prejudice, or even just hostility to innovation. No matter the error, the ending is the same.  The story concludes on a happy note. Society has been forever changed by the hero’s main actions. Order has not been restored so much as new, shinier version of society has been born.

The Hyden's framing makes you think that the biggest difference between these two types of stories is their attitude towards social change (“liberal” vs. “conservative”). I do not think this is true. It is quite possible to create a liberal fairy tale. Moana is very good example of this. Like Hyden's liberal allegories, Moana opens with a beautiful depiction of an idyllic utopia. It is not long before this ideal-but-conservative society encounters disaster. Neither its traditions nor its authority figures have the power to arrest its progress. The oddball impulses that the islanders' traditions were designed to squelch are (surprise!) the solution to surviving the crisis, and by story's end we are left with a new and improved social order that makes those oddball impulses central to all of society's workings. This all seems to fit the liberal model quite closely. However, there is also something in Moana of the fairy tale mold. Like the Mencian stories of Disney past, Moana's plot is intensely focused on the tension between desire and duty, the fate of its world hangs on the selfishness or selflessness of its heroes. and its story is primarily a tale of personal discovery. The background story of the starving village is liberally conceived, but for most of the tale it is just that--relegated to the background.

The most important difference between the fairy tale and the liberal allegory is that the fairy tale is not really about the social order at all. The societies they depict are simply a setting that makes the real story possible. The allegory tells the story of an entire community; the fairy tale, a story of one or two people. The allegory searches for social change; the fairy tale, moral growth. The allegory says that life's problems are embedded in the structures of the world outside you; the fairy tale replies that their source is embedded deep in the the soul inside you.

Both sorts of stories are unrealistic in important ways. Both give far too much power to their protagonists. The vast majority of individuals will never possess the clout needed to change an entire society, for good or ill. Neither pluckily striving against injustice nor careful cultivation of the soul will bring rain to the grasslands or peace to warring orders. Japanese animation--which so often casts its protagonists as powerless observers of forces too strong to contain or shape--provides a far more realistic depiction of human heroism. [4]  But I don't think we will move towards the Japanese approach anytime soon. It rubs too far against the American grain. We want our heroes to matter in the grand scheme of things. 

So, if we must choose between these two flawed models of social order, which shall we choose? I am for that which most likely to lead individual joy and individual peace: the stories that focus on individuals as individuals, and not as agents of social change. Perhaps the gravest problems we face today are evils found in structure, and are thus on society at large is blame best laid. But no child watching fairy tales has control over these things. Nor will they ever. What they do have control over is themselves. Learning how to balance desire and duty—and learning that we do have duties—will benefit the average child more than an abstract understanding that our worst social ills have been built into the structure of our societies. So few of them will ever be able to change the world. But they will be able to change themselves, and that makes all the difference. 


[1] Mengzi 1A:1.  A. Charles Mueller, trans. "Mencius (Selections)," (last updated 19 June 2017).

[2] Hamlet (1.4)

[3] Interestingly, the two oldest Disney fairy tales, Cinderella and Snow White, don’t seem to follow the pattern!

[4] An intelligent comment was left on youtube(!) in the video essay's thread. It articulates this point well:

 “While Miyazaki films often have messages that could be associated with left wing values in countries like the United States, they don't really follow the formula of liberal subversion of social dogma by an outcast/rebel that is found in most CGI movies cited as examples in this video. In fact, the conflict in Ghibli films often stems directly from social change destroying long existing balances, the "outsider" main character is usually either a "mediator" or "neutral observer" rather than a rebel, with an arc focused mostly on personal growth achieved by observing the parties involved in the conflict, and the resolution usually has either the balance being restored on a happy note or the balance forever destroyed on a sad note.”

Comment left by "abyssal113" (25 Sep 2017) on Sage Hyden, "How CGI Changed Animation," youtube video, 12:16 (posted 22 Sep 2017).

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