Dark, deadly and equivocally dreamy, fairytales are truths told under the guise of fiction in an effort to make the evils of the world more palatable. Maniacal monsters, ghouls, goblins, witches and wolves offer a figurative illustration of the corruptive force that life hurls in the direction of its denizens. But perhaps more sinister than these archetypal genre badasses are the moms and dads who will lovelessly cast their daughter into the cinders or relinquish their children to the woods because they cannot feed them – a point that, in modern society, seems far closer to home than the hellion over the hill. Life has its behemoths and it’s not always the stranger lurking in the gloom. This is the reality of fairytales.
That ‘happily ever after’ thing; sure, it happens but not usually without cost. Cinderella got her prince in the end, so did Aurora and Snow White but at the expense of home, security, friend and family and not without suffering (OK, bar Aurora; all she did was prick her finger and sleep for 100 years…and wake up looking freaking awesome – biyatch). The Little Mermaid got her wish to walk on land with the humans she so longed to be with but every step she took felt as if she were treading upon knife blades so sharp that blood would flow. She also gave up her voice – as in had her tongue cut off – and couldn’t even talk to the prince she had fallen for. And then after all that, she died.
These are the stories we tell our children. And so we should. Life ain’t easy and if Snow White and her posse of princesses can drive that message into the psyche of the world’s future, then God save the sovereign.
And yet still, in spite of the gore and guts spewed up by the story tellers of old, we prefer to focus on the ‘happily ever after’ – perhaps in a subconscious effort to placate a rather stark picture of parental abuse and misdemeanour… “don’t worry” we tell little Suzie, “Hansel and Gretel manage to find their way home and their parents welcome them with open arms” – after near cannibalisation and starvation and only because they had treasure…but we’ll leave those bits out. Fairytales might use fantasy to invoke the stark ambiguity of the human condition but rather than pull punches they expect us to take the cue; to use Hansel and Gretel’s abandonment and consequent effort to survive as a door to conversations about the reality of life: poverty and hardship; that moms and dads make mistakes and that some parents, some people, are just crap; perhaps even a discussion about the irony of happy endings – what happiness means, anyway. The possibilities are endless.
UNICEF recently took the cue, with the launch of a brilliant new campaign that uses the fairytale genre as a vehicle for social commentary. The initiative, entitled “Unfairy Tale” features a two-minute spot telling the story of a seven-year-old Syrian refugee. Malak and the Boat…a journey from Syria starts under the hope and beauty of a starry sky and Malak, a real, live girl, cast in animation, narrates her own story, explaining her fears as she climbs into a small boat with her family and sets off on a journey across the water. The initial magic of the moment dissipates as the sky turns dark and stormy – ominous. Cold water splashes into the boat and the tempestuous sea not only highlights the danger of the voyage but Malak’s fear as she escapes her home into the unknown. A giant octo-squid thing emerges from the depths and towers over Malak as the little girl imagines that “the boat might go down.” And then the sun comes out but Malak is left alone on the boat. Bittersweet survival.
The spot concludes with the message “Some stories were never meant for children.” Even though the campaign uses the fairlytale genre to make a point – that Malak’s story is wrong; that children were never meant to be driven across an ocean on a tiny boat, persecuted by the country of their birth – it also calls fairytale out on its fantasy, arguing the fallacy of the genre conscripted happy ending. Malak is safe but at what cost? In so doing, the campaign poses a challenge to parents…
What do you tell your children about the grim reality ensnared in the tragic charm of Malak’s story. Do you tell them that Malak made it to shore and was reunited with her parents (see Malak’s full story HERE), ignoring the subtext…that some countries are at war; that some governments don’t protect their people. That people get hurt; that children die – washed up on sea shores of foreign lands. Do you tell them about terrorism? That Brandon-from-church is to undergo ‘terror drill’ training at his London school so that the he and his reception-age classmates will know what to do if a jihadi decides to bomb the city. That sometimes people with guns attack people at gigs and restaurants. That sometimes men and women, moms and dads, neighbours, friends and family strap explosives to their chests and blow themselves and other people up?
Hells NO. Right?
But is this irresponsible? Can parents preserve the innocence of their children in the face of obvious threat? This is the world we live in, after all. Perhaps Malak’s Unfairy Tale story offers a solution? A safe way to let our children know that bad things happen but the human spirit can triumph in the face of adversity. A dose of hope and realism in a single shot.
UNICEF is set to unveil a second film, “Ivine and Pillow”, in March 2016 as part of its #NoLostGeneration campaign to mark the five year anniversary of the Syrian conflict. All stories will roll out across UNICEF’s global regions in French, Spanish and Arabic translations.