Trumplethinskin

Through my social media feed, several weeks ago I came across the name “Trumplethinskin.” The satiric portmanteau’s meaning is clear: President Donald Trump has thin skin. The phrase appears as a Twitter hashtagFacebook hashtag, and Facebook profile page under the category of “fictional character.” K. S. Wiswell has written a modern-day revision of “Rumplestiltskin,” casting Trump as the titular character, Congress as the ruler, and the American citizenry as the queen required to spin straw into gold. My favorite iteration of the trend comes in this (far more detailed than I am used to) political cartoon by Debbie Spafford:

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I was delighted at the viral spread of political critique couched in the terms of a fairy tale reference. If nothing else, this gives me a contemporary parallel to consider when contextualizing my dissertation on Cold War fairy tales and the subtle political critiques I see within. I love how ripe the fairy tale genre is for political critique. Both politics and fairy tales are elements of popular culture. It is commonly accepted that “everyone” knows fairy tale references, so they easily connect readers to each other using a common mythology. Politics, too, is well-known to everyone. Even the percentage of the population who knows little to nothing about the wonkier aspects of political work knows who the President is and that he retaliates with angry, aggressive Tweets on Twitter when he feels that he has been insulted by others. (This, of course, is a symptom of having figuratively thin skin.)

But why connect Trump and Rumplestiltskin? It may be as simple as the fact that “thin skin” and “stiltskin” rhyme and so may easily be substituted, and the same goes for “Trump” and “Rump.” In fact, I think that this is the primary reason I have seen the phrase disseminated as widely as I have.

However, I immediately see connections between the Grimms’ fairy tale hypotext and the contemporary phrase that could indicate a deeper reason for the term’s resonance. Both the figure of Rumplestiltskin and the figure of Trump, archetypes as they are in the popular imagination, bring to mind deal-making, self-destructive behavior, and the power of the name.

Rumplestiltskin is the story of an imp who appears to a woman stuck in an impossible situation. She must spin straw into gold or else be murdered by her husband; Rumplestiltskin is able to perform this labor for her in exchange for her firstborn child. After the child comes, she begs for a chance to redeem her child, and he agrees on the condition that she guess his name. When she does name him and deny him her child, Rumplestiltskin tears his body down the middle and disappears.

Donald Trump has been in the public spotlight for decades. He has been such a well-known public figure, even before he became the 45th President of the United States, that his IMDB profile lists him appearing as himself in every one of his credited acting appearances (with the sole exception of his appearance in Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, where he actually seems not to actually appear). This shows that he has attained status as the archetypal businessman, in order for these cameos to hold meaning for the audience. This business acumen is reinforced by the title of his personal growth book, Trump: The Art of the Deal. In this deal-making capacity, he makes sense as a Rumplestiltskin figure.

As President, Trump has behaved in certain ways to turn public opinion against him. 538 shows his approval rating as 45.5% approval/41.3% disapproval on his 4th day of office, 44.8% both approval and disapproval on day 14, and 50.2 disapproval and 42.9 approval on day 40–approval ratings are dropping while disapproval ratings are increasing. Gallup shows the same trend: approval and disapproval were both 45% on 1/22/17, but by 2/27/17 disapproval ratings are 54% while approval ratings are 42%. His executive decisions that seem to put “the swamp” in charge of the nation instead of cleaning it out has acted against his administration’s self interest. In this and the way his new position has affected his name brand, he is behaving self-destructively.

Ultimately, all of this has come to harm the Trump brand. In the beginning of February, The New York Times wrote that several major companies have been pulling away from Trump-branded products. This is in response to consumer trends; consumers do not want to support the Trump family as they rule the country. This continued nearly two weeks later, specifically with Trump’s daughter Ivanka’s brand. NPR, by contrast, reports that the brand name’s value has increased, but this is only within his core base. Either way, consumers are reacting to his branded properties according to how they feel about his performance as President because his name on those properties makes their private economic choices a political statement.

Because this moniker is so catchy and descriptive on its own, I expect this new nickname to become permanently attached to Donald Trump. With the added context of the “Rumplestiltskin” fairy tale as well, the nickname shows how fertile fairy-tale references are for political critique for an audience like America. We share very little in terms of a common mythology, and since we overwhelmingly want our commentary immediately understandable, fairy tale references are the best way to connect audience to argument with a generally-understood shorthand.

Fairy-Tale Advertisements

I’m going to start out with a commonplace: everyone in America has heard of fairy tales. Most people probably haven’t heard of “The Goose Girl” or Baba Yaga, and I certainly won’t claim most people are familiar with protagonists who don’t have a unique name, but everyone has heard of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. They permeate our culture too thoroughly for anyone to have escaped these references. The same few tales have been reinforced over and over, in endless retellings and allusions, from Disney movies to art works to political cartoons to advertisements. Most of the tales we are familiar with descend from the Grimm Brothers or from Hans Christian Andersen, thus reducing our common canon to a dozen or so literary fairy tales from Western Europe. This narrow knowledge base is much wider, of course, for those with more literary tastes, but my point remains that everyone in America, even those less knowledgeable on most fronts, has in their minds some version of the plots of these few fairy tales.

I’ve been teaching the analysis unit to my Writing 2 students. It’s a good way to begin the semester; the genre asks students only to use one source and whatever reasoning power is already in their heads. It’s not quite the confidence builder the personal narrative is for Writing 1 (since absolutely no one is as much an expert on their lives as they are themselves), but it is an appropriate easing-in assignment for a more advanced class.

Rather than having my students analyze some written text, I have made this a visual analysis unit specifically focusing on the advertisement. That means that I can show my students some of the many fairy-tale advertisements that have been uploaded to the internet over the years. The fairy-tale subject matter serves to give my students further confidence that they know enough to give an insightful analysis of how the ad works to appeal to an audience. The very term “folklore” should tell students that they cannot be excluded from the tradition as long as it exists; it exists for all of the folk. The students, after all, as I have claimed above, have grown up in the “cauldron of story” exposing them again and again to the same tales used in the ads. In fact, a lifetime of advertisements making use of fairy-tale motifs has reinforced the students’ understanding of the plots of these stories and what these tales mean to our culture.

After I hand out the analysis unit assignment sheet, I always project this advertisement making use of the Little Red Riding Hood imagery to argue for new gun laws onto the screen for my students to analyze as a class.

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Student response can be summed up in two reactions of class consensus. First, students quietly identify significant images and words in the ad, telling me what it says. They decline to judge whether the ad is successful at appealing to an audience. Second, students loudly start reacting against the ad, claiming that the reasoning is faulty because “guns don’t kill people” and it’s wrong to imply that people who have guns would ever endanger a child by doing so. Perhaps I should expect the second reaction, since I do teach people who for the most part have grown up in rural Mississippi. The first reaction, however, surprises me. Students who do not show emotion regarding the right to bear arms also do not show emotion toward encountering the “low art” of a fairy tale in a college classroom? When I first prepared this lesson plan, I expected students to be more interested in seeing a familiar reference from their childhoods. I imagine that this image might go over better in a different area of the country, since the juxtaposition of childhood innocence and violent gun death seems to overwhelm their immediate analytical skills. I might refine my presentation to make this Powerpoint more effective. There are a great many ads that use fairy tales to sell their product, so I can use a more benign presentation first as a lead-up to this more shocking ad. Are there any fairy-tale advertisements you know of that you would suggest as examples for analysis? Do you have any suggestions for structuring this lesson?

To date, I have had my students find their own images about which to write an essay,  instructing them to focus on luxury ads or World War II propaganda, but I have never tasked my students with analyzing fairy-tale themed ads. Over the years I have amassed a large enough collection of fairy-tale ads to give my students a wide variety of choices, so the next time that I teach this unit I believe that this is how I will focus the assignment. I will link to the ones I know about below, and I would be grateful if my readers would contribute further ads in the comments. As well, do you know about any fairy-tale pedagogy that I should know before embarking upon a whole fairy-tale unit?

As you can see from the following links, the Fairy Tale News blog is a wonderful source for this sort of collection.