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.
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.