Seizing the Means of Enchantment: What Fairy Tales Can Teach Us About Class and Wealth in the Age of the Mega-Corporation
Class systems are not fixed in fairy tales—in fact, fairy tales would almost seem to argue for the redistribution of wealth.
This isTales for Willful Readers,a column by Cate Fricke on the lasting power of folk and fairy tales, how they have influenced us individually and collectively, and the lessons they offer for modern life.
In November 2016, a woman named Yeweinisht “Weiny” Mesfin died of a heart attack in her car, which was parked in the lot of a gym where she would regularly shower and use the restroom. Weiny was homeless; her loved ones either didn’t know this about her, or didn’t know where she parked her car. And so she died alone, and was not discovered for a month.
Weiny was a full-time Disney employee who worked the eight-hour graveyard custodial shift six nights a week at Cars Land in Disney California Adventure in Anaheim. Vanessa Munoz, a heartbroken former coworker, describes in a piece written for Left Voice how Weiny’s death forced her to reckon with the true cost of working for a paycheck that can’t even cover the cost of an apartment: “She didn’t have enough money to get her own place and my heart broke because all she did was give and give. Never once did she complain. But behind that smile and ‘good morning, darling’ lived a whole different person. A woman struggling and working eight hours shifts for six days for a company that didn’t even bother helping with flower arrangements.For a company that took and took from her and terminated her on the spot after her third no call, no show. A company that asked for her costumes back as soon as possible so they can give them to the next re-hire.”
Weiny was not an aberration: In a recent survey of 5,000 full- and part-time Disney employees, researchers found that approximately 10 percent of those surveyed had been homeless within the prior two years, 56 percent worried about being evicted from their current homes, and a shocking 68 percent were described as food insecure. In short, the company selling fairy tales to families is turning its workers into paupers, in callous disregard of what fairy tales actually have to say about wealth, class, and work.
This dire situation caught the attention of Abigail Disney, the grand-niece of Walt Disney and a multi-millionaire. “I’m choosing to be a traitor to my class,” Disney told the Financial Times, speaking about her efforts to shed light on the divide between those at the top of her family’s company and those who keep its empire spinning. Specifically, she has called out the outlandish salaries paid to those such as Disney CEO Bob Iger, who makes over $180,000 each day, while park employees make as little as $12,000 per year.
The company selling fairy tales to families is turning its workers into paupers, in callous disregard of what fairy tales have to say about wealth, class, and work.
In May, Abigail Disney testified before the House Financial Services Committee at a hearing on workers rights and protections, saying, “We need to change the way we understand and practice capitalism.” She added that while managers have financial obligations, “they also have a legal and moral responsibility to deliver returns to shareholders without trampling on the dignity and rights of their employees and other stakeholders.”
When I taught college writing courses, using fairy tales and their retellings as a theme, an early misconception I had to squash was that all fairy tales are morality tales, used to teach lessons to the young. Fairy tales do not always have an overt moral attached to them—and thank goodness, otherwise we’d be asked to learn some very strange lessons.
But there is a sort of moral logic that runs as an underground current through the fairy tale genre. By default, most tales tend to suggest that goodness and merit will be rewarded, those who need help will receive it, and those born into low or abusive circumstances can and will transcend them. Class systems are not fixed in fairy tales, nor are systems of wealth—riches, and the luck or cleverness to gain them, exist regardless of class or plane of reality (think fairy godmothers; think giants in the sky). In fact, fairy tales would almost seem to argue for the redistribution of wealth, according to scales of goodness, cleverness, and valor.
It is perhaps this undercurrent of moral logic that made fairy tales such ripe fodder for British socialists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the recent collection Workers Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain, editor Michael Rosen notes that fairy tales show their politics “less overtly, often as personified social conflict.” The literary tales gathered in Rosen’s collection, by contrast, were adapted and written purposefully to “alert, reform, enlighten, provoke, and educate.” In one such story, “A Fairy Tale for Tired Socialists,” written in 1898, the author C.S.J describes a man who becomes embittered due to an “enchantment” that causes him to take no comfort in the good things around him, for he believes that he is not entitled to them. In a particularly prescient line, C.S.J writes:
Worse still, he became lean of soul, and, being enchanted, had no imagination till, at last, he got very mad indeed. One thing only did he believe in—“The order of things as they are”; and when any spoke of “the order of things as they might be,” he scoffed and laughed even with the laugh of a lunatic who is half insane.
While many fairy tales feature the poor, downtrodden, or maligned as their protagonists, the tales in this collection go beyond descriptions of poverty to illuminate the causes of poverty and agitate for change. The causes, according to the authors of these allegorical tales, are similar to those identified by political activists now, from Occupy Wall Street to Bernie Sanders: the imbalance of wealth, and the indifference of those with power towards those without. The stories use the overt tropes of dated propaganda (for instance, characters with such unsubtle names as “Capitol,” “Labour,” “Fairplay,” and “Monopoly”), but their themes are surprisingly current.
Rosen also cites older and more traditional fairy tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk” and the English tale “Tom Hickathrift” as having similar implications as those written explicitly for political use: In both tales, a simple boy from a working-class family overcomes a giant, thus taking his wealth and bringing the riches to his home and all those who share it. These two tales belong to a huge family of stories reaching back thousands of years, in which a character’s luck—and not necessarily his mental acuity—brings about an enormous change in fortune.
Fairy tales would almost seem to argue for the redistribution of wealth, according to scales of goodness, cleverness, and valor.
Walt Disney himself may well have taken inspiration from tales like these, though whatever lessons he gleaned from them, he likely learned from the more gleaming capitalist side of their knife’s edge. In his essay “Breaking the Disney Spell,” Jack Zipes describes how Disney’s creations and the characters in them showed a kind of self-figuration—a glorification of the clever or heroic male. “Disney’s hero is the enterprising young man, the entrepreneur, who uses technology to his advantage,” Zipes writes, claiming that Disney used animation as a tool to make audiences awestruck—not by the story, but by the skill, talent, and technological advances of the animator. According to Zipes, “animators sought to impress audiences with their abilities to use pictures in such a way that they would forget the earlier fairy tales and remember the images that they, the new artists, were creating for them.”
Walt Disney did have an affinity for the tales themselves, as they reflected his own struggles and desires, having come from a relatively poor background and built himself up by virtue of skill and cunning. Like Jack, Tom, Aladdin, or any number of rebellious apprentices or foolhardy tricksters, Disney personified the lucky tramp who gets the better of his economic superiors and creates a source of wealth for himself. But one man’s Jack is another man’s giant, and rather than sharing his wealth, vision, or persona with those who helped him or worked for him, Disney seldom credited his animators, and placed his own name in glittering letters over the title of every work his studio produced. “He came always as a conqueror,” writes Richard Schickel in The Disney Version. “Never as a servant. It is a trait, as many have observed, that many Americans share when they venture into foreign lands hoping to do good but equipped only with knowhow instead of sympathy and respect.” Now, his company is itself a giant, looming large over the media landscape, gobbling up what resources and talent it can, and leaving those at the bottom of the beanstalk under constant threat of going hungry, or worse.
For me, the saddest irony of all, when I think of what the Disney corporation has become, is that fairy tales began with the people. Authorless and amenable to endless changes and adaptations, they belong to all. It’s a point I’ve made before, and I’ll state it again here: No one can claim to own a fairy tale. Worse still is to build an empire off of them while ignoring—and even litigating against—their deep, twisting history, at the expense of the wellbeing of the people who, like so many before them, need the comfort of stories to soldier through the harshness of “things as they are.”
When asked why she decided to begin speaking up now about workers’ rights, Abigail Disney turns the question around: “I think the ‘why now’ question is for everybody else; why was it hearable suddenly?”
No one can claim to own a fairy tale. Worse still is to build an empire off of them while ignoring their deep, twisting history.
I can understand why her message would be welcomed at this moment in time—with camps at our southern border, appalling conditions at Amazon and other major workplaces, the rollback of LGBTQ rights, and the ramping-up of violently xenophobic rhetoric, America and much of the Western world seems like a blister of inhumanity waiting to explode. We need people with power to wield it toward the light. Never before have I experienced so consistently the sensation that the world is too broken to be fixed, and that the cause—greed and foolishness and ignorance—will violently, relentlessly defend itself against any attempt at healing. And perhaps that’s our privilege showing, mine and Abigail’s: hers as a multi-millionaire; mine as someone who, before Trump, believed the world to be mostly—not all, not in the least, but mostly—populated by goodness. That may have been the most fantastical fairy tale of all.
If indeed, as journalist Adam Serwer has written, “the cruelty is the point,” then it’s necessary for the rest of us to become not just less cruel, but more kind, and actively radical in that kindness. When ogres are trampling our land and our morals, then we have to do what fairy tale heroes do, and find whatever power is in our means to throw off the enchantments that bind us and to speak up. “I’ve never been rewarded for timidity,” Abigail Disney told the Financial Times. Timidity, it turns out, is not one of the virtues that fairy tales promote, either.
Cate's fiction, plays, and book reviews have been published by The Masters Review, Fairy Tale Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Sycamore Review, Bookslut, Slate, Stage Partners, and more. She lives in State College, Pennsylvania.