A Wave of the Magic Wand: Fairy Godmothers in Contemporary American Media

By Jorgensen, Jeana | Marvels & Tales, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Wave of the Magic Wand: Fairy Godmothers in Contemporary American Media


Jorgensen, Jeana, Marvels & Tales


With just a wave of my magic wand

Your troubles will soon be gone

With a flick of the wrist and just a flash

You'll land a prince with a ton of cash

-Fairy Godmother, Shrek 2

In her book American Folklore and the Mass Media, Linda Dégh discusses the magical worldview prevalent in the United States, illustrated by commercials that utilize both emergent and traditional folklore forms.1 In Dégh's examples, magic helpers appear in TV commercials "to spell out the magic truth about what is good and what is useful, and to educate ignorant consumers with their incantations" (40). The magical worldview Dégh describes in advertising exists on a broader continuum in modern American media today, expanding to encompass reality TV shows and other attention grabbers that promise a quick magical fix or solution, whether it be for one's physical flaws or one's house. Magical helpers persist in genres that draw upon fairy tales, such as fantasy novels and films, and the contemporary American affinity toward supernatural improvements illuminates some of the changes made to folktale helpers in new media.

Donors and helpers traditionally appear in fairy tales to aid the hero and the heroine at various points in the plot. Vladimir Propp, in his Morphology of the Folktale, assigns donors and helpers separate spheres of action, but also acknowledges that is it possible that "One character is involved in several spheres of action" (80). A good example of one character taking on more than one sphere of action is the helpful animal; according to Propp, they "begin as donors (begging for help or mercy), then they place themselves at the disposal of the hero and become his helpers" (80-81). In many fairy tales, especially the more literary tales of Charles Perrault and other French writers of his period, a common donor and helper is the fairy godmother. As Jane Yolen notes in "America's Cinderella," the innovation of the "Perrault godmother" became "incorporated in later versions" of the tale, notably those that have become very popular in North American rewrites of "Cinderella" (298). Yolen discusses the many changes made in mass-market children's versions of "Cinderella," changes that often deprive the heroine of agency and displace it, rather, onto helper figures like the fairy godmother and the mice in the Disney version of the tale.

However, a pathetic, whimpering heroine rescued by an all-powerful fairy godmother is a radical departure from Propp's formulation of the helper as an expression of the hero's strength and ability in folktales (Istoncheskie korni volshebnoi skazki, 139). As Yolen points out, most folktale versions of "Cinderella" portray a heroine with a "birthright of shrewdness, inventiveness, and grace under pressure" (298). Later literary incarnations of fairy tales often feature fairy godmothers whose appearances erase Cinderella's initial efficacy. The classic fairy tales and their derivatives-mass media and popular narratives-redirect power roles to serve the hegemonic culture industry, as Jack Zip es has argued in "The Instrumentalization of Fantasy." As a reaction to canonical fairy godmothers, fairy godmothers appearing in recent pastiche texts continue to provide aid to (and sometimes challenge) the protagonists, but they also take on new roles in new narratives. This article shall examine the figure of the fairy godmother in two contemporary American fantastic works based on fairy tales: one film and one novel. Each of these works differs from traditional folktales and fairy tales in fascinating ways and corresponds to trends found in current American mass media. Finally, this article will examine how these reworked fairy godmothers indicate patterns in the American worldview and provide an interesting parallel to the work of folklorists in affirming tradition.

From Postmodern Fairy Tales to Fairy-Tale Pastiche

Both fairy-tale-inspired works I shall be discussing were produced in 2004, and I would classify both works as postmodern. …

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