A Problem of Illustration: Race, Ethnicity and Beauty in Fairy Tales

Recently there has been a good bit of  ugly online  backlash  against the casting of actors of color in two films based on iconic tales —-Amazon Prime’s   “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, “  and Disney’s live-action remake of   Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.”   These  objections are not only clearly racist but specious, since both of these works are inventions —- one an imaginary history, even though it is loosely based on a real one, the other a fairy tale, and a theme that Anderson himself borrowed from another author — which are now being re-interpreted to include a diverse audience of readers and viewers. 

Contemporary filmmakers have greater latitude when they write their own narratives. If an illustrator is creating images to accompany a particular text, there may be constraints.  If a princess in that story has golden hair, then she can’t be a brunette.    Likely, however, there will be no other description of her person —- her height, her body type, the shape of her nose.

When creating pictures for  my own books, I am ever aware of the limitations an illustrator encounters in the depiction of imaginary characters.  It is natural to draw upon our own backgrounds and the influences we know best. If, however, I were to illustrate a Native American tale, I would have to do a great deal of research — I could not allow my “ethnocentric” imagination to shape those images, as it surely would. Because I’m white, if I decide  to depict a character as black, or Asian, it may well seem  self- conscious, even  gratuitous —- motivated by the desire to be politically correct—- rather than natural.  I try to avoid the pitfalls of “appropriation.” There has to be good reason for such a choice. 

It’s true that canonical western  fairy tales , as well as western fantasy literature, have long been ethnocentrically white. Until recently, no one was openly challenging that. Perhaps the children who read those stories  “identified” more with the characters’ situations and how they resolved them  than with their appearances, for apart from generic descriptions such as “good,” “beautiful as the day,” or “golden haired,” fairy tale characters , in writing, are generally blank slates. It’s the illustrators who flesh them out — each according to their own tastes and influences.

Of course, if you were to  retell Snow White, you’d have to change the title.  Maybe it’s her skin, as well as her hair,  that’s as black as ebony, like an African sculpture.  In a lovely retelling of Rapunzel , entitled “Sugar Cane, “ Raoul Colon, an Puerto-Rican American,   gives the girl a rich brown complexion and a cascade of curly dark hair. Fairy tales are extremely malleable. Strip away Snow White’s skin and hair color, and you still have a powerful story about jealousy: it is the girl’s beauty and youth that her stepmother so obsessively envies.

One noted illustrator , Shaun Tan, has circumvented the conventions of representation in fairy tales. In “The Singing Bones,” he has illustrated 75  of  Grimms’ fairy tales with highly stylized , dramatically lit small-scale sculptures. Humans, animals and settings are so  minimal and abstract  —- Tan was influenced by Inuit and Pre-Columbian art  —- that they are reduced to  pure suggestion.  In his afterword, Tan writes, “The concept of a thing also becomes more important than a detailed likeness.” 

That’s something to keep in mind when thinking about what imaginary places and people should resemble. 

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