Disney and other prominent movie production studios are making a genre out of remakes of classical fairytales, like Little Mermaid or Peter Pan. The goal is to take on broader cultural contexts and representations, while seeking to make lots of money. But American philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985)argues that fairytales are deceptively irresponsible. The logic of fairytales is flattery--"as a dream doth flatter." In Philosophy in a New Key (1942) she writes:

The end of the story is always satisfying, though by no means always moral; the hero's heroism may be by slyness or luck quite as readily as integrity or valor. The theme is generally the triumph of an unfortunate one--an enchanted maiden, a youngest son, a poor Cinderella, an alleged fool--over his or her superiors, whether these be kings, bad fairies, strong animals, stepmothers, or elder brothers (175).

Aristotle, as you may imagine, would be disappointed. Can there be a "moral to the story," so to speak, or is logic of fairytales doomed from the start? In other words, are our depictions of heroes and villains already morally compromised?

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    Apparently we have not read the same fairy tales. I recall that most of the fairy tales I know end pretty badly. But even for those that end well, I'm not sure why ending well would make it immoral?
    – Stef
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 15:05
  • Interesting! Would that be a distorted or slanted view as well? Almost like a dystopia? Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 15:06
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    All fairy tales are different. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson is neither immoral nor does it end happily. So I can't agree with Langer's assement.
    – user64314
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 15:16
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    First of all, they are tales and not philosophical treatises. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 15:22
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    Bruno Bettelheim wrote a book called The Uses of Enchantment. I thought it was worth reading and only retain a few main points. First, paraphrasing: When the child listens to a fairy tale he or she does not ask, Who is good?, but rather, who do I want to be like? Second, fairy tales do not sugar coat the truth about bad characters and yet also present the material in a way that aids the psychological development of children. Modern stories are not so rich in helping psychological development. Do I want to be like the frog or scorpion? digitalcommons.iwu.edu/tis/vol2/iss1/2 No! Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 15:23

5 Answers 5


In the Danish story 'The Little Mermaid' by Hans Christian Andersen that the Disney film was loosely based on, the mermaid has a terrible time and then dies, and it reworked indirectly Paracelsus's claim that Nymphs can gain an immortal soul by marrying a human, into his own thoughts on salvation. So I'd say your real issue is with Hollywood and the US film industry, which seem to be almost incapable of engaging with tragedy, and any deeper or darker themes. The risks of that discussed here: Would tragedy exist if there was no evil but only good?

Many fairytale themes have their roots in Greek religion, and it's widely held fairies were used to couch polytheistic stories that might imply religious practice, in terms of their being 'harmless' rural folk traditions.

The theatre competitions held as part of the Ancient Greek City Dionysias, helped to 'amp up' the stories in their retelling, like Medea serving a meal of his own children to king Aetes is from a Dionysia play by Euripedes, and not earlier texts like Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes or Hesiod's Theogony. I always wondered if this intentional evolutionary selection of stories helped generate ones that grab you. Jung was a big fan of the psychological insights of Greek stories, and their scope and import certainly goes beyond flattery and triumphs.

The 12th century by French poet Jean Bodel, identified the above as the Matter of Rome, the stories of Charlemagne as the Matter of France, and King Arthur and Robin Hood as the Matter of Britain. I would argue the latter in particular has had far reaching influence, and those stories arose as accretions, that expressed and helped define Britain, rather than as pseudohistory which I think is the wrong attitude to them.

We can understand Grimms Fairytales as part of a conscious attempt to collect a German equivalent. If you look at the history of 'taming' the stories, many of them began with violence and sexual elements, which are still not far below the surface, and I'd argue still offer psychological insights about how humans can be.

The stories of the Tuatha de Danaan in Ireland, the Mabinogion in Wales, and the Kalevala in Finland, have all been pivotal in language preservation and national identity. How we remember and retell our stories, is simply a fundamental part of being human. Hollywood may turn them to flattery and wish-fulfillment, but that is by no means necessary to them. Tolkein championed taking our old stories seriously in his essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, and drew on the Norse and Celtic stories to essentially create the modern genre of fantasy, exactly by writing stories with more going on than flattery and wish-fulfillment.

To return to philosophy for a moment, the Monster Theory approach that grew out of Tolkien's work, can help us understand many monster stories as describing contentions between cults, and this can help us gain insights into what Nietzsche is up to, discussed here: What did Nietzsche mean by monsters and the abyss?

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    I think of Shakespeare's greatest comedy, a fairy story: "If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumbered here While these visions did appear." -Midsummer Nights Dream A5S1. And I would advocate taking our actual dreams seriously too, & not expecting from them morality, but psychology.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 21:58
  • I wonder why horror movies and movies and shows with extreme violence are and have long been popular in the US? I've been seeing stuff on TV for 50 years that curls my hair.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 17:11
  • @ScottRowe: Perhaps a thirst for not expecting a twee happy ending to every story..? Better examples of the genre like 'It Follows' & 'The Babadook' deal with what it feels like to have incipient mental health issues, that could be related to catharsis. I think of Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre, as similarly connecting to an experience many were having, or felt threatened by, & few were talking about
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 21:25
  • I guess a lot of people's lives must be sickeningly happy if they have so much thirst. I'll stop worrying that anyone could be bad off if that's the case.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 12:44
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    @ScottRowe: Have you seen the Watchmen series? I'd go so far as to call it superb: rottentomatoes.com/tv/watchmen It features a really bad race riot, the Tulsa Massacre, one many even living there hadn't heard of, nevermind nationally. It manages to deal with those issues from real history, & find positive resolutions. The good side of wish fulfillment. They say history is written by the victors, but we should better say, the history we remember is written by those who can tell the best story from what happened...
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 22:24

Movie studios mostly use fairy tales for simple reasons:

  • They are already best sellers. Literally millions of people in the key demographic (parents and children) have approved of them.
  • They are old and more likely than not in the public domain so there's no cost of buying an existing IP, but you could just repurpose these worlds essentially for free.

Disney is especially notorious in the later regard as they built their empire on things from the public domain but fought for decades to keep their stuff from ever entering the public domain. And Disney is notorious for something else and that is slapping a happy ending to stories to not lose customers.

From what I know, at least the German fairy tales usually had a "moral von der Geschichte" (moral of the story) and were intended to teach children a lesson. They weren't just stories that featured magic, but that was just decoration to make it more appealing or avoid correlations with any real kings or queens. Whether all of these were "PG-13" by todays standards and whether all of these moral lessons are still moral by todays standards is a different questions. Though the description of always ending happy and providing a happy end without effort is far from truth. Even for Cinderella that's not true, she works her way through the tasks given despite everyone trying to cheat her out of her success and in the end she does succeed.

  • I remember seeing an old comic by Gahan Wilson that showed horrified people walking out of a Chinese restaurant, and an employee saying to another one. "We need to lighten up on these fortune cookies" or something like that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 17:17

Standard fairy tales (almost by definition) are fully consistent with morals. Susanne Langer seems wrong. It is curious for her, having explored a lot the fields of symbolism and meaning, to perform such shallow lecture of the goal of fairy tales. She missed that...

We tell morals to our children by means of fairy tales.

There are many definitions of morals, but I have chosen here the one that best fits the current point (excluding the fact that this is the one I prefer by far, and that the definition best fits the current state of social affairs):

For Hobbes or Nietzsche, the goal of morals is survival. That means that morals are the rules that improve the probabilities of survival of the group and the individual. If you don't like this definition of morals, choose another and teach your children in consequence with it.

Now, how do we educate children, knowing that they will imitate whatever they learn? Do we teach them tales of losers, of defeat, of loss, of destruction? Do we try to give them "a dose of reality" every evening?

No. We tell children ideal stories, that represent the outcomes that lead to survival, peace, joy, reproduction, growth, conquer, geographical dominance, etc. So, we use fairy tales to teach morals, that is, what ideals, what rules they should follow in order to survive.

... (and we adults see movies/read books about justice being applied, about good leaders, about loyal women, etc.; always with good endings; we can't identify with bad endings, because we always, always, always look for good endings: it is blatantly evident that we want and need good endings, good meaning morally positive = for survival)...

So, we teach children how to be nice (because being nice allows them to interact better with others, to get better jobs, to be better in order to increase their personal net worth), how to be lovely (attraction increases survival probabilities, increases the probability of a beautiful partner, of wealth, sex, etc.), how to be loyal (loyalty forms good businessmen, and female loyalty ensures genetic transmission), how to make effort (effort creates positive differences), etc.

Love stories with happy endings have the goals of teaching children what to search in life: a peaceful and happy society, where they can reproduce and have as much children as possible, and have them happy, so the social group keeps existing.

Tales of beautiful princesses and strong kings have the goal of teaching children how they should be, what their ideal bodies should be, because beautiful women and powerful men have more probabilities of survival, reproduction, propagation.

Tales of happiness are intended to teach children what is the ideal behavior. Being happy, experiencing joy implies health, high capacity of building valuable social relationships, more social interaction, more sexual activity, etc.


In your question you refer to "making money" as if it would be bad. Making money is good. It does not mean literally making/printing bills, but satisfying others' needs. Making money with fairy tales is fine, it means that there are parents who want good (and 3D) teachings for their children, and they can even work and earn money, and give it to you, for that.


Some movie studios try to introduce political positions, gender ideologies, etc. in fairy tales movies. This is not immoral because it "gender ideologies are bad". It might be immoral because kids growing with political ideologies opposite to what lead us to survival might cause modern societies to self-destroy. Ideologies that seem OK on the paper are ALWAYS tested by nature in the field, using the survival of the fittest rule. You bad? You die. There are many examples in history.

  • "Learning is not compulsory. Neither is survival." - W. Edwards Deming
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 17:08

American philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985)argues that fairytales are deceptively irresponsible. The logic of fairytales is flattery--"as a dream doth flatter."

Well, American philosopher Susanne Langer might have watched a bit too many Disney movies, and/or read too few traditional/literary fairy tales (by the Grimm brothers, Perreault, etc.). Disney wants to please, so the ending is generally tweaked to a happy one, also reflecting American optimism. But the original European fairy tales on which Snow White or the Little Mermaid were based are rather dark and scary stories. In the original version of the little red riding hood, the wolf eats the grandma and her grand daughter in the end. The moral of the story is: that's what happens to kids who disobey their parents.

Tales are not meant to be moral. As a form of literature, they are primarily meant to be captivating for a children audience, and also (in my opinion) to caution them against certain risks / opportunities in life.


  • Beauty and the Beast is about marriage (often forced by parents back in the days), and the cautionary aspect is: "your future husband may look like a beast to you, and even behave as one, but with a bit of love, it can still work out fine."

  • the Little Red Riding Hood can be red as a story about child rape and murder. The cautionary aspect is: "Beware that some places are more dangerous than others, and that some men will lie to you in order to eat you up."

  • the large number of tales with a young and/or very small character (like the Brave Little Tailor) triumphing over bigger foes are evidently addressing children's concerns about their physical weakness. These tales are telling little children that even though they are small and weak, they can prevail if they use smarts. The cautionary aspect is: stronger folks will beat you up and bully you, but intelligence can trump brute force.



It's when the complex narratives, characters, and themes of traditional fairy tales are simplified to make them more marketable and palatable for modern audiences.

Take, for example, the transformation of the classic fairy tale "Snow White." The original Brothers Grimm version of the tale is dark and complex, with Snow White's mother wishing her dead, and the Queen (her stepmother) facing a gruesome punishment at the end. Disney’s 1937 adaptation, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," removes much of this darkness and complexity. The Queen is depicted as purely evil, while Snow White is entirely innocent and passive. The moral nuances of the original tale are largely lost in the transition.

Similarly, in the original story of "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen, the mermaid experiences immense pain, sacrifices her voice for love, and ultimately faces a tragic end. In contrast, Disney's version presents a more simplified narrative where Ariel, the mermaid, trades her voice for a chance at love, but eventually triumphs with few repercussions, thus reinforcing a binary conception of good (Ariel, Prince Eric) versus evil (Ursula).

Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is same stuff. In the original story, the Beast is a genuinely terrifying figure, and the relationship between him and Belle develops over time, with Belle slowly learning to see past his exterior. In Disney’s version, the Beast is much more humanized from the start, and the development of their relationship is significantly simplified.

So IMHO you should ask about disneyfication and marketing, but not about tales. Two different things.

  • So I guess the adults at Disney didn't understand the point of the stories.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 16:46
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    Well, first of all, it's business. Some could understand, I am not generalizing.
    – user66933
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 17:04

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