Reviews 2015

Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television

Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television. Pauline Greenhill and Jill Terry Rudy (eds.). Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014. 448 pages. $31.99 (soft cover).

Channeling Wonder, a recent addition to the prolific "Series in Fairy-Tale Studies," published by Wayne State University Press, is truly a pioneering book. The collection of essays edited by Pauline Greenhill and Jill Terry Ruddy proposes to fill a long-standing lacuna within both fairy-tale and television studies by examining televised fairy tales, which have so far received little scholarly attention, especially in comparison to their cinematic counterparts. Taking their cue from Raymond Williams, who describes the flow which lies at the centre of the television-watching experience as dependant on "variety becoming a unity," the editors use their introductory piece to invite readers "to consider what happens when fairy tale, a narrative genre that revels in variation, joins the flow of television experience" (1). The introduction further addresses the distinction between television and film, discusses key terms (fairy tales, television, intermediality), and poses a series of intriguing questions that will ideally provide inspiration for further research into this burgeoning field.

The incisive and thought-provoking volume brings together seventeen essays by twenty-three international contributors writing from a wide range of perspectives and exploring a variety of television genres, from educational programmes and made-for-TV films to reality shows and Japanese anime. The essays are organized into five content-based sections: "For and about kids and adults," "Masculinities and/or femininities," "Beastly humans," "Fairy tales are real! Reality TV, fairy-tale reality, commerce, and discourse," and "Fairy-tale teleography."

The four essays in part one examine programmes aimed at different age groups. Ian Brodie and Jodi McDavid analyse the educational TV show Super Why! (2007–) from the dual perspective of folklorists (displeased with the show’s conformity and lack of cultural specificities) and parents (pleased with its positive effect on their child’s reading skills). Emma Nelson and Ashley Walton discuss the use of fairy-tale archetypes and patterns in the YA series Merlin (2008–2012). They also focus on the role of social media in increasing viewers’ participation and interest in the show. Don Tresca analyses transformations of the "Hansel and Gretel" story in eight TV series, while Jill Terry Rudy explores the relationship between taleworlds and storyrealms in Jim Henson’s The StoryTeller (1987–).

Part two, which addresses the issues of sex and gender, opens with Patricia Sawin’s autoethnographic musings on the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1965 TV musical Cinderella. Notions and representations of masculinity in recent Japanese television dramas based on the Cinderella story are the subject of Christie Barber’s contribution. Jeana Jorgensen and Brittany Warman explore issues of identity and gender in two modern television adaptations of "Sleeping Beauty," one aimed at children (Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics, 1987–1989), the other at adults (Dollhouse, 2009–2010). Kirstian Lezubski’s essay on transgressive sexuality and gender in the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997) and its predecessor, the heteronormative Sailor Moon (1992–1997), closes the section.

The third section focuses on so-called dark fairy tales. Three of the four essays take made-for-TV movies as their subject: Pauline Greenhill and Steven Kohm interpret the Red Riding Trilogy (2009) through the lens of popular and green criminology, Andrea Wright examines the representation of women in Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997), while Shuli Barzilai analyses visual references in Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard (2009). The only essay in the section dedicated to TV series – the work of Kristiana Willsey – compares the editorial practices of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm with the ways in which fairy-tale references are utilized in the detective series Grimm (2011–).

The essays in part four tackle the complex interactions between televised fairy tales, reality, art and economics. The section opens with Linda J. Lee’s discussion of fairy-tale themes and structures in reality shows Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (2003–2012) and The Bachelor (2002–). Claudia Schwabe examines the relationship between real and fantasy worlds in two fairy-tale themed TV series: Grimm and Once Upon a Time (2011–). The latter series is also explored in the essay by Rebecca Hay and Christa Baxter, who view it in the context of the long-arc serial and discuss the ways in which familiar fairy-tale characters are given alternative identities and backstories so as to appear more sympathetic and relatable. The final essay in the section, written by Cristina Bacchilega and John Rieder, encompasses autoethnographic explorations of two animated TV shows: the Italian Carosello (1957–1977) and the American Fractured Fairy Tales (1959–1964). The text focuses on the "collision or collusion of the commercial and the wonder tale" in the two shows (337), more specifically the production of fairy tales as "fetishized commodit[ies]" in Carosello (346) and the playful demystification and mockery of commercialization featured in Fractured Fairy Tales.

Kendra Magnus-Johnston's fairy-tale teleography, which takes up the entirety of part five, presents a fitting finale to the book. Entries on this extensive (yet by no means exhaustive) list are organized into four categories: individual episodes, TV specials and live performances, TV series, miniseries and educational programmes, and TV movies. Magnus-Johnston comments on some of the inevitable shortcomings of the list such as the exclusion of music videos, news, commercial advertisements and similar shorter forms, as well as a lack of international diversity. However, the majority (if not all) of the teleography’s current limitations are likely to be eradicated once it becomes available online (a project currently under development), which will enable users to contribute to it and increase its scope and content.

Despite variations in the quality and innovativeness of individual contributions and a lack of attention to the specific nature of the television media (the focus in this study of televised fairy tales is more on fairy tales than their televised nature), Channeling Wonder successfully lays the groundwork and provides fuel for further research. While the majority of essays offer ample food for thought and raise interesting questions, Magnus-Johnston’s teleography deserves the highest of praise as it will no doubt (especially once it becomes available online) become an indispensable resource in future studies of the intersections of television and fairy tales.

Nada Kujundžić
University of Turku, Finland
University of Zagreb, Croatia