"Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child", or the Underrated HBO Show That Tried to Tackle Diversity
While I am no longer the target audience for children's television, I still harbor the same fascination for them as I did back then: it is less about the subject matter, most of the time, than the way in which it is handled. Content aimed at children, I believe, is so much harder to successfully pull off than content aimed at adults, teenagers and those in between. We have to delicately sidle that tightrope between not being so crude and shocking that we scar them for life (I am a firm believer that childhood, while not sacrosanct, should not be taken for granted), and taking them seriously enough not to condescend to them.
Kids are, simultaneously, more delicate than we sometimes acknowledge and much more revolutionary than we give them credit for; so that when the Parent Television Council makes a fuss about the inappropriateness of things like LGBTQ topics, it inevitably comes across as overreactive. Kids are openminded gems who really don’t care about such things; it’s their parents who usually do. But similarly, when we recoil from the gratuitous violence they may witness, it is very legitimate: it informs the way they will grow up processing this in their day-to-day.
Because this equilibrium is so hard to maintain, it’s not surprising that American television ends up opting for dumbing down or sugarcoating the harsher realities that, I believe, kids would either be able to handle, or else not notice at all.
Case in point: I grew up in the 90’s, where television was risky at best, and at worse, downright bonkers. From Rocko’s Modern Life making multiple references to sex and drugs, to Johnny Bravo’s thinly-veiled garbage behavior, it was a free-for-all of inappropriateness. Ren and Stimpy was the stuff of nightmares, Animaniacs liberally dabbled in the very dark and very improper, and even Spongebob Squarepants occasionally gave into the jaw-dropping gag. I either only got the general gist that something sketchy was going on, or else never even noticed there was a joke to be got. It was only much later that some of my suspicions were confirmed, and by then, I was old enough to handle it anyways.
What I’m trying to say is: I took for granted how fearless television for children was in the 90’s, especially when I see how readily that spirit is discarded nowadays in favor of generic storylines kindling many kids’ unhealthy obsession with stardom and glamor. I miss the playfulness, but above all, I miss the sheer gut of it: granted, we have Adventure Time and Steven Universe tackling delicate issues like mental illness, but for every one of those, we get a Teen Titans Go!, a frenzied rehash of a show nobody asked for, honestly.
This feeling did not come out of a vacuum: it was prompted by stumbling upon a gem on HBO I had never heard of, although it aired from 1995 to 2000, when I would have been able to watch it. Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child is a short program that revisits popular folk and fairy tales, with a twist. Sometimes they are modernized (“Henny Penny” retells “Chicken Little” as a news report) and sometimes they are gender-swapped (in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, the solider tries to woo the man she loves): but always, they bring something refreshing to the table.
What I found instantly lovely was the show’s dedication to setting each story in a different historical or cultural setting: “Robinita Hood” is set in Mexico while “Goldilocks” is framed by a Jamaican backdrop; “The Princess and the Pea” is set in Korea, and “The Valiant Little Tailor” unfolds in West Africa. No country or continent is left out: we get Cuba, the American South; we get Japan, the Barbary Coast, the North Pole, Hawaii.
The surroundings are rendered with beautiful accuracy, and the melodies are often judiciously selected: one of the first things that stood out were the musical numbers, which ranged from the mildly entertaining to the downright awesome. It’s clear that the showrunners were serious about the people they chose for the songs. And speaking of voices: the incredible array of established or up-and-coming talent the show managed to bag is impressive.
I’m talking the likes of: Wesley Snipes, Courteney Cox, Sharon Stone, Will Smith, Cyndi Lauper, B.D. Wong, Raven Symoné, Jay Leno, Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopie Goldberg, George Takei, Rosie Perez, Jessica Williams, Margaret Cho, Denzel Washington, Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou, and the list certainly goes on.
In addition to this, the show’s devotedness to representation, as it pertains to the actors, is what cemented my respect for it: an effort was made to cast actors of colors when the characters were from those same or similar places. Some episodes feature only black voice actors, other solely actors of East Asian descent, etc. In this age of generous whitewashing, I’ve rarely seen this much genuine effort. It is a beautiful, colorful panorama of cultures and it absolutely enriches the stories as a whole.
The retellings are sweet, funny, charming. They do justice to what fairy tales, folk tales and tall tales are, that is to say messy, sometimes nonsensical, sometimes all over the place. The show never succumbs to shock tactics: it is, after all, still a kids’ show. But above all: these retellings are progressive as hell.
A particular episode stands out to me: “Rip Van Winkle” gets the feminist treatment, wherein Rip is a misogynistic asshole who wakes up twenty years after being put under a spell, to a world where his emotionally abused wife Vanna and other women, have absolutely thrived, leaving him in stunned disbelief. His sputtering incredulity is pitiful to watch as he navigates this world where his machismo has no place. The lessons are never heavy-handed, but they are nonetheless there: and this unwillingness to talk down to children or underestimate their capacity to understand has no doubt contributed to the critical success of this show.
I wrote at length about the manner in which I was inundated with images of unattainable white and euro-centric ideals growing up, and internalized them completely, so much so that it became the bar to which I unconsciously upheld myself, the standard to which I compared my life, without a moment’s hesitation.
Television shows have an invaluable opportunity, namely that of shaping the way children view the world: letting them see people like them, flipping archaic tropes and pushing them to question that which adults expect them not to are some amazing ways we can do this. It is so natural to them, at that stage, to be flexible in their thinking that to impart some nuances about the world becomes crucial then, more so than at any other time.
The same goes for stories. Although I believe that we have a different relationship to the written word — because unlike mainstream visual spaces, which are more resistant to getting these stories out, less willing to honor stories about women, POC, different religions, the LGBTQ+ etc. — I think it’s a matter of being lucky enough to find them. I always thought that I had more choice in the written stories I was offered. As long as they were being printed, I would make the effort to find them. On the other hand, I was hard pressed to see anything consistently diverse in mainstream television and film.
So on that note, it’s not surprising that Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child went the fairy tale route. Fairy tales raised me, taught me more than school or my peers ever did. I saw universes and eternities in them that showed me different people and fascinating cultures: Russian fairy tales are as terrifying as they are amazing; Chinese ones are deeply moving, deeply thoughtful; Senegalese ones are hilarious, and uncommonly wise; Mexican ones are gorgeous, but so very tragic sometimes. And so on, and so forth.
The truth is that fairy tales are conversations between many cultures in the world, echoing the things that we have in common, the lessons and values we share and spread. We all have the same cautionary tales, the same advice, the same recompenses, with a twist. Storytelling in general belongs to everyone, and the universality of writing techniques is impossible to overlook: the use of repetition, the rule of threes, lucky sevens, the magic of blood and the family unit, the prestige of love etc.
It is unsurprising, then, that so many of the same stories can be found across the world because in the end, they are familiar skeletons, and the insides are only peripheral details. In almost every culture, one finds a version of Cinderella, of Puss in Boots, of the Fisherman and his Wife, of the Fairy Godmother; and while we generally attribute some fairy tales to specific authors, the truth is that we could just as easily ascribe them to someone else. We can’t claim to know for sure that they came up with them, not when many accounts could contradict those claims: and that is perfectly alright. That is the beauty of it all.
Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child’s commitment to diversity, then, is not very surprising. The episodes take place all over the world, because these conversations have taken place all over the world. Even the title is a reaffirmation of this: “for every child”. Many other shows and films that have reimagined fairy tales have not always reflected this variety: some have gone as far as to erase or reshape history, when they even bother to represent characters and settings that are not uniformly white. Disney’s empire was built on films that remain entrenched in his problematic dynamic, after all.
And it is for this fact that, more so than its delightful music, stellar voice cast, and fetching approach to storytelling, I applaud this treasure of a show: for doing what it did, and for going where many are still hesitant to do. My only regret is that I did not get the privilege of discovering it sooner, as a child.