Fairy Tales are centuries old and adapting them is not a new practice. Fairy Tales were ‘initially intended as stories for the whole community… these stories began to be adapted for a child audience….each generation and nation has reshaped and retold these tales to reinforce the dominant beliefs of their time and place (Smith, 2014, p. 425) Beginning in the 1960’s, second wave feminism saw a heightened awareness of many classical stories told through a patriarchal lens and thus a move to modernize stories to seemingly better reflect society’s changes in response (Smith, 2014). Even more recently, there appears to be a concerted push in popular media to be more inclusive in its story-telling efforts. With origins rooted in oral storytelling, fairy tales come full circle in the form of the Girl Tales Podcast. A feminist children's podcast of classic and familiar fairytales, adapted and updated to reflect a new generation of listeners.
For this article, I interviewed Girl Tales founder and executive producer Rebecca Cunningham and producer, writer, voice actor Tessa Flannery. We spoke about Girl Tales’ origin story, the importance of storytelling and a wider representation of characters for a more inclusive, diverse world.
The Beginning of Girl Tales
It wasn’t until the 2016 U.S. election results were finalized, when the former Democratic Presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech, Rebecca Cunningham decided that it was time. Her initial inspiration for producing a podcast stemmed from both her work as a theater director and as a nanny in New York City. However, the 2016 election generated a lightbulb moment for her.
I know a lot of people have different opinions, but in that moment, I thought how is the most experienced person losing and all of the things that she was telling little girls? I'm holding a little girl in my arms and thinking, what is her future going to be? That was it. I'm going to adapt fairy tales so that girls are the heroes. Done. I'm going to hire the people I work with in theater or the people who I've always dreamed of working with. And that's where Girl Tales began. I turned to my friend Chad, who got me into podcasting, and he said, I always wanted to learn how to make a podcast. So let's do it. And we raised $5,000, taught ourselves through YouTube. That was four years ago.
Stories and Representation
The fairy and folk tales that the writers of Girls Tales adapt, and produce are both recognizable and familiar but wholly different from the most popular versions that are published and produced by major companies like Disney. Take for example the Girl Tales podcast episode entitled "The Literate Mermaid", an adapted version of Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989). However, in the Girl Tales version, listeners are introduced to Myra, not Ariel. The villain Ursula becomes Myra’s Aunt Beatty, a sea witch who is more crotchety than evil. And unlike Ariel, Myra’s desire to change from mermaid to human is not because she’s fallen in love with some handsome stranger ashore. Myra would simply like to go to the library and check out a few books without the ocean drenching her reading material. Next, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Story (1843) becomes A Cratchit Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge meets Belinda Cratchit, a young inventor who teaches him about the spirit of Christmas. Sherlock becomes Shirley, Rudolf becomes Rudy and for audiences in the United States, Tall Tales about Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed become tales about Paula Bunyan and Amina Appleseed, respectively.
Not all tales are adapted from the classical Western cannon. Something in the Breeze is a story about the ciguapa, a Dominican mythological creature. Another, Judah Maccabee, a Jewish story, becomes a musical about a female Judah and her siblings fighting to take back the right to practice Judaism. The Legend of Yuwul is set in a fishing village in Korea. Meanwhile, Anansi and the Sky Goddess Asase Yaa is a twist on the traditional Akan tales from West Africa.
"The number one thing I ask every writer that we hire is that they write the fairy tale that they needed to hear as a kid, but never did."
Before any story get produced, Cunningham has a few criteria for all adaptations,
They must encourage imagination, encourage creativity. The main character should be a girl or a non-binary character [or trans]. They must take a risk in some way. And they certainly must have agency. It needs to not be condescending. The number one thing I ask every writer that we hire is that they write the fairy tale that they needed to hear as a kid, but never did.
In this wider selection of adaptations, Girl Tales seeks to fill a gap in storytelling, where in the storylines and characters are representative of a world not centered around a damsel in distress with a prince swooping in to save the day. The characters in Girl Tales work collaboratively, seek friendships rather than romantic relationships. They are problem solvers, innovators and hope to empower young listeners.
If I think about my own personal life and the stories that I was brought up with. We were also raised by Disney movies and while Disney movies are beautiful and very well done, obviously, a lot of the story lines have seeped into our consciousness and have given us an idea of who we are. And it's not just any movies, right? It's so many different films that we grew up with, and that applies to girls. It applies to disabled kids. It applies to kids of color. It applies to fat kids. It applies to any child that does not fit within this very narrow idea of who gets to be the hero and who gets to be the main character. And while Disney and these other major media companies have certainly progressed, they kind of caused a lot of damage, and the reason for that is because of the people who were telling the stories didn't have to think about other people being at the center of the narrative. Other people are taking risks, going on adventures, solving problems, all those things they got to tell the story of girls and their idea of girls was narrow and incorrect.
Besides adapted Fairy Tales, Girl Tales is working towards producing stories to encourage children to pursue their interests in this field. Tessa Flannery who, like Cunningham, has both a theater background and has worked as a nanny in New York City, is part of the Girl Tales team as a producer, writer, and VO actor. While she lends her talents across the board, she and the Girl Tales team are brainstorming ways to incorporate more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) stories for the Girl Tales repository. For example, Girl Tales produces a story about Nova, a 9-year-old kid scientist who travels through time visiting exciting moments in history wherein she embodies both noteworthy objects and people to learn more about them.
We have these fictional stories that are adapted from stories that everybody already knows but told in a way that is engaging for today's kids. [In these stories] girls and non-binary kids and queer kids and kids of color see themselves. The place where I thought kids are also maybe not seeing themselves, especially girls of color, queer kids, and non-binary kids is doing science and doing math and engaging in these fields where there is a documented lack of women and non-binary [representation]. We work together on creating something totally new where we could communicate science ideas and encourage kids to try experiments and things and think about science in the context, Because science and art, there's this thing of binary between them. But really, you need each.
Reimagined fairy tales in which a damsel saves herself or does not place her worth in the hands of knight in shining armor is a common theme today. Take for instance the picture book The Worst Princess (2012) by Anna Kemp, wherein Princess Sue forgoes marriage to the prince who ‘rescues’ her to take on the world with a dragon. Or an adapted Rapunzel (2017) by Bethan Woollvin, in which Rapunzel hatches a secret plan to escape the witch who keeps her locked in the tower. The concept of a handsome prince rescuing Rapunzel is completely removed. Girl Tales takes this even further by adding underrepresented identities that deviate from the traditional cishet script. For example the episode Pan the Pirate is an adapted story of J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan (1911). The Girl Tales’ Pan is non-binary. This Girl Tales episode is used to both introduce and educate listeners to characters who identify as non-binary. In The Real Boy, based on the Italian children’s story, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) by Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio is a transgender boy who not only wishes to become a real child but also be recognized by the gender he identifies as. Another episode entitled, The Quest of the Reed Marsh Daughter, features a mother and her transgender daughter on a magical quest to reclaim their names. These podcast episodes subvert the tradition of fairy tales and traditional storytelling narratives that do not reflect a 21st century society. The Trevor Project Foundation surveyed nearly 35,000 LGBTQ+ youth ages 13-24 from around the United States for the 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health and found that representation in media was listed as one of the many things where LGBTQ+ youth found strength and joy (TheTrevor Project, 2021). By actively representing a spectrum of heroes, Girl Tales challenges the classical narrative.
LBGTQ+ representation in media is an uphill battle. One example of this battle is a of high school library in Washington State that removed the graphic novel Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe from its shelves after a parent requested that school officials be criminally prosecuted for distributing obscene material (Binion, 2021). Ultimately, no criminal charges were filed as investigators deemed that ‘there were “multiple cases” establishing that the distribution of books like “Gender Queer” is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – and libraries are given additional protections (Binion, 2021).
Taking these statistics and censorship attempts into account, I wondered if reimagined fairytales could be perceived as radical. One of the biggest points of discussion during my conversation with Rebecca and Tessa was on the topic of feedback, both positive and negative in response to the Girl Tales concept or its episodes,
We believe that if you're feminist you stand up for all women. Right? All genders are equal. We've had parents say that it was unfair and unjust of us to introduce the idea of trans people into their child's life without warning them in advance. And for me, I never even thought I have to warn kids about trans people because trans people exist in our daily lives.
And the thing that was really the first negative feedback we had gotten from a grown-up was when we had a story featuring a trans girl. She was saying that her child was in the back seat of the car listening and was confused about how a boy could become a girl. The mom immediately turned it off. And all I could think was, “Oh my God, that mom just did something to that kid might never forget.” That kid learned immediately that trans children or trans people is something to be uncomfortable about, to be afraid of and A) that's either harmful to other trans people or B) harmful to that kid because that kid might be trans or queer. And forever at child knows that their mother is not okay with it, regardless. And that's the stuff that I wish I could prevent, but I can't. Maybe I can. And I just haven't figured it out. I still think about that kid all the time.
I think about that all the time too because it's similar to this idea that white parents can decide when to introduce the topic of racism years after children of color have dealt with the actual effects of it. This idea that, ‘I don't want to expose my white child to this idea, this harmful thing that happens in the world’ that kids of color live with every day. And, like, trans kids are out there. To say that ‘I'm not ready to introduce my kid to the idea that trans kids exist’.
And why would you need to do that? When we leave the world of cis kids, or if we enter topics that grown-ups feel uncomfortable about that's when we'll get negative feedback. It is incredibly rare that we get negative feedback about a topic from a kid. They'll tell you if the story is boring, they'll tell you if we're not taking their emotions seriously enough. They'll tell you if it feels like it's out of their age range. The kids will be honest with you. The adults are the people who get uncomfortable and don't know how to deal with it and sometimes don't know how to have a conversation about it afterwards. But for every parent that we get or caretaker or grown-up that comes to us and says,”Hey, I was uncomfortable with this topic and how dare you?!” We get a bajillion that love it. We've created a space for them to have this conversation with their kids. And when I say we, like a lot of these stories, the stories that create conversations like that do not come from the me and Tessa. They come from the writers and the performers that we're hiring and that are agreeing to work with Girl Tales and Cordelia Studios. Those are the writers of color, the trans and nonbinary writers and performers - these people who with us that are creating this space for our audience to see themselves in stories.
The creation of Girl Tales is an important continuation of the adaptation of fairy tales. These updated fairy tales seemingly reflect a more hopeful future where children both see themselves represented in the media they consume, but are fully accepted for who they are. As society’s norms and values evolve, so should the stories that are shared.The Girl Tales podcast has entered its fourth season with nearly 40 episodes slated to air. New episodes are published weekly and are available on Acast, iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher. To find out more about the Girl Tales podcast, check out the website.
Over the course of my conversation with Rebecca and Tessa, it was immediately clear to me how passionate they are about their podcast platform, representative storytelling, and the care and consideration that goes into each episode. With each of my questions, the understanding of their young listenership was apparent. I want to thank them both for their time and the conversation.
Barrie, J. M. (1911). Peter Pan. Hodder & Stoughton.
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc. (1989). The Little Mermaid. United States.
Binion, A. (2021, November 1). Graphic novel pulled from Olympic High Shelves, but parent wants school prosecuted over book. Kitsap Sun. /.
Collodi, C. (1883). The Adventures of Pinocchio. Italy.
Dickens, C. (1843). The Christmas Carol. Chapman & Hall.
Girl Tales Podcast. (2021).
Kemp, A. (2012). The Worst Princess. (S. Ogilvie, Illus.) Simon & Schuster.
Kobabe, M. (2019). Gender Queer: A Memoir. Lion Forge Comics.
Smith, A. (2014). Letting Down Rapunzel: Feminism’s Effects on Fairy Tales. Children's Literature in Education, 46(4), 424-437. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10583-014-9239-6
Woollvin, B. (2017). Rapunzel. Peachtree Publishers.