Once Upon a TV Screen

The Fairy Tales on Television Visualization project opens up pathways for new scholarship by charting the appearances of these beloved stories in television programs. Jill Rudy and Jarom McDonald presented their work in a Humanities Center colloquium.

Fairy Tale 1PROVO, Utah (Feb. 12, 2015)—Fairy tales surround us. Whether they’re retellings, new spins or crossovers, these stories inundate our literature, cinema and television. Now, thanks to the Fairy Tales on Television database, we can see just how extensive their presence is.

Jill Rudy (associate professor of English) and Jarom McDonald (associate professor of Digital Humanities), presented their project in a Humanities Center colloquium. The two began working together in 2013 to create a visible bibliography of all the appearances of fairy tales on television. Everything from “Cinderella” to the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” is included in their analysis, as well as other, more contemporary stories like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Rudy was inspired by the work of Kendra Magnus-Johnston. Magnus-Johnston had compiled a bibliography for Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television, a collection of essays Rudy had co-edited with Pauline Greenhill. The bibliography is an exhaustive collection of fairy tales in television. Entries include everything from episodes of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show to the now popular series Once Upon a Time.

Rudy and McDonald, along with a team of research students, created the Fairy Tales on Television database, an online, interactive resource that depicts the data already compiled by Magnus-Johnston through charts, graphs, and other visualizations. The project takes it further by categorizing fairy tale appearances by genre and mapping out the connections between different television shows retelling the same fairy tale.

Defining this digital humanities approach has been difficult, as various scholars have put forth different names highlighting specific aspects. Many define it as algorithmic criticism for the project’s heavy reliance of algorithms to map out the material. For others, the project is a form of distant or scalable reading, examining the whole to better appreciate the details.

Un-birthday 2“There’s this concern that when we turn something into an image, it simplifies it,” Rudy said. Many scholars feel that work of this nature reduces the material to a flat image without depth, and the defining details are lost in the process.

However, Rudy and McDonald both argue that the project will only strengthen fairy-tale scholarship by opening up new questions for study. “Why is it that Cinderella seems to be overrepresented in drama but not so in comedy?” McDonald asked, giving an example. By mapping out the data and recognizing the emerging patterns, scholars have a bird’s-eye view from which they can zero in on possible paths of study.

McDonald closed by reemphasizing this point and said, “This type of analysis is not designed in any way to replace traditional literary analysis. It’s an augmentation. It’s an additional reading tool.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)