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Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner

Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner

During the early 90s, it became fashionable in some contexts to try to rewrite or downplay aspects of older stories that would be considered sexist, racist, or bigoted in a modern context.  Although well-meaning in its intent, this concept ended up creating a great many revisionist versions of old stories that had a tendency to lose the original context of the tales with a newfound preoccupation on social issues.  James Finn Garner parodied this trend in two mid-90s collections of short stories, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and Once Upon a More Enlightened Time.  These two novella-length collections are composed of parodies of classic fairy tales with plots and characters reinterpreted in a “politically correct” style.  Although the amount of laughs each “bedtime story” generates are uneven, the best of the stories make for entertaining, quick reads that will amuse readers looking for subversive wit.

The first collection, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, has a mixture of parodies of classic female-driven fairy tales, such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Snow White,” and fables, such as “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” and “The Three Little Pigs”.  In general, the stories with female leads in this collection tend to be less imaginative in their “politically correct” renderings than the fables without.  Garner’s characterization of female leads is just as constrictive as the older notions of “sweet” and “pure” princesses. He tends to be so centered on parodying the empowered-woman-of-the-1990s trend that the characters can seem flat and unimaginative.  Of the female-driven stories, the best is “Snow White,” which features “the seven giants of the forests” and some truly bizarre plot twists that will surprise even a jaded reader, as well as a hilarious Mirror on the Wall prone to using slang-filled descriptions.  The animal fables are rendered in a more imaginative and enjoyable fashion. “The Three Little Pigs” battle wolves intent on blowing their houses down and replacing them with condominiums, a surprising event happens when “The Three Codependent Goats Gruff” encounter a troll on a bridge, and “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is called upon to lead something far more malicious than rats out of town in the collection’s standout tale.

The imaginative weirdness of the “politically correct” transformation of the stories increases in the second collection, Once Upon a More Enlightened Time.  This collection begins with a spectacularly deranged spin on “Hansel and Gretel” involving Wicca, animal transformations, and logging companies.  Other standout stories in this collection include a version of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” with a very unorthodox take on competition and the virtues of winning the race, and a version of “Puss in Boots” that parodies the American obsession with “messaging” and image in political campaigns.  This collection has much more room to breathe and create its own sense of imaginative humor than the first Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, being much less preoccupied with gender-based humor and the changing roles of women in society and more interested in subverting people’s expectations. Both books have clever humor and some unique characterizations, but sadly miss some wonderful opportunities for satire in terms of political correctness. Most notably, there is no parody of the attempts to introduce minority characters into narratives that typically did not feature them, such as the infamous “Black Viking” concept and the modern idea of having one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men be of Middle Eastern ethnicity.

The absence of parodies of this trend is all the more pronounced by how prescient and clever some of the other stories seem to be, particularly the biting satire of “Puss in Boots” and “The City Mouse and the Suburban Mouse.”  Perhaps parodies of racial casting trends and focus groups were too politically incorrect for Garner?  The stories in the two books provide a good laugh at the cultural trends of the early and mid-90s and leave the reader wondering what could have been accomplished if Garner had decided to parody this trend in a third collection.  They provide some good laughs for adults seeking both a parody of fairy tales and a nostalgic escape to the early 90s culture, back when how people spelled “women” or “womyn” seemed a greater worry than terrorism, natural disasters, or unemployment.