Panel Recap: Baskets and Capes: Using Fairy Tales to Explain Our Love of Superheroes

 Post by Adrienne Clark.

“Stories, whenever they’re told, reflect their era.” – Regina Oglesby


What do Harley Quinn and the Little Mermaid have in common? Can Red Riding Hood’s wolf character be found lurking in a Captain America story?

These were the types of questions asked at my final panel of GGC ’16.

Made of members of The Geek Embassy, a learning community for new geeks, the panelists included Rhonda Oglesby, lead ambassador and teacher; Regina McMenomy, Ph.D.; Isabela Oliveria, tech editor, geek writer; and Jennifer Leaver, psychology teacher, expert in fairy tales, and newly into comics.

Brothers’ Original Fairy Tales via NPR.


The focus of the panel was how, and what, fairy tales can teach us about superheroes. The panel opened the topic to the audience right away, asking them “What do you know about fairy tales?” The answers revealed a range of fairy tale knowledge including the notion that these were not tales meant to teach a moral lesson, to the more interesting revisions made by the Brothers Grimm. For instance, did you know that the Brothers’ changed a lot of the mother characters in their versions of tales to step-mothers, as they didn’t like the idea of mothers doing terrible things to their biological children? I sure didn’t.

As with any scholarly pursuit, it’s best to agree to specific conceptual definitions before diving in. After gathering the audience’s first assumptions and knowledge of fairy tales, it was time to bring out the definitions.



After vigorous research, the Geek Embassy team have defined fairy tales as “a genre of storytelling distinct from myth, legend, or nursery rhyme.” The characteristics that define a fairy tale are easy to identify.

Fairy tales, as opposed to their story counterparts, occur out of time. Although any storyteller can place Hansel and Gretel into a specific period in history, the story’s success as a narrative is in no way tied to when it takes place.

Additionally, fairy tales set themselves apart as they are generally flights of fancy, using larger-than-life characters and plots. There is also usually an element of magic involved.



As previously mentioned, fairy tales were not initially intended for children. In fact, many of the original stories included adult themes like violence, voyeurism, and even exhibitionism. They were stories told by adults to adults to shock and entertain around the fire in a terrifying world.

It wasn’t until the turn of the last century that fairy tales became a staple of children’s lit. Grimm’s updates, which softened the stories considerably, became a popular way to teach moral lessons to Victorian children. Out went the incest and cannibalism, in came happily ever after.

Disney’s The Little Mermaid via Disney Fandom Wiki.


Superheroes, The Geek Embassy suggests, are our fairy tales.

The world was a scary place when the first fairy tales were told to distract eager listeners from the wolves prowling just outside the fire’s light. In a way, we find ourselves plunged back into a similarly frightening time.

The world is a scary place filled with terror around every turn. War, sickness, and an increasingly absurd political class leave us feeling helpless to change the system we can not escape.

And yet, we’ve come a long way in a century. We no longer believe in flawless heroes and absolute evil. We’ve seen the world grow smaller and in that constriction, our black and white paint set has swirled together creating a series of greys that better reflect the lives we live.

The rise of superheroes as a prominent genre seems inevitable in this context. They are largely human, or raised human, and though their intentions may be honorable, they are flawed in a way that is familiar. They stand against evils as large and as daunting as the worst breaking news, and though the odds are against them, they prevail thanks to their commitment to good.



As with every species that has come to be through evolution, the superhero story finds its roots within the fairytale world. The Geek Embassy turned their focus to analysing the connections between superheroes and their fairy tales ancestors.

Every superhero story, says the Geek Embassy, contains seven storytelling elements in some fashion. Sometimes they may be obscured, but with a bit of analyzing, you can find the connections.The seven criteria for analysis were as follows:


  1. Journey through an unexplored world
  2. Lost Parents/Step-Parents
  3. Universal Evil that Must be Destroyed
  4. Talking/magical creatures
  5. Positive Influence
  6. Rescue
  7. Mystical/magical team of fighters


The Geek Embassy lead the panel through the process of analyzing superhero stories through the lens of fairytales via comparison. Here’s an example of just a few of the criteria and how they were used:


Harley Quinn

Note: for this analysis, Jen was using the DC New 52 reboot version of the character’s storyline, so some of the details may be different than fans of the animated series may remember.

Harley Quinn via DC Comics.

Journey Through An Unexplored World

Harley’s journey is an internal one to discover her identity. We see her break away from the Joker and the twisted abusive relationships they have and develop a unique identity.

Comparison: The Little Mermaid

Ariel gives up her voice to explore another world, which is a very unhealthy thing to do. It’s only when she gets her voice back that she regains her identity.


Positive Influence

Poison Ivy and Harley are survivors, and their relationship is one that helps make them both better. They may be villains on their own, but together they have the capacity to do great things.

Comparison: The Wizard of Oz

The Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion all want something: a heart, a brain, bravery. And yet, through the power of friendship, they discover that they had what they were looking for all along.



As the panel came to a close, the panelists left us with an interesting final thought on fandoms: our modern fairy tales are the stories we repeat over and over. Fandoms, and the huge power that comes with them, are the cornerstone of our new fairy tales.


Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite fairy tale? Who is your favorite fairy tale character? Who is your favorite superhero? What connections can you make?

“Rock On!”

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