The Unexpected Horror of The Little Match Girl

It’s the holiday season and while I promised a month of Disney December I wanted to tell a story that’s personal to me and still is a fairy tale of some kind. I want to talk about The Little Match Girl and how it nearly ruined my childhood before the actual specter of Death could finish the job. This Christmas story was given to me in the form of a picture book as a child and its story still haunts me to this day.

Let’s first go over the story. Is it possible to spoil a beloved children’s book? Well, soft spoiler alert, I suppose.

The book goes a little something like this. A little girl in old-timey England is shivering in the cold. She looks like a genderbent Oliver Twist and she is desperately selling matches to pay for food. She is, unfortunately, down to her final three matches and winter’s chill is quickly setting in. She’s cold, hungry and miserable.

She decides to light the remaining matches she has for much needed warmth. She lights the first match and in the flame’s dancing light, she sees a warm house: family, friends, mirth, the whole shebang; but the fire goes out.

She lights the second match and in its flame she sees a Christmas feast: there’s goose and potatoes and an entire Noah’s Ark worth of other meals. She stays in that fantasy for a while before that match does go out.

On her final match, she makes the fateful choice to use it for warmth and in its light, she sees her grandmother (who we assume has passed away). She can feel her grandmother’s arms around her; they’re so warm and she feels so at home and safe.

The next page of the book is blank, absolutely black and the final page is that of a crowd of more Oliver Twist extras surrounding the little match girl. She is still and smiling, three burned out matches scattered round her: she died, frozen in the cold but did so happy having seen a vision of something warm, light and freeing from the cruel, cold world that let a little girl freeze to death in the streets.

Now, keep in mind that I read this as a child. I didn’t have the tools to process Charmander getting his tail wet in Pokemon yet alone a little girl dying alone in the cold.

There are different retellings of the story; apparently, in some versions she survives and in others, she’s sort of just spirited away into heaven all rapture-style by her flame-based hallucination Grandmother so she doesn’t per say die but sort of does.

I never understood why this story was told to children. What was the moral: don’t be poor so you don’t die? I never understood what this story was trying to tell me but as an adult, I have trivia which tells me a simple fact: fairy tales are meant to help explain and prepare little girls and boys for things they my face. Beauty and the Beast helped prepare girls for marriages to people who to them likely seemed beastly. Cinderella taught us patience in the face of cruel family. Snow White taught us to not trust strangers and most importantly, Sleeping Beauty taught us the important lesson of not shunning the village goth because she’ll come to your party uninvited and curse your child.

The lesson of The Little Match Girl can likely be seen two ways: one is the capriciousness and cruelty of the real world; poverty is real and having a story not end neatly with a bow is an important lesson even for children. The second I think is more interesting: I think this story is really about humility and what matters most. Sure, the girl sees food and fire but she also sees a lost loved one and that is the image that allows her to slip into darkness and sleep peacefully for eternity. She found physical comfort in fire light and spiritual comfort in the warm love of her grandmother.

This book stands in such stark contrast to Disney’s brand of sanitized stories. Disney as a brand and person were great at taking the original darker endings of famous stories and making them “more family-friendly” also known as, boring and safe. In the movie, you don’t get to see Cinderella’s step-sisters get their eyes pecked out by birds or Ariel’s legs cut off or any of the horror Sleeping Beauty faces. Instead we get “the lamp shacks up with a prince of some kind” in lieu of actual conflict or drama.

Sure, this does make things easier to digest for children but there’s something unfortunate about that. I faced death young as a child and nothing in media prepared me for that. These stories used to prepare children for things, not necessarily well, but they did try by at least talking about the darker parts of growing up and being a human person on this planet.

We’ve continued to sanitize children’s media and now there are even few things aimed at children that challenge them in any way. Children aren’t dumb, they simply lack experience. It isn’t that a child couldn’t understand death it’s that nothing would prepare them for that without prompting or experience.

I’m not advocating that The Little Match Girl go on every family bookshelf. It’s a tough read and I know I didn’t process that book, I just sort of sealed it away. It wasn’t until I talked about it with others that I realized how messed up it was as a premise. The story has the roots of a gritty live-action historical movie with a muted fiter over the film and probably staring Anne Hathaway in some capacity. However, teaching kids important lessons is part of the reason we have stories to begin with and even if the meaning isn’t figured out fully until that child is damn near thirty and still a goth, it’s a vital lesson to learn.

Stay warm, dear readership.

Regarding Uncle Walt

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”   - C.S. Lewis.png

I grew up during the height of the Disney Renaissance during the 1990s and while I, for certain, had fond memories of Disney movies as a child, many of them sort of passed through me like water. I had many favorites but essentially, each one that came out was my favorite. I waffled back and forth between Pocahontas as a favorite to loving Tarzan to quickly shifting to whatever flavor of the year movie came out. Not to mention the immense soft spot back then (and now) I had for Don Bluth’s mostly terrifying movies which I think during my childhood were much more impactful: I had much stronger feelings about Anastasia and An American Tail than I ever did for The Lion King. That also excludes that my childhood was dominated by other forms of American animation. Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Toons were also a huge influence on top of all the other shows I likely should not have been watching because it was the 90s and parents assumed that animated meant safe.

I say this to illustrate a point: I had to learn to love Disney movies. I had to learn to appreciate Disney movies. And considering that I was for entirely too long one of those annoying people on the internet full of quippy hot-takes, I have a fair amount of Disney penance to account for.

And with that said, I’d like to talk about Disney movies: the ones I love, the ones I can’t stand, the issues I have with a few of them and of course, Old Uncle Walt.

Since I was born in the 90s, I saw many of the movies that make people think of Disney movies. I couldn’t tell you why (outside of being a fickle child) that those movies sort of just ran through me. I can’t say it was an intelligence thing, I had long since memorized television shows and memorable lines from the shows that mattered to me even as a child. Disney movies just didn’t do much for me as a kid so when I finally grew up some and came into my teens, it was like seeing many of these movies for the first time.

I started college and managed to bring with me many of the great Disney films and to be honest, none of them impressed me. I was full of angst and ennui and I didn’t have time for the sentiment and whimsy of a Disney movie. But I could appreciate some of the darker themes of some of the riskier movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which may get a blog post all on its own). This, of course, excludes many of the Pixar movies because those can make me cry and I’ve cried enough for the sake of this blog. College brought many of those weak criticisms against Disney movies like them not being feminist enough or Beauty and the Beast being about Stockholm Syndrome (I will repent for that sin next post, I promise.). And many of those aren’t false, simply misplaced. Sure, Mulan is self-actualized and Jasmine is a sexy lamp and while we’re at it, no one gives Cinderella enough credit! But many of those shallow dives don’t give those films the credit they deserve.

It wasn’t until the later years of college and really post-grad that I found a deeper appreciation for Disney movies as cultural touchstones and as art. Who knows. Maybe I found some of that sentiment in me after the loss of a parent or I was just a little less jaded. I was able to see them for their skill, their magic and their music. I tend to use musicals to clean and sew so in the heavier workload years of college I found immense solace in something I could sing to and had a beat: it kept me motivated in between costumes and essays. At that time, my bread and butter of beloved movies remained the same: Hercules and Pocahontas as well as Hunchback but that’s because it never really left the rotation.  

Unfortunately, the formal years of book-learning meant the flames of old cynicism began to flare again. It was difficult to deal with the representation and writing in many Disney movies and while, sure, they’re for children; it’s still less than ideal to have old tired tropes rehashed for new vulnerable audiences.

That’s right: feminism ruined Disney movies.

The book-learning also brought in with it a very complicated relationship with Mr. Disney. One of my college senpais was deep into Disney fandom so when I discussed my issues with how the company treated (does still treat) its employees or how the animation team continued (still does continue) to whitewash history and people for the sake of “safe”  and profitable stories, my criticisms were often met with harsh silence or a laundry list of excuses. Let’s be clear, Disney was a complicated man who did his best but was a businessman first. I can’t knock the man’s hustle but I can be disappointed with how the company treats its staff and the land around their parks. I can also still have a strained relationship with its characters. While for many The Princess and the Frog was a huge step in the right direction for me it was a tired limp towards what was long since an understanding of demographics. While many praised Moana, I saw mostly a reboot of Pocahontas with much less casual racism and whataboutism.

It’s okay to have a complicated relationship with Disney as a person and as a company and as a brand but that doesn’t mean that I am too much of a contrarian to admit when something is good. The Lion King still can make me cry [An aside: so the fall after my mother passed away, Amber and I were babysitting a friend’s young son. We decided to put on a movie and Amber chose The Lion King because it’s a good movie with good songs and really the movie was for us and not for the child we were watching. Around the scene of Simba trying to wake his dead father, I started crying. Silent sobbing is the better term. Amber then looked to me and realized what had happened and she said “Oh, no! I’m a monster!” and immediately hugged me. I assured her I was fine but this happened well into my 20s; these movies are still powerful.] I can still admit that the water animation in Moana is impressive. I can still admit that I cried during Mother Knows Best because it so painfully echoed much of the gaslighting I’ve endured growing up. I can tell you that parts of Hunchback still give me chills. I can still dislike their desire to make a monopoly of entertainment. I can dislike their choices by continuing to think that diversity is a myth and hedging their bets on mostly “safe” white storytelling. I can be disappointed in all of those things.

But I can still say that I love Disney movies.