Edward Scissorhands - Picturehouse Spotlight

Edward Scissorhands

Dr Brian Ray, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, on folklore and fairy tales in Tim Burton's much-loved nineties classic.

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Vincent Price, Dianne Wiest. USA 1990, 105 mins.

Tim Burton began using themes and motifs from folklore and fairy tales early in his career, evident in many of his short films before the summer blockbuster Batman (1989) placed him on the world map. His 1990 follow-up Edward Scissorhands reached theatres barely a year after this major success, and it represented both an abrupt departure from action as well as the first among many times the director would draw inspiration from old stories.

The first recorded versions of Beauty And The Beast originate from eighteenth-century France. These fairy tales adapted oral stories of a woman married to monstrous bridegroom, incorporating themes of marital fidelity and loyalty as a means of instilling morality into elite society. These themes hardened into celebrations of denial and repression during the nineteenth century. Many folklorists see this tale as normalising male domination, conventional gender roles, and sexual assault. Burton’s retelling endeavours to reverse many of these themes.

Edward Scissorhands

Some similarities between Edward Scissorhands and Beauty And The Beast stand out immediately. Obviously, the film’s heroine Kim Boggs (Winona Ryder) enjoys everything that Edward (Johnny Depp) doesn’t, including acceptance and adoration from friends, family, and the community at large. Kim’s growth as a character follows a similar path to Belle’s, choosing a love interest with qualities other than physical attraction and status.

And yet the film does more than simply retell Beauty And The Beast, making definite inversions that add new meanings. For example, Edward takes on certain plot elements previously reserved for Belle. Instead of holding someone captive, he leaves his castle to stay as a guest in Kim’s home. He never undergoes a physical transformation into his ‘old self,’ like the Beast often does. Instead, he learns to accept his ‘deformed’ hands as an artistic gift. His artistic skills even gain him a marginal degree of acceptance in the community for a short time. Furthermore, Kim plays anything other than the role of a captive. In fact, she and her friends pressure Edward into doing things against his will, then later abandon him when he needs their help.

These differences signal a redefinition of gender norms that had become an increasing part of popular culture during the 1980s and 1990s, in the U.S. as well as Britain. Edward himself appears androgynous, and demonstrates none of the behaviours or attitudes that would normally be inscribed on a male in prominent versions of the fairy tale.

Likewise, Kim exceeds established gender roles for her era. Not only does she help Edward prevail over a rival, she also saves him from a community that had come to fear his otherness. Although Kim conforms to many physical ideals, she transgresses other social boundaries and ultimately makes a decision to undermine the established values of the community for the sake of someone else. In many ways, Kim is both the narrator and the hero/heroine of the film. She undergoes the most development, and she also has the last word. Although nearly thirty years old now, Edward Scissorhands remains a remarkably progressive retelling of a classic tale.

Edward Scissorhands screens as part of The Enchanted Screen: A Season of Folk and Fairytale Films and Culture Shock on Monday 11 December.

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