It might be the latest release of Beauty and the Beast, or it might be the fact that I end up reading Disney Princess stories to an inconsolable toddler at two a.m., but fairy tales have been on my mind of late.
There’s been some discussion of the not-so feminist side of fairy tales over at the New Yorker and around the ‘net, and Liz McAdams has a whole series of Fractured Fairy Tales over at Channillo (with retakes on Hansel and Gretel and Snow White and Miner’s Union) but we’re sharing one that shows the uttermost truth of a story – Beauty and the Beast and Stockholm Syndrome.
What’s wrong with fairy tales you ask? Most of them follow the same premise – young girl is good, and sweet, and uncomplaining in the face of hardship, and does little to change her lot in life, merely accepting her circumstances without question, and is rescued by an external agent (the prince, fairy godmother, a bunch of dwarves) and then finds true love and happiness because her uncomplaining and sweet nature cause the prince to marry her and in doing so reward her passivity and compliance.
Excuse me while I gag.
But modern audiences are swallowing up this remake (cue singing ‘Tale as Old as Time’), and the story is still pretty old. Girl meets Beast, is held captive, charms him with sweetness, falls in love, they get married, the end.
Trust me, with a plot line like this we couldn’t accept the story at Twisted Sister. Something about the lack of a female character as an agent of action (although we get the whole self sacrifice angle, wouldn’t it be better if she rescued her father herself, by laying siege to the castle, or just set up a lawsuit for false imprisonment?)
Think about the audience for these stories a couple hundred years ago. Beauty and the Beast was penned in a time where arranged marriages between older men and much younger women were very common (usually to secure alliances between families, or financial gain and stability, not for love or silly anything like that), and this story was intended as a lesson for women to see the ‘prince’ behind her betrothed, no matter how unattractive or abusive he was.
Now consider the child brides of today – marriage of young teens and preadolescent girls around the world, and the solution is not to ‘kill him with kindness’ or ‘see the prince beneath the raging monster’ as happens in Beauty and the Beast – but education and emancipation of girls and women so they gain agency in themselves.
Stories from medieval times – legends of Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan and Isolde – seem to grant their heroines more autonomy than traditional fairy tales and our trademarked Princesses, the women of legend, although still bound by conventional marriage, are free to pursue courtly love, and seek the lovers of their choice.
Traditional fairy tales and the Disney princess franchise remove this level of complexity, and with very few recent exceptions (Elsa and Merida come to mind), grant the fair maiden’s final reward for her own sweet virtue with a heteronormative marriage.
(Excuse another gag as I wipe dirty bums and dishes.)
Flash forward a few hundred years and you’ll find countless stories about women, although very few female writers telling their own stories themselves, and the basis is often the female falls victim to circumstance or evil because of her social transgressions. See Sarah Myles’s Feminist Flicker for more discussion on Women in Horror.
Even stories that outwardly resemble Beauty and the Beast (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights come to mind) have better developed characters – Catherine is no saint, and her Heathcliff is near the devil himself – think a Victorian era Bonnie and Clyde, where both characters have (some) freedom to move socially and act under their own free wills. Jane Eyre, governess in the house of Mr. Rochester is based on Charlotte Bronte’s experiences at boarding school and as a governess, and Jane Eyre remains determined to improve her lot in life, and retains her individuality and spirit, going so far to infuriate her aunt and caregiver, resulting in Jane’s dismissal from the home.
The lack of agency of both individual women, and as a group, is the hallmark of classic fairy tales. And it’s something we try to avoid around Twisted Sister, which is why we sometimes find ourselves cheering for the bad guys, because at least they’re doing something.
Fairy tale endings – happily ever after?
So, what’s the big deal about fairy tales then? Escapist fantasy, sure, but the underlying message is that the story is not over until the heroine achieves her happily ever after, which, in nearly every Disney remake, involves marriage between prince and princess (or a sign of a committed relationship between a male and female character).
In short, we’re reinforcing heteronormativity. Marriage between a male and female, celebrated with a big splashy wedding, and then ‘the end’, because as far as story arcs go, this one’s complete.
We’ve brought our previously alienated heroine to centre, and she’s living happily ever after, or happy enough until the prince of her dreams starts leaving the toilet seat up. She’s married to the man of her dreams, so her life is now complete.
Which is a damned shame.
Marriage is the ultimate end goal for our heroine. And I get the whole romance genre (where we want two people to be together in spite of whatever obstacles may lie in their way) but this is a story intended for prepubescent children.
And trust me when I say this – kids are more interested in the buddy exploits of various superheroes, woodland characters, or animated toys than some far off developmental stage signifying a committed adult relationship.
Kids don’t care about getting into a committed relationship – but this is what we sell to them anyway. And the fairy tale versions aren’t really about ‘true love’ (even ice princess Elsa wisely says you can’t fall in love with someone you just met) – they are a plot device left over from 1950s animators who forgot to update things for modern life. (I’m not talking about the few, but excellent buddy films Disney has been involved with – Toy Story, The Incredibles, Lilo and Stitch, Inside Out, and the Tinkerbelle franchise – my focus is the fairy tale, this still needs to be updated.)
Our modern day animated escapes into fairy tale fantasy are based on a very traditional adult relationship – marriage between men and women. Nothing else.
No chance to explore the world on her own terms, maybe backpack through Europe or volunteer overseas, maybe pursue a doctorate or start a NGO. Nope, she’s married. Her life is seen as fulfilled and complete.
Cinderella gets her shoe and the prince. Snow White has her woodland creatures and her prince. Aurora has a long nap and gets a prince. Beauty has her beast, and guess what, she has a prince too.
We tell six year olds – go ahead, be a princess, have fun, be feisty, and you can fight with frying pans if you want to, but to really win, you’ve gotta get married, ‘cuz that’s your one and only true path to happily ever after.
And in hundreds of years of recreating fairy tales, we fail to escape this final trap.
Cue singing ‘It’s a Tale as Old as Time’…