‘Some day my prince will come,’ may have been Snow White’s anthem, but it is a fair assumption that at least some rather more earth-bound ladies share her sentiment, if not her falsetto warble.
We may not all be on the brink of empoisonment by a snaggle-toothed old crone with a shiny red apple, having escaped from a woodsman who’s told us to come and frolic in his glade while actually intending to cut our heart out and feed it to our psychotic step-mamma – but there are elements of life from which everybody feels they need rescuing, and it is an all-too-compelling prospect to think that a fine-looking member of the opposite sex, spring in his step and song in his heart optional, will be the one to do that.
This does seem to be the central tenet of most fairy stories, and even Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm’s darker offerings far more often than not take as their premise the existence of true love, albeit fatal on occasion, between characters. So when we hear the phrase ‘fairytale romance’ it might be worth asking ourselves if its use to describe an affair between two human beings just the preserve of the unrealistic and excessively imaginative, or might it actually hold sway in this day and age too?
While not all of us may subscribe to the views of the embitteredly entitled Facebook group ‘Disney gave me unrealistic expectations about love’ (I prefer ‘The Beast can lock me in his tower any day’, but call that a personal perversion), few of us can claim utter immunity to the allure of a handsome prince galloping up on his steed (or, like, his bicycyle) to save us from whichever piece of adolescent angst we happen to be suffering at the time. Of course, Disney princesses usually have slightly more than essay crises to worry about – whether their dress will be pink or blue, for instance, or whether their mousy friends will be able to make their ball gown to the design’s exact specifications – and their princes are consequently more heroic, but the impulse is the same.
We shy away from it, probably (or at least those of us not looking to be roundly condemned for ignorance and misogyny might do) but it is a blessed thought to be able to abdicate responsibility even for a time, and to know that if we happened to prick our finger on the spindle of, say, a particularly sneezy kind of cold, then our very own Prince Philippe might charge up to our staircase with some Lemsip and maybe, if we’re extra lucky, a tuneful rendition of ‘Once Upon a Dream’.
That said, there are those who quite straight-facedly condemn Disney for the relationship paradigms with which it presents us, and would say the same of any fairy tale, for that matter, which might strengthen the idea of a damsel in distress needing to be rescued. Attempts have been made in recent years to redress this, we can see from films like Shrek or the recent, brilliant, Enchanted, and to show heroines just as gutsy and capable as any of their paramours might be. In fact, both Shrek’s and Enchanted’s handsome princes are sappy fops, whose courtly blandishments and gilded attire make them less capably chivalrous than risibly girly.
But this is not really progressive so much as it is pretending to be so, because all that both of these films do is then provide us with another hero, yes less conventionally attractive, but no less worthy of the heroine’s love nor less capable of saving her, and then propound the message that it’s what’s inside that counts. But I cannot have been the only one who was disappointed at the end of both Shrek films when the ogre and ogress passed up the chance to be transformed into humans, and look not only absolutely normal, but actually quite hot. I can’t help but think that this means we would rather fairytales were not too updated, did not too unequivocally redress the age-old premise that, as one of my friends assures me, there’s a lid for every pot.
Possibly the most instructive, and one of the most touching, fairy tales has to be Beauty and the Beast.
Whether you prefer the fuller, and more disturbing, original legend (Belle has sisters? And a back-story?), or the film version (and I maintain no cinematic experience matches the glee one feels at hearing a couplet such as – ‘She glanced this way, I thought I saw, / And when we touched she didn’t shudder at my paw!’), this story is both romantic in that slightly shameful, bordering-on-the-excessively-patriarchal way, and a genuine lesson for us all. Belle has brown hair (not to impugn those naturally blonde fairy tale fans), she likes reading, she’s got sass, and it’s her capacity for pity and love – neither of which are intrinsically girly qualities – which means she chooses to stay Chez Beast and save her father from imprisonment. When Gaston blunders his way onto the scene (don’t get me wrong, he’s amazing too, with such lines as, ‘I’m especially good at expectorating…’), we are struck by his inelegance when compared to the Beast, his lack of intelligence and sensitivity, even though of the two of them, he is not the one with horns, fangs and a dubious quantity of body hair. Oddly, then, the Beast is both Belle’s heart’s victim and its torturer, her rescuer and the person from whom she needs to be rescued, and someone she saves as much as ever he saves her; and this is probably a far apter evocation of most modern-day relationships than any of us might initially think.
Women may not always wear the breeches in fairy tales, but there is no harm in a modern gal delighting in the froth and frippery of it all – especially not when the real world has thus far failed to furnish you with a prince of your own…