Pop Stuff: Happily, Ever, After
An insight into how fairy-tales can help shape feminism
On my last visit to Mumbai, my niece had just turned five. She traipsed into little girldom, plaits ablaze, dress twirling, bracelets chiming. Aware that womanhood lay waiting in a land not quite so far, far, away, she asked me as she tried to make sense of it all, why was I wearing a ring if I wasn’t married and who was my husband going to be. As I gently explained that rings are an equal opportunity accessory and that happily ever afters can be found beyond the altar, I was inwardly exasperated that even in an era of resurgent feminism and ambitious role models, we are still hemmed in by arcane stereotypes. Not quite sure who to point the culpable, bejewelled finger at, it struck me that the messaging begins in part with the very first tales we tell. Well before they can aspire to be the next Angela Merkel, Sania Mirza or Sheryl Sandberg, most girls encounter the Fairy-Tale Princess. And that poses a problem. Stories of dainty feet in glass slippers are firmly at odds with shattering glass ceilings.
This is not to say that there is a dearth of inspiring narratives for the next generation. Classics like Charlotte’s Web, The Chronicles of Narnia and Nancy Drew have given us protagonists that would give today’s feminists a run for their money. Contemporary authors, J.K. Rowling chief among them, have created bold, empowered role models like Hermione Granger. And cinema screens are increasingly seeing heroines who hold their own; whether it is the bravery of Moana protecting her tribe, the bonds of sisterhood trumping all else in Frozen, the fearlessness of Katniss in The Hunger Games or Furiosa saving the world all by herself as Mad Max plays the Robin to her Batman. And yet somehow Cinderella still has a more than a fighting chance against Wonder Woman as they vie to capture the imagination.
Fairy Tales and their archetype of the Distressed Damsel awaiting her Charming Prince continue to be an enduring part of shaping our collective female consciousness. The trailer for Disney’s 2017 version of Beauty and The Beast set a new record, watched 127 million times in the first day alone. At their core, Belle, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty exalt the stories of heroines without agency; beauty and goodness are their chief attributes, patience is their fortitude and marriage to a handsome ruler is the grand prize. The subliminal message is that if you sit pretty and don’t complain, you’ll have a happy ending—wedding bells and a life with a man that can look after you. This is hardly a recipe for the next great She. E. O.
So if Fairy Tales are undoubtedly here to be retold, how do we tackle the Princess Problem? We reframe the narrative to reflect a feminist ethos. Snow White and The Huntsman presents a Snow White who is as much warrior as princess. She saves the Huntsman’s life and wages war against the Queen. Maleficent has a similarly revisionist approach, retelling Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the villainess, showing that there is more to the human psyche than simple takes on good and evil. And in the upcoming version of Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s looks are just a side note to her skill as an inventor. We can empower the next generation of five year olds by arming them with Fairy Tales that tell stories of Princesses who live by their own rules. Happily, Ever, After.
The author is a film producer and journalist and a former hedge fund COO. Twitter: @whats_cutting