One reason that fairy tale heroines have been in style lately (actually, aren’t they always in style?) is that they embody old traditions of femininity, plus current ideas of female heroism. Appealing to old-fashioned value systems while acting on new ones is quite subversive. On the surface these fairy tale romances don’t rock the boat, but the currents are another thing. Much has changed.
What’s traditional? Cinderella and Snow White, to use two very popular archetypes, are powerless victims menaced by the ceaseless jealousy of other women. Snow White isn’t even safe out of sight; her mere existence is obnoxious to the evil queen. And it isn’t enough that the wicked stepmother favors the other sisters; they collude in demoting Cinderella to a servant, one whose daily humiliation is to slave for them. Snow and Cindy are both young, beautiful, pure, and good. They are modest. They are not embittered by the cruelties of others. They are dutiful, even to betraying parents. And they also know how to be happy. The big irony in Snow White is that Snow is happy and cheery in a tiny, shared cottage, while the queen is miserable in the family castle. Cindy is happy with her mice-made gown (in the Disney movie, at least) and goes to the ball to have a good time, while her sisters are fretful and desperate to grab the prince’s attention.
These two fairy tale heroines have passive virtues. They react admirably, but they do not act. Additionally, Snow and Cindy suffer without complaining, a classic passive female behavior that traditionally is rewarded in fairy tales (and supposedly in real life, too, but that’s doubtful). The fairy godmother helps Cindy. The mice make Cindy a gown. The woodsman refuses to kill Snow. The dwarves give her a home. Bad things happen, and these heroines just endure them and wait for something good. And then the prince comes to save the day
What is so striking about these stories is their continued power. Little girls (and big ones, too) still dream of being rescued from all stress and strife by a handsome prince. A lot of women know better than this, but still yearn for a world in which doing nothing on their own will actually get them what they want. Plenty of women still think that going along with this traditional program works. Sadly, as authors of fact-based economic texts such as The Feminine Mistake (by Leslie Bennetts) tell us, women pay a huge economic price for believing in this dream. It’s a lot safer to read about the rewards of being passive in a fairy tale than it is to try to practice a passive life. Issues of impoverishment in old age loom. A man is not a plan, even though in romances, it often seems as if he might be.
Fairy tale endings can happen for modern romance heroines, but the heroine has to do something, not just be something. The conflict in the past often was between the women, and the judge/rescuer was the prince. The prince decided whose foot fit into the shoe. The prince woke Snow White from the death spell with his kiss. Now, the heroine of a fairy tale romance can have a career, have a stake in the prince’s political struggles, fight with him, intervene in a power play, and more. But because it is a fairy tale, he still has to save her at the end. Sometimes critics object to this classic ending as antifeminist. As a feminist myself, I don’t, because princes are supposed to be heroes. A modern heroine can be as aggressive, assertive, daring, opinionated, or downright aggravating as she wants. She does not have to display passive goodness. The prince simply has to be enough of a hero to do his part in saving the day. He doesn’t always have to do it physically. The heroine can avert an assassination attempt on the prince, for instance, and he can then be her hero by arranging for their marriage to be accepted by his weird little Ruritanian nation, or by solving some problem she has, or whatever. In the modern fairy tale, both the heroine and the prince live their best life, acting up to their potential. Neither is diminished by the other’s strength.
But surprisingly, a lot of modern romances start with rather traditional-at-heart heroines. These often sadder-but-wiser women are the reluctant achievers. Even while fulfilling or even surpassing any youthful dreams of independence, these women keep their claim to modesty and passivity, i.e. to classic femininity, by having been “forced” into their current mode. These are women who did not intend to go it alone, but for whom circumstances have not been ideal by any reasonable standard. They aren’t fearless pioneers, daring secret agents, or the like. They are survivors toughing it out in situations they never planned. It’s great that the business is a success and the kid’s head is on right, but despite all her hard work, it’s all an accident. She isn’t brassy enough to have done it on purpose or even to like it. Accusations of workaholism are true for this heroine, who has given up on fairy tales. For her, the fairy tale romance is not a test of her virtue, but a test of the hero’s, with her as the judge. Is he pure enough to be worthy of her? Or is he just another selfish user in disguise? The heroine doesn’t trust her judgment, which makes it harder.
Another version, a more passive one, is when the entrapment and cruelty of the evil stepmother has a modern substitute in the entrapment and cruelty of a man too cynical and bruised to recognize goodness when he sees it. First, he has to test it. Then maybe he can believe. That’s the basic premise of the classic modern romance that pits an inexperienced, powerless heroine against an embittered, powerful hero. Like all fairy tales, it has a happy ending. Once the prince realizes the goodness of the heroine, he ceases to be a menace to her. Regardless of the heroine’s seeming passivity, though, she draws a moral line in the sand that the hero eventually recognizes and submits to. That’s what makes even the most fairy-tale-ish of modern romances different from real fairy tales. In the old fairy tales, heroines merely had to be good. Now, they have to prove it.
Still, there’s nothing like having a prince on bended knee before you, offering you the world. It’s not surprising that many an hour has been whiled away on stories of fairy tale romance, whether traditional, modern, or some version in between.