I know it’s not a proper fairy tale but Enchanted was really the first movie that set me down the path of understanding the fairy tale legacy. I know a lot of people love this movie, and this post isn’t meant to diminish that in any way because it is a fun, sweet movie.
The thing is, Enchanted was the first time Disney essentially said, ‘We spent decades making movies about these fairy tales. We’ve made these princesses weak and naive and utterly sweet. We’ve made these princes stalwart and therefore unrealistic, unflinching heroes. It’s a farce and we need to fix it. We need to show real men in the real world. We need to give her depth and strength. And most of all, she needs to save herself.’
And I never understood any of that.
I’ve spent the past year discussing how these princesses aren’t weak women who needed to be fixed. Granted there are things I would have done differently with the animated Cinderella and Aurora but the world has changed so much in 50 years. And you can see that change in the live action Cinderella which presents a great version of her. Belle and Ariel were already fiercely interesting heroines. Nala and Jasmine were defiant and put the men around them in their place.
Disney, however, believed the fairy tale legacy and have spent years trying to undo it in Once Upon a Time and in Enchanted which you can feel straining against the fairy tale legacy instead of just being good stories.
But they were wrong.
They defined themselves by the weaknesses of these princesses, not by their strengths. It’s a choice and a perspective. Because of course these heroines have weaknesses. We all do. It’s part of what makes characters interesting and dimensional. And like Disney, we can chose to define ourselves by those weaknesses. Or by our strengths – by the power of our kindness or the grace of our innocence.
The key in all of this is agency. Agency is broadly defined as the “capacity to act.” More specifically in a story it’s when a character makes decisions or takes action that defines the circumstances, rather than the character reacting to their circumstances.
Our society has this misperception that fairy tale princesses need to be given agency in retellings because they don’t have it on their own. That’s the fairy tale legacy that has carried over into all sorts of stories trying so hard not to be about passive girls that only fall in love.
But these stories we think are about damsels in need of rescuing, are full of agency. Even the Disney versions. For Disney itself to go back and say, ‘We got it wrong – here’s what this really looks like’ undermines the virtues of these princesses and fuels our societal idea that there’s something wrong with these girls that ought to be changed.
Beyond the agency of these characters, the most popular fairy tales, the ones Disney has turned into a movie and we’ve all heard or read a thousand times, are stories entirely about the heroine or the princess. These girls are not the girlfriend or the token female or just sex objects. They are the story.
These are also stories filled with witches and fairy godmothers – women of power who drive the plot, wield the most powerful magic and shape kingdoms. They are everything people talk about wanting to see in movies when they complain about how few women there are and how they have so little impact. Or in books about girls who do nothing but fall for a guy.
Fairy tales are stories all about girls and women – full of fierce, kind, clever, defiant heroines and powerful, magnificent villains. And yet we’ve let society tell us they are a weakness. That we are shallow and weak for loving them and something needs to be done about it.
That’s why the fairy tale legacy is important to me.
The fairy tale legacies
Featured Image photo from Walt Disney Pictures