Hallmark manufactured a holiday called “Sweetest Day” to be in October as kind of a second Valentine’s Day to cash in all that gushy and sweet romance money. I, of course, don’t care but it did give me some food for thought (although perhaps not an original one). I have many thoughts on romance as it is portrayed in media, and for many, many children, their first exposure to the concept of “true love” is through Disney movies in general and the classic fairytale interpretations specifically. What movies/couples am I talking about?
1) Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – Snow White and Prince Charming
2) Cinderella – Cinderella and Prince Charming II
3) Sleeping Beauty – Aurora/Briar Rose and Philip
4) The Little Mermaid – Ariel and Eric
5) Beauty and the Beast – Belle and the Beast
6) Aladdin – Jasmine and Aladdin
7) The Princess and the Frog – Tiana and Naveen
8) Tangled – Rapunzel and Flynn
9) Frozen – Anna and Hans/Anna and Sven
This is a horrible introduction to romance or romantic relationships in general.
There is exactly one animated Disney romance that doesn’t make me cringe, and it’s not on my list because the story isn’t a fairytale.
Mulan – Mulan is a girl who pretends to be a boy and goes to war in her father’s place so he won’t die. She totes crushes on the Li Shang, regiment captain (and who wouldn’t), and when she single-handedly saves the Empire (twice), she goes home to apologize for running away and her father forgives her. Then Shang, after a metaphorical slap upside the head, shows up to maybe start dating this totally awesome woman if she lets him. This is also not based on a Western fairytale, so perhaps that’s why the romance is not the focus of the story.
(Also, to be pedantic, I know Aladdin isn’t a Western fairytale either, but the romance is pretty typical of these movies)
And that is it. All other romances are kind of awful on pretty much every level. Most of the fairytale romances are very similar, which means since the template is bad, there aren’t a lot of ways to produce a good story.
Template – young, isolated princess meets an older handsome man, they spend approximately one day to one week together, obstacles are overcome (sometimes together, sometimes not), and they agree to get married.
Where to begin, where to begin?
1) Young – all the princesses tend to be teenagers. While lately Disney has made some strides to age up their main characters, the oldest Disney princess to date is Elsa, who was 21. Anna was 18, Tiana was 17/18, and the others were between 14 and 16. Even if the actual age wasn’t given, the princesses are presented as young. They come across as teenagers who are trying to figure out what their role in life will be, or are actively rebelling against that role. The only princess who comes across to me as mature is Tiana, and part of that is probably for the reason below.
2) Isolated – the princesses also tend to be isolated. Some (Snow White, Rapunzel, Jasmine, Cinderella, Anna) are literally confined, and others metaphorically (Aurora lives with only the stupid fairies, Ariel is confined to the sea, Belle is a social outcast). In the cases of some princesses, they have never even met a boy their age to interact with before the love interest shows up. The exception is Tiana, who works two jobs in her quest to achieve her dream, and she is also the most mature of the princesses.
3) Older love interest – Again, I don’t mean strictly age. I mean experience. All the eventual princes have a lot more world experience than the princesses.
a) Granted, we don’t know that much about Snow White’s Prince Charming, but he’s free to ride around by himself.
b) Cinderella’s Prince Charming was apparently out and about so much his father had to practically force him to settle down.
c) Princes Philip, Eric, and Naveen were off having adventures when they met their princesses.
d) Aladdin and Flynn were surviving as thieves.
e) Prince Hans was scheming, and Sven was working for a living.
f) The only exception is the Beast, who was perhaps more isolated than Belle.
4) No dating – I know, I know, the constraints of a movie make showing the passage of time and thus the development of a relationship difficult to depict. And I know Disney is trying to improve on this. But even so, Disney romances are astoundingly short.
a) Both Snow White and Prince Charming and Aurora and Philip fell in love after meeting precisely once (that they remember) and singing a song together.
b) Cinderella and Prince Charming II danced the night away.
c) Ariel fell in love with Eric based on looks only, and he decided he loved her after three days of her mute comic hijinks.
d) Aladdin and Jasmine have two dates and decide to get married.
e) Tiana and Naveen have about a day together before they decided to get married (although to be fair they are frogs).
Belle and Beast spend more time together, which is good. Later flicks do try to remedy the “one date” issue. Anna was ready to marry Hans after one day (to be fair this was lampshaded as a bad idea in the movie), but ended up with Sven after only a few days. I’ll grant you that they weren’t immediately married, and that while Rapunzel and Flynn seemed to be in love after one day, they didn’t get married immediately, which was refreshing actually, but also little more than a throw-away line at the end.
5) Obstacles – ah, the course of true love never did run smooth. High stress situations actually aren’t conducive to long-term relationships, especially those with such a short dating time anyway. And in the case of Snow White and Aurora, they didn’t even overcome the obstacles; they just slept through the problem. I’m also going to argue that the obstacles presented don’t represent the obstacles likely to show up later in the relationship.
a) Snow White should have some PTSD considering her stepmother tried to have her murdered (twice). Prince Charming saw nothing weird about kissing a dead girl in a glass box and then marrying her when she was magically revived. Just putting that out there without comment…
b) Cinderella comes from a verbally and emotionally abusive household. Prince Charming II wasn’t very interested in getting married to begin with so it’s likely he’ll just go back to whatever he wants to do once he’s beget an heir.
c) Aurora is an idiot. Then again, so is Philip and everyone else shown in those inbred families, so maybe that’s not a problem for them.
d) Ariel is an idiot. Also, she knows absolutely nothing about the world she’s just agreed to be part of, and comes from a rather dysfunctional family. Eric decides to marry a mute, younger girl, after only three days and a battle with an over-sized witch-monster.
e) It could be argued Belle is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, and the Beast clearly has unresolved anger issues that probably weren’t improved by his ten-year curse/imprisonment.
f) Tiana and Naveen, except for the whole frog thing, actually will probably be fine. He needs to grow up a bit, but Tiana’s got a good head on her shoulders. But creepily, Tiana’s best friend Charlotte essentially resigns herself to waiting six years to marry Naveen’s twelve-year-old brother.
Conclusion – but the overall lesson is that if a girl is pretty, and has a nice singing voice (and Sleeping Beauty states this explicitly!), a worthy suitor will present himself to her and true love is not far behind. Also, any obstacle can be overcome, including severe mental disorders, huge gaps in life experience, and past abuse. So much for romance.
Happy Sweetest Day or whatever!