WE ALL KNOW what to expect when we see “romantic comedy” or “romance” in the description of a film or novel: despite apparently insurmountable obstacles, the two protagonists will work their way towards their “happily ever after” resolution, usually sealed with a kiss, a wedding, or the image of the united couple journeying into an opaque but idyllic future. There are many individual variations on this tale, of course: in recent popular movies, for example, the man is already engaged (Wedding Planner); the girl is attracted to the wrong brother (While You Were Sleeping); the characters are in an ostensibly insurmountable conflict over business matters (You’ve Got Mail). In the enormously popular Pretty Woman — prostitute marries rich capitalist — the fairy-tale scripts of (at least) Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Beauty and the Beast overtly structure the story. Vivian, the Cinderella of the dating world wants, asks for, and gets “the fairy tale”; Edward, the cold ruthless “beast,” becomes the prince who rescues her. Despite overwhelming social, educational, moral, and character differences, love conquers all.
The pleasure of the films mentioned above depends, not so much on their individual differences as on their repetitive and familiar generic similarities. There are of course many contemporary “relationship” stories that do not end at the “happy ever after” kiss. Often organised around overt recognition and explicit discussion of the ideas and reality of intimate relationships — we see many examples of this throughout the long-running TV series Sex and the City — these more “realistic” depictions grapple with and demonstrate the extent to which twenty-first-century notions of romance are still influenced by and connected to the early and comforting scripts embodied in the fairy tale.
If romances targeted at adults foreground romantic love as their primary subject, what is interesting about the traditional fairy tale is that, although this type of love is implied by the ending, it is never the main subject or concern of the story. Aimed at children, fairy tales give us some heroines who are active on their own behalf — in “Hansel and Gretel,” for example — but most of the others (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) are helpless victims of stepmothers, witches, and nasty stepsisters who mistreat, abandon, or attempt to kill them. In two of the cases just mentioned, the heroine is actually in a coma until a prince shows up to rescue her with a. life-restoring kiss.
The initial violence in many of the Grimm stories has over the years been reduced or even eliminated when told to children; and of course, we are all familiar with the passive, maternal, and innocent character of Snow White popularized by the Disney film and franchise. Singing her way through the day, beloved by animals, taking maternal care of the seven lovable, asexual, and pretty much interchangeable “dwarfs,” Disney’s Snow White, apparently ignorant of the ongoing danger to her embodied by her stepmother, patiently accepts her fate, which will inevitably include a prince. This depiction — in which Snow White in her iconic blue dress looks like a cross between the Madonna and Betty Boop — renders the original story into a simple tale of good versus evil, and continues its “once upon a...read more