Slippers, Singing, and Stockholm Syndrome: How Fairy Tales Harm True Love

Fairy tales, whether in the form of a book or a movie, or even a television show, are major influences on the lives of children and continue to influence many well into adulthood — particularly women and young girls. A vast majority of mass-produced fairy tales center around the life of a young woman longing for love, and many women see parts of themselves in the characters. When the stories are empowering, this can be good. Young girls should have strong women to admire and emulate — but too often, the main focus of fairy tales is the search for true love, which is cited as the solution to all the problems the main character might face.

Escape from abusive situations, crossing the most extreme of cultural divides, and even a miraculous return from death, all can be achieved solely through the power of true love. But this formula is simply unrealistic. Fairy tales and their emphasis on the all-encompassing power of true love create ideas and expectations which are harmful in real relationships.

Think first of the timeless classic, Cinderella. This is the story of a poor girl being abused by her mean, heartless stepmother. She dreams of being free from the tyranny of her home, and the most sensible solution to be found is to convince the prince to marry her and carry her off into the sunset. (Grimm 320-327) Stories such as these can always be viewed through the lens of historical context — the basic story of Cinderella has existed throughout time, the oldest recorded version being from ancient Egypt. (Latterell 319) When this fact is considered, along with the knowledge that for much of human history, the only way for a woman to leave her family was through marriage, the story is only unrealistic in the expectation of actual royalty being the key to freedom.

However, in the social climate of today’s United States, this simply isn’t true. Women are more than capable of creating whatever life for themselves they choose. Yet many still hold Cinderella stories up as a paragon of ideal love and romance, even fantasizing about themselves as Cinderella.

he dream is to be swept off your feet by a handsome prince on a white horse, and only then will you find true happiness. This can lead to women remaining in situations that do not benefit them, or even cause them harm, laboring under the delusion that they will be rescued as soon as they can just find the right man. Showcasing men as an ideal solution to a less-than-ideal life causes women and young girls to willingly give up a portion of their own agency and strength as an individual.

Next we should examine the immensely popular story of The Little Mermaid. This young woman, as portrayed in the 1989 Disney film — unarguably the most recognizable version — has what seems to many an ideal life. She spends her days swimming with her friends, collecting useless trinkets, and generally being a princess of the sea. Yet she seems unhappy with her life, and idealizes life on land. She becomes instantly infatuated with a man whose life she saves and gives up her voice to gain legs so she can be with him. On the surface, this may seem romantic, but with a closer look, the implications are deeply problematic. This girl can only gain love and happiness by sacrificing her individuality. She must change the most core part of herself to receive his approval.

Many would argue that the radical change she makes is precisely what makes the story so romantic. They’re from entirely different worlds, they would never have worked if she’d stayed a mermaid, and she displays a willingness to sacrifice her comfort in order to bring them closer together that is lauded as noble and selfless.

However, the idea of losing a major feature of herself as a person — her voice — in a trade for the one thing that would make her acceptable to the man — human legs — can be very damaging to children who watch this movie repeatedly through their childhoods. Young girls are often expected by society to change themselves for the benefit of men, and this story only reinforces that. One must also consider the original story of The Little Mermaid, as recorded by Hans Christen Anderson. The legs she receives are intensely painful, described as feeling as though she were walking on knives. Further, in this story, she does not gain the love of the prince she seeks.

Instead, he marries another, and she kills herself. (Epstein 2014) That message is obviously far more damaging, as it can create an idea that changing for love should be painful, and that if you can’t have the person you want, then life isn’t worth living. Many children are fortunately unaware of the darker aspects of the original story, but the pleasant Disney version remains popular to this day. Encouraging children to abandon their individuality for love is harmful, no matter how noble it may seem.

The tale of Beauty and the Beast also has its problems. There have been many iterations of this story throughout the years, but the most recognizable remains, again, the Disney version. A girl is kidnapped by a monster in exchange for the release of her father, and she falls in love with the monster. The case has been made time and again for Stockholm syndrome, which remains a valid issue. But even setting that aside, the story still has negative implications for modern relationships.

The Beast has a curse placed on him which can only be lifted by true love. Once he receives ‘true love’s kiss,’ he is transformed back into a handsome prince and is then worthy of the love the protagonist has already given him. The major issue presented here is the idea that a woman should be willing to stay with a man in spite of his worst qualities, in the name of true love.

Even if he’s ugly beyond imagining, all the way up to actually keeping her locked away and refusing to allow her to see her family — in short, even if he’s incredibly abusive — she should stay and try to change him. If she loves him, she’ll do it. If she loves him, she’ll endure, and be rewarded with the perfect partner and happiness for the rest of her days. It can also create an idea in young boys that this is the way relationships should be — that women exist to fulfill a man’s needs and make him happy at any cost. (Kennison 2014) Unfortunately, that is just not realistic. Women should not expect love to change men, and men should not expect women to accept harmful behaviors in exchange for that love.

Self-esteem issues should also be examined when discussing the effects of fairy tales. Many mass-produced fairy tale films have a protagonist that fits a very specific mold: young, thin, beautiful, perfect hair, perfect skin, lovely voice, and most often, white. When only girls who fit this mold are shown in movies, it can be damaging for the girls watching who don’t. It can create an idea that only the beautiful are deserving of love, only the thin are worthy of happiness, and if you don’t find it while you’re young, you’re out of luck. This is reinforced by the depictions of many women villains: old, fat, not traditionally beautiful. Things outside of the ideal are construed as evil. (Doga 2017) The psychological effects of that dichotomy can not be overstated.

Conversely, there are modern fairy tales that can be very empowering for children, and especially young women. There’s the relatively recent Disney film Brave, which shows a young woman rejecting the idea of marriage outright, choosing instead to follow her own interests and goals. She is determined to retain her individuality, and sees no benefit to herself in marriage. She cares more about her familial relationships than anything. That message is very encouraging for many who choose to remain single, an option which is often cast in a negative light by a society obsessed with romantic relationships. That choice aside, the emphasis on retaining one’s individuality and sense of self can only help make children’s future relationships stronger.

Many praise Frozen for its subversion of traditional fairy tale romances. One of the protagonists is chided repeatedly throughout the film for her ‘love at first sight’ fantasy, and the man with whom she believes she is in love is revealed to be taking advantage of her naivety. The film in its entirety places a much higher importance on family relationships (Doga 2017) and the building of love from a friendship, but that moment of the stereotypical ‘Prince Charming’-type being revealed as a villain is especially important when compared to the fairy tales children have been exposed to up to that point. It plants the idea that ‘love at first sight’ should not be the entire basis of a relationship, and that someone who suggests otherwise may not have the best intentions.

When thinking of this compared to Sleeping Beauty, in which the main character does build an entire relationship on first sight and a single kiss — and in the original version of which, the protagonist is raped and bears children while in a coma (Epstein 2014) — the story of Frozen is a much more realistic and positive message. Showing children that romantic relationships are not the only meaningful relationships you will have in your life is an important factor in changing the way adults view relationships.

The only story which comes to mind that addresses the issue of beauty and its connection to love is Shrek, which is seen by many as a parody of the fairy tale genre to begin with. However, its existence is a step in the right direction. No film which sends a message of love despite appearances, the importance of being a good person, and building a relationship on time spent together and common interests, should be discounted when speaking of the effects of similar stories on children. (Doga 2017)

Fairy tale stories are abundant in our society, and many children grow up seeing Disney films on a repeating loop. Because of the prevalence on these stories in a child’s formative years, it is vitally important that the underlying themes be examined and criticized so that they may be improved. Many have done so over the years, but change comes slowly, particularly in the film industry when the classic stories continue to make money. It is more important, then, for those who are now adults and who grew up consuming this kind of media to consider what messages the stories may have imprinted upon them, and whether said stories have had any lasting effects on their relationships as adults. Some would say the next generations should not be exposed to the most damaging of these stories at a young age because of the likelihood of lasting effects.

Some also say the stories are not damaging at all, and that there are far more important influences on the way children view relationships. That particular issue comes down to parenting style, but it would be difficult to look at many of these stories with a feminist eye and believe they all present a positive message. Love is a beautiful thing, but there should be limits to what one is willing to do for love. Real relationships can survive only when built on realistic expectations as well as love.