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“Fallen Princesses”: Why Do We Like This Kind of Thing?

Photographer Dina Goldstein has created a series The Daily Beast calls “mesmerizing.” Each photo features the life of a Disney princess after the happy ending moment that inevitably closes each film. They are all miserable. The point seems to be that fairy tales are not real life.

OK.  Wow.  I knew that.  So did you.  Yet I found these photographs fascinating and I expect you will, too.  Why?

Goldstein says that the inspiration for the series was a moment in her own life when her daughter was captivated by the princesses, at the same time her mother was diagnosed with cancer.  The implication seems to be that her daughter was being fed a line of bullshit about “happily ever after” when real life is full of pain and suffering.  So is the solution to tell our children more realistic stories?  Should Goldstein’s little girl have been seeing tales of children cut down by cancer instead of plucky princesses?

Maria Tatar's The Classic Fairy Tales reminds us of the deep origins, cross-cultural similarities, and generally dark subtext of fairy tales.

That got me to thinking about the origins of these stories and their supposed purpose for children.  This is a topic I used to read about a lot, in a former life as a graduate student in literature.  There is a lot of material on this topic and there are many theories about what purposes the stories serve.  You can, for instance, read about the origins of fairy tales in books like The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Harvard Professor Maria Tatar.  And, way back when, Bruno Bettelheim made a good argument for the way the old fairy tales (much more violent than the Disney variety) help little children work out their own dark thoughts and emotions.  And, of course, there is the Joseph Campbell perspective, in which such stories work on a mythical level, to enculturate us, but also to guide and inspire us.  I know of no expert who claims they are meant to be representations of reality.

The photograph I found most intriguing in the “Fallen Princess” series is the one of Ariel, of The Little Mermaid (below).  Goldstein claims her thinking here was about how we like to capture beautiful things and put them on for show.  Fair enough.  But if the intention is to get us to rethink the meaning of these stories, it also seemed fair to look back at the film itself and the original Hans Christian Andersen tale upon which it is based.

Dina Goldstein's interpretation of The Little Mermaid has her ending up in a public equarium.

I remember the Andersen story vividly from my childhood, because it is so not a happily-ever-after story.  The original is tragic and rather heavy with meaning, though not as dark as some of Andersen’s stories.  The Little Mermaid sacrifices her voice and endures great pain to win the prince’s love and the immortal soul that goes with being human.  Her great risk all along is that if she fails at winning true love, she will die and become foam upon the sea, as most mermaids do.  In this story, our heroine does not get the prince, who falls in love with someone else.  But because the mermaid then eschews the antidote to the spell–which demands she kill the prince and let his blood drip on her feet–she is rewarded with an afterlife as a sea nymph, with the promise of an immortal soul as the reward for good deeds.  I read this story when I was maybe ten.  I found it poetic, but sadder than I wanted it to be.

Fast forward to the Disney version. The resemblance to the original stops at the mermaid who sees the prince and becomes a person in order to be with him.  Now, the standard critique here would be that the Disney version teaches that girls are meant to be pretty and find princes so they can be happy, end of story.  And, yeah, that’s the gist.

Since the original story did not have the “get the prince” ending, there is a departure.  But there are other, more important differences.  The Andersen version was published in 1837 (so it is much, much newer than most fairy tales, most of which are too old even to have an author) and has mystical and religious elements that might not play well today. Instead, the Disney version focuses on a different element–the desire to transcend one’s own world and live happily in another.

Ariel is imagined as an upstart, a nonconformist. This is not the case in the original, where viewing the “other world” is a ritual shared by all the other mermaids.  Ariel is unlike everyone around her in being curious about the whole world outside. Indeed, she is already keen to leave and explore before she ever sees the hero.  Unlike the original mermaid, she wins the prince’s love and she makes the transition to the other world successfully.  So, I would argue that the other underlying story here is something to the effect that you can leave your own culture and successfully adapt to a new one, winning affection there just as you did at home.  Which, it seems to me, is a pretty good lesson for kids growing up in a globalizing culture.

Goldstein is at her worst when she goes after Beauty, of Beauty and the Beast. The photograph shows Belle undergoing a face lift, her breasts pushed up to her collarbone even as she lies on the operating table.  Goldstein explains:

I have a backstory for everybody. In Belle’s case, she was always the most beautiful girl in the village and her whole life people paid attention to her beauty. Then, she ends up being a pawn for her beauty, and living in a cold castle, very isolated from the rest of the world. All she has is her beauty to fall back on. Of course, we all eventually start to age and lose that, and Belle is struggling to deal with it. I’m in my 40s, and it’s a very hard thing to grasp that 10 years ago you looked one way, and now you look another way, and it’s downhill from here on out. Now, do you age gracefully and let nature take its course, or do you intervene? And Belle, of course, intervened.

Belle is probably my second least favorite of the Disney princesses (the most least favorite being Snow White who, in my book, is a dimwit with a stupid voice). Even so, I think this take is unfair.

A 1913 illustration of Beauty and the Beast by Warwick Goble.

Unlike The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast is a traditional fairy tale, with versions appearing all over Europe. The first time it was written down was in 1740.  As one would expect, that version reflects concerns of the time–in which the society was experiencing a rising merchant class that challenged the hegemony of the aristocracy and the church.  So, the heroine’s father is a merchant and her sisters are materialistic and dishonest.  When the father goes on a journey (long back story here), the daughters ask for gifts:  Beauty asks for only a rose when the others ask for jewelry.  The father loses his money and is unable to bring back the jewelry, but stops in a garden to pick the rose.  The garden belongs to the Beast and, after more backstory, Beauty becomes his captive, exchanging her life for her father’s.  Eventually–more back story left out here–she declares her love for the Beast to prevent him from dying and he is changed into a handsome prince.

The Disney version is much simpler. Belle saves her father by taking his place with the Beast and then transforms him into a prince by loving him.  An element that is added to the Disney version is that the local heartthrob, a studly dude named Gaston, wants Belle and she rejects him.  So, if this were a story about “getting the prince,” it could end with Belle hooking up with Gaston.  But that is not the underlying story of Beauty and the Beast at all.  This story requires that the heroine fall in love with a man who is so ugly, he is taken to be a monster, after discovering that, in fact, he has a kind heart.  Indeed, the moral to this tale is exactly the opposite to what Goldstein implies:  this story is all about loving people for who they are and not what they look like.

Like the 18th century version of Beauty and the Beast, the Disney princess tales of the 1990s reflect their times.  Ariel’s story is about transcending culture, Belle’s is about materialism and selfishness, and Pocahontas is about diversity.  Yes, they are sanitized and overly optimistic.  Would you show realistic stories of the way whites treated Native Americans to children?  I wouldn’t.  I would want them to learn the lessons, but in a way that wasn’t traumatizing.  Isn’t that what we are doing here?

Goldstein has Rapunzel losing her hair to chemo. Is this cultural critique or leftover cheerleader jealousy?

So why do we take such delight in seeing the Disney princesses in misery?  Some of it is just the typical reaction to spoofing the sacred.  We all enjoy that. Especially when it is the stuff of childhood, the things we believe we have grown beyond.  But there is an element here of taking delight in the misery of others that I don’t think is terribly mature or flattering.  I worry particularly that this pleasure in the plight of pretty girls is another negative legacy of the Second Wave, in which we were taught it was OK to rip down those women whose gift was beauty, but not those whose gifts were brains or athletics or artistic ability.  I worry that this is just a continuation of high school jealousy.  (And, yes, I am as vulnerable to that as anyone else.)

But I must tell you.  I hope I do not live long enough to see animated films about dying of breast cancer being shown to little girls, in the name of teaching them about reality.  That there is suffering in the world is obvious enough, even to a child.  What is considerably less obvious is how to live in it with hope and strength. So, for me, it is more important to teach the young to see the light, to maintain optimism, to trust, and to work for good. Teaching children to focus on the unavoidable suffering of life, to the exclusion of other lessons–eschewing revenge (Little Mermaid), seeing past appearances (Beauty and the Beast)–that are just as crucial, is no way toward a better future.

“Fallen Princesses” is on exhibit at Le Musée de la Femme in Québec.  You can buy extremely expensive box sets and a book of the photos here.  The concept has just narrowly escaped being made into a movie.


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