When Diana married Charles on July 29, 1981, 750 million people watched. When William married Kate on April 29, 2011, more than 2 billion people watched. And when Harry married Meghan on May 19, 2018, 11 million tuned in to ogle the bride and her groom.
Despite a divorce rate that disproves that “happily ever after” exists, fairy tales persist. From the numbers offered above, billions of us love it when a princess finds her prince. But see, these fairy tales never cover the days that play out long after the honeymoon is over.
So, what’s up with our persistent interest in them?
Maybe we shouldn’t read fairy tales.
“Happily ever after fails and we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales.”Steve Winwood
Journalist Olivia Petter writes in an article for The Independent entitled 5 Reasons to Stop Reading Fairly Tales Now that continuing to promote these stories hurts both sexes. Not only the women, but the men who are expected to be the perfect prince in his pursuit of true love. To be successful, he must rescue her.
Now, Petter’s article doesn’t necessarily advocate for banishing Cinderella back to her kingdom or shoving Arielle back into the water. She quotes author and Wayne State University professor Donald Haase, who says parents “can read or tell classical tales in ways that intentionally question or subvert the stereotypes,” In other words, parents can point out that not every relationship ends in marriage, that princesses come in different colors, shapes and sexual orientations, and that women can be more than a good girl or an evil stepsister. There’s plenty in-betweens between the extremes.
But wait! There’s also something to be said in favor of reading fairy tales.
In her article for the National Storytelling Network website, storyteller Laura Packer writes that “Fairy tales endure because they are, at their most basic, the stories of our lives in their most stripped down form.”
“You know that place between sleep and awake, the place where you can still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you. That’s where I’ll be waiting.”Peter Pan
Packer argues that fairy tales make the world less scary, even the evil stepmothers and jealous, poison-apple bearing queens.
She goes on to say that it’s important to keep sharing these stories no matter how disturbing because “they tell us so much about what it is to be human. They help us understand that yes, there is a woods, and yes, there is a wolf, but if we are wise or kind or clever, we will survive. They offer us unexpected solutions to the oldest problems. They remind us that strangers can offer kindness when we are kind in return. They teach us that we do not need to be alone.”
Maybe she’s on to something, too.
Maybe the answer lies in the how rather than the why.
In Lisa Cron’s article, Tell Don’t Show? What Brain Imaging Reveals About Readers, she writes, “We’re not hooked by what the protagonist is doing; we’re on the hunt for why they’re doing it.
She uses science to back up her claim. She quotes Marcel Just, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University who uses brain imagery to study how the brain structures thought. Just says, “One of the biggest contributions of brain imaging is to reveal how intensely social and emotional the human brain is. To me it was a very big surprise. Ask people to read some innocuous little narrative, and the brain activity shows that they’re computing things like the character’s intention and motivation. I think there is a constant tendency to be processing social and emotional information. It’s there, and it’s ubiquitous.”
My Personal Experience: WWCD (What would Cinderella Do?)
The message I received from the princess fairy tales as a young girl was that it paid to be patient and kind in the face of oppression. Now, my idea of oppression at the time was not being allowed to hit my brother when he took my Baby Alive*. And may I just say I did not see my personal payoff for adopting a more Cinderella-esque way to deal with my brother’s invasive behavior as means to land a rich husband. (I wanted to be rich and famous all by myself, thank you very much. And while that didn’t happen, I eventually discovered that patience and kindness are the true rewards that await at the end of the rainbow.)
Also, advocating patience and kindness in the face of oppression doesn’t make me a doormat. I acknowledge that there is a time to stand up for oneself. But patience and kindness can help while you’re sweeping and mopping the floors planning just how best to make your stand. Counterintuitively, these two attributes help the oppressed more than the oppressor. (Stay tuned for more on that nugget in a later post.)
“The purpose of an effective story, Cron writes, “is to change how your audience sees things, to spur them to do something right now. That is what makes all stories a call to action, because once we see things differently, we do things differently. She goes on to say that the goal of story is to help your audience see the benefits for them in the moment, given who they are, and how they see themselves.”
I like that. And more importantly, I like a timeless love story—warts and all.
*The Baby Alive mentioned above is a doll. Not a real baby. 🙂