Speaking about her failed marriages (she’s had three) actress Halle Berry said, “we go into marriage thinking it’s going to last forever and that this is our prince on a shiny horse. That’s what fairytales taught me as a kid…and I’m kind of anti-fairytales today.” This is a common complaint — particularly among feminists, who love taking everything literally — about the hazards of fairy tales in a modern world. But, I would argue, a person who marries the wrong guy three times needs more fairy tales in her life, not fewer. Or perhaps, a better understanding of what fairy tales are actually telling us — and who Prince Charming really is.
Halle Berry’s comments (and those of the many others who share her viewpoint) implies that Prince Charming doesn’t exist — that fairy tales sell us an image of romance that’s just too perfect. And, in some ways, that may be true. The man for you probably isn’t going to ride into your life on a horse (shiny or otherwise) — unless you meet him at a stable. You’re not going to catch his eye across a crowded ballroom and fall instantly in love. He probably won’t hack through a thicket of brambles to kiss you awake from a curse-induced slumber, or happen upon you as you stand, singing, by a wishing well. He won’t be wearing armor. He may not even be conventionally handsome. He might be clumsy, or nerdy, or somewhat shy. The man for you isn’t actually Prince Charming. But that doesn’t mean Prince Charming is useless (or harmful). Because the man for you will be your Prince Charming. And where do you think you learned what that means?
In fairy tales, princes and princesses often fall in love at first sight. Contrary to the feminist opinion that this means they are only attracted to each other physically, love at first sight is a fairy tale convention that symbolizes two compatible souls seeing past outward appearances to the truth of their connection. So, while you may not fall in love with your soulmate at first sight (in fact, you probably won’t) your Prince Charming will be someone who knows you completely. He’ll be the one person who gets you — who thinks your passion for ’90s Disney movies is endearing, just for example, or loves your quirky sense of humor. And, regardless of whether that happens immediately or over time, this sense of being deeply understood is what is represented by the fairy tale notion of love at first sight.
Fairy tale princes often ride into danger to save the women they love. If you take this literally, you might find yourself disappointed when your significant other doesn’t suddenly produce a sword and leap onto the nearest horse (which might be three states away) and charge fearlessly at the convenience store clerk who gave you the wrong change. But a prince’s willingness to defend his ladylove isn’t only about her physical safety. Yes, you may want to find a guy who’ll walk on the street side of the sidewalk, or who’ll plant his body in front of yours if an unsavory character comes walking toward you down the street. But if he doesn’t do those things (or if he can’t) you do want him to protect you in other ways — to take you seriously, to hold you when you’re sad, to keep his promises, and be there when you need him. The horse, and the sword, and the armor are simply a reminder that your Prince Charming will keep you safe, in whatever way you need.
Prince Charming is . . . well . . . charming. He’s polite, kind, thoughtful, brave, and true. In a fairy tale, this is most often represented by his impeccable courtly manners. But the man for you doesn’t have to know how to do a perfect waltz (or be able to dance at all), speak the king’s english, or bow every time you meet. Your Prince Charming may tell slightly inappropriate jokes, or trip every time he tries to step up on the curb, or stutter when he speaks, but if he treats you with respect, speaks politely to you, remembers the things that are important to you, and shows you that he cares about you, then he’s charming.
And yes, Prince Charming is handsome. But the fact that Prince Charming is frequently described as good looking has nothing to do, really, with the way he looks on the outside. The prince and princess are physically attractive to symbolically represent the ideal of their internal selves. Just like with the fairy tale trope of love at first sight, the prince wears his inner goodness on the outside so the princess can immediately recognize it. This isn’t always true in real life — handsome men can be awful people, and ugly men can be wonderful — but your Prince Charming is handsome to you. It doesn’t matter what he looks like, it only matters that when you look at him, your heart skips a beat (metaphorically. If that happens literally, you may have a heart murmur or something). It’s a feeling that may grow over time, too. Just like love at first sight doesn’t happen for most people, you may not initially find the man for you to be attractive. But, as he shows you all his Prince Charming qualities, you’ll probably start to think he’s pretty cute.
You should go into marriage “thinking it’s going to last forever.” That’s kind of the point of marriage, after all. And the man you marry should be your “prince on a shiny horse” (okay, well, the horse doesn’t have to be shiny, I’m not really sure what a shiny horse is, to be honest). The man you marry should be your Prince Charming, in all the ways the fairy tale Prince Charming is. It’s just that his Prince Charming-ness isn’t going to manifest the way it does in a fairy tale because . . . well . . . you don’t live in a fairy tale. And you’re not a princess. But you’ll be his princess. Don’t settle for anything less.