One of the ways that Disney is trying to stay relevant in a world that seems to be antagonistic toward princesses is to create princesses who openly mock their more traditional counterparts. When Frozen’s Elsa, for example, scoffed, “You can’t marry a man you just met,” and then became so overwhelmed that she accidentally condemned her entire kingdom to eternal winter, she wasn’t just speaking to her sister, Anna. She was speaking to all of us — all the girls and women who love fairy tales, and fairy tale princesses, and Disney princesses — telling us that we’ve been wrong. That fairy tale princesses can’t cut it in a modern world. Think about that for a minute: a princess in a fairy tale is telling another princess in a fairy tale she’s got to get real. But, why should she? She’s still in the fairy tale.
My biggest complaint about feminists who misunderstand fairy tales (and I have many complaints, read my book if you don’t believe me) is that they take everything so literally. It’s like they’ve never heard of symbolism, allegory, or metaphor. (Maybe they haven’t!) They don’t understand that things like princesses, princes, shoes, dresses, and love at first sight are all symbolic tropes that stand in for universal human experiences. They don’t know that Cinderella, for example, in the real world would look and act differently than Cinderella in a fairy tale. She’d be the literal embodiment of the symbolically represented character we know and love.
There’s actually a movie I’d like to recommend to feminists — a movie that could help them understand this disconnect between the princess in a fairy tale and a princess in real life. It’s an under-appreciated little film from 2007 called Enchanted.
When I first watched Enchanted, back when it came out, it seemed mostly to be a sort of loving spoof. What would it be like if a Disney princess was suddenly flung into the real world? It was funny, charming, romantic, and sweet — with catchy songs, a great performance by the then mostly unknown Amy Adams, and lots of Disney easter eggs thrown in. But, the more I think about the reasons behind the current hatred of traditional fairy tale princesses, the more convinced I become that this movie can help us sort it all out.
Last Sunday I interviewed film critic Eric M. Blake on my YouTube show, Princess State of Mind. His ongoing Greatest Conservative Films series on Western Free Press includes Disney’s Enchanted. Blake calls Enchanted a “great reconstruction of the D.P. [Disney Princess] archetype,” which is true. And the reason that it’s true, is that it’s the story of a fairy tale princess who becomes real. If you want to see how the symbols and tropes of a fairy tale would translate into real life, watch Enchanted. (Oh and watch my interview with Eric M. Blake too, it’s below.)
When Giselle — Enchanted’s fairy tale princess — arrives in modern-day New York the dissonance is obvious. She wanders around in a comically enormous wedding dress, speaking in a high-pitched warble, and communing with animals. Because, sure, if Cinderella, or Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty stepped out of the pages of a story book (or off the Disney screen) and into the world, this is what they’d be like. And that should tell you that they aren’t meant to step out of the pages of a story book. (That would be creepy).
As the movie progresses, Giselle starts to tone down her cartoonish princess-ness in favor of a little more realism. But the “real” that she becomes is still infused with the kindness, grace, courage, and wonder that her fairy tale iteration represented. Her emotions become more complex, her fashion choices become less outlandish, and her understanding of love comes to encompass more than simply outer beauty and status. But she doesn’t really change, she just begins to manifest her symbolic self more literally.
Just like Anna, from Frozen, Enchanted’s Giselle has two suitors: the handsome prince and the regular guy. And just like Anna, Giselle ends up with the regular guy. But, in Enchanted, the point of Giselle’s choice is not to horribly murder the trope of Prince Charming by turning him into a murderous psychopath. It is, instead, to show you what Prince Charming looks like in the real world.
When Elsa tells Anna that she can’t marry a man she just met, Anna’s response is, “You can if it’s true love.” This is actually pretty good logic, given that both Elsa and Anna live in a fairy tale (with no plans of breaking out into the real world). In a fairy tale, love at first sight is the symbolic representation of the meeting of two compatible souls — its literal counterpart would be getting to know someone really really well over a series of dates and falling love over time. So, if Frozen wasn’t packing the cynical “gotcha” of Hans’ double life as a wannabe mass murderer, Anna would’ve been spot on.
But when Giselle goes for the regular guy it’s because she’s chosen to live in the real world. I’ve already written about what Prince Charming looks like in the real world so suffice it to say that, in all the ways that Giselle’s princess-ness becomes real, Robert (her “regular guy”) embodies all the traits of Prince Charming in the real world. The actual Prince Charming character in Enchanted goes back to the fairy tale world, where all his sword wielding, horse riding, and grand pronouncement-making make sense.
Though it seems, on the surface, that Enchanted is merely a sort of humorous homage to the Disney princess films of yesteryear, there’s more going on in this film than that. Before Disney began completely dismantling the princess narrative it quietly and surreptitiously gave us a movie that perfectly illustrates why it shouldn’t. Go watch Enchanted. You won’t be sorry.