Home | News | Guest Post: Sarah Ingham, ‘Happily Ever After’: Fairy Tales and Feminism’s Fourth Wave
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Following the recent publication of her modern-day romance novel, Kissing Frogs, author Sarah Ingham shares some thoughts on the evolution of ‘fairytale romance’…

In July 1981 the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer drew an estimated global audience of 750 million viewers.  Officiating at the ceremony, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, declared: ‘Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made’. 

The recently released fourth series of The Crown shows that the public appetite for a royal story is far from sated. The Netflix drama’s primary focus could have been on the relationship and power battles between the Queen and her first female Prime Minister. After all, the woman who inherited her role as the United Kingdom’s Head of State represents social continuity; Margaret Thatcher, the elected politician, demanded – and achieved – radical change. Instead, there were three women in the ten-part series; the third, Diana, desperately seeking her own, elusive, happily ever after.

Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are among most familiar fairy tales.  All offer a heroine beset by adversity and escaping it through marriage to a prince. He is not only impossibly handsome but a castle-dwelling saviour, rescuing her from mean sisters, a century-long sleep or an apple poisoned by a wicked stepmother. 

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937, was the first feature-length animation. The production process is itself a tale of victory-against-the-odds: it almost bankrupted Walt Disney before going on to become one of the highest-grossing films ever made. It fuelled the Disney Studio along the path to becoming a global brand which has captured the imagination of generations of children. Ever since Snow White, fairy tales have provided the inspiration for much of Disney’s output, including Beauty and the Beast, Tangled and Frozen.

Disney sugar-coated fairy tales. Collecting the stories that were embedded in ancient German folklore, the Brothers Grimm were well named. The tales were dark and complex, holding up a (non-magical) mirror which reflected the harshness of everyday life. Mothers died; children were abandoned or farmed out or faced famine; forests were home to wolves and bears. Looking after hearth and home, as Cinderella reminds us, meant relentless drudgery. Hans Christian Anderson’s stories are as grim as the Grimms’: the Little Matchgirl dies barefoot in a freezing winter street; the Little Mermaid has her tongue cut out.

Ever since its second wave in the 1960s, feminism has been troubled by how women are represented in fairy tales. In 1970 in the New York Review of Books, the American writer Alison Lurie observed the tales ‘had been right all along’, offering her a far more realistic take on the world compared with children’s books endorsed by high-minded progressives. Indeed, they were ‘one of the few sorts of classic children’s literature of which a radical feminist would approve’.

Lurie’s assertion was inevitably challenged, not least by Marcia R. Lieberman in her 1972 paper, ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale.  Reviewing The Blue Fairy Book compiled by Andrew Lang, she concludes that ‘the helpless, imprisoned maiden is the quintessential heroine of the fairy tale’.  With her ‘docility, meekness and good temper’, she is essentially passive, but the fairest of them. She is chosen to scoop life’s prizes: ‘good, poor and pretty girls always win rich and handsome princes.’

Half a century ago, gender studies was a new subject. As Lieberman states, the controversy over what is biologically determined and what is learned had just begun. Today,  in feminism’s fourth wave, we are far more savvy about sex, gender and how women are represented. ‘Pink stinks’ cry right-thinking mothers – if not necessarily their toddler daughters.

Fairytale, which focuses on the royal engagement, is the title of episode three of The Crown’s fourth series. One of the first things we learn about Diana is that she works as a cleaner for her sister.  The first sighting of her is dressed as a wood sprite for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, the most magical of all Shakespeare’s plays and a tale about fairies. Alas, the ill-fated royal marriage turned out to be far from the happily ever after promised in Cinderella or even Beauty and the Beast.

Disney’s fairy-tale inspired heroines Elsa and Anna survive and thrive in Frozen (2013), thanks to their own efforts rather than a prince’s. Princesses now have agency; they need sisters, whether blood or BFFs. They care more about the environment than an engagement. They reflect the change in women’s place in the world, not just from when Snow White skivvied after the Seven Dwarfs, but in the four decades since the Royal Wedding.

‘And off to his castle we’ll go,’ sang Snow White. But today perhaps even Archbishops no longer believe in fairy tales.  In 2018 Charles and Diana’s son married Meghan Markle at St George’s Chapel, in the shadow of Windsor Castle. Then and subsequently, fairy tale references have rarely been invoked. Instead, we’re told that Prince Harry is a feminist.

You can get your copy of Sarah Ingham’s Kissing Frogs here.

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