From Snow White to Pretty Woman: What we Learn from Fairytales and Romantic Comedies

WAM!mer Chloe Angyal brought the fairytale discussion back to the table in her piece in The Sydney Morning Herald last week about the connection between fairytales and romantic comedies. What sparked this conversation is the release of the movie Mirror Mirror, with Snow White and the Huntsman soon to follow in June, and this year marking the 200th anniversary of the Brothers Grimm publishing stories including Cinderella and Snow White. Angyal looks at how fairytale narratives meant for young girls translate into messages for women in romantic comedy films.

I agree with Angyal in believing that “the corner of popular culture where fairytales are the most influential and sometimes the most harmful is the contemporary romantic comedy,” with romantic comedies being “grown-up fairytales.” I really hadn’t thought about the connection between fairytales romantic and comedies before, though after reading Angyal’s piece it seems so obvious. As adults watching romantic comedy films, we’re able to “relate to and understand romantic comedies because of the foundations laid by fairytales.” We recognize storylines like Pretty Woman because we grew up with narratives involving women winning over men and becoming princesses.

As kids we learn repetitive narratives from Disney movies and bedtime stories like women battling it out using beauty to gain power or win over a man. In The Little Mermaid Ariel literally gives up her voice so that she can be with a man!  She sacrifices her own voice in order to fulfill the ‘ultimate goal’ many Disney movies and fairytales teach girls, which is finding a successful heterosexual relationship.

While finding a man is an obvious message in a lot of these stories, Angyal stresses that we can’t forget about what we learn through the relationships between women that are portrayed in fairytales like Snow White, as it’s a story about “what happens when we tie a woman’s worth to her physical appearance: we toss ageing women aside and encourage all women to cut each other down.” However, you can’t try too hard to be beautiful, because “it’s a brutal double-bind: you will be rewarded for being beautiful, but you will be punished for trying to be beautiful.” This reminds me of Ashley Judd’s recent article about the crap women get for ‘getting work done,’ while they’re just trying to fit the impossible beauty ideals that society has set for them. We’re taught that if you’re not pretty enough you’re not good enough, but don’t try to do anything about it because then you’ll be criticized for that too.

In terms of men and looks, fairytales like Beauty and the Beast teach us that a man who is ugly on the outside might actually be a handsome prince, and you just need “the power of requited love” to get rid of his outside appearance. With romantic comedies, this storyline changes from “teaching girls to look beyond beastly appearance” to teaching women to “look beyond beastly behavior.” So then basically, if a man is treating you badly you should wait it out and maybe you can change him. These messages in romantic comedies for women are just as damaging as the ones in fairytales for young girls, especially because we are continuing to receive them even as adults. We need to support and provide “new narratives that don’t trap women and men in outdated roles and that provide a less 17th-century vision of a woman’s worth.” To find films that don’t use these outdated narratives, check out sites like Women and Hollywood and other upcoming WAM!News posts.

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