Fairy tales narrate a rise to royalty, often functioning as wish fulfillment, but they rarely depict massive social change. That’s why they’re a disturbingly good fit today.
Hello. Fairy-tale scholar here.
I’m here to tell you that fairy tales have been in and out of vogue for the last few centuries, but when they’re in, they’re usually politically relevant. Sometimes writers use fairy tales to critique current regimes, other times to uphold them. Scholars like Jack Zipes have compellingly made the case that when viewed from a Marxist perspective, fairy tales are not actually all that revolutionary or subversive; more often than not, they uphold the status quo.
Sadly, this is especially true in contemporary America.
Perhaps you saw the Elle article going around: Ivanka Trump Will Not Fix “Women’s Issues”–She Will Distract From Them. Sady Doyle opens the piece:
For those of us who overdosed on Disney princess memorabilia growing up, good news: Thanks to Donald Trump and his legion of terrifying yet well-coiffed children, Americans are now closer to living in a monarchy than we have been since 1776. And Ivanka Trump—blond, pretty, well-mannered, given massive amounts of power over the citizenry thanks to nothing but her genetic makeup—is the closest thing we’ll get to a princess. Which is how we’ll all get to find out: Princesses are terrifying.
If you’ve not seen the animated video for the Historically Accurate Princess Song by Rachel Bloom, it’s a must watch. It’s a humorous and visceral remind that stories about monarchies do not serve everyone equally.
The way fairy tales are structured, we follow the adventures of a protagonist who either starts in a low station in life, or has fallen from status. They meet a donor figure, perform tasks to demonstrate their kindness or maturity, and are gifted a magical agent to help them succeed in achieving a quest, fighting adversaries, and/or disenchanting/winning a spouse. At the tale’s end, our protagonist has either risen to royal status through marriage, or been restored to their former position (usually with the addition of a marital partner).
When princesses appear as protagonists in fairy tales, they’re often enchanted and need to be rescued (by their partner-to-be, the tale’s other main character) or they’re cast out from home and need to go on a quest for redemption. As supporting characters, princesses run the gamut from vapid to sullen, prizes to be won, generous helpers, window dressing, sexual competition. Sometimes they even get to be murderous, scheming against their husbands as in “The King of the Golden Mountain.” The princess in “King Thrushbeard” is vain and must be taught humility through humiliation.
Tales that feature princesses do not show revolution or social change. The monarchy is intact at the tale’s beginning, and remains that way at the tale’s end. In this sense, fairy tales preserve political power structures, though they might be subversive on other levels, allowing for exploration of gender roles or notions of humanity.
Scholars have long argued that fairy tales function to, among other things, provide communities with a means of collective day-dreaming. The supernatural elements of fairy tales thus operate as a metaphorical code for the real-life dilemmas that people face. Danish folklorist Bengt Holbek, for example, saw in 19th century tales told by Danish peasants a symbolic system that posited villains as the prospective spouse’s parents that the protagonist would have to overcome to be successfully married.
But if fairy tales offer wish fulfillment – and I think they do, at least some of the time – they usually do it on an individual level. The low-ranking protagonist who rises to a higher social station does so alone. They don’t change the social system for everyone. Hell, they don’t change it at all in most cases.
This is why I find it eerie that fairy tale metaphors are employed to the extent that they are, in describing Ivanka Trump and Trump’s world more generally. As Doyle states:
The goal of Trumpism is not to benefit women. The goal is to benefit one woman, Ivanka, or the one type of woman she represents. […] We’re not meant to benefit from her; we’re meant to look at her, and think about how we can be more like her. We’re meant to blame ourselves for falling short, as we have with every other Exceptional Woman to date. Ivanka is the Disney princess; we’re the peasant chorus members who watch, and serve, and sigh at her pretty hair. Hell, maybe we’ll even pitch in some background vocals on a few of the big musical numbers. Peasants always do, in those movies, even though they’re probably all starving.
The failure to question whether exceptional figures, literal or real princesses, have our best interests at heart is understandable on some level; after all, the stories we’re raised on valorize royalty and nobility. Throw in the American dream, telling us we can achieve high social status that’s not technically based on birth but just as good, and you’ve got a potent mix of ideologies.
Throw in the lack of intersectional feminism among white women in particular, and my reading of the appropriateness of the fairy-tale metaphor gets even more dire.
I’ve seen arguments that white women voting for Trump is more a general Democratic failing. In general, it seems that white women have little reason not to continue to uphold the status quo, as many of feminism’s gains have benefited them (I guess I should say us, though I’m trying to suck less at feminism by being more intersectional). And that’s for women supposedly sympathetic to the plight of other women! What about the rest?
Here, I turn to Sarah Jones’s piece, The Handmaid’s Tale Is a Warning to Conservative Women. Jones focuses on the character of Serena Joy, a former televangelist and now high-ranking wife in Gilead who nonetheless seems to suffer for it. Offred notes: “She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.”
The dilemma of Serena Joy feels deceptively easy to resolve. She’s in this for power, and understands that it’s hers if she says the right things to the right audiences. Schlafly achieved international fame, and Conway has the ear of the president. With Gilead, however, Atwood reminds such women that they might not like the results of their labor; that by the time they come to regret it, the culture they helped create will have developed far beyond their control. Serena Joy is a warning, not only to her feminist antagonists, but to conservatives, too.
When narratives like The Handmaid’s Tale and fairy tales depict women in power, they show us potential paths, routes, and outcomes. Fairy tales don’t have a lot to say about what happens after the happily-ever-after, after the princess has preserved her grip on her royal heritage. But we can imagine, once the enchantment is over, once the compact and crystallized story ends, that it’s a return to the messy human world with all its conflicts.
Fairy tales are not ideologically neutral. They show us the naturalization of femininity and women’s beauty; they normalize certain patterns of sexuality. They provide templates for belief and behavior.
If we have reason to compare the people with political power to the people in fairy tales, we should be wary. We should ask who can access this power, and what their incentive is to do so, and strive to be intersectional in our analysis.
The fact that it’s so easy to liken Ivanka Trump to a princess should bring to mind not just classic fairy tales about princesses, but also cautionary tales, of wolves in the woods, predators dressed in grandma’s clothing. With any luck, some narrative savvy will help us undress the metaphors and make it out of the woods alive.