Once upon a time, I desperately wanted to be Pocahontas. I was eight. On some level I yearned to be every cartoon character I watched as a kid, but the Mario brothers seemed unattainable since I wasn’t a boy (or a mushroom), as did Cinderella, or Arielle the mermaid, mostly because I’m a brunette. Being from central Jersey, Belle’s quaint French province would have been embarrassingly aspirational. My family was spending the summer living, hiking and camping in Israel, so Colors of the Wind’s lyrics felt totally relatable to my crunchy lifestyle.
Anyone who grew up on fairy tales understands the Kate Middleton obsession. She’s a real life princess, unlike normal, klutzy, working girls who the media only deem loveable to older, less impressionable audiences, often via Katherine Heigl. But now there’s also a countermovement, according to my friend who teaches second grade. Many of her students aren’t allowed to watch Disney movies at home because of the message they send on gender roles and romance. As one mom put it, “I don’t want my daughter waiting for a prince on a white horse to save her.”
I personally witnessed a modern day fairy tale last week. My friend Sally got a call from her ex. Four years since breaking her heart, and a relationship we surmised to be quasi-serious based on Facebook later, he was in a rut and wanted her back. Atop my list of Things I Thoroughly Enjoy are two things: being right and watching my friends win, so after reassuring her a million times that he’d come around, saying “told ya so” felt better than an eight-hand massage. He’d uttered those three little words: I need you. Our dinner table, comprised of nine girls was practically salivating as she spilled the details.
This wasn’t just an urban legend about a bachelor realizing that the one who got away is his only chance at salvation and deciding to love and appreciate her. It was happening to someone we actually knew. This must be how Pippa felt. But it was also kind of embarrassing that a guy dumping you and coming back defeated could seem so romantic. And tempting. I looked around at my best friends and realized that none us had ever desired or expected to be saved by a knight in shining armor, but at some point we’d all tried to be the savior.
A much bigger plague among young women than poisoned apples or evil stepmothers, as far as I’m concerned, is the hope of earning a man’s affection. You can convince, guilt or trick someone into being with you, but not into loving you. Not even by rescuing or fixing them. Prince Charming’s allure as an adult isn’t the tiara, it isn’t even about his ability to build us moats, it’s the idea that the only thing he needs from you is you. If I dare re-frame a damsel in distress as a lady willing to wait for a suitor with his act together, would you agree that she’s setting a good example?
Snow White ended up with the guy who fell for her when she was vulnerable. Rupunzel didn’t hyperfocus on how to shed 5 pounds while stuck in a castle. Watch and learn, amigos. “Happily-ever-after” might be Disney’s way of recommending a partner who is “good for the long haul,” as Calvil Trillin put it. Someone who shows up, sticks around, and, as our friend Roxana observed when she spent an afternoon with Leandra and her husband, “slices a peach for the other and nibbles on the pit.” That’s love.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I totally want to have a moat one day. It’s just wholly unrelated to my romantic life.