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The Princess Fantasy (or Delusion)

January 21, 2013 by Kiersi

The Princess Fantasy:
Are Authors Responsible For The Messages They Send About Love and Life?

What is “the princess fantasy”? 

This opinion piece might be better titled, “the princess delusion,” because that’s really what it is that I want to talk about: a delusion. A notion that a girl is, above all else, destined to be with the perfect man; that there will be some magical spark when she meets him, that he will rescue her from everything that is wrong in her life, and they will instantly (usually on first sight) fall in love. Forever.

The love interests in these “fantasies” are often alpha-males, or “princes,” who fulfill every desire (this is relative to the audience, of course). In young adult books, I find there are a few different kinds of princes to choose from: the bad boy, who is eventually reformed by the girl’s love (the “Beast”); the guy who is perfect from the start, loves the princess madly, and pursues her relentlessly, but has pretty disturbing or suspicious behaviors (the Edward Cullens of the group); the two-dimensional Prince Charming or Prince Philip; and a variety of other archetypes that are all, in some way, freakishly ideal.

I’m not hating on love interests in young adult books or Disney movies. A lot of them are quite good: realistic, sympathetic, quirky, flawed. (Four in Veronica Roth’s Divergent comes to mind.) What I’m digging up is the “delusion” part:

– Insta-love (love at first sight, or whatever)

– The Perfect Man Is Out There

– Happily Ever After

– Oh, and give up everything for him.

What’s so bad about a little fantasy?

I love escapism. I read tons of it. I make a living off of it. I have no problem with it at all.

But like most women born since 1950, I’ve been constantly exposed to Disney princesses and their charming heroes most of my life. I don’t want to single out Disney–they’ve done a great job in the last decade or two of writing strong heroines like Mulan–but I think their movies illustrate the point quite well:

There is a perfect man out there for you. He will come and save you. Let him.

There are just so many things wrong with this delusion–with the truth of it, with the chain reaction of effects that come after it. I spent years as a girl fantasizing about my own prince. What he would look like (dark, brooding), how I would know instantly that we were meant to be together forever (I subscribed to the “reformed bad boy” fantasy), and that once we got married/had babies/whatever grownups do–once we did all that, my life would cut to a dark screen and then white curly-cue letters would flash across it saying, “AND THEN THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.”

But it’s just not true. This is not how life works! And now that I am grown up–now that I have a real relationship that, like, requires actual work (who knew!)I realize just how taken I was by the princess fantasy, and how I eagerly ate up the notion that, with enough love, I could turn a Beast into a Man.

(As much as I love Beauty and the Beast, I’m still going to call the writers out on that one. Also, who else was really disappointed when the Beast transformed into a blonde, blue-eyed fruitcake?)

Are authors responsible for the messages their books send?

During this latest revision of my novel Devil’s Fire, I stopped to re-read the new material I added in the last version (to replace large chunks my editor suggested be erased-slash-moved). One thing I discovered was a scene where my heroine has called up a boy she likes because she needs to talk–to spill a big revelation in her life that’s troubling her, and also just get much-needed emotional support.

Unfortunately, she and boy are not on good terms after she discovered he may or may not have been nice to her just to get in her pants, or so she thinks.

This brought up an issue that has always bothered me about relationships in young adult books–something that seems to originate in the oft-desired “alpha male” love interest: stalking. Creeping. Love-at-first-sight which is really just horny-at-first-sight.

When I talk to readers about young adult literature and the princess fantasy, many of them bring up the Twilight books, and especially the part where Edward watches Bella as she sleeps. Seen from the outside, out of context, the notion of a guy sneaking into a girl’s room (with whom he currently has no romantic relationship) and watching her sleep is pretty dang creepy. I mean, super-psycho-stalker creepy. In middle school I had a stalker who left a ring of stones and a wilted rose for me on my front porch (not even joking) and that was unbelievably disturbing at the time. I can’t even imagine a guy sneaking into your room and just staring at you. As you snore. In your bed.

So let’s view it inside of the context of Twilight: Edward loves her, right? He’s protecting her. Watching over her. He’s… um… being romantic. Right?

WRONG.

This is grade-A, serious stalker level material. And that is super not okay.

Remembering these last couple conversations about how Meyer brushes “stalking” off as “romantic,” and how that is absolutely the wrong message to give to teenage readers, I re-read my section of story. Of course, the conflict between the heroine and her cute boy is partly a misunderstanding, and partly that said cute boy was being callous and chauvinistic–a period of his life he regrets.

At that moment I realized it was very important that not only does he acknowledge this transgression, but that my hero does, too. I went through the scene a couple of times to ensure that she’s properly creeped out, and that this heebie-jeebie feeling doesn’t just magically go away when the boy justifies himself. Because you know what? What he did was wrong. And no amount of one-sided (or even two-sided) love makes that kind of behavior all right.

In answer to the initial question of, “Are authors responsible for the messages they send?” I think the answer is absolutely yes. It’s my job to go through my manuscript with a fine-tooth comb for these kinds of things. I mean, I don’t want my hero to be perfect–that would make her boring, and not very fun to read about. What good is a hero if she doesn’t grow and learn and change?

But I think it’s important not to perpetuate the “princess fantasy.” To not imply that a guy who claims he’s creeping on you because he loves you is all right, as long as he’s hot, as long as you feel that “magic spark” with him. (SUPER SIZE SURPRISE: All of us, girls and guys alike, feel this spark a lot as we grow up. It’s called puppy love. It happens. And mistaking puppy-love for forever-love is something a lot of young adult authors do.)

There’s a line that writers of books for children and teens walk between preachy and gritty. We don’t want to teach, and we want our stories to still feel real, without writing heroines that put up with emotional abuse or expect perfect endings. I’ll never forget how I felt when Bella simply shrugs at the idea of going on to college, at living even just a little of her own life before giving it all up to become a monster. There’s a way to make that romance real and steamy and the story edgy and fun, without suggesting that you are only valid if you give up everything, even your hard-won education, for the man in your life.

There are no happy endings. There is just life.

I really do think it’s nice to write stories that end well. To suggest that a hero who walks the right line will end up in good karma, and earn good things for herself. But those good things? Great husbands, great wives, great relationships and jobs and children and homes? Those are things we work for.

And there are things that should not idealized in pursuit of that “happy ending.” Like stalking. Or not going to college. Or being saved by the perfect man. A princess is not a princess because she is rescued from the dragon by a prince.

A princess is a princess because she loves herself, and knows that she is the only one responsible for her happy ending.


24 Comments »

  1. Courtney says:

    Love your take on this. The only thing I would like to add (coming from a mother of a child who loves the Disney princess) sometimes these delusions are things we tell our children to keep them from growing up too quickly. Like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. We give them “happier than real life” images, so they can enjoy being young and have these fantasies before growing up takes all of that from them. But I agree with authors being responsible for the message they send, Stephanie Meyer is fully responsible for young girls believing stalking is romantic. Lol! Thank you for creating such a well rounded character for readers to enjoy, I can’t wait to read your book!

    • Kiersi says:

      That is a really interesting comment, Courtney–because I don’t have kids, I don’t think about things like this! Thanks for stopping by, I’m excited to have you read the book when it comes out! 🙂

  2. I love this! As a 21 year old and still very much in love with teen lit, I couldn’t have said this better myself. Authors do need to be aware of the messages that they are sending out to teens because this is what shapes their ideals about love and life.

    • Kiersi says:

      Thank you! It’s so true. I’m only 24 and I’m STILL influenced by the teen books I read and love. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Love what you write here. I grew up with the desire to meet and be swept off my feet by my soul-mate, and when I discovered that the man I married wasn’t my soul-mate after all, I thought he was still out there somewhere and I had missed out. It was pretty sad for awhile until I came to realize that the things I was looking for in a soul-mate were actually perceived missing parts of ME! Attributes I wish I had–like daring, and reckless, and strong and brave, self confident and independent–all the so-called male qualities to balance the so-called feminine qualities.

    Once I realized that, I was no more interested in finding a soul-mate out there, but in developing in myself that things I was looking for outside myself. I think both girls and boys need to have better role models to help them discover that fact at an earlier age, so I applaud you taking that on.

    On the other hand, perversly perhaps, when I read I WANT to be swept away, so those Heathcliff and dashing prince heros I still find entertaining and, shall I say it–romantic. Sigh. Perhaps despite my later revelations, the “swept off my feet” childhood images are too embedded in my psyche to lose all their appeal.

    • Kiersi says:

      You make a really, really good point, Deborah. I, too, enjoy being “swept off my feet” by a romantic hero in a book. And I guess… I don’t know. I don’t want to imply that I don’t think a girl being swept off her feet in a book is somehow NOT okay. My boyfriend definitely swept me off my feet… but at some point I realized the same thing as you–that he wasn’t going to be absolutely perfect in every single way, and we would have to work TOGETHER on making our relationship great.

      Unfortunately, I think Heathcliff is actually less of an idealized prince and more of a realistic character. He does not get a happy ending because he is too broken of a man. And in real life, there are some people like this.

      What a great comment. Thank you!

  4. Great post, Kiersi! I do want to weigh in a bit in Heathcliff. I recently re-read Wuthering Heights and was struck by the fact that Heathcliff is not a hero at all. He’s truly a cruel man, not just a broken and realistic one. And the entire book is written like a cautionary tale. I was amazed to realize that this character we tend to point to as an example of the broken, wounded romantic hero was actually pretty awful and abusive, beyond any point excusable by his early mistreatment. Time and time again Bronte actually goes out of her way to warn us not to be taken in by him or to see him as something he is not.

  5. Thank you for speaking out. I am so very glad that I am not alone in this point of view. Years ago my granddaughter wanted to be a princess and at the time Disney hadn’t represented girls of color. So I went on a search for princesses that looked like her. Unfortunately, the ones I did find carried the same story-line – helpless female without strength to care for herself and the only way she could be happy was to wait for the charming prince to rescue her. Needless to say, this did not (and still doesn’t) sit well with me. So, as a writer I created my own princess tale, one that I would love for my granddaughter to internalize. Just so you know…the book is selling!

  6. lexacain says:

    Personally, I agree with you completely and am repulsed by those who believe in the “perfect romance” and HEA. The idea of a girl’s life meaning nothing unless she’s with a guy is ridiculous and unrealistic. But people don’t read fiction (especially genre) for realism. They want the lie. Look at the popularity of Twilight and 50 Shades…nauseating. No use griping about it though. Just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good.

    • Kiersi says:

      Oh yeah. I definitely read and enjoyed both of those, ahaha. A lot. But as a writer I think we can also do better 🙂

  7. Maureen says:

    This is MY girl? How can she be so worldly smart at such a tender, young age? I’m a wee bit jealous that I didn’t have that kind of wisdom till much later in life. You go, girl, ahem, woman!

  8. Grant says:

    I can’t tell you how cool it is that my daughter is so young and yet so mature.

    I’d love to see this as an opinion piece in the newspaper.

  9. My book boys are not perfect. They aren’t princes by any means. They screw up. They can even get pretty dark. But they also have good sides. I think I try to keep them real. No guy is perfect. Books shouldn’t unrealistically portray them as perfect. JMO

  10. angel011 says:

    I think the princess fantasy is fine — as long as we are aware that it’s just a fantasy. Like daydreaming about being with out favourite actor or a favourite fictional character or whatever. As long as we are aware it’s just fantasy, the prince can be dark and brooding and even a stalker — we are in our own beds, we are safe, and our fantasy isn’t going to stab us (I don’t actually fantasize about stalkers, but hey, whatever rocks someone’s boat 🙂 ). It’s mistaking a fantasy for reality that creates a problem, and unfortunately, it happens way too often, and with people who should be old enough to know better.

    • Kiersi says:

      This is a good point. It’s the same way that just playing a violent videogame really doesn’t mean anything–it’s a fantasy, an entertainment. At the same time, I want to write fantasy that hits home with my readers, and it just grosses me out how weird, abusive/co-dependent relationships are kind of glorified in girl-fiction.

  11. Nick Capobianco says:

    I guess it’s different as a guy growing up on Sci Fi and anime as opposed to Disney. When I did watch Disney I always thought it was ridiculous how little these guys had to do to win over their princesses. I also never read Twilight/50 Shades but I there was a scene similar in Buffy when she catches Angel watching her sleep. I don’t remember exactly what she did but I know it didn’t involve thinking that was romantic. Interesting read though, hopefully it will be a while before I have a daughter and have to worry about this.

    • Kiersi says:

      It’s interesting how anime is sometimes the same way in its development of romantic relationships, but then the endings are always crazy and weird and different. A little more realistic there.

  12. Kyon Stoley says:

    Really interesting article, while I do not really have knowledge of this area (aside from the Disney films I saw as a kid) I think you brought up some interesting points. Though I always thought about the two sides of this type of debate, one being that escapist fantasies are dangerous as they lure children into a false view of the world, leaving them unprepared and the other being that the world is already so depressing and down with all the news and problems going on, that we need this type of fairytale stories to brings us joy and motivate us. The only romance story I have ever liked was Clannad and that was because they took a realistic turn, the relationship does not just end in high school but continues on in life, which includes finding a job, illness, and raising a child alone as a single parent.

    • Kiersi says:

      I love those kinds of stories–the ones that show us not how love triumphs when we are young and optimistic and full of puppy love, but how love can continue to triumph through the hardships of real life. Thanks for stopping by, Kyon, and for the thoughtful comment!

  13. beverlydiehl says:

    I have always loved fairy tales, but I also think, as modern authors, we can retell those stories without reinforcing the bad parts. For example, Mercedes Lackey in her Phoenix and Ashes totally retells the Cinderella story – she’s as much as hero as he is, and they rescue EACH OTHER, by working together. It’s really not fair to girls or boys to create the expectation that once you get married or paired off, the man will handle all the problems and make you happy. Really? I think not, in real life.

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