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?
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.