The first fairy tale that I remember hearing was the story of how my parents met. While it did not fit into a “tale type” and was not written by the Grimms, to me this story represented the ultimate fairy tale.
It began once upon a time in 1985, in the far away land of New York City’s Upper West Side. A beautiful young aspiring lawyer in a purple dress noticed a handsome young aspiring lawyer sporting red Chucks from across the crowded auditorium and sat down next to him. Over the course of the day they traipsed about the city, setting up bank accounts and learning how to be “real” adults. He told her how he had escaped from the clutches of his evil stepmother, and she told her mom later that night that she had met the man she was going to marry.
Throughout my childhood I became well acquainted with other, more traditional fairy tales. We had an impressive VHS collection of Disney animated features, and my bookshelves were lined with volumes of tales: mother and daughter tales, father and daughter tales, father and son tales (though I was one of three girls), and other collections. Quite the ritualistic child, I made my dad read me at least three stories every night from one of these books. When he traveled out of town, I listened to a recording of him reading a story, or let my mom fill in temporarily. I went through phases of favorite stories—Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, the Princess and the Pea—but generally stories about love were my favorite.
The Feminist (I use the “F” with purpose) in me emerged at some point during adolescence, along with a hearty skepticism of the veracity of the love depicted in these tales, challenging my relationship with these familiar stories. Suddenly I staunchly opposed the idea of Ariel giving up her voice for a man and understood why my grandmother found Cinderella to be scarier than the evil queen from Snow White. The prospect of waiting for a man to rescue me revolted me; how could Cinderella fall in love with a prince who only knew who she was by her shoe size? I questioned the flatness of the characters in fairy tales as well — princesses seemed to be described only as kind and beautiful. I yearned for more dynamic characters, who could not resolve their struggles so easily.
I turned away from fairy tales and found solace in Brönte and Hemingway, who — while admittedly a misogynist — made no pretensions about the difficulties of love. While the story of how my parents met conjured images of soul mates for me, I recognized the amount of work they put into their marriage, and could see their ups and downs throughout the years. At fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years old, the likelihood of finding something like what my parents had felt depressingly slim. Besides, I had more interesting and more important things to focus on: I wanted to impact the lives of inner-city youth, make the varsity tennis team, and maybe even get into college.
Now on the precipice of adulthood, I can once again find solace in fairy tales, although they’re not a model upon which I want to base my life. There is certainly more for me to learn from my parents’ very real relationship than Cinderella or the Princess and the Pea, and I would never take parenting advice from Snow White. But the stories are familiar and comfortable. Like an old favorite sweater, I can pull out a fairy tale, in book or movie form, and relish the security it provides.
I welcome the predictability of fairytales at this point in my life when so much of my future seems uncertain.
Fairy tales are a reminder of my childhood and now elicit pleasant nostalgia rather than an indignant eye-roll. However, I still question what version of these tales I would want my daughter reading. I would want my daughter to know that it is important to go out into the world, find what she is passionate about, and chase after her dreams. So much of life happens after what we expect to be “happily ever after.”
This is a guest post! Philadelphia-born Emily Brody-Bizar is a history major at Dartmouth College who is interested in education, equality, and How I Met Your Mother. Want to write for That Girl Magazine? Click here!