A study about women who love fairy tales and their abusive husbands has been receiving some attention in the blogosphere lately, so I thought I’d give my opinion, as a long time lover of fairy tales, and wife of a non-abusive husband.
Obviously, there are lots of problems with this study. First, there’s the sample size – 67 women. A study done of 67 women could not accurately determine anything of value, really. And then, there’s the total lack of a “control group.” I am sure one could do a similar study and determine that there was a strong preference for wearing blue jeans among women who’ve been subject to domestic violence. But if you don’t look at 67 women who haven’t, then you really don’t know anything. And a childhood love of fairy tales is just as common as a predeliction for blue jeans in modern industrialized countries. So I don’t know why asking 67 self-described victims of domestic violence whether they liked fairy tales growing up tells anyone anything.
There’s also a problem, though, with the way they seem to be interpretting the texts. In the AFP article, the author of the study, grad student Susan Darker-Smith, is quoted as saying, ” “They believe if their love is strong enough they can change their partner’s behaviour.” I don’t know how one would read fairy tales in their semi-original form and come to the conclusion that one could change one’s partner, as the fairy tales, typically, have fairly limited characterization skills. When I was about eight years old, my mother bought me The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes, and I tore through it. (Later, she picked up herself, and grew worried about me liking such a bloody, gory, disgusting book. But, to her credit, she merely checked with me to make sure it wasn’t twisting my brain and let me alone.) And the thing is, no one, male or female, has such a strong personality – or such a strong personal growth – that one can accurately determine that the woman changes the man through the strength of her love. The Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” is just beastly in form, really. It’s not even implied that it’s his fault that Beauty has to stay with him – her father plucks a rose from a magic bush and that’s pretty much that. The Prince isn’t even Charming in Grimm’s; he’s just a prince.
The cinematic renditions of these stories – with two hours rather than a couple of pages to fill – go far deeper into the characterizations, and thus Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Drew Barrymore’s Ever After, and modern-day Cinderella classic Pretty Woman all play on the theme of a good woman changing the behavior and even personality of a formerly not-so-nice guy. Even Shrek, which went one step better than Beauty and the Beast by allowing the girl to be unattractive, too, centered around the taming of an ogre into a nicer ogre because of the love of a good, if feisty, woman. Those depictions (along with all other romantic comedies ever) seem to do far more to promote the idea that you can change a man by loving him than the original fairy tales would. Which would be fine and well, except the study does single out the fairy tale “literature,” and favors TV- and movie-watching as the anecdote to these bad, bad bedtime stories. Again, from the AFP, “Darker-Smith said she believed younger generations exposed to television and other entertainment media may react differently and be less submissive than those weaned solely on literature.” How on earth is she determining that TV and movies, laden with images of good girls making bad boys good, will be better for women than Cinderella?
I would also like to note, for those of you who’ve dismissed fairy tales as get-a-man, fast-as-you-can claptrap, that most of Grimm’s Fairy Tales have nothing to do with finding a husband, and there are a surprising number of stories about women getting their brothers out of some kind of trouble, either self-induced or evil-forces induced. Not that it’s a feminist paradise in there – it’s usually the sisters’ ability to stay quiet for extended periods of time, or be submissive and “good,” which save the day. And there are A LOT of wicked stepmothers and mothers-in-law. I’m just saying. They’re not all, “Someday, my prince will come, and until then, I’ve got mopping to do.”