Wearing Tiaras: On Fairy Tales, Community, and Happiness
February 25, 2020
by Ruth Daniell
It is winter 2012. I am walking across campus with fellow students from my poetry workshop to the bus loop, where I’ll catch a 99 back to the apartment with the leaky solarium I share with my partner. It’s a miserable day—cold, grey, with very little colour outside except the leaves that fell in autumn and remain scattered over the snowless ground like paper torn into wet pieces. Despite the usual Vancouver weather, I have a bubble in my chest. I finally interrupt our conversation about literature to announce, a little sheepishly, “My tiara arrived in the mail today!”
My partner and I are getting married in the summer and, after a bit of fighting with myself, I have bought a secondhand tiara online: a delicate-looking gold-plated thing beaded with pearls. As tiaras go, it is a very tasteful, pretty thing. I am deep into research about fairy tales, already at work on the book that will become
The Brightest Thing, and I am a little embarrassed about wanting to wear a tiara. Buying the tiara in the first place was an act of tremendous honesty with myself: yes, I still want to be a princess.
But why do I want to be a princess? Shouldn’t I know better? I’m a grown woman and a feminist. I know that real life is not a fairy tale.
The influence of fairy tales on our lives is nearly inescapable. There is something about them that seems, well… magical. It’s hard to satisfactorily explain what it is about fairy tales in particular that make them so consistently seductive, relevant, perfect for telling and changing and telling again. In Why Fairy Tales Stick (Routledge, 2006), Jack Zipes writes that our favourite fairy tales “became canonized because they were adapted from the oral tradition of folklore for aristocratic and middle-class audiences as print culture developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and basically reshaped and retold during this time to reinforce the dominant patriarchal ideology throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”
Zipes goes on to argue that his initial explanations for why fairy tales are “so catchy” isn’t a complete understanding, and—briefly ignoring the patriarchy’s part in preserving them—I kind of love that it’s so hard to pin down our attraction to fairy tales. The more I learn about fairy tales and the way that certain story types develop and change concurrently across cultures the more it seems possible that there is something inherently magical about the stories themselves. (The “Cinderella” story alone exists in almost uncountable numbers, with male and female protagonists, and everything from glass slippers to golden hair or fur coats.) They’re everywhere. They’re part of us. Zipes puts it this way: “we respond to these classical stories almost as if we were born with them, and yet we know full well that they have been socially produced and induced and continue to be generated this way through different forms of the mass media.” We make the stories, but the stories make us too.
The stories make us, but we make the stories. It should go without saying, then, that we should make good stories.
I go home and take off my rain-damp coat. Before my partner comes home, I try on my tiara in front of the mirror. I am telling myself a story. The story is about a girl who isn’t a girl, she is an ugly duckling, but she isn’t an ugly duckling, she is a swan.
I’m telling myself a story. In the story, I have risen to become who I always was.
In the story, a bad prince—someone who wasn’t a prince at all—takes something from the princess. It isn’t his to take, but he takes it. The princess runs away into a dark forest. Nobody rescues her. She rescues herself. She isn’t a swan, after all. She doesn’t have any wings. She must crawl to get herself out of the tangled trees. In a new kingdom—maybe it’s a queendom—she fits in, quietly, with all the other ugly ducklings. She’s a swan, who wasn’t an ugly duckling at all, but a girl, now a woman.
She meets a different prince. This one is true. He can see she is a swan and not a swan. He is important to her, but not (yet) that important to the story. It is not his story. It is her story.
It strikes me as a funny kind of incongruity to receive something as magical as a tiara through something as regular and ordinary as the mail.
"We need more stories about middle-aged princesses, about princes who stay beastly, about heroes who find their deepest solace not within marriage but with their friends."
What I love most about fairy tales, more than the glamour of princesses and fancy dresses, is their potential to build community. Because fairy tales deal with our most basic fears and desires and do so in the safety of “once upon a time,” they have historically been safe places for individuals to come together. Stories allow us to practice empathy, to bond over shared experiences, fears, and desires. I don’t believe that fairy tales themselves are inherently unfeminist (in fact, many early stories are about women envisioning ways out of oppression, and the solution is not always a wedding). The problem, I think, is the way society has played pick-and-choose with fairy tales—we’ve emphasized certain aspects of the stories and fed those to the public. And some of those aspects are harmful: the privileging of (heterosexual) romantic love over other kinds of relationships; the idealization of physical (able-bodied, youthful) beauty; the limiting gender roles of the strong, clever, action-hero prince and the obedient, kind, pious, faithful princess.
We need more stories about middle-aged princesses, about princes who stay beastly, about heroes who find their deepest solace not within marriage but with their friends. These stories do already exist—they’ve just been suppressed in favour of the stories that most closely match the patriarchal ideology that, as Zipes notes, was dominant at the time that fairy tales were evolving as a genre and that we’re still fighting against today. And not only do some of these more radical stories exist, but we can also create our own. We need these stories. If the fairy tales that have most captured the Western audience, the ones that have been retold and recast the most frequently, are those most convenient for coding messages that support the patriarchal model, and we want to dismantle the patriarchal model, we can, and should, work towards imagining new kinds of magic. We can do this together: and togetherness—community—isn’t that the real magic of fairy tales anyhow? We can use stories to encourage each other, to share worries and hopes, to pass on dreams of wish-fulfillment, to come up with ideas for problem-solving, ways to safely criticize the way that others hold power over us and to discover happiness.
In Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (Oxford University Press, 2014), Marina Warner writes, “The siren function of the form, saying the unsayable and tolling a warning in the night, has lessened in recent years, when child abuse has come to be recognized, and appalling cases of cruelty, involving incest, enslavement, and rape, are made known by other means. Fairy tales,” she explains, “used to be a rare witness to such crimes, and encode them cryptically for the younger generation to absorb, but they can now watch them unfold in the media.” But I don’t believe that fairy tales have lost their power to witness; they certainly haven’t lost their power to enchant. If fairy tales can grab our attention more quickly than other forms of storytelling—and certainly they grab our attention soonest, as they make up so much of what children first encounter—then don’t we need them, as much or more as other media, to tell us that violence is wrong, that everyone should be able to be happy? “It is often more compelling to translate experience through metaphor and fantasy than to put it plainly,” Warner also admits. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with trauma in less direct ways. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine a happy ending for a princess than for yourself. Sometimes it’s easier to become the princess than waiting for the world to right itself.
The Disneyfication of well-known fairy tales has been extremely successful, with the happy endings made even happier, the more controversial storylines avoided or changed, and the role of the prince and “true love’s kiss” made even more important. Much of the public has a surface understanding of fairy tales, equating them with the hugely influential Disney movies. It’s the fairy tale’s reputation of encouraging girls and women to be princesses (passive, obedient, quiet, beautiful) and boys and men to be princes (active, rebellious, loud, strong) that makes me a bit embarrassed to admit that I will wear a tiara on my wedding day. Warner notes that “Disneyfication has become a dirty word—synonymous with mendacity.” If the Disney films, if fairy tales, with their promise of a happily ever after, are simply cheerfully-packaged lies, then aren’t I foolish for wanting to be a part of it, to want to be a princess?
It’s not foolish to want to be happy.
I’m a grown woman and a feminist. I know that real life is not a fairy tale. But if we make the stories, and the stories make us, perhaps we are making our lives into fairy tales. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Awful things happen to princesses in fairy tales. They suffer degradation and poverty and hunger and violence. They’re trapped in towers, like Rapunzel. They’re trapped in kitchens. Their fathers leave them to the mercy of their jealous stepmothers, like Cinderella. They’re sold to kings, like the miller’s daughter in “Rumpelstiltskin.” They’re poisoned by their stepmothers, like Snow White. They’re abandoned by their brothers or hated by their sisters. Their tongues are cut out or their hands chopped off. They’re not allowed to speak. They’re compelled to dance until their shoes or their bodies wear out.
No one wants to be the princess at the beginning of the story. You want to be the princess at the end of the story, in the lace wedding dress, her trauma behind her, her life uncomplicated ahead of her.
The false prince wasn’t evil. He wasn’t happy. He’d grown up being told that if he found and took a princess that he would be happy.
The princess could not make him happy.
He took her. No, he tried to take her. She took herself out of his castle—it didn’t look like a castle anymore, perhaps it was only a house after all—and she didn’t go back. She went on.
I’m telling myself a story.
I don’t think we should tell girls to avoid fairy tales in the hopes that will encourage them to be (better) feminists and aspire to be more than princesses. Instead of saying girls shouldn’t limit themselves to being princesses, can’t we give them the opportunity to be different kinds of princesses, if they want to? Princesses who don’t wait around for princes, but who pursue their own, and different, dreams? Children of all genders—not just girls—can and should, if they want to, enjoy fairy tales. We can aspire to a variety of ideals and receive reassurance from a wide range of characters. Yes, a patriarchal society chose its canon of fairy tales, but many of them are—despite their problems—wonderful stories, and, too, there exists beyond the (popularly) known canon even more stories, some of them wilder, stranger. Some have deeply feminist themes. I believe there are responsible ways to share fairy tales—by sharing a diverse range of them, by talking critically about the ways in which gender, class, violence, love, et cetera is depicted in them—and I think it’s worth doing that work to do so. The stories make us, but we make the stories. We can make the stories. We can reclaim the old stories. We can make new ones. We can disrupt the gender roles, we can normalize new kinds of love stories, we can imagine new kinds of ways of being happy.
My wedding day is wonderful. I love my husband, and he loves me, and the skies (and my skin) conspire to be clear and beautiful. I happy-sob my way through my vows and I carry my bouquet of lavender roses around with me everywhere and I am pleasurably aware of the weight of my white gown as I walk across the sun-dappled lawns of the riverside park where our photographer poses my husband and me into storybook characters.
The week after our wedding, I get very ill. At first, the doctor at the walk-in clinic thinks I have strep throat, but then the penicillin he prescribes gives me an all-body rash (princesses don’t get rashes), and I have to go for bloodwork. It comes back from the lab as infectious mononucleosis. Mono. I’m a new bride and I have “the kissing disease”—I try to laugh about it, but I can’t. I’m too sick. I have all of the usual symptoms, but I’m particularly dumbfounded by my exhaustion and the strange weakness of my limbs. Walking to the clinic to receive the results of the bloodwork—it is a beautiful sunny September day—is excruciating. It’s not as if I’m walking through water, or, like, the little mermaid, walking with the pain of knives in my feet—but it does feel like malicious magic. The doctor warns against exercise; my spleen is dangerously swollen. I had prepared myself for a bit of wedding let-down, but this is ridiculous: hopes of savouring that newlywed radiance is gone.
The symptoms of mono can typically last up to two months, but the infection hit me particularly hard and I stay tired for a long time. I don’t notice when my fatigue from the illness disappears and the fatigue becomes simply the fatigue of depression (princesses don’t get depressed). It is such a grey winter, worse than the year before, and I have no tiara to watch for in the mail. I’ve already worn my tiara. I find it hard to believe I will ever again feel as beautiful or as important as I did on the shining August day I wore it.
The more I learn about fairy tales, the more I see how much of their brilliance is owed to women. Many of the stories’ expressed feminist desires have been dulled because society has tended to mythologize the men of fairy tales: Charles Perrault, the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen. If you look just a little bit deeper, though, you find Charles Perrault’s peers, including Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, who coined the term contes de fées (fairy tales) that helped to define fairy tales as a genre, and you’ll learn that many of the best fairy tales in Children’s and Household Tales (the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale collection) were told to the Grimms by aristocratic women who were a part of their social circle. And some of them were told by their neighbour Dortechen Wild, literally the “girl next door,” the woman who later became Wilhelm Grimm’s wife. One of the stories she contributed to the collection is called “
Fitcher’s Bird,” and it’s one of my favourites. It’s a German version of the “Bluebeard” story. The bride, as in the other versions of the story, discovers the bloody room where her husband keeps the bodies of his previous wives. Instead of being caught by her murderous husband and then rescued by her brothers, however, she conceals her knowledge of her husband’s evil and manages to rescue herself by disguising herself as a large and magnificent bird. She also, through a peculiar kind of restorative magic, is able to revive and rescue the other brides, too, who usually have no such happy endings.
The princess is afraid of the dark. Sometimes, when she makes love with her prince, she worries that some dark magic will turn him into that other prince, the false one, the one who took what he wanted from her and didn’t understand that it was violence. The princess wants to make love with the lights on, so she can see she is with the true prince, that she is safe.
I’m telling myself a story. In the story, the princess has worn the lace wedding dress and the tiara, but she is not at the end of her story, nor is all her trauma behind her, her life uncomplicated ahead of her.
Fairy tales are such formative stories. We encounter them so early, as children, and they mean so much. As a girl, I wanted to be a princess. As a grown woman, I still want the happily ever after. I don’t really know what that’s supposed to be like: the happily ever after I’ve read about is always only gestured towards, there’s that freeze-frame moment of the wedding, and then… what?
No one wants to be the princess at the beginning of the story. You want to be the princess at the end of the story, in her trailing gown, with her tiara, everything around her beautiful and comforting: she never has to go back into that dark forest again, never again face that wolf or robber or witch or tower or prison or poison or false prince.
"If the power in fairy tales lies in their ability to connect and build communities, we need to think about ways to make communities that support everyone. Who gets to have a happy ending? Who gets to be beautiful? Who gets to be brave? Who gets to be princes and princesses?"
It’s winter 2020. My husband and I are still in love, still figuring out our happily ever after. Today my husband’s at work and I left the house early so our baby could sleep on the drive to his medical appointment. He’s woken up now, and we’re still early, so I’ve pulled over by the beach. I’m sitting in the minivan, and I’m nursing him. While he gulps, I look out of the vehicle at the lake. It’s uncharacteristically cold outside, with snow covering the grass and sand of the park, and there is strange twinkling mist hanging over the lake. The trumpeter swans that come to the lake for a couple weeks each year are here. I watch them appear and disappear in and out of the snow and fog and water, their long necks dipping into the waves and up again. Sometimes, one of them beats its wings and resettles. Occasionally I hear their calls, the surreal kind of cry that almost sounds like music, that almost sounds like it’s from a different world. But it’s from this world, and this world has magic too.
I look down at my son; he grins up at me, letting the nipple slip out of his mouth and milk dribble onto my oversized floral scarf.
At home, his big sister is having her afternoon nap, with her grandma on watch, and my tiara is wrapped in tissue paper in a box on a shelf.
If the power in fairy tales lies in their ability to connect and build communities, we need to think about ways to make communities that support everyone. Who gets to have a happy ending? Who gets to be beautiful? Who gets to be brave? Who gets to be princes and princesses? In
Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space (Coach House Books, 2020), Amanda Leduc writes: “These fairy-tale stories we’ve been telling ourselves for thousands of years have never been only stories – in their language, in their focus on magic, in the modern fairy tale’s push for the happy ending, they help to shape and inform our ideas of what it means to be happy and fulfilled.” Leduc is specifically talking about the way that fairy tales inform the way that we understand difference and disability: society is harmfully attached to the idea of able-bodiedness as essential to achieving happily ever after. Leduc points out: “We have two versions of the tale: one in which the disability is vanished and the abled body reigns supreme, and another in which the disability is permanent and leads to grief and suffering. Where is the space for disability as a simple fact of life in a scenario like this?” Just as it’s damaging to think that a princess must be married to a prince in order to be happy, it is damaging to think there is no place for disability in joy. (I’m a white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied woman; I urge you to read Leduc’s book.)
This is one of the smartest observations is Leduc’s book: the fact that, in fairy tales, the happily ever after is only ever imagined for the protagonist—the hero, against all odds, overcomes all the obstacles before them, and then gets to live happily ever after. Society doesn’t change. The hero must change to fit into the world. The world doesn’t change to accommodate difference; difference is eradicated in the name of happily ever after. “Even in the story of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ itself,” Leduc writes, “the triumph is contained—it’s only Jack and his mother who are well-fed at the end of the tale. Society, as we have seen, does not change in fairy tales. The transformation is individual, never systemic.”
This is where we need to work. If we want to change the system—if we want to take down the rape culture (and homophobia, and transphobia, et cetera) that the patriarchal model has created; if we want to actively make space for disabled bodies; if we want to celebrate our relationships with parents and siblings and children and friends, not just lovers; if we want to find new ways to be happy, then we need to imagine different kinds of happily ever afters. We need to make stories for ourselves and for each other.
I’m telling myself a story. In the story, there are many princesses and princes and royal folks of all genders, sexualities, colours, backgrounds, ages, abilities, disabilities, needs, and desires. In the story, the story itself has the power to help. In this story, everyone knows they are loved. Anyone who wants to wear a tiara has a tiara.
I’m telling myself a story. I’m telling the story to you, too.
* * *
Ruth Daniell is an award-winning writer whose poems have appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine, Grain, Room magazine, Qwerty, The Antigonish Review and Event. Her first full-length collection of poems,
The Brightest Thing (Caitlin Press, 2019), explores fairy tales, sexual violence, love, and healing. The recipient of the 2013 Young Buck Poetry Prize with CV2 and the winner of the 2016 Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest with The New Quarterly, Daniell is also the editor of
Boobs: Women Explore What it Means to Have Breasts (Caitlin Press, 2016). She holds a bachelor of arts degree (honours) in English literature and writing from the University of Victoria and a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. She lives with her growing family in Kelowna, BC, in a house with rose bushes out front, where she is at work on a second collection of poems about birds, climate change, parenthood, and joy.
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