Chick Flicks-in-Training: From Disney to Daring

This is not simply a story about a frog and a prince. A story about a frog would be biological. A story about a prince would be historical. But a story about a frog-prince is magical, and therein lies all the difference. –Jane Yolen

In our introductory post, Jenn remarked that many chick flicks fall into the “Cinderella-type” category, wherein a female protagonist is in some distress, gets some outside help (from a prince, fairy godmother, friendly forest creatures, or similar), and then manages to win the day and run off into the sunset with Prince Charming (or whatever his name is). Modern visions of the Cinderella story try and avoid the “damsel-in-distress” situation, where the female simply has to be “saved” for the world to be right again. In more modern Cinderella-type “chick flicks” like The Princess Diaries, Maid in Manhattan, and Pretty Woman, the Cinderella-character is more than just “good at heart,” or “pretty in disguise,” she’s also intelligent or at least quick-witted, and what faults she does have (whether she’s a klutz, has low self-esteem, or is egotistical) are portrayed as endearing.

One could look at Disney movies (at least, the fairy tale ones) as sort of “chick flicks-in-training,” teaching young girls what to expect from the “more grown-up” versions of those same movies. Chick flicks, whether aimed at prepubescent young girls or savvy working women, all contain some element from a fairy tale or fable. Few modern chick flicks (at least the ones that aren’t targeted toward younger girls) are “magical” in any way, but that doesn’t mean that the residual feeling left over from the fairy tale element is absent.

(Angela Carter) once remarked, “A fairy tale is a story where one king goes to another king to borrow a cup of sugar.” Feminist critics of the genre–especially in the 1970s–jibbed at the socially conventional “happy endings” of so many stories…. But Angela knew about satisfaction and pleasure; and at the same time she believed that the goal of fairy tales wasn’t “a conservative one, but a utopian one, indeed a form of heroic optimism –as if to say: One day, we might be happy, even if it won’t last.” Marina Warner

People willingly suspend their disbelief when they walk into a movie theatre to see a chick flick, whether it is one of Disney’s fairy tales with a guaranteed happy ending, or a more “adult” chick flick where not everything ends perfectly and happily, but there’s enough in there for women of all ages to walk away feeling that, even if they’re single, even if their boyfriend has just broken up with them, even if the love of their life is about to get married to another woman (their best friend, sister, or sometimes even mother), there’s reason to be hopeful, there’s a reason to look forward to the future with a smile on their faces.

Anne Hathaway in One example of a chick flick-in-training might be Disney’s The Princess Diaries, based of the first book of a series by the same name, by young adult fiction writer Meg Cabot. A sequel to the movie, called The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement was also made, but it was not based off of one of Cabot’s books, and instead thrust the protagonist, Mia, several years into the future, from being a gangly high school student-turned-princess into a savvy (albeit occasionally klutzy), smart college student whose royal crown is at risk if she doesn’t get married in her early 20s.

Cabot’s first book in the series, and the first movie by extension, include elements of two popular fairy tales: “Cinderella,” in which an ordinary girl becomes a princess, and “The Ugly Duckling,” in which a plain and ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan, loved by all. Both stories exist under a number of different titles throughout the world; the concept of something extraordinary happening to the ordinary (provided those ordinary people are good-hearted, hard-working, and have a little faith) is not unique to any one region, culture, or time period.

Anne Hathaway in Just as actress Anne Hathaway moves from The Princess Diaries to more adult-oriented chick flicks like The Devil Wears Prada, modern incarnations of favorite fairy tales in chick flicks-in-training are progressively trying to show the protagonists as more than damsels in distress. This might be something modern movies are again taking from books: the idea of empowered girls at the forefront of stories, magical or otherwise, has existed for centuries. Many old versions of “Cinderella,” some from old Russia and some from Africa, feature an inventive, witty girl with spirit and heart– not a simple girl who just has a lousy lot in life and needs a prince to come whisk her away.

Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. –Tim O’Brien

What chick flicks like The Princess Diaries and Pretty Woman do is make something that has never happened -something that is absolute fiction- into something “truer than… truth.” It’s the “truth” that crosses oceans, the boundaries of time and space, age groups, races, and religions: that truth may be “love conquers all” or, more simply, “life is worth living, because there’s something out there JUST for you.” Regardless of what truth viewers find when they watch chick flicks (or read chick lit novels), the fact is, everyone finds SOMETHING in chick flicks, or why else would they continue to be so popular?

3 thoughts on “Chick Flicks-in-Training: From Disney to Daring”

  1. On further reflection, a wonderful post. The references to Angela Carter (gads, what a writer she was) and Marina Warner are very welcome. Check out Warner’s FROM THE BEAST TO THE BLONDE for an excellent, woman-centered book about fairy tales and their tellers.

    Another relevant title here would be the Jack Zipes-edited feminist fairy tale anthology, DON’T BET ON THE PRINCE. A great collection, with provocative stories and some necessary background into feminist fairy tale criticism (both pro and con).

    BTW, any of you ever seen the musical INTO THE WOODS, by Sondheim and Lapine?

  2. I’ve seen “Into The Woods” — it’s one of my favorite musicals. I first saw it when I was pretty young, and I was baffled to see so many of my favorite fairy tales turned on their heads. I didn’t get why the princes were so mean to their princesses, why Red Riding Hood was so violent, or what really happened to Rapunzel in the end. In fact, I re-watched it earlier this semester and saw it with fresh eyes and a better sense of humor.

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