Fairy tale men don’t marry up?

I never fail to be surprised by the things people say about fairy tales. The following is from an article on the princess-ification of girlhood, in this week’s Listener. It’s quoting Marek Tesar, who’s part of the Critical Studies in Education faculty at Auckland University.

“A girl becomes a princess by marrying a prince; a boy needs to be a prince. He will not become a prince through marriage or partnership.”

But he says the appeal of the perception that a princess is exclusive – there can only be one princess in “your” kingdom – can be a valuable tool in children’s play.

The second point is at least countered by saying “perception”. But really, I didn’t think The Twelve Dancing Princesses was that unknown a fairy tale. Here is the ending of Amabel William-Ellis’s retelling:

Then the King, true to the bargain, asked the soldier:

“Which of them will you choose for a wife?” and he answered:

“I’m not very young myself, so I will choose the eldest.” And they were married that very day, and the soldier was made heir to the Kingdom.

Which very much sounds to me like he became a prince. And as it stands, Tesar’s statement is simply untrue. It is not an uncommon fairy tale motif, for a commoner to become a prince. We can’t even say it’s not present in the Disney movies: is Aladdin not engaged to a Sultan’s daughter at the end of his story?

Maybe (I hope) Tesar was actually saying that children think that boys cannot become princes in fairy tales. In which case, why so? I would’ve liked the article to ask why we retell the princess-POV fairy tales so often, as opposed to those where poor soldiers or clever third brothers marry princesses?

And actually, if I think of the Disney movies as representative of the tales we can expect children to know, then we have Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog where the girl doesn’t start off as a princess (the lattermost being a change from the fairy tale). To which we can counter Aladdin and Tangled, with Tangled swapping the class positions so that we have the boy marrying up. I guess because princes aren’t as cool as rogues.

Tesar goes on to say, “from my experience, a lot of boys prefer playing the dragon rather than playing a prince.” Which, when I consider fairy tales featuring princes-who-have-always-been-princes, is not really a surprise. Those princes are often kind of boring – they’re the reward, not the protagonist.

Now I’m making sweeping statements. I’m sure I’ll think of exceptions later. Because fairy tales are always more complicated than we’d like to think.

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