We grow up on fairy tales where prince charming rescues the damsel in distress – but in real life, the result is often a perturbed prince with a distressed damsel.
We’ve all seen the personal ads, heard the familiar phrases. Brainy blonde looking for my knight in shining armor. Investment banker in search of his queen. Prince or Princess Charming, where the hell are you? From televised tripe like The Bachelor to essays in The New York Times (where a writer recently lamented that she “would love to experience life as a pampered princess, at least once”), you’ll find some single people clinging to dreams of royal romance as desperately as some folks hang onto their bad high-school-hair.
Welcome to Fantasy Island
And who can blame them? Fairy tale romance is part of our culture, our literary tradition; it’s practically part of our DNA – especially for girls reared on Sleeping Beauty and Sex and the City, and guys who grew up watching heroes save the day and win the hand of the fair princess. Whichever the case, the result was always “happily ever after.”
Not surprisingly, though, fairy tale fantasies seldom work out.
The woman who hooks up with the Prince Charming who promises to cater to her every need – emotional, financial, physical – soon learns life as a pampered princess can have its drawbacks, especially when her overly attentive, poetry-spouting prince turns out to be a moody control freak with a history of domestic violence.
The man who dashes in on his metaphorical white horse to rescue some poor damsel in distress comes to realizes – weeks, months, sometimes even years later – that she’s actually Sturm und Drang Central , a nutcase who thrives on self-destruction and drama.
She’s not being threatened by a dragon, she is the dragon. Even those of us who’d rather eat a glass slipper than admit to believing in storybook romance can’t deny the profound – and insidious – influence of the fairy tale mythos on our culture (Google “pampered princess” and you’ll get nearly 50,000 hits) or fail to notice the damage it’s done.
“Sometimes the whole Prince Charming thing makes guys feel like we’re just a means to an end,” says Jim, a 53-year-old programmer analyst from Encino who asked that his last name not be used. “It’s not that women are waiting for a white knight or a Prince Charming. What they really want is the king, his castle, his fortune, his power and his country.”
Even the women who aren’t searching for Prince Charming’s treasure chamber find themselves yearning for some unattainable ideal.
“You know it’s a myth, but I think everybody has that moment where they think, wouldn’t it be nice if someone would come along?” says Deby Hunt, a 54-year-old cultural analyst from Irvine. “The Cary Grant, the George Clooney, the guy who opens the door and dresses perfectly and wines and dines and charms you. But there’s really no real person who can devote that much time to you. Even George Clooney has bad moments.”
So where did this claptrap come from and how did it get so ingrained in our collective psyche?
Hunt, who says she’d run in the opposite direction if someone offered to treat her like a queen, points to advertising, movies, Doris Day and “that Disney song we all grew up with, ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come.’”
Fairy tales of the 18th- and 19th-century played their part as well, as did Andreas Capellanus’s 12th-century treatise The Art of Courtly Love (not to be confused with the lead singer of Hole), a classic work of literature that may or may not have accurately portrayed court life back in the day. (Scholars are still duking it out as to whether the book is a time capsule of social laws and customs or a snotty send-up of the same.) From it, though, we get our overwrought ideas about chivalry and romance and knights in shining armor. We get our Vasoline-smeared view of what it meant to be a king, a queen, a courtly knight and a lovely pampered princess. We get our fairy tale fantasies, which as it turns out, never actually happily ever happened.
Fairy tale fauxmance
Social historian Stephanie Coontz, who literally wrote the book on marriage, says most royal unions were nasty, brutish and short — especially on love. “Princess Diana’s situation is typical as far as the historic tradition goes,” says Coontz, author of Marriage: A History and director of education at the Council on Contemporary Families. “Once they got the woman to give them their heir, the king or prince went back to whomever they really liked.”
Love matches were unheard of (adultery was where you found all that goopy romantic stuff). Instead, royal marriages were about money, power, politics, and connections. Princesses – who came in all shapes and sizes — weren’t wooed and won by the bravest, most resourceful suitor in the land. They were married off, sight unseen, to form political or military alliances or to bolster someone else’s claim to a throne.
Trundled off to neighboring kingdoms like some kind of living, breathing treaty, most high-born women were forced to live out their days with a stranger who spoke a different language, traveled in different circles and more often than not, resented both his bride and the horse she rode in on (provided he could tell them apart).
“They were not treated well at all,” says Coontz. “They were pawns. They seldom had their choice of a marriage partner. They had to put up with their husband’s infidelity — often in humiliating ways — and they had very little privacy. They even had to give birth in public. ”Worse yet, some royal wives – especially those who refused to divorce or failed to produce a male heir – were tortured, imprisoned, and even murdered (paging Anne Boleyn!).
As for that famous pampering? “They were pampered, but it was the servants who brought them flowers and took care of them physically,” says Coontz. “It was the hired court poet who wrote them poems. It was certainly not their mate.”
Knight and day
But what about that fabulous knight in shining armor, the guy who’s “kind, sensitive, respectful, and well-mannered” as one Los Angeles woman put it in a recent personal ad? Things aren’t looking too good there, either, says Coontz. “Most of the time, a knight in shining armor would rape you rather than court you,” she says. “The guy who wrote the manual on courtly love said explicitly that if she’s a rich, highborn lady, you bring her gifts and write her poems. If she’s not, you take your pleasure.”
Even a knight who did court his queen wasn’t interested in marrying her. After all, she was already married — unhappily — to the king. Courtship was basically a way to win favor and get hold of jewels and other valuables, the medieval equivalent of working it. “There were no such things as wages in those days,” says Coontz. “Everything came as a gift from a patron so everybody sucked up to their patrons. In reality, most courtly love was a knight or courtier sucking up to women to get whatever favors they could.”
The bottom line: knights were violent, sycophantic and “stinky,” says Coontz. “It’s not like you could take that armor off to go pee.”
So was there anyone, ever, who lived the fairy tale fantasy we’ve come to know and love?
“Charlemagne’s daughters remained single and had all the power of their father at their command,” says Coontz. “They even took various lovers, whom they could discard at will. Now those were pampered princesses.” As for today’s single people, Coontz says we’d be wise to close the book on fractured fairy tales and move on. “I think the basic message for modern people is in the long run, your best bet is to be treated as a partner, not a princess,” says Coontz.
And if the need for pampering is too great? “Live like Charlemagne’s daughters and buy your own flowers and massages and write poems to yourself,” she says.
Now there’s a happy ending I can believe in.