Folktales strike us as enigmatic because they mix the miraculous with the natural, the near with the far, and the ordinary with the incomprehensible in a completely effortless way. — Max Luthi
[Author note: This quote really doesn’t have much to do with this blog until the end except for “the ordinary with the incomprehensible” when referring to the great lengths to which a fairy tale prince will go to rescue or see his princess, like in “Rapunzel.” However, I think it’s a nice quote to get us thinking about fairy tales.]
The recent hubbub about men rescuing young ladies in Disney films being sexist—benevolent sexism, to be exact—caused me to remember a fairy tales class I took in college.
There is a theory illustrated with folklore that there are certain elements of a story that, well, make a story. And these elements are so ingrained in us that without them, a story ceases to be a story—or at least ceases to be interesting. In fact, my professor actually argued that these story elements are programmed into our DNA because every culture has folktales that include those elements. (Side note for clarification: not all elements have to be present in each story.) One of those major elements is a man rescuing a woman.
Let’s remember that many Disney Princess films come from ancient folktales that we commonly refer to as fairy tales. Neither the Grimms nor Hans Christian Andersen made these stories up. They are folk stories, verbally passed from generation to generation until these men took the initiative to write them down.
Fairy tales are one-dimensional on all levels, so there’s definitely a lack of romance to them, and the audience doesn’t really get a lot of context leading up to the rescuing of the female character. Generally, folktales are told with unemotional rigidity. Kind of a “this is how it happened” without an invested narrator, and a lot is left to the audience to interpret.
(However, there is still a lot of literary importance, and not just because they are historical literature. A book I’d encourage anyone interested in the history of stories to read is The European Folktale: Form and Nature by Max Luthi.)
Each of these Disney stories—movies—being criticized lately carries the traditional element of romance. Why do you think that is? I mean, we’re talking old-old tradition. Somehow, generation after generation, the story of a man and woman falling in love is attractive to us. And a man rescuing a woman is still more interesting to us. We want to watch. We want to see how it ends. We love sitting in anticipation for the end when we know the prince or princess and his or her counterparts will finally be together and “live happily ever after.”
I think it’s something so deeply ingrained, so deeply rooted that there’s no getting it out of our system, even across different cultures. And I think we’re actually missing the point on why we like stories about a man rescuing a woman.
Why do I think that?
The Real Rescue
Well, I think it’s an ingrained depiction of Christ rescuing the His bride, the Church. As those of us familiar with Christianity know, throughout scripture, the Church, God’s people, is referred to in the feminine and He is referred to in the masculine. We, the Church, are referred to as the bride, and Christ as the Bridegroom.
As you get into the nitty-gritty of scripture, you find how truly awful the Israelites (and mankind) are toward the Lord and that, even so, He is always ready to swoop in and rescue them when they finally realize their need for Him, mixing “the miraculous with the natural, the near with the far, and the ordinary with the incomprehensible.”
And I think this prince-rescuing-princess romance is a reflection of that.
I’m not saying that women need men to save them. And I’m most definitely not saying women are all horrible toward their male counterparts.
What I am saying is that it seems as though the gospel somehow appears in verbal folktales. How amazing is that?