Fall semester means Halloween and the inevitable parade of fairy princesses showing up to trick or treat in the sparkliest finery available in the Halloween aisle at Target. Even without a current Disney princess in the theaters, little girls can always return to one of the classic heroines in the fairy tale pantheon. For many five year olds, the only thing that matters about Halloween is parading around in That Dress.
Apparently, some women never really outgrow the fairy princess dream. At the independent living facility where my mother spent her last few years, the women had two choices of costume for the annual Halloween party: witches or princesses. Most of the older ladies chose to be princesses, too.
We all know the standard fairy tale setup. Once upon a time, the stories tell us, some ordinary girl’s destiny was that Prince Charming would ride up on a white horse and carry her away to his palace, where she would live happily ever after. The original story also included lots of great plot points understandable to the smallest child: Ordinary Girl would get an amazing dress and shoes and would be able to—finally!—go to “the dance…!”—all while showing up her mean older sisters and any rivals amongst the many others vying for the attention of the one prince. After enough repeats of this storyline, the implication would be clear. You, the reader (especially if you had mean sisters or simply older ones), were clearly also such a girl. How, then, could you go about getting your mitts on your very own Prince Charming?
In my “Women in Film” class, we devote an entire class meeting to princess tropes, starting with Cinderella.1 There are other fairy tale princesses, but if she meets and marries the Prince, it’s a “Cinderella story” even if the girl in question is named Belle, Aurora, Ariel, Snow White, Viviane in Pretty Women, or Lady Diana Spencer.2
Starting with Disney’s original animated version, we watch a few clips of Cinderella: in one she is washing the floor with the soap bubbles rising around her, and in another she preps for the big night at the ball with the critters sewing her dress and the fairy godmother turning pumpkins into carriages. There is no need to contextualize Cinderella’s tragic situation up until this moment. Every member of the audience knows the story and can backfill his or her own negative baggage of family conflicts and downtrodden work. And who isn’t in need of a makeover and a fairy godmother to turn their ugly, out-of-date rags into clothes and spare vegetables into cars?
In class, we compare and contrast the original animated version of Cinderella—particularly its focus on The Dress sewn by mice—with the new Disney live-action Cinderella and its glass slippers, incredibly cute mice friends, and a dress that is so magnificent it is practically a character itself.
Class discussion: How do students feel about the different Cinderellas, the idea of a glass slipper, and the implications of dancing in shoes made of glass?
Next, we look at a few examples of Disney princesses professing their dreams of happily ever after. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White sings in the woods “Someday my prince will come” while the butterflies flutter around her and the animals come to marvel at her voice and the story of True Love.3 We also watch a clip with the witch and the apple to set up the allusion to this scene in Enchanted, which I show later in class.4
In another Disney classic, Sleeping Beauty, Aurora also goes out to sing in the woods: “But if I know you, I know what you'll do, you'll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dream.”5 The dark, foreboding version of the song that closes the prequel to the film, Maleficent, is a sonic reminder of the two tales told: the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty and the darker version, Maleficent’s story.6 I ask students to compare and contrast these two films. While Maleficent offers a different narrative than Sleeping Beauty, at the end of the day, it too is an old story: many princesses seek the attention of the one available prince. The fact that Maleficent is played by the glorious and distinctive Angelina Jolie is the perfect segue in class to talk about Jolie’s other films such as In the Land of Blood and Honey and her other artistic projects.7
Class discussion: a) Jolie as a woman with agency in Hollywood (see Lara Croft and Salt for images);8 b) Jolie as a Hollywood scandal veteran for “stealing” Brad Pitt from Jennifer Aniston, kissing her brother at the Oscars, adopting children from other countries—there are many aspects of her celebrity worth discussing; c) Jolie’s controversial decision to have a mastectomy to prevent breast cancer as an inspiration for other women.
I pause here for comic relief by showing a more modern Disney princess with the scene from Shrek in which Fiona sings in the woods until the bird copying her song explodes, and which then cuts to Fiona frying up three eggs for herself, Shrek, and Donkey, on a hot rock.9
To ground the reality of princesses and royal weddings in real life, a brief look at the royal wedding of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer is all the more poignant because even as you watch it, you are aware of the tragic ending to come; however, the pomp and circumstance creates an event so momentous that, at the time, it seemed like a sort of nuptial Olympics, something akin to a total eclipse of the moon, or Halley’s comet—if you missed it, you wouldn’t get another chance to see something like it.10 Legally a “spinster” at age 20 when she married Prince Charles, shucking that pejorative had to be one of the pluses of the fairy tale for Diana. Were she unmarried in Japan, at age 26 she would be considered “Christmas cake,” which nobody wants on December 26, the day after Christmas. And without Charles, eventually, at some unspecified point, she might have met the worst fate of all: becoming an old maid.
Old Maid is a Victorian card game consisting of fifty-two cards that can be paired, plus one unmatchable card, the Old Maid. After a period of choosing cards from other player’s hands and making pairs from them, one person is left at the end with the unmatchable card—the Old Maid. Stuck with the Old Maid that nobody wants! And since that game is simple enough for kids to grasp, that is when the message is delivered, for both boys and girls. For boys the lesson is that the ultimate loser gets stuck with the Old Maid. For girls it’s that the ultimate loser is the Old Maid.
There are a few clips from the TV show Sex and the City that work well here to illustrate the social shame that still exists around unmarried women. In the episode “Luck Be an Old Lady” Charlotte, who is turning 36, is worried about getting older and says, “You have to take some risks, so you don’t wind up an old maid.”11 The women go to Atlantic City (a modern version of getting to go to “the dance”); however, Carrie and Miranda’s pumpkin ends up being a bus full of old ladies going there to gamble. “Where are all the old men?” Carrie asks Miranda, who says, “Dead. Or married to 20 year olds.” The two women discuss the importance of maintaining their friendships with women throughout their lives “Because as we can see here, at the end of the line,” Carrie says, “it's just gonna be us ladies riding the bus.”
While in Atlantic City, Miranda gives Charlotte a gag gift of Old Maid, the girls gamble and are insulted by nearby men for not being attractive enough, stick up for each other, and eventually take the bus back home to New York. After dumping her boyfriend in Atlantic City, Samantha speaks for all four of these modern Cinderellas when Charlotte asks if they’re all up for a game of Old Maid and Samantha answers, “Aren’t we?” with a knowing smile.
Class discussion: What is the modern take on old maids and spinsters in class? If there’s an age past which you are officially an “old maid” if you aren’t married, what is it and why? Are there other accepted choices these days besides marriage or being an old maid?
There are no longer balls held at the palace where you can enact that particular Cinderella fantasy today, so the wedding dance is usually the moment for this idea to play out. The couple’s first dance at their wedding is reminiscent of scenes from Disney movies of The Ball, where the Beast twirls Beauty on a dance floor while the guests stand by and watch, or Cinderella waltzes with the Prince as her ball gown changes color from pink to blue and back.12 The closest thing young women have for a rehearsal of this event might be their senior prom in high school, another life event that puts special emphasis on finding the right dress. Television has provided two cynical looks at modern fairy tale industries with Say Yes to the Dress and The Millionaire Matchmaker, both of which we examine through a few clips from the shows’ websites.13
In Say Yes to the Dress, women search for the perfect dress and the emotional bridal moment of seeing themselves in a wedding dress and veil. In The Millionaire Matchmaker, Patty Stanger knows the tricks to get rich Prince Charmings together with potential Cinderellas who pass her company’s system that vets women based on their looks and career.
Class discussion: How does the class feel about these shows? Would a genuine Prince Charming really consult dating professionals? Invite the class to speculate on P. Charming’s match.com profile. Since this class follows the one on the Male Gaze, does a show like Say Yes to the Dress empower women to control the Male Gaze?
The Millionaire Matchmaker segues easily into How to Marry a Millionaire, the 1953 classic in which Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe portray three gold diggers scheming to land rich husbands.14 Marriage is the “biggest thing you can do in life,” according to Lauren Bacall’s character. The actors even make sly reference to her real-life marriage: “Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella what's his name in The African Queen,” Bacall’s character says, and upon hearing music on the radio Grable’s offers, “Just listen to that music, all the way from New York. Good ol’ Harry James.” (In real life, Grable was married to James and Bacall to Humphrey Bogart, co-star of The African Queen.) The allusions are amusing, but they also underscore one of the ways in which these successful, wealthy, established movie stars were defined by who they married.
Monroe’s character is given the fatal flaw of being nearsighted and discusses the problem of wearing glasses to a gentleman—played by David Wayne, who appeared in four films with Monroe including this one. Seated next to her on the plane, she tells him she is afraid they make her look like—God forbid!—an old maid. “An old maid?” he asks, incredulously, “I've never seen anybody in my life that reminded me less of an old maid.”
“Men seldom make passes at girls that wear glasses,” Monroe’s character responds by invoking Dorothy Parker. (As an aside: the even more acerbic, updated version of the quote that I’ve always told my daughter [who wears glasses] is, “Men who don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses are asses.”)
Class discussion: Pause to marvel with the class that all it took was a pair of glasses to turn Marilyn Monroe into a potential “old maid” and that the stereotypical makeover woman can go from The Librarian to The Hot Girl simply by taking off or updating her glasses.
We end the class by evaluating the current norms for the marriage-minded princess by watching the 2007 movie Enchanted, which stars Amy Adams as an archetypal Disney princess who is forced from her animated world into the live-action world of modern day New York City.
Homework Assignment: Watch the original Sleeping Beauty, the "updated story" of Maleficent, and Enchanted.
- In what ways are the female characters in these movies agents in their own lives?
- Evaluate the ways in which these films present women-as-subject and women-as-object.
- Describe ways that the female characters in these films expand or contract imaginative possibilities for young female film viewers.
- Describe casting advantages or disadvantages in having Angelina Jolie play the villainous heroine in the film Maleficent.
Louisa May Alcott, A Modern Cinderella or The Little Old Show and Other Stories (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1904). The text may be accessed online through Project Gutenberg.
The Grimm brothers’ version of the fairy tale “Cinderella” may be accessed online through Project Gutenberg.
1 Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, (Los Angeles: Allison Shearmur Productions,  2015). I use short film clips to illustrate concepts in class and to foreshadow things to come in the full-length movie, and many times I show a full-length film in class and also assign additional films as homework assignments. I am able to do this because Howard Community College licenses several films from Swank Digital Campus, which allows us to stream full movies through Canvas, our learning management system. See Swank Digital Campus for more information.
2 Pretty Woman, directed by Garry Marshall (Burbank, CA: Buena Vista Pictures, 1990), 119 mins.
3 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, directed by William Cottrell, David Hand, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce and Ben Sharpsteen (Burbank: Walt Disney Productions,  2009), 83 mins.
4 Enchanted, directed by Kevin Lima (Burbank: Walt Disney Pictures, 2007), 107 mins.
5 Sleeping Beauty, directed by Clyde Geronimi (Burbank: Walt Disney Productions,  2014), 75 mins.
6 Maleficent, directed by Robert Stromberg (Burbank: Walt Disney Pictures, 2014), 97 mins.
7 In the Land of Blood and Honey, directed by Angelina Jolie (Santa Monica: FilmDistrict, 2011), 127 mins.
8 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, directed by Simon West (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 2001), 100 mins., and Salt, directed by Phillip Noyce (Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures, 2010), 104 mins.
9 Shrek, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson (Universal City, CA: DreamWorks Pictures, 2001), 90 mins.
10 “The Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer,” YouTube video, 5:35, posted by Trending Now, April 14, 2011.
11 “Luck Be an Old Lady,” Sex and the City, HBO, August 4, 2002.
12 Beauty and the Beast, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Burbank: Walt Disney Pictures, 1991), 84 mins.
13 See Say Yes to the Dress on TLC and The Millionaire Matchmaker on Bravo.
14 How to Marry a Millionaire, directed by Jean Negulesco (Century City, CA: Twentieth Century Fox, 1953), 95 mins.