When it comes to new movies, it’s a great time to be raising a tween girl.
My daughter, who is 10, has been raised on a steady diet of princess power movies: "Mulan," "The Princess and the Frog," "Tangled," "Brave." These princesses are active, willful creatures, girls who face challenges and triumph on their own terms. They don’t need a prince on a white horse to sweep them away to a happily ever after future. They make that future themselves.
These stories present an inspiring alternative to the more familiar traditional fairy tales, in which princesses find love by being beautiful and waiting passively (at times very passively – in eternal sleep, near death, or some other quasi-coma state) for their prince to come.
Many of today’s revisionist princess flicks emphasize adventure over finding love – ideal as my daughter moved through the rambunctious single digits. Now that she’s 10, though, I’m thinking a lot about the fact that she’ll one day have romantic yearnings – if not for a prince, then for some clueless fellow in her math class. Her peers are already whispering about crushes.
As the author of a forthcoming book about unrequited love and romantic obsession, I can’t help but ponder the dark side of what she and her peers will experience: the angst of being infatuated with someone who barely knows you exist, the fickleness of puppy love, the blow of rejection or betrayal. They will, almost inevitably, face the challenge of being unwanted, a state that’s not very princess-like. Princesses always attract princes, even though the new breed of princesses may defer a suitor’s kiss until the adventure is over.
Unwanted women in fairy tales haven’t offered much useful insight into their predicament. They’re typically washed up evil queens and stepmothers, jealous of the youthful beauty of the princesses. These villains are the precursors to what I’ve found to be one of two predominant stereotypes of the unwanted woman: the vengeful, fatally attracted stalker. The other stereotype is the neurotic, pitiful lovelorn woman who gets too hung up on guys who are “just not that into her.”
(NOTE: Spoiler alert for "Maleficient" and "Frozen")
To my delight, in the past few months Hollywood’s nouvelle-princess juggernaut has tackled both of these stereotypes with the same vigor brought to the makeover of the passive princess. In “Frozen,” princess Anna, an orphan with a sister who refuses to be close to her, is the neurotic one. She's so desperate for love that she rushes into marriage with a prince she just met, who then uses and abandons her. In “Maleficent,” the fairy queen’s beloved betrays her by cutting off her mighty wings (a metaphor for rape, the film’s star, Angelina Jolie, said in an interview) so he can become the king of an enemy territory. In her rage, Maleficent curses his baby daughter Aurora to eternal sleep at 16.
The needy Anna and the furious Maleficent make mistakes, bad ones, out of their pain. But what makes their stories powerful is that their missteps don’t doom them. They get a chance to learn from what they’ve done, and then redeem themselves. They change. Anna bravely risks her life to defend her sister Elsa, and the two realize how much they love each other. Maleficent and Aurora form a friendship so close that Maleficent – not a newly infatuated prince – saves the girl with the “true love” that can undo her curse. Both Maleficent and Anna find solace and a better future through stronger connections to a wider community of loved ones: friends, family, and magical forest creatures. Romantic love isn’t out of the picture, but it’s also not the only solution. In the end, Anna and Aurora have love interests. Maleficent’s single lady status endures, but she’s no less fulfilled.
In my research for my forthcoming book Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, I found that strong social attachments can help us recover from the devastation of romantic rejection or loss. Good relationships of all kinds – friends, family, support groups – satisfy the reward-seeking urges of the brain in a healthy way. Being with loved ones is no magic bullet. But their companionship can help us feel satisfied and soothed, and may lessen the compulsion to seek other, less healthy rewards – revenge, the attention of an unhealthy love object, or drug and alcohol abuse.
In real life, the unwanted woman (or the unwanted man) isn't doomed to be evil or desperate or, for that matter, unwanted. As I’ve discovered from interviewing people about their experiences of unrequited love and romantic obsession, it’s abundantly possible to learn from rejection and become better for it. The unwanted women of “Frozen” and “Maleficent” eventually realize that they are wanted and cherished. They come to understand that true love exists in many forms. The best thing, it seems, I can do for my tween daughter is to nurture this understanding in her – no matter what happens with the princes who come her way.
Hostetler, C.M. and Ryabinin, A.E., “Love and Addiction: the Devil is in the Differences. A Commentary on ‘The Behavioral, Anatomical and Pharmacological Parallels Between Social Attachment, Love and Addiction,” Psychopharmacology 224 (2012): 27-29.
MacDonald, G. and Leary, M.R., “Why Does Social Exclusion Hurt? The Relationship Between Social and Physical Pain,” Psychological Bulletin 131 (2005): 207.