Cinderella is the most iconic of fairy tales; it has proliferated in many forms over the centuries and is alive and well in western culture today. It is a rags-to-riches story, of course, but it is also a story about the importance of true love and weddings. Ball gowns and glass slippers are good fun, but buried in happily-ever-after lies a hypocrisy that we seldom acknowledge.
When my daughters were little, they loved a Barbie movie that was a mash-up of Cinderella and Sleepless in Seattle. In this movie, penniless Barbie meets her prince, but he’s engaged to marry someone else. Fortunately, following a series of mishaps and adventures, Barbie manages to disrupt the prince’s wedding ceremony. She marries the prince herself, and they celebrate with a big party.
The message children might absorb from this movie is that they should throw caution to the wind in the pursuit of true love. The fact that the prince abandoned his fiancée at the altar, risked becoming estranged from his parents and jeopardized the political future of his kingdom was quickly brushed under the rug during the postnuptial bash.
What if Barbie had been too late to stop the wedding, though? A moment after the celebrant said “I now pronounce you man and wife,” the prince would have been beyond Barbie’s reach. It is culturally acceptable to abandon a fiancée for true love, but it is not okay to abandon a spouse. Of course, that in itself doesn’t represent hypocrisy. It is legitimate for society to draw a bright line at the moment of legal union, because while marriage may not serve the functions it once did, it is still an important economic and social institution.
The hypocrisy lies in the difference between what society tells Barbie if she has the opportunity to disrupt the prince’s wedding as opposed to his marriage. In the first case we say, “Follow your heart! You will always regret it if you settle for anything less than true love!” In the second case, when Barbie is heartbroken and weeping into her Shirley Temple, we don’t say, “Look, Hon, we know you’ll always have regrets. Maybe you’ll end up unmarried, or maybe you’ll end up married to someone who isn’t your prince, but it’s important to us that you take this one for the team and give up on true love.” Instead, we say, “Oh, Barbie, there’s no such thing as true love. That guy Ken may not sweep you off your feet, but in the end you’ll be just as happy married to Ken as you could ever have been with the prince. There’s no such thing as the “wrong guy.” Happiness in marriage is directly proportional to the work you put into it.”
If the goal of society is to encourage its members to get married and stay married, this hypocrisy makes sense. By romanticizing the pursuit of love and the wedding day, we drive young people toward marriage. For those who don’t find true love in marriage and contemplate seeking it elsewhere, the message that they are chasing an illusion may discourage them from divorcing. Whether or not this is good for society is a subject for debate, but it is undoubtedly detrimental to personal happiness. When we teach our children to pursue true love at all costs and then, if they fail to find it at the altar, tell them there’s no such thing as true love, we are setting them up for a bad case of cultural whiplash. It isn’t possible for true love to exist on one side of the words “I do” and not exist on the other side.
Our society should aspire to be less hypocritical about love. If we want to promote the Cinderella story, we should have more empathy for those who feel that they have married the wrong person and want to leave their marriages. If we reject the notion of true love, we need to teach our children not to care about whether Barbie gets back in time to marry her prince. Neither attitude perfectly captures the complexity of love and marriage, but an internally consistent social message would be infinitely better than the current bait-and-switch.