Of course, the practice of simultaneously embracing and subverting fairy tales predates Jezebel by several decades. The ur-texts of this tradition are Anne Sexton’s 1971Transformations poems, which highlight the hysteria inherent in Brothers Grimm stories, and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories published in 1979 that savages such touchstones as “Bluebeard” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” bringing their latent darkness and moral complexity to the surface. Both are brutally serious works of literature that complement the feminist literary criticism of their period, books like Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, to excavate the sexist and misogynist ideas that underlie the West’s most beloved myths and stories. Sexton’s “Cinderella” ends by simultaneously demolishing fairy tales’ impossible happily-ever-afters and their banal mirror images in real-life marriage, with one breathtaking stanza:
Cinderella and the prince lived, they say, happily ever after, like two dolls in a museum case never bothered by diapers or dust, never arguing over the timing of an egg, never telling the same story twice, never getting a middle-aged spread, their darling smiles pasted on for eternity. Regular Bobbsey Twins. That story.
Though the urge to remix fairy tales survived through the ’90s and into the new millennium, the seething urgency of Sexton’s and Carter’s critiques gave way to more gimmicky, less potent forms of parody. Anyone who grew up during the Clinton years will recall James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, the somewhat reactionary 1994 bestseller that mocked identity politics and its many euphemisms. But even the derivative works with more progressive undertones began to feel watered down in this era. In her essential history of Cinderella, NPR’s Linda Holmes recalls what I think of as “my generation’s Cinderella“: Ever After, the 1998 teen movie starring Drew Barrymore, which makes one stepsister an ally and slips in a positive message about body image but still paints marriage and princesshood as the ultimate happy ending.
As with other forms of fanfiction and fan art, the Internet has provided more creators than ever with platforms for riffing on fairy tales. A search for “Cinderella” at fanfiction.net brings up nearly 5,000 stories, but that’s marginal compared to the endless, viral popularity of Disney-princess remixing, as aggregated on Jezebel and BuzzFeed and even occasionally by this very publication. Since the days of “Hipster Ariel,” series of images placing the likes of Snow White and Mulan in improbable contexts have become such a cliché on the Internet that they’ve earned parodies of their own. (A recent favorite: “12 Disney Princesses as Lukewarm Bowls of Water.”)
Cinderella as a lukewarm bowl of water
The fact that more people seem to be sick of Disney-princess remixes than Disney princesses themselves, or the stories where they originate, is a good indicator of where the conversation around fairy tales has gone since the ’70s. Once, we imagined conflicted inner lives for these characters and questioned what we learned from them before we even knew how to read; now, we can’t stop reproducing them, dressing them in different outfits, finding new kingdoms where they can reign. By stripping them of any fixed meaning, we’ve made Disney princesses into supposedly neutral yet still wholly aspirational, idealized symbols.
This princess overload seems like a side effect of both the postmodern mania for reappropriation and contemporary popular feminism, which deems any life choice a woman makes equally righteous — whether it’s holding down multiple jobs, homemaking, or lounging on a velvet throne in a jeweled crown as an army of servants swarms at your feet. It explains how we’ve reached a moment when there’s nothing controversial about a movie for little girls that slaps a punishing corset on a young woman, martyrs her to housework, pits her against female rivals who are older or uglier or tackier or just more willful, and then rewards her for absorbing so much abuse with the ultimate fulfillment of marriage, wealth, and a castle to call home.
Maybe it’s still possible to revitalize fairy tales while avoiding the princess porn of Branagh’s Cinderella. Helen Oyeyemi’s 2014 novel Boy, Snow, Bird is certainly in conversation with fairy tales, though it works largely because its connection to stories like Snow White never becomes too literal. For the most part, now that Disney princesses have invaded every corner of our lives, we’ve run out of worthwhile ways to use them. The thrilling critiques have been written, the remixes constantly reach new heights of inanity, and the rehashes are sending viewers running to the corset shop (and if that’s the effect they’re having on adults…).
In her Cinderella history, Linda Holmes points out that “the very core of this story is that if one man sentences you to live among bitches, only another man can save you.” She’s right. And the only way to save ourselves from that is to stop living inside fairy tales.