Columns / Discourse / January 28, 2009

Husbands and happily-ever-afters

It’s great to be a strong, independent woman, as long as you get married in the end. Sound about right? I know that my life ambition is to find my handsome prince. Hmm…

Most of us would agree that this isn’t in line with the feminist idea of women taking ownership in their lives, but this is exactly the image that bombards us everyday in literature and movies.

When I think about the books that I read growing up, Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley and all of them featured strong women, but the men in their lives seemed to overshadow them. For example, in Nancy Drew the main character is intelligent and deals with dangerous situations, but in every story we hear about her boyfriend Ned Nickerson who seems to be as much a part of her as her ingenuity. Then on the other hand, you have Bess and George, who you are supposed to feel sorry for because Bess is somewhat chubby and George is a Tom-boy and they do not have boyfriends. Again, the supposedly uplifting novel that provides a role model for young girls has a subliminal message that making yourself desirable and getting a man are necessary to your happiness and sense of worth.

Of course, Nancy Drew was also written by a man, maybe that’s the problem. If you look at the authors for young girls today, they all ascribe to the happy, find your prince ending. Tamora Peirce’s main characters are women who overcome social limitations and become forces to be reckoned with in a man’s world. Even so, she is not immune to the idea that the female characters need to have a man to be fulfilled. In the Alana books, as soon as the heroine hits puberty and her best friend discovers that she is a girl, a significant part of who she is becomes defined by the man she is with at the time and who that man allows her to be. Almost all of Peirce’s characters get their happily-ever-after by the end of the book when they get married to their handsome prince. The only notable exception is Kel, but the potential for a relationship is left open and her role as protector of the small provides her with the other major role that women seem to need to be happy, motherhood.

The problem, of course, is that the books that involve romance sell. Look at the Twilight books and the fan-girl websites that have erupted on the internet to pay homage to super-hunk Edward Cullen. Think about the amount of time that people devoted to debating the pairings in Harry Potter. It got to the extent that there were practically verbal cyber wars between the Harry-Hermione and Harry-Ginny shippers.

There is something incredibly disturbing about the fact that literature in an era when women are CEOs is still dominated by the idea that a woman cannot be happy unless she is married, or even that she cannot be complete unless she is happy. There are even suggestions that a woman cannot be successful and happy at the same time if you look at movies like The Devil Wears Prada or some of the criticism that has been levied at Hillary Clinton. A successful woman must be a bitch and if she is a bitch, she cannot possibly have a happy marriage and therefore a happy life. What is truly disturbing is that we fall into the marriage mentality without even realizing it. Of course a movie has to have a happily ever after ending where the guy gets the girl and they are happy, and of course Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth were meant to be, and of course when Tula changes who she is in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and then gets the guy it is OK because she wanted to change, right?

So here is the question. After you spend your life ascribing to the idea of the happily ever after where the girl gets the guy and they are happy, what happens when your relationships don’t live up to expectations? Think about it, the movies all end at the wedding, what happens when life is less than rosy? Is this perpetuation of the princess ideal potentially creating a very unhealthy mentality for young women as they grow up?

Anjali Pattanayak

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