A fog of melancholy has enveloped me as I currently read Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. In this tragicomic play, Helena is in love with Bertram. He does not reciprocate her feelings. Instead of walking away, she pursues him using trickery. Eventually, he succumbs to her wishes when he has no other options and thus…all’s well that ends well. But for whom? Helena might have won the battle, but she’s married to a man who doesn’t love her. How different is this view of love from the perfect happily ever after that I grew up with in Disney films! These duelling perceptions made me contemplate what lessons I learned about love from Disney films versus the harsh love lessons in Shakespeare’s world. The question then becomes who’s right about love, Shakespeare or Disney? So, what did Disney exactly teach me about love?
1. Names don’t matter.
Who exactly is Prince Charming? He’s a nameless wealthy guy that Cinderella shares a dance or two with on a single evening. He becomes the answer to all her problems, but there is very little character development given to him. Yet, he is everything she dreamed of and more. The lack of knowledge we have about these men, but accept them as the dream guy paves the way for ANY guy to be that dream. All we have to do is make eye contact with someone from across the way and in that shared glance we would know that we belong together. Projection is the plot to most romantic comedies as well. It’s quite possibly the Disney lesson that caused the most problems for me. The harsh reality eventually sets in and we are forced to accept that we created a false version of a person in our minds. Which leads me to lesson number two…
2. Beasts can be transformed.
Everyone is entitled to a bad day and moodiness can be forgiven, but it became dangerous when I believed I was special enough to make someone change. Appearances could change, but there’s still a beast in there. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I thought that if I was patient and understanding enough then those tortured artists and free spirits would see me as special and worth fighting for. They would transform and make a serious commitment. They didn’t. I was hard on myself for not being special enough like Lady who was able to get Tramp to commit just by being her. It was a difficult lesson to learn that a tramp is a tramp. Nothing is going to change that.
3. Chivalry and bravery will save the day.
Prince Charming saves Cinderella from a life of drudgery and unfair servitude. Prince Philip slays the dragon and awakens Aurora from a sinister spell. The leading men in Disney films are there to save their beloved from certain doom. It’s what we expect from them. They are brave and selfless. When I was younger, I thought that the person I dated would be that hero when trouble arose, but this illusion was shattered in a spectacular fashion when my highschool boyfriend disappeared when I found out I was pregnant. Of course, I believed that he’d eventually do the right thing and show up. I waited and waited and waited. On my daughter’s first birthday, I finally realized that no knight would be there to save the day. I was doing this on my own, and I would be the slayer of all dragons that threatened us.
4. THE ONE.
In almost every Disney movie from my childhood there was the problematic THE ONE. Each princess protagonist sought that person that would complete them. As if their lives wouldn’t truly begin to be lived until they met that one and only person who could make them whole. My grandma used to tell me (with a scary frequency) that one day I would meet the most amazing boy. He would be magic. Once he arrived, my life would start. But while I was waiting for “the one,” I raised a child, turned house into a home, obtained three college degrees, built a career, and went on my own adventures. Does this mean that the life I live is less than because I didn’t find “the one” to share it with me? If you ask my grandma and some Disney princesses, the answer is yes because I haven’t experienced true love and happiness.
5. Happily ever after…
Once the elusive “one” has been found, princesses were on their way to happily ever after. The princess and her prince would live a blissful and conflict free life in the magical land of happily ever after. Like an archeologist, I started digging for the original bones of happily ever after in these Disney stories. To my surprise, the original stories were dark and not always happy in the end. The Little Mermaid’s true fate resonated more with me than Disney’s. I identified with Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid. She risked everything to be with someone she thought would love her. Each step she took was like stepping on broken glass. Despite all of her sacrifice and pain, he chose someone else and the forlorned mermaid threw herself into the sea. It makes me sad that this ending resonated more with me than any love story from Disney. I would like to believe that everyone could have a Disney love story, but some of us have experienced Andersen or Shakespeare-like love stories.
Shakespeare’s “all’s well that ends well” sentiment feels a little bit like a mockery of “happily ever after” than to believe that all really is well for Helena and Bertram. I think All’s Well That Ends Well makes me melancholy because I don’t want to become cynical. His “hunt or be hunted” take on love feels as limiting as naively believing that men are here to rescue me from my problems. I have experienced too much to believe that love is as simple as a Disney fairytale, but want to believe it should be simple.
Is there a way for love to be both complicated and simple at the same time? Disney seems to at least acknowledge these complications in recents films like Frozen, Tangled, and The Princess and the Frog. We have flawed princes, and princesses who choose types of love other than romantic. Expressions of love and who we choose to love is both more complicated and simpler than finding the romantic “one” and living happily ever after. When my life is over, my greatest love story will be the one I share with my daughter.
One of our favorite films to watch together is Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. What we love about this film is that it shows characters who have made mistakes and experience conflict with one another. Despite their failings, they forgive and look out for one another. They know they are loved without trying to be a brave hero or a perfect princess. Miyazaki is a master at creating love stories that are both complicated and simple. He depicts some of the most profound love stories ever created, but very few of them are romantic. This portrait of love is more expansive and inclusive. Hayao Miyazaki states, “I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live—if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.”