The Problem with “Happily Ever After”

Every good story begins with a problem. A plane crashes on a desert island, leaving its occupants stranded. Two lovers are separated by their families’ hostile feud. A girl falls down a rabbit hole and loses her way in a nonsensical land. By the end of the story, the characters have either surmounted impossible odds to achieve their goal, or succumbed to the impossible odds in a blaze of failing glory. We typically refer to the first kind of story as a comedy, and the second as a tragedy.

Walt Disney’s classic princess films are all comedies. Once the hero and heroine overcome all pending disasters, they are free to meet their perfectly comedic ending and live happily ever after. It is with this idea of a perfect ending that I have trouble.

While some of the princesses encounter truly frightening problems—being chased by a murderous queen or being locked in a castle with a giant monster—for the most part, the only problem the princesses encounter regarding their significant other is an inability to reach them. Each film ends at a moment of bliss: love conquers all, and the prince and princess can finally be together without restraint. Yet this is the catch: the problems they’ve overcome have been outside hindrances to their union. They have not had the time to test their love—or more accurately, their infatuation—with real living. Here are some examples:

Snow White. The heroine is frightened when a strange man trespasses into the palace, sneaks up on her, and listens to her sing. He coaxes her out onto her balcony with a song of his own, and then leaves with a dashing smile. Even though the two did not speak to each other, Snow White spends the rest of the film pining away for her prince and hoping that “someday my prince will come.” When he shows up to waken her from a sleeping death, they ride off into the sunset on the prince’s horse.

Sleeping Beauty. Aurora also meets her prince while singing in the forest, and he enchants her in the span of one dreamy afternoon. When Aurora returns home and discovers that she is neither an orphan nor a common village girl, but the princess and heiress of the realm with two loving parents waiting for her return, she does not rejoice. Instead, she abandons her birthday party to cry in her room, despairing of never seeing the fascinating stranger again. Like Snow White’s prince, Phillip too, awakens his princess from sleep, and the two dance among the flashing lights of Aurora’s color-changing dress.

The Little Mermaid. Ariel sees her prince from afar and does not even interact with him before she is willing to risk losing her soul to be a “part of his world.” Even though she knows nothing about him and he is of a different species, Ariel becomes desperately infatuated and follows him at all costs. After attempting to win his love with no voice and fighting a giant squid, she and Eric get married and sail off into the distance, their ship framed under a rainbow.

These “happily ever afters,” while idyllic, are superficial and incomplete, because the relationships between the hero and heroine are not deep or well-cultivated. Instead, they are shallow and based on physical (and vocal) attractiveness instead of a long-term knowledge of each other’s personality and character. The man is gallant, strong and honorable; the woman is frail, virtuous and naive. Even in Tangled and Aladdin, in which the heroes are deceptive thieves, by the end their innate goodness becomes obvious to everyone around them.

The danger of such fantasies—whether applied to Disney princesses or couples of other romantic films—is that they portray relationships as requiring no work at all: no self-sacrifice, no mistakes, no differing opinions or frustrating compromises. The characters don’t have to deal with their beloved’s flaws. The unrealistic and ideal image of love that young (and old) girls cling to makes them disappointed if their reality doesn’t match up with the enchanting fantasy of Disney magic. Instead of making sacrifices, working hard, and choosing to love, they walk away. Today’s discouraging relationship statistics are a reflection of disappointed Disney princess ideals.

There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s story is a bit better—she doesn’t know the Beast is a hot prince, and must learn to get along with and love him before the two can live happily ever after. (Of course, Belle also stands as Exhibit A for Stockholm syndrome, so she’s still not the ideal role model for romance.) DreamWork’s Shrek franchise also makes the hero and heroine live out their “happy ending” with marital and parenting problems. And there are other Disney princess films that give a more moderate view on relationships—Mulan and Shan Yu leave the film as friendly crushes, and Pocahontas parts with her love but remains with him in spirit.

Don’t get me wrong—I love happy endings. And as Christians, we know that our own ending will be the happiest of all: we will live for eternity worshiping our Maker in His presence and enjoying the fruits of His love, which is the very fulfillment of our existence. No better ending exists in any story. However, we should be wary of stories that lure us with the siren call of a counterfeit Prince Charming, and instead look to better examples for healthy relationships, such as Christ’s self-sacrifice and patience in the face of sin and failure.