Modern versions of the fairy tale princess archetype are a far cry from the stereotypical damsel in distress, waiting for her prince. But what about Prince Charming himself? Has he been updated? Modern stories that do involve a prince charming figure often don’t bestow him with nearly as much interiority, agency, or complexity. And if a newer movie does want to challenge the prince charming stereotype, they mostly resort to a different kind of boring: a predictably shallow doofus (who’s also sometimes evil), or a quote “fixer-upper” who the princess sees something in even though he’s rough around the edges. So why hasn’t the Prince gotten the same updates as contemporary Princesses – and could he ever become something more three-dimensional and… interesting?
It’s safe to say that the fairy tale princess archetype has been reclaimed. Modern versions are a far cry from the stereotypical damsel in distress, waiting for her prince. But what about Prince Charming himself? Has he been updated? Modern stories that do involve a prince charming figure often don’t bestow him with nearly as much interiority, agency, or complexity. A movie like Crazy Rich Asians might make the situation around its Prince Charming character, Nick Yang, more complicated, but the guy himself is still a little, well, blank. And if a newer movie does want to challenge the prince charming stereotype, they mostly resort to a different kind of boring: a predictably shallow doofus (who’s also sometimes evil), or a quote “fixer-upper” who the princess sees something in even though he’s rough around the edges. Used once in a while, these twists can offer refreshing subversions of fairy tale tropes. But when all the prince-charming character has to offer is yet another caricature of a human, it can make these supposedly subversive deconstructions just as predictable as their played-straight two-dimensional counterparts. So why hasn’t the Prince gotten the same updates as contemporary Princesses – and could he ever become something more three-dimensional and.. interesting? Here’s our take on the state of the modern prince-charming trope, and why it’s just as important to make him as complex and real as the princess.
“I met a girl, I fell in love, and I want to marry her.”
- Crazy Rich Asians
PART 1: Stop Making Him a (Secretly Evil) Doofus
The first time a viewer encounters a fairy tale – or fairy tale satire – can be a seminal moment in their media-watching life. After all, fairy tale stories are often an early fixture for young viewers. So this means that stories taking a more irreverent attitude toward fairy tale tropes, like in Shrek, Hoodwinked, or Enchanted, are often viewers’ first exposure to the idea of genre parody – of comically subverting expectations in a way that might also make you think about the tropes you’ve absorbed. These kinds of parodies have been staples for years, from old Looney Tunes in the ‘30s and ‘40s to the “Fractured Fairy Tales” segments of Rocky & Bullwinkle in the ‘60s
to the many movies that spoof familiar characters at different levels–sometimes with affection
and sometimes with a little more snark.
“Should it not be a wonderful, romantic moment?” “Yeah, sorry lady, there’s no time!”
And if you’re going to spoof a fairy tale, it’s only natural that the handsome, virtuous, personality-free Prince Charming becomes a major target. That’s how the Doofus Prince emerged: As a reaction to the interchangeable blandness of non-characters like Prince Charming from Cinderella, Prince Phillip from Sleeping Beauty or Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid.
Some especially clever spoofs have justified resorting to the doofus trope by insinuating that a prince of handsome lineage might have trouble relating to the plight of working people – that his privilege would make him both difficult to relate to, as well as fairly gullible, conceited, dim-witted, or just plain ridiculous. In the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, the handsome prince characters can only truly relate to each other, and struggle to conceive that they’d ever have any relationship troubles. Frozen famously goes further by making their dashing dude’s privilege lead him towards straight-up evil: Prince Hans isn’t vain or ridiculous, but he turns out to be power-hungry and the secret villain of the entire movie.
“Oh, Anna… if only there was someone out there who loved you.”
But over time, writers have leaned so heavily into these doofus-who’s-sometimes-secretly-evil spoofs that it’s hard to find many sincere examples in multiple decades. Consider Prince Edward in the 2007 Disney movie Enchanted, a perfect encapsulation of what’s both fun and reductive about the trope. Edward is made to be a silly and even sympathetic prince…but why wasn’t he allowed to go through any character development? More to the point, what was even really being spoofed by this point? When Enchanted came out, there were already three Shrek movies parodying fairy-tale tropes, and here Disney was making fun of a character type it hadn’t actually used in years.
“I seek a beautiful girl. My other half, my one coquette.”
Arguably, the writers’ aim in spoofing a Prince like Edward is to spotlight Giselle, by making her the more complex of the two. Giselle, it’s fair to say, did kick off a new era of complex Disney princesses who were consciously written to defy past patterns: Tiana, Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa, Moana, Raya. But it’s a fallacy that making the princess more vivid or inspirational requires flattening out the other characters around her. While it’s great that Disney has figured out how to tell stories that center on relatable young women it’s struggled to dimensionalize the heroic prince character in a similar way. These types of characters often remain either blandly idealized or cartoonishly pompous figures of mockery who obviously aren’t a right fit for the lead princess character.
“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
PART 2: How Much of a Fixer-Upper Should He Be?
In other story examples, we can see that writers have also relied on another royal trope: the fixer-upper prince. Actually, Disney had already done the doofus versus the fixer-upper back in 1991: Beauty and the Beast contrasts strapping Gaston, the villainous doofus prince type , with the beast – the true handsome prince who just needs a little…er…work. He’s a “fixer-upper” in that he needs to learn love, humility, and selflessness before he can win the heart of Belle–who is never remotely interested in Gaston’s dumb-jock cockiness.
“You know, Belle, there’s not a girl in town who wouldn’t love to be in your shoes.”
- Beauty and the Beast
The fixer-upper is also used in Frozen as a counterpoint to the evil prince trope. While Hans, the seemingly perfect Prince Charming figure, is actually a conniving bad guy attempting to gain power by seducing Anna into a quick marriage, Kristoff, who is rougher around the edges, turns out to be Anna’s “real” love interest – There’s even a whole song joking about how Kristoff is a “bit of a fixer-upper,” listing his many off-putting qualities though of course, to help make her a more complex female character, both princely interests end up being secondary to the bond she shares with her sister. Shrek features a similar reshuffling of expectations: The princess isn’t a helpless damsel and the true prince figure isn’t who either the princess or the audience is supposed to expect. Instead, it’s the big, grumpy ogre, who doesn’t always say the exact right thing. But through falling in love with Fiona, he becomes more tender, as his life becomes more fulfilled In Bridgerton, Simon Basset is an emotional fixer-upper. He’s already baseline charming and desirable, so not in need of much outer fixing , but he must face his inner demons to embrace and respect his and Daphne’s love for each other.
“Just because something is not perfect does not make it any less worthy of being loved.”
PART 3: Princely Takeaways (So Far)
So far these prince spinoffs do convey worthwhile takeaways, but they’re mostly warnings or lessons aimed strictly at female viewers – at least so far.
The first worthwhile lesson, we glean from the doofus or bad guy prince: That young women shouldn’t spend their lives trying to impress a man or partner to depend on, but instead focusing on herself. Frozen hammers home that we shouldn’t get swept away by the first guy who mirrors our naive, sometimes Disney-based expectations of what the perfect “prince charming” looks like Elsa is even more independent, and concerned with achieving her own satisfaction rather than tying it to a love interest. Later Disney characters like Moana and Raya also bypass strapping prince types entirely, either because they have other concerns, like Moana
or Raya, who is also somewhat queer-coded. Then again, sometimes this message to always think independently and sideline the guy falls a little flat. That’s because it ignores a pretty prominent part of life – romantic relationships – perhaps out of writers’ fears of falling into the tired trap of solving all a woman’s problems with a handsome prince. But as Akash Nikolas wrote for The Atlantic in 2014, “there is nothing wrong with girls (or boys) dreaming of Prince Charming, as long as it’s not the only dream we give them”.
The second message, we glean from the fixer-upper: That young women should accept guys who may not look exactly like prince charming, but who reveal other positive attributes––even if they’re hidden under a prickly exterior or sarcastic grumpiness.The fixer-upper prince is also part of countless modern romantic comedies for more grown-up audiences. In 27 Dresses, for example, Jane must let go of the handsome guy she’s hung up on, and open herself up to a charming but more cynical guy who both challenges and appreciates her – and he’s played by James Marsden, Enchanted’s silly Prince Edward himself! But again, there’s a danger in this approach: After all, how much do these guys need to change? And how much do writers convey that it’s the princesses who have to make them change? Whether it’s the Beast’s anger problems, Kristoff’s being pretty harsh on Anna, or Tangled’s Eugene putting on a cocky persona with attempts at thievery and deception , these guys tend to be pessimistic, if not misanthropic, and not always all that nice to their respective princesses. They require their love interests to do quite a bit of work to open them up, which can be an odd relationship model to hold up as inspiration. To be fair, the “Fixer-Upper” song in Frozen goes on to detail the ways in which Anna herself is a fixer-up, too, and to declare that “Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper,” (concluding that the only thing that can fix us all up is true love). But the message that you should expect or wait for someone to fix the less desirable, unhealthy parts of your personality – an expectation often set up for male characters – or that you could be the one to change someone else – an expectation often set up for female characters – sounds like a recipe for disaster.
“There’s a lot more to ogres than people think.” ogres are like onions”
Even with potential problems, both of these lessons can be worthwhile for young girls and young audiences in general. But these stories also don’t put much onus on the prince figures to do any character development. Rather, it’s the women who have to be careful, wait until the prince changes, or try to change the prince. As a result, few of these stories offer useful guidance to boys, or anyone in the audience who might look to the prince as a role model. There are some important exceptions to this: Prince Naveen from 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, for instance, is handsome and charming, but also changes over the course of the movie, humbled by his experience as a transformed frog and his love for Tiana. And more recently, in 2020’s and 2021’s first two seasons of Bridgerton, both Simon and Anthony need to face up to their own traumas, inherited misogyny, and self-destructive ways of thinking before they can really show up in relationships. They’re doing this work alongside their partners – Anthony’s love, Kate, especially, also needs to grow and learn more about herself to be ready for committed love. Showing us that offering more dimensionalized male characters doesn’t diminish or eliminate similarly well-rounded female characters, or any other character for that matter – quite the opposite.
PART 4: Beyond Prince Charming
Nowadays, when studios who specialize in traditionally female-targeted entertainment – like fairy tales or romantic comedies – try to make more male-oriented stories, they shy away from “prince charming” types entirely. Disney’s attempts to appeal to boys in the 2000s resulted in adventure stories like Atlantis or Treasure Planet or coming-of-age stories like Brother Bear or Meet the Robinsons. Adult-oriented romantic comedies that assume a more male point of view, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Wedding Crashers, tend to focus more on male friendship and raunchy antics than they do on the dynamics of romance. Part of this is probably because both fairy tales and grown-up romances are often marketed as wish-fulfillment for a female audience – especially princess movies for younger girls. But it hasn’t really ever seemed like the handsome prince role has represented wish-fulfillment for boys or men; often, it’s just an accessory to the princess fantasy. The problem with this is that it perpetuates a vicious cycle of gendering stories that then flatten characters along gendered lines – reinforcing a narrative that boys aren’t supposed to care about finding themselves in romances or stories about self-development through love. This all works to glorify idealized versions of love that are fed to us through mysterious caricatures, instead of through relatable, complex people. That’s why we need better, more responsible writing by what writer and social activist bell hooks called our society’s “image-makers.”
“Number one stop being a pussy. Number two make a move.”
- Wedding Crashers
So, how can our image-makers tell more responsible, handsome-prince stories where the prince isn’t just a vacant character accessory, a spoof, or a narrative trick? It will require adaptation and pressure on writers, just as it has for princesses and romantic heroines. The key may be to have something going on for our princes outside their dashing desirability – hobbies, quirks, things that bring them joy, much like how most Disney Princesses are no longer defined purely by romantic destiny, as well as have interests like Tiana’s passion for cooking, or Moana’s love of seafaring.
Yet in Disney currently, having outside interests seems to take male characters out of the running of being a prince, like we see with Maui in Moana. So maybe we also need to think more broadly about what constitutes a prince-like character in the first place – a question that is even perplexing real-life monarchies today. We can think of the Disney versions of Hercules or Tarzan as de facto Disney Princes, even though they aren’t really defined that way – just as characters like Moana or Raya don’t necessarily need to hold an official “princess” title to obviously belong in that group. We can look back to 90s Disney Princes like Aladdin and Simba whose complicated relationships to class and ruling were examined with depth and sympathy. Or perhaps characters like Prince Edward in Enchanted or Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians should no longer be conceived of as either spoofs or approximations of a Prince Charming who doesn’t really exist, and could instead be treated more like fleshed-out people than a type or plot device.
“People always do crazy things… when they’re in love.”
Of course, young people of any gender can take lessons from the strong qualities of princess characters, so it’s not as if every movie needs to center an especially complex or role-model-esque male character. But why not make these characters better if you can?
Putting well-written characters of any gender together will only strengthen them all further. The more complex the characters at the center of the story, the more earned the happily-ever-after will feel.
“Forget about happily ever after; it doesn’t exist.” “Well, of course it does!”