Enchanted is a commercial film and a crowd-pleaser, but its parodic style allows it to play with gender and the cinematic construct of love. The Walt Disney parody keeps to the safe framework of the happy-end, which allows it to be, at least to some extent, ‘subversive’.
It starts with a deliberately cringing scene of birds singing and sugary romance. Everything is perfect in fairy-land. It reflects the classical construct of romantic love, thoughtless happiness and strict division of gender: woman in flowing dresses and man on a horse. This is abruptly brought to an end when the Disney Princess, Giselle (Amy Adams), who is about to get married to Edward (James Marsden), is catapulted into New York City silly dress and all. She is rescued by Robert (Patrick Dempsey), who is about to propose to his girlfriend Nancy (Idina Menzel). Needless to say, Giselle ends up with Robert and Nancy with Edward. What is interesting is how ‘true love’ is conceptualised and played with.
True Love: In its Disney’s version, ‘true love’ is immediate, no need to get to know one another. It is the crowning event in the heroine’s life. She is destined to meet the man of her dreams and her happiness is limited to that. Yes, very sexist, on the other hand, the protagonist is always a woman. Nobody knows anything about Prince Charming and nobody cares. The audience sighs and sobs with the Princess and the Prince is just a prize at the end. It is true that some classical fairytales often portray women as vulnerable and needing to be saved by a man, although it is mostly women who are the protagonists.
In Enchanted, Giselle gives up fiction and comes to appreciate reality, from making lunch to getting to know people. ‘True love’ is thus something that is complex and conflictual rather than smooth and simple. A row between Giselle and Robert is portrayed as the necessary step for love. This is a clear break from most romantic notions of love. The conflict in most romantic comedies is the thing in the middle that needs to be overcome to get to the happy ending. Enchanted does something slightly different by integrating conflict as essential to love. It then turns back to a classical happy ending adjusted for modern times with Giselle as a career woman and Nancy ditching New York for the fairy-tale world.
Autonomy: Nancy’s end might be seen as a woman giving up her independence for a fairy tale life. I think it is the wrong accusation on two accounts: first of all, it assumes that some life choices are inherently better than others and that we should all choose a career instead of being queen of the castle. Why should we assume that a person, man or woman, would be happier in paid employment than looking after children and plants? (For more on our construction of work, read C.W. Mills‘ White Collar). Further, do we know what Nancy and Edward do in fairy land or the division of labour in their household? Nope.
Second of all, it neglects to distinguish between the construction married happy life in the castle and the desire for autonomy. Paradoxically, the rejection of ‘happy ever after’ privileges the strife of our real life over a more tranquil life. The attraction of ‘happy ever after’ is not marriage, but the ‘after’ that fairy-land allegedly grants you. It is the control on external events and a much higher degree of autonomy: enemies are defeated and you’re king/queen of the castle. For most of us, fairy-land is not real, but we desire the life of celebrities, who are perhaps the closest to Disney Princes and Princesses. This is particularly evident in Once Upon A Time (see post), where fairy-land is depicted as the place where you can be yourself. It is the imagined and desired place where you can and should pursue love and adventure, where you can and should express your talents, where you are the protagonist and your story has meaning. Also see my take on Cinderella.