The Most Famous Fairy Tale You Haven’t Heard – Beyond The Damsel In Distress

It is time we re-write fairy-tales and look beyond the stereotypical notions of a 'damsel in distress' and a 'knight in shining armour'.

It is time we re-write fairy-tales and look beyond the stereotypical notions of a ‘damsel in distress’ and a ‘knight in shining armour’.

“Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter” — African Proverb

Some narratives are so ingrained in our minds that it is hard to imagine a different ending for the story. But, an encounter with an alternate plot can set us thinking about possibilities beyond the regular. I bet you have heard the Cinderella Story, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and many such fairy tales. They belong to a genre that is commonly referred to as the ‘damsel in distress’. The ‘damsel in distress‘ is a classic theme common to many legends, fairy tales, and chivalric romances in world literature, art, films and even video games. There is usually a beautiful young woman placed in a dire predicament by a villain or monster, either a literal dragon or something that symbolizes danger. She then requires a virtuous, handsome hero to rescue her.

Here, I share a different kind of princess and dragon story — the story of Princess Elizabeth — The Paper Bag Princess. Written by Robert Munsch, this story has sold millions of copies worldwide and is probably the most famous fairy tale that you haven’t heard.

A different kind of fairy-tale

Princess Elizabeth was a beautiful young princess who lived the life of luxury. She was going to marry a prince named Ronald. But, on the day of the wedding, a dragon smashed her castle, burned all her fineries with his fiery breath, and carried off Prince Ronald.

Elizabeth decided to chase the dragon and get Ronald back. She looked everywhere for something to wear, but the only thing she could find that was not burnt was a paper bag. So, she put on a paper bag and followed the dragon.

Finally, Elizabeth reaches the dragon’s cave. With her wit and grit, she manages to outsmart the dragon and open the door to the cave where was Prince Ronald.

She was excited to see the prince — unharmed, handsome, and still looking magnificent in his velvet jacket.

But the Prince looked at her and said, “Elizabeth, you are a mess! You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled and you are wearing a dirty old paper bag. Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.”

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This wasn’t the welcome she expected.

“Ronald,” said Elizabeth, “Your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.”

Then she kicked him to the curb and went dancing off into the sunset, exuberant and free in her singed paper bag outfit.

And they didn’t get married after all.

Looking beyond the stereotypical stories

The Paper Bag Princess story is about being resourceful so that we can solve our problems, being courageous to go after what we want and also about knowing when to walk away. I heard this tale recently and loved it because in a world that is monopolized by generic stories of ‘damsels in distress’ and ‘knights in shining armour’, it felt like a breath of fresh air.  The idea of a dashing Prince and a distressed damsel is cute but also confining. They confine a princess to be helpless and the prince to be the saviour. And these are the stereotypes we feed on day after day through such stories.

In modern era Bollywood movies, these are heroes like Sunny Deol in Gadar who single-handedly takes on an entire nation (army, police, people — the whole nation literally) to bring home his damsel-in-distress. It is utterly unrealistic, yet so commonly portrayed in our movies. On the other hand, we will always be watching women helplessly screaming ‘Bhagwan ke liye mujhe jaane do’ (Let me go for God’s sake) while facing a sinister villain. They could as well have been trained in self- defence and kicked the villain where it hurts. It is utterly realistic, yet rarely portrayed.

It is time we changed the narrative. It is time we absolved the prince and the princess of this huge burden of conforming to such stereotypes. Let the prince feel he does not have to be macho all the time and has someone to save him too. Let the princess feel that she can do much more with her beauty, brains and brawns than be helpless and dependent. Otherwise, from folk tales to modern era, we will forever be forced to watch stereotypical heroes and heroines.

Time to change the narrative to a balanced one

As a woman, angry at all that I’ve had to bear with, to live the life I want, while the men around me have it easier, I could have ended the write-up right away. After all, we got the princess call the prince a bum, kick him, while she dances in the sunset and not get married. But then that is what the problem with the old narrative is. It is one sided. And replacing it with another one sided narrative won’t do much good either.

It is not just the princess who could use the change. It is the prince and the dragon too. The prince, because he ought to know that not every princess dreams of wearing silk, having a beautiful hairdo, getting married or waiting for a prince. And not every prince wants to slay dragons, be all macho, and play the saviour at all times. Lastly, the dragon could use some help to get over his arrogance and stupidity. The new narrative should let the dragon know that, with due respect to biology, a woman could outsmart him without a knight by her side. So don’t mess with a damsel — she could give you more distress than you can handle.

There is so much life has to offer. It would be a travesty to not be able to savour all that just because our actions are being dictated by one-sided narratives that stifle us for thinking beyond the regular. Narratives that confine us and set expectations for us to behave as per gender, race, religion or region should be shunned.

We cannot bring a change by fighting against the existing stories. Change happens when we tell new stories that make the old ones obsolete. It is time we stepped out of the box and in doing so, compel the writers to up their game as well. Maybe that’s when the stories will have a true ‘lived happily ever after‘ ending.

Image is a from the book, The Paper Bag Princess

First published here.

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Technologist, Researcher, Activist, Lie Detector I write to revel in all the lives I live and to relieve the weight of the ones I don’t read more...

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