How Fairy Tales Fueled Our Obsession With Weddings

Are you trying to achieve the perfect wedding and feeling overwhelmed, like you will never live up to the expectations? Blame fairy tales.

There’s been a steady development of the commercial aspects of weddings in the past fifty years, but those dreams are really nurtured by fairy tales created centuries ago. According to Ruth Bottigheimer, a literature professor at Stony Brook University specializing in fairy tales, “We have to take them very seriously because they reach everybody.”

“Fairy tales are really a responsive kind of literature,” Bottigheimer says. “They express widespread hopes, and that’s why certain fairytales remain over hundreds of years. The wedding part is still considered to be a happy ending for thousands and thousands of young women.”

Bottigheimer traces the origin of this “happily ever after” infatuation back to the 1550s in Venice, Italy, the birthplace of modern fairy tales.

“Weddings weren’t something that were available to everybody. You had to have the means to get married,” Bottigheimer says.

Especially for people in lower classes, marriage was an achievement. Restrictive marriage laws were passed in 1528, forbidding nobles to marry people in a poorer caste.  At the same time, merchant trade was picking up, allowing for more people to get rich quick. The printing press was redefining mass communication. Ideas were reaching more people, and with it, a hunger for a new kind of story, Bottigheimer says. “Stories that came out of the Middles Ages were rewritten, and they were short because this new public was workers, and they had a lot less time to read.”



But why do most fairy tales feature a poor female protagonist and a wealthy prince?

Although the money economy and trade were growing in the 16th century, “it was a time when women began to lose economic power,” Bottigheimer says. Women were not allowed to travel, so they could not take part in these new, large capital ventures. Institutions like the beguinage, a complex where single women could live together and independently ply their trade, were closed all over Western Europe between 1450 and 1550.  Collectively, these circumstances created an atmosphere where the “rags to riches” fairy tale would flourish: The fairy tale heroine, saved by marrying a prince, was born.

“Cinderella has become one of the quintessential examples of this phenomenon. The original was published by Giambattista Basile in the 1630s. In that version, Cinderella’s governess convinces her to slam a trunk lid down on her stepmother’s head so that the governess can marry her father. Then the story as we know it follows, with Cinderella suffering under her new stepmother. Eventually, a fairy godmother helps her, and Cinderella marries a prince.

Various versions of Cinderella.



Various versions of Cinderella.

Basile’s “Cinderella” made its way to Charles Perrault in Paris, who wrote another popular version. For Perrault, Cinderella isn’t a murderer; she remains pure of heart.

“It’s her goodness that is eventually rewarded,” Bottigheimer says. Later in the 19 century, the Grimm brothers published their version of Cinderella, “Aschenputtel,” in which the evil stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by doves as a punishment for their wickedness. The first Cinderella, a tough little girl, is moralized by Perrault and Christianized by Grimm, Bottigheimer says. “Then, Disney comes and takes away some of the ugliness of the stories and introduces a lot of signature elements … But then the story ends at the wedding. There is no more. That’s it. That’s supposed to be the moment that defines the rest of her life.”

If the wedding is the moment that defines life, what happens after?

Bottigheimer points out that folk tales, which depict husbands and wives, often portray the relationships as being difficult and full of arguments. The weddings in fairy tales are romantic and miraculous; by contrast, marriage in folk tales has very little magic. That juxtaposition can lead future brides and grooms to overemphasize one special day at the expense of a lifelong marriage.

Fortunately, a new crop of anti-fairy tales has come out over the past few decades, reconceptualizing what it means to be a fairy tale princess. The popular Disney film “Frozen,” for example, is based off of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen.”  The film focuses on the siblings’ bond rather than romantic love and a “rags to riches” wedding. The female characters are empowered, and their success is not defined by whether or not they marry a prince.

A scene from Disney's "Frozen"



A scene from Disney’s “Frozen”

Thanks to traditional fairy tales and the emphasis on weddings, “so many young women can visualize themselves as the heroine of that moment,” Bottigheimer says. “We want them to be able to visualize themselves as heroines of following moments as well.”