If I were to imagine the least magical, least romantic place on Earth, it would be a dark, sticky basement full of people who may or may not have showered in the last 48 hours, bobbing their heads up and down to “Business” by Tiësto for the third time that week. Second to that would probably be the filtered water fountains on the fourth floor of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library that are somehow always on the “red” status, deeming their contents undrinkable, in a cluster full of students on the verge of tearing their heart out in the name of whatever Canvas page they’ve had opened for days.
Contrary to glamorous marketing materials and high expectations, the realities of college can look vastly different from what our imaginations construe. What looks like it will be a dream ends up feeling slightly nightmarish precisely because of the unexpected dichotomy between the “fairy tale” of college and the reality that it carries the same mundanity and stress we inevitably experience in every other stage of life.
The fact that most of us subscribe to this fairy-tale picture of college, though, is no surprise. We are raised on fairy tales, whether we notice it or not. They are often the first stories we are introduced to and play a key role in the origin of storytelling itself. We learn to walk and talk and read and write through narratives that go against all earthly logic. It’s hard to be a cynic when the life ahead is painted to be full of purely happy endings or, at least, the possibility for them. And maybe, after thousands of years of passed-down tales of talking animals and fairy godmothers, that idealism can help us push forward even when it seems to become entirely out of reach.
Unique to their genre, fairy tales put magic at the center of daily life unapologetically and often without explanation. Scientific logic is virtually absent in the name of exploring the inner workings of human instinct and emotion. At first, Belle is afraid of the Beast because he’s standoffish and cruel, rather than fearing him purely for his scientifically implausible appearance. We fear Sleeping Beauty’s evil stepmother because of her malicious countenance, not because she is capable of magic. It’s a sort of acceptance we grasp onto in our earliest years and eventually understand to let go of.
But in terms of academic and literary merit, fairy tales seem to get an unnecessarily bad rep. They’re the topic of the class I’ve been told every University engineering student takes to get their humanities credit out of the way as easily as possible. They’re deemed “childlike” in what seems to be a derogatory way, as if we haven’t all been children and, in a way, always will be. They’re part of the time we are taught to let go of — a time, maybe the only time, when the wonder and romance of daily life are welcomed with entirely open arms.
I know, or at least I think I know, that there is no magic in this world. I know that two-year-old me staring up at a seven-foot Rapunzel statue in New York appropriately saw the world quite differently than I do now. And that knowledge isn’t meant to be cynical — it’s a neutral byproduct of socialization, inherently necessary to navigate being a functioning member of society.
Fairy tales, in their deepest conventionality, tell stories that cannot possibly be aspired to, even if the child in us wishes them to be true. Especially in the Disney princess stories I grew up on, we’re shown love stories that in no way offer a realistic depiction of the modern world. There’s a reason why life after the “happily ever after” wedding is always saved for the direct-to-video sequels. That dichotomy represents the sharp cutoff from what we see as magically romantic and the harsh realities that come once the spell is broken.
But what if we could, even for a moment, break that binary between fictional romance and reality?
Watching “Enchanted” on someone else’s Disney Plus
When I initially begged my roommates to watch Disney’s “Enchanted,” I expected us to end up deciding to watch the newest true crime miniseries or formulaic teen comedy instead. But we didn’t. And, having forgotten a majority of the plot prior to that rewatch, I was utterly surprised by the psychological depth of a children’s movie I hadn’t thought about in years.
The movie begins as any classic Disney princess story does: an animated princess with a wholly unrealistic body, whose only friends are talking animals, singing tenderly about her desire to fall in love and get married as soon as physically possible. But only 10 minutes into the story, this princess, Giselle, is banished to the antithesis of her magical home. As she pops out of a sewer in the middle of Times Square and in human form, the closest thing to a fairy tale would be a Broadway performance of “Wicked” a few blocks away. Our princess has tripped and fallen into an anachronism.
By the end of the movie, Giselle has shed her ridiculously large dress for a sleek, elegant gown. She finds love outside the conventions she had been raised on, ditching her fairy tale prince for Robert The Divorce Lawyer, who initially agrees to help her navigate New York. The story looks nothing like what we expect a fairy tale to be — in fact, it actively laughs at those expectations. It takes the antiquated, distant perception of fairy tale romance and introduces it into the modern world.
But most of all, it proves that the beauty and idealism of abstract magical realms, like Giselle’s hometown, are still part of the intricate fabric of human life.
Giselle’s fervent optimism shakes up all the pessimistic beliefs of the frustrated New Yorkers she encounters. When Robert’s daughter begs for a new princess book, he insists on a “Strong Women of the World” collection instead: a clear dichotomy between what is seen to be socially antiquated with what is “respectable” for today’s girls to be reading. But by the end of the movie, Giselle becomes a positive role model for Robert’s daughter, combining these two seemingly exclusive versions of womanhood — princesshood and independence — into one.
The film marks a sharp turn in fairy tales’ role in modern media and society. It places magical optimism, as embodied by Giselle, and the deep-seated cynicism of Robert at odds with each other. And it seems that they’re able to coexist.
Despite the disparity between fairy tales and modern collegiate life, “Enchanted” reminded me of the glowing possibility that these two seemingly parallel experiences can, and do, overlap. Even with their inability to easily translate into a truly messy world, the impact of fairy tales pervades.
Fairy tales are made of the “what-ifs” we teach ourselves to ignore: What if I meet my dream partner tonight? What if I get the job I’ve been dying to hear back from? What if I have a surprisingly fantastic day tomorrow?
What if we lived like those wonders could, just maybe, come true?
Fairy-tale stories are ones of hope — misguided hope, maybe, but a positive look toward the future nonetheless. They are stories in which the characters we’re rooting for end up with exactly what they need and get to live the life they’ve dreamed of.
It’s hard to find a fairy tale in a world where almost nothing goes to plan. When nothing looks like it did in the brochure they gave you on admitted students day, or when the Instagram post from your friend of a friend filled with heartfelt graduation photos makes you worry your college experience isn’t all it’s “supposed” to be.
But all the fairy tales we’ve ever read have come from the minds of people who inhabited the very same Earth that we do. Through every global catastrophe and abomination to humanity, they have somehow persisted.
So maybe we can believe that the fairy tale worlds we know and love are around here somewhere.
Statement Correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.