I blame Disney for the mess that is my early romantic relationships. Also 90’s era romance novels, but I think they can blame Disney too so they get a pass. I don’t blame Disney 100%—and I think they’re trying to fix it (yay, Tangled!)—but I blame them a lot. And, in the interest of snowballing the change I think they’re trying to implement, I’m going to tell you why.
Let’s start with the Little Mermaid. Probably my favorite Disney movie growing up. It came out when I was five. This is a very formative time in a girl’s life. You’re finally almost a person with thoughts and words, but you’re still an idiot and super impressionable.
Enter Ariel. Chick had it all. She’s gorgeous. She’s talented. She’s well loved. …She’s a goddamn princess. She has friends and adventure and… she fucks it all up for a dude. She can’t be happy—without a man. What does she do? Catastrophically cripples herself to go hang around the sidelines and watch while this guy dates someone else. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I grew up to be an Ariel. A lot of us did. I am attractive and talented—a bad ass in my own right—and I have spent an awful lot of time hanging around the sidelines being super good to dudes who never appreciated me, if they noticed me at all.
You know who I admire now, as a grown up? Vanessa/Ursula. Chick was firmly in the curvy girl category in a sea full of skinny supermodels, and it never stopped her from having a mess of confidence. She made her own little kingdom because Tritan didn’t recognize what a boss she was. People still didn’t respect her BAMF status so she set up a kickin’ business model that made her powerful. And, when it came time to get Eric to love her… she didn’t try to be all demure and innocent. She wasn’t afraid to be a little slutty. Ursula was a badass.
If that movie had been about an oddball chick who didn’t let haters get her down…there’s a good chance I would have grown up a vastly different woman. But back then, that wasn’t the kind of story we were telling. That wasn’t the sort of leading lady we were allowed to have. As a result.. We’ve got a whole generation (if not more) of bad ass bitches sitting around waiting for some dude with pretty hair to fix her—even though there’s nothing wrong with her. (If you would like a more current reference for this same scenario, turn on any episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Chicks are brilliant surgeons, but their whole day is about boy trouble.)
As writers, we write perfect protagonists because it’s easy. Because you don’t get ripped apart in reviews for it. BUT. As writers… I think we have a responsibility to write something better. My first book heroine is alarmingly close to perfect. She’s sweet and virginal and smart. But I still got some Amazon review shade because, when the dude with pretty hair declares his love for her, she doesn’t just drop everything and be in love. She thinks about it. She has to weigh the pros and cons and decide if she’s willing to give up HER plan to be his wife.
I took flak for it, but I will keep writing my leading ladies that way. If I ever have a daughter, I want her to think about herself first. I don’t want her to think some idiot in a dinner coat declaring his love for her automatically means he has some claim over her life—even if she loves him back. I want ME to think about myself first, and stop shoving all my important shit in the background to go help some cute boy pick out fish. (I totally did that. Like this week. …It’s an ongoing struggle.)
We like perfect protagonists because it doesn’t hold the mirror up to things we don’t want to see. We don’t have to look at a sloppy chick who’s a little mean and think “Ahh damn. Yeah, that’s me.” We don’t have to confront our fear that we’ve banged too many dudes to ever find happiness. But… is that the way we want the next generation to feel? Or do we want them to believe no amount of mistakes and flaws will stop them from finding their happy ending?
Some of them might get there on their own, but a lot more of them will get there if we show them.