Two hundred years ago, two brothers wrote a book. Well, "wrote" is the wrong term. Jacob and Wilhelm collected dozens of stories, some well known and some obscure, some from their homeland and some from abroad. The compendium was first published in 1812; a second volume followed two years later. By the seventh edition, the pair had assembled 211 stories, some of which would go on to have great and lasting influence on Western culture. The official title of the book was "Children's and Household Tales," and Jacob and Wilhelm, of course, were the Brothers Grimm.
Two centuries later, much of the English speaking world grows up hearing the stories Jacob and Wilhelm compiled. It is largely thanks to them that fairytales like Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Rapunzel have survived until 2012, where they can be found in every child's bedroom from Seattle to Sydney.
The ubiquity of fairytales has caused concerns for some parents, especially parents of girls. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, was dismayed to find that her little girl's fixation on princesses, particularly the Disney Princess clique, was part of a larger trend toward "princess culture."
Fairytales are ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture for adults, too. This year, we have been treated to not one, but two Snow White movies. Last year, Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke revamped Little Red Riding Hood. ABC's Once Upon a Time imagines what would happen in fairytale plotlines played out in present-day Maine.
But the corner of popular culture where fairytales are the most influential is the contemporary romantic comedy. Romantic comedies are, in fact, grown-up fairytales, complete with Cinderella transformations and hideous beasts who are revealed to be handsome princes.
You can draw a direct line from the fairytales collected by the Brothers Grimm two centuries ago to contemporary rom coms. Without Cinderella, for example, there would be no Sabrina and – heaven forbid! – no Pretty Woman.
As adults, viewers relate to and understand romantic comedies because of the foundations laid by fairytales; when it comes to shaping our ideas about love and romance, rom coms simply pick up where fairytales left off. As a result, some of their messages about gender and relationships seem to be stuck in the seventeenth century. You might say that the depiction of gender in romantic comedies looks pretty damn Grimm.
The fairytale plotline most commonly found in contemporary romantic comedies was not included in Children's and Household Tales. Beauty and the Beast was first written down by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, and its messages about gender and love are accordingly archaic.
The moral of the Beauty and the Beast story, we tell children, is that looks can be deceiving. A man who is outwardly ugly might actually be a handsome prince in disguise, and the power of requited love will melt his hideous exterior to reveal the true self within. That is a fine and valuable moral to be teaching kids.
But in its romantic comedy incarnations, the Beauty and the Beast story – and that moral in particular – get twisted. In popular contemporary rom coms like The Ugly Truth, As Good As It Gets, You've Got Mail, we stop teaching girls to look beyond beastly appearance and start teaching women to look beyond beastly behavior.
The Ugly Truth, which came out in 2009, is the best – or rather, worst – and most recent example of this troubling twist. The hero is a man whose beastliness expresses itself in the form of open and virulent misogyny, and the heroine a woman who learns to see past that behavior to the sensitive, wounded, loveable man within. Hear that, ladies? That blustering sexist pig is secretly the love of your life (I suppose this means we should all get off OKCupid and start looking for love in the US House of Representatives).
Scholars of the romantic comedy call this kind of story a "cold-hearted redemption plot," a story about a person – usually a man – whose cold, hard exterior is melted by the love of one special woman. Barbot de Villeneuve isn't the only one to blame for this idea, of course, because you could just as easily call it "The Mr. Darcy Myth." Many of the stories we tell ourselves, as a culture, perpetuate this idea that if a man treats you badly, the correct course of action is to stick around, love him, and wait for the power of your love to change him.
The Mr. Darcy Myth is a problem, because some of the things men in romantic comedy cold-hearted redemption plots do are downright awful. At worst, they come dangerously close to abusive behavior. In You've Got Mail, the hero tries to put the heroine out of business, endangering her livelihood and her last tangible connection with her late mother. And then they end up together. In As Good As It Gets, the hero is in fact verbally abusive. And then they end up together. But before a happy ending is possible, these men have to change, and the only thing that can change them is the love of the right woman.
The promise of these movies is that the love of the right woman is transformational. It will turn the beastliest of men into a modern-day Prince Charming. Even if he treats everyone around him like rubbish – you included – hang in there, because that's not who he really is. If you endure the rudeness, the cruelty, even the violence, for long enough, you'll be rewarded with the love of a handsome prince and the contemporary equivalent of a gorgeous castle full of talking furniture servants.
Contemporary romantic comedies build on the foundation laid by fairytales and on that admirable moral about where true beauty lies, and use them to romanticize unhealthy relationships. The fairytale moral is, "don't judge a book by its cover." The romantic comedy version is, "don't judge a man by his behavior."
Study after study has found that the media we consume shapes the way we think about the world around us. So it's time we took a good, hard, critical look at how romantic comedies are shaping our attitudes about love. And we need new grown-up fairytales, ones that model gender equality in relationships. We shouldn't be encouraging women to stick around to show misogynists and abusive men the power of One True Love. The only thing we should be showing such modern-day beasts is the door.
Chloe Angyal is an editor at Feministing. She is working on her doctoral thesis on romantic comedies, and on a book on the same topic.