Inverting Pygmalion: Fairy Tales and the Male Model

Sometimes I do wander the web, clicking on tumblr posts. I’m having a coffee, a short break from grading papers or providing feedback. Yes, sometimes I am procrastinating! I’ve long ago learned to accept procrastination as part of my writing process – procrastination is often, after all, an opportunity to break from a faltering thought process.

But sometimes, on my wanderings, something catches my eye and I’m on a new research path!

Today I was looking through some posts and I came across “Why, this is my dream prince!” The post features a juxtaposition of Disney princesses with statues and homemade models of their prince charmings. I had never put all the examples together to realise there really is a theme.

It’s a theme that has deep roots in fairy tale. For instance, in Basile’s tale of Betta, the merchant daughter, the erstwhile heroine disdains all the men of her acquaintance. Instead, she moulds her own man, giving her father a bit of a start when a strange man suddenly appears from her room. It is a delightful twist on the Pygmalion myth in which the woman now sculpts her own ideal man. Indeed, Betta does such a wonderful job, the Queen steals away her creation.

The fairy tales of late seventeenth-century France are filled, on the other hand, with portraits of princes and princesses, some of which speak to their future lovers. In d’Aulnoy’s “The Hind in the Wood,” the prince’s portrait utters endless compliments to the princess he has never actually laid eyes upon. The princess, in turn, falls in love with the portrait, for she has not yet met the prince. Portraits were often utilised in the royal marriage market. A flattering portrait along with lands and cash could ensure a profitable marriage between distant strangers.

The use of models and portraits in fairy tale is quite common. I’m now investigating whether it is most common for the princes to be sculpted and painted and how other scholars have thought about this issue.