The Princess and the Frog: Freedom and the Pursuit of Less Happiness

Posted on May 12, 2014

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Frog TalesI can’t recall when I first heard the story of the Princess and the Frog. For as long as I can remember, however, I have always had the notion that the moral of the story was intended for women. I suppose this could be because of the pervasive trope that subverts the romance of the story: women, it is often said, need to kiss many frogs to find their prince.

It occurred to me recently that the moral of the story could also be intended for men. In this reading, to reveal one’s true princely nature, a man must convince a princess to overlook his froggish appearance. The moral of the story is that it is the affection of a man’s true love — his princess — that reveals his true and higher nature. Of course, the romance of this moral can also be easily subverted by saying that a man must be kissed by many princesses before he will become a prince.

As it turns out, neither of these readings work with the original story. To start, the Grimm tale is called The Frog-Prince and no kissing is involved. Rather, the Frog-Prince extracts a promise from a somewhat bratty princess to spend time together. Once the princess allows the Frog-Prince to eat with her and sleep on her pillow, his true princely nature is revealed. Marriage and happiness ensues.

For women, the lesson of the original tale seems to be: if a man does a favour for you in exchange for a promise to spend time together, you should honour that promise, no matter how froggish he may seem. He may, despite his froggish appearances, be princely. The lesson for men seems to be: to reveal your true princely nature, you must extract a promise from a princess to spend time together. Because of the time you spend together, your true princely nature will be revealed.

It is interesting to me that the story I internalized is very different from the story as it is actually written. What does it say about me that I have internalized the story in this way? What does it say about the culture in which I was raised? I can imagine a book that examines the origins of this story and how different versions of it have entered into our common culture. In fact, I can imagine it has already be written.

As an initial hypothesis, it seems the original story was written to address a problem that must have existed at a time when marriages were arranged or effectively arranged due to the limited choice available. The story seems to say that a poorly matched couple can be happily reconciled if they go through the motions of married life. It may also be significant that the couple finds happiness and joy rather than love.

In contrast, the newer “kiss many frogs” version of the story seems to reflect the abundance of choice we all now have. Women are advised to keep on kissing until they find a prince. Men, presumably, should try to be kissed by many princesses. If, after the kiss, there is no immediate transformation and jolt of true love, move on to the next frog or princess.

The switch of emphasis from disciplined and respectful cohabitation to physical intimacy and immediate gratification also seems significant. Sexual compatibility rather than — let’s call it — familial compatibility now seems to be regarded as the foundation of a successful relationship. And the reward now is love rather than happiness.

The one thread that runs through the original fairy tale and the modern version is that in both stories the woman and the man find happiness or love in someone previously unknown to them. In both stories, the princess and the frog are strangers and, after the magic is worked, they are happy to run off together to find happiness or love. It seems we humans, if we are to make sense of ourselves through these stories, have a persistent fascination and hope for the unknown prince or princess who will arrive and transform our lives.

On the personal front, it seems I am a product of my time. I tend also to think of relationships in terms of sexual compatibility and love rather than familial compatibility and happiness. If the desire and love is there, the details of incompatibility are of secondary importance. I have, however, in recent years, given a greater priority to happiness, especially for the beloved. Love is great, but love and happiness is better, and there is plenty of love to be found out there, so aim for both if you can.

Nevertheless, in practice, like most people, I most often become sexually and/or romantically involved with people I have already known for some time, and, even if love was at first site, I tend also take a bit of time to decide if my vision was as perceptive as I first thought it was. Somewhere in the middle, there are those people who can meet a stranger and engage in couple-like behaviour (e.g. “dating”) to find out if the happiness or love will emerge. So, it seems to me the moral of The Frog-Prince is still relevant in contemporary life, even if the rhetoric of romance has changed.

It is tempting, at this point, to say, “different strokes for different folks, so long as everyone is consenting and having some kind of a good time.” Both strategies for finding a prince or princess have pros and cons depending on what a person wants. People might even prefer a talking frog to a prince. In the market of love, then, let us be liberals! Let people decide for themselves how they will go about turning frogs into happiness or love.

There is, however, research that indicates that people prefer, when given the choice, to make reversible choices rather than irreversible choices, even though reversible choices are almost always reported to be much less satisfying than irreversible choices some time down the road. It seems we choose more freedom of choice even though it leads to less satisfaction in the choices we make. What is true of Van Gogh prints might also be true of princes, princesses, and frogs.

Government, for example, is an institution that we collectively employ to constrain our choices, in order to avoid the very many unavoidable and worse outcomes we would encounter without it. Perhaps, institutions and practices that constrain our romantic choices rather than expand them might make us happier in the long run. It may also be because of this long-run happiness that we still, even in the face of a seemingly endless supply of princes, princesses and frogs, so often frame our romantic choices as if they are, in fact, irreversible.