The Fairy Godmother Effect
These days, we assume that all the early Disney films were sexist because the princesses lacked agency and needed to be rescued. However, if Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty were titled for the characters with the most agency, it would be called Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. These three fairy godmothers not only save Princess Aurora from Maleficent, they also save the prince! The fairies rescue him from Maleficent’s stronghold, and then they do all the heavy lifting as the prince battles his way to the princess so that he can do the one small deed that only he can do, which is kiss Aurora awake.
These fairy godmothers get little fanfare but make an invaluable contribution. We might call it the “fairy godmother effect.” Recently, scientists have begun to consider the “grandmother effect,” which describes how children are more likely to survive and thrive if their grandmothers live nearby. Also known as the “grandmother hypothesis,” this theory attempts to explain why human females outlive their ability to reproduce (a rare trait for mammals, shared only by killer whales) and focuses attention on the advantages of having older women around.
Fairy godmothers do more to ensure the survival of princesses than princes do, but when they aren’t depicted as young, we often overlook these powerful females and their contributions. Whether we study evolutionary theory or fairy tales, what we study begins with what we notice.