Last month I saw the Puccini opera, Turandot. The staging was incredible and the costumes were stunning but as the story unfolded, I found it increasingly difficult to sympathise with the plight of the story’s hero. Puccini’s opera is based on a story from the book ‘Seven Beauties’ by the 12th century Persian poet, Nizami. In the opera, a Prince falls in love with Princess Turandot but in order to marry her he needs to solve three riddles. After solving the riddles, Turandot tries to renege on the deal, claiming that she has vowed never to be possessed by a man. Fair play, Turandot. However the chorus insists that the Prince has been successful in his challenge and therefore deserves to be rewarded with the princess’s hand in marriage.
While watching Puccini’s opera I couldn’t help but think of this article on Cracked.com (is a sentence no one has ever said before). The article argues that men are trained from a young age to believe that if they are successful, brave or cunning, they, like the prince in Puccini’s opera, will be rewarded with a beautiful princess.
This trope of the man being given a woman as a reward for some achievement is very commonplace in fairytales. The 12 Dancing Princesses, Sleeping Beauty and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Tinderbox all follow this general story.
Now the idea that men should be rewarded for their actions with women is perpetuated not by fairytales but by films. The Karate Kid, Back to the Future, Speed and Avatar are among the numerous examples given by Cracked of films where men are rewarded with beautiful women. Some films are obviously worse for this than others. The Cracked article mentions Transformers but I don’t actually think that Transformers deserves all the criticism it gets (is a sentence no one has ever said before). Shia LaBeouf’s character may be completely devoid of charm or talent but at least he and Megan Fox’s character, Mikaela, actually have conversations and vaguely get to know each other before getting together at the film’s close.
I actually think one of the worst offenders for this clichéd trope is The Matrix. Neo spends the entire film looking bewildered and underwhelming people and yet, when he’s getting a serious ass-kicking by Agent Smith in the third act, Trinity declares her love for him. Really? I don’t think they actually have a conversation that is a) longer than a few minutes or b) not about how awesome Morpheus is. Essentially, just by virtue of being The One, Neo gets a hot woman and a badass coat.
So from where has this trope originated? One theory suggests we have the ancient Greeks to blame. In Greek mythology, inheritance is often passed down the female line so the man who marries the king’s daughter inherits the throne and the wealth. In The Iliad, Menelaus becomes king of Sparta through marrying Helen; Oedipus becomes King of Thebes by marrying the recently widowed queen. And there are similar examples in Celtic and Breton myths. In a system of matrilineal inheritance, it seems reasonable for young men to be awarded marriage only after proving themselves through some sort of challenge because it ensures that the throne and the kingdom’s wealth isn’t going to some incompetent moron.
The ‘woman as reward’ trope as seen in films is different from the trope as seen in fairytales. Usually films show the couple getting to know each other and falling in love over a period of time to make it more palatable to modern audiences. The women are seen to choose the men rather than just being presented to them. And there are films that subvert this trope such as Casablanca, Hancock and, of course, Harry Potter where it’s the ginger-haired sidekick that gets the girl rather than the titular hero. The ‘woman as reward’ trope probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon but at least films have to try and show that the woman has some agency in the matter.