Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Fairy Tale Sex & New Adult Romance

Everything old is new again. You’ve often heard this well-worn cliché, but nothing brings it home better than the skyrocketing rise in popularity for a new literary genre that publishers are calling “new adult romance”. What, exactly, is new adult romance? Quite frankly, literature that focuses on young people from about the ages of 18-24 who are encountering their first sexual relationships (with the accent being on relationships—not necessarily their first one-night stand or bump and grind in the back of a car). Why all the shout? Because though you may not realize it, the reading ages of 18-24 used to be death in the publishing industry. Publishers and marketers have known for decades that their bread and butter came from readers who are ages 25-55—the largest demographic of book buyers around the world. But then something happened—welcome to the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. All of a sudden, younger people were reading in droves. And as if on cue, the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer appeared, single-handedly hooking teenagers on a book and film franchise that addressed all of their angst and need for a book boyfriend or girlfriend. Young adult fiction became a huge force in the publishing industry, but there was only one problem: these readers grew up. And they wanted to keep on reading . . .

Enter new adult romance!

Now, you can’t swing a dead cat in a bookstore without seeing new adult romances plastered all over the shelves. Titles like Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire, Lick by Kylie Scott, and My Favorite Mistake by Chelsea M. Cameron address this unique age bracket that is testing out adulthood and what it means to have a possibly fulfilling relationship that includes sex. But let’s face it—our first sexual relationships often crash and burn because we’re just beginning to figure out who we are and what we want, and new adult romances address the relationship minefields that often plague us in our twenties. It’s as though, in high school, we are given a script for how to lead our lives (stay in school, study hard, don’t do drugs or get pregnant), but in our late teens and early twenties, the script gets a lot hazier. Okay, maybe you want to graduate from college or try to get a good job, but what about relationships? You’re old enough to vote now, you probably don’t live with mommy and daddy anymore, and no one’s around to tell you “no” about much of anything. So you experiment with sex, boyfriends or girlfriends, and try to figure out what feels right to you in ways that no previous set of “rules” can quite apply. All by yourself, you figure out relationships are messy and hard to define. And at this point, you’d really like books that reflect this sea of possibilities as well as their pitfalls. As Margo Lipshultz, senior editor at Harlequin, says of new adult books, “These characters do have more freedom [and] less parental supervision. They’re in charge of their own lives, but they’re figuring out how to navigate those lives for the first time, and they're making mistakes along the way: trusting the wrong person, or falling for the guy that they know is bad for them” (Bookish.com, July 1, 2013). So along with this new-found maturity in our twenties come very high emotional stakes. You don’t necessarily have mommy and daddy’s shoulders to cry on about your choices anymore, and you probably want to test out relationships that your relatives might not approve of. And thank god! Because if you don’t get out there and make a few mistakes, you might become one of those pitiful people who marries far too young before they really know who they are, becoming that all-too familiar shell of a human being by their forties. We’ve all met people who didn’t do enough experimentation in their early years, only to do so much later in life when it becomes awkward or downright embarrassing. (Seriously? You want to die your hair purple, get tattoos and piercings, and date people way too young for you at age 45? Icky!). The twenties are that golden time when, if you have any sense, you’ll hopefully venture forth into that dark wilderness to figure out who you really are, and let yourself do all those crazy things in the name of finding love. As Sylvia Day, a well-known romance author, says of new adult readers, “These people are so young and they’re setting out on their own for the first time and feeling that first blush of love and that huge hormonal reaction. Your love was insane—you can’t stop thinking about them, you’re calling each other all the time. All of that—that whole overblown sense of drama—is what’s in New Adult” (Bookish.com, July 1, 2013).

But wait a second—

I can think of a centuries-old literary genre that has been addressing this age bracket, and all the crazy, love-lorn machinations that accompany new adulthood, for about as long as mankind has been walking this earth. And it’s called fairy tales.
Yes, fairy tales! Think about it—how old do you think Snow White was when she was lying in that glass casket, about to be “awakened” by a dashing young man? Or Rapunzel when she was letting down her golden hair for that handsome prince? Hello—though fairy tales rarely are specific about the age of their characters who’re about to blossom into sexuality, they’re generally taken to be of “marriageable age.” In times of old, that particularly angsty age bracket can range anywhere from 16-22 (depending on which scholar or version you listen to). This is a very similar demographic that the more recent new adult romances address. What’s more, there are several fascinating features that many popular fairy tales often have in common with new adult romances, and they are the following:

1.      The main characters are considered of “marriageable” age for their culture, anywhere from 16-24.

2.      The main characters set upon a journey away from home where they are no longer supervised by their parents or caregivers.

3.      The main characters encounter obstacles that there are no ready answers for—they must figure out the path forward for themselves.

4.      The main characters encounter male or female partners who often provide their first serious encounter with the opposite sex that might lead to a long-term relationship.

5.      The main characters (whether overtly or metaphorically) have an intimate encounter with the male or female that they fancy.

So let’s take a look at two of the most popular fairy tales of all time: Rapunzel and Snow White, to see how they are indicative of the same classic scenarios in the more recent new adult romance genre.

In Rapunzel, we all know that this poor young woman was sequestered in a tower around the age of 12 (depending on the version) as she was just about to approach puberty, locked away by a nasty fairy, sorceress, or godmother (again, depending on the version). But as Rapunzel blossoms into marriageable age some years later, along comes a dashing prince who ventures through the forest and finds her through the echoes of her beautiful song. It’s important to note that the prince has left the comfort of the castle and his parents’ supervision and taken the classic new adult journey (often through the wild woods, an interesting metaphor for the unknown) to find his possible mate. Thereafter, we hear the prince state his famous words, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” Obviously, most psychoanalytical literary critics view his call as metaphorical for his desire for sexual intimacy. Interestingly, however, it is now Rapunzel’s choice whether to invite this young man into her private chamber. At first we are told she is “frightened”—yet she decides to do so anyway. New adult romances are all about such angst-filled choices, particularly ones that are made without “permission” from other adults, and could have long-term consequences. Luckily, Rapunzel and the prince are said to have “lived in joy and pleasure for a long time” which results in her pregnancy with twins. How fascinating that there is no wedding involved in this story, and Rapunzel at one point says to the evil fairy/sorceress/godmother “Why is it that my clothes are all too tight?” Though Rapunzel may seem naïve, she’s encountered one of the real-world consequences of new adult sex: parenthood. Another consequence is the disapproval of elders, and the fairy/sorceress/godmother becomes so irate that she cuts off Rapunzel’s hair, banishes her to the wilderness, and informs the prince that he’ll never find her again. But true love—often the biggest goal in new adult romances—wins out! Though the prince loses his sight and wanders in the forest for a dark period, Rapunzel eventually finds him in the wilderness and her tears of joy restore his sight as the lovers are reunited.

I absolutely adore this particular fairy tale because it clearly shows that both female and male characters have a long and arduous journey through the “wilderness” to ultimately find their most suitable long-term relationships. Just having sex with each other isn’t enough to secure happily-ever-after—there is a difficult path ahead towards adulthood that they must tread before they are settled with one another, a path that sometimes means bucking against the approval of their elders. Yet how wise fairy tales are for not offering a simple formula for happiness! Anyone who truly reads fairy tales knows how complex and full of puzzling twists they can be, but for new adults in particular, they offer something of a road map to the arduous minefield we all must navigate towards maturity.

Characters in fairy tales often go through a period of wandering
 in the wilderness before reaching maturity & finding true love

Similarly, Snow White contributes another glimpse into the complexities and angst-filled stakes that are often involved in truly becoming a “grown up” who makes his or her own relationship choices. As we know, Snow White has the stepmother from hell who envies her like crazy—and true to most new adult romances, there aren’t adults around who’ll be of much help on one’s journey and may even be a thwarting influence. At a tender age (some versions say 7, but archaic versions hint that Snow White had reached puberty), the evil stepmother hires a huntsman to take Snow White out to the woods to kill her. Here we are at the woods again! That classic metaphor for no rules and no society—a place where you must figure out your way forward by yourself. Yet precisely at this wild place, Snow White inspires the pity (and some say sexual attraction) of this huntsman, who feels sorry for her and lies about her death to the evil stepmother. What happens next is very intriguing—Snow White hides out and sets up “house” with a bunch of men, the iconic dwarves. More archaic versions say they were miners, later called “dwarves” to lessen the sexual tension, because such a job favors people of shorter stature. And many psychoanalytical critics see her living situation as a metaphor for Snow White “shacking up” with various boyfriends on her road to new adulthood in order to try on various female roles—for we know in the fairy tale that she “tested all the beds”. In return for her cooking, cleaning, and washing, the dwarves promise Snow White that “you can stay with us, and you shall have everything you want.” Sounds like a classic live-in relationship to me, but I have to wonder if perhaps these men are assigned “dwarf” status in the fairy tale because they don’t quite measure up to the ultimate long-term partner Snow White is seeking.

Yet in due time, Snow White’s experimental lifestyle infuriates the evil stepmother once she finds out that the young woman is still alive. In famous fashion, the stepmother disguises herself as the old farmer’s wife and offers her a “poisoned apple” that kills her. It doesn’t take a psychological genius to see the parallels to the “fruit of knowledge” that Adam and Eve ate of, or that this apple is perhaps a metaphor for sexual activity that “kills” Snow White’s younger self. Could it be that during her time in the woods with the dwarves, Snow White experimented with sexual relationships that changed her from a child to a woman forever, yet left her wanting? And the stepmother merely reminded her of this with the apple—that she is no longer a young girl? This is a huge theme in current new adult romances—that after experimenting and pursuing the “one,” many young women feel adrift and emotionally “comatose” due to the crash and burn nature of early sexual relationships. After all, Snow White is later placed in a “glass coffin,” not a heavy box made of wood with metal hinges—one that she could easily break out of if she has a single breath of life left in her. And even more peculiarly, her coffin is set on display in the forest for all to see. Metaphorically, it makes one wonder if Snow White is very much alive, but too emotionally drained by her previous relationships or experiences to allow herself to be a bold adult woman just yet. She’s in a holding pattern, emotionally and sexually, wearied by her former experiences and perhaps merely waiting for “the one” (that new adult romance characters so often long for) to awaken her into a happier adult relationship. However, as if by magic (or perhaps Snow White’s intuitive wisdom to lay low and wait for what she truly wants), her Prince Charming does appear, and with a brave kiss “awakens” her to her happily ever after with him. Well, duh—“awakening” moments in fairy tales are often a more palatable way of describing intimate contact, particularly after ancient fairy tales were scrubbed of sexual details and innuendos by the Grimm Brothers in order to sell to broader audiences as nursery tales in 1857. (Their 1812 edition of fairy tales often left in the sexual connotations). After such an “awakening,” this young woman, who’s already been through her wilderness experience and associated with several men, is said to have finally found her true love.
The Prince discovers Snow White in the glass coffin

Again, what I love about Snow White, similar to Rapunzel, is how frequently these fairy tale characters at the brink of adulthood must wander through the wilderness to find their way to maturity. Even Prince Charming in Snow White has to venture into the forest and take chances with some serious risks involved. After all, why, oh why, does he approach a creepy glass coffin and open it in order to kiss a supposedly dead total stranger? That’s crazy! But you often have to go through a lot of crazy as a new adult to find a rewarding relationship. Blind dates, online dating websites, trusting potential mates who turn out to have baggage, or are emotionally scary, or are downright stalkers—this phase of young adulthood is filled with emotional minefields and genuine risk. But as the classic saying goes, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince—or princess. No guts, no glory! And in fairy tales as well as modern new adult romances, the stakes are always high. That’s because heartbreak, let alone pregnancy or the possible transmission of sexual diseases, has real-world consequences.

But if you never muster the courage to continue on your journey towards adulthood, you’ll forever remain emotionally locked in Rapunzel’s tall tower or Snow White’s glass coffin. The one thing that fairy tales and new adult romances have most in common is that true love requires bravery. And perhaps this is why we love these characters so much. They could take the easy way out and follow the rules or do what’s expected of them to lead a psychologically stale life. But instead they keep going through dark times to grab that chance at true love and genuine happiness. It doesn’t mean that their paths are always easy. But if they can survive their journeys through the wilderness (both sexually and by bucking society’s rules) their reward is a meaningful and fulfilling adult relationship. And isn’t that what most of us really want? Though new adult romances shed a fresh light on the precarious nature of this necessary growth phase of entering adulthood, the desires and dreams of all of us to find true love and fulfillment in our adult lives is as old and as beautiful as fairy tales themselves.

If you love new adult romance with a touch of fairy tale magic, check out my new adult novel STONE OF THIEVES, now available on Kindle & in paperback at Amazon.

Sources for Article:
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Annotated Brothers Grimm. Edited with a Preface and Notes by Maria Tatar. W. W. Norton & Company; The Bicentennial Edition, October 15, 2012.

Zutter, Natalie. What Is ‘New Adult’? Romance Editors and Authors Tell All. Bookish.com, July 1, 2013. http://www.bookish.com/articles/what-is-new-adult-romance-editors-and-authors-tell-all.

(This article was originally written by Diane J. Reed for www.onceuponafans.com and is used with their permission.)

(Photo credit note: All images on my website are either my own or were gleaned from pictures in the public domains of facebook, pinterest, or other popular social networks. If you own the copyright to any of these images & do NOT want them used publicly, please contact me & I will take them down immediately! : )


  1. I am 1/2 way through the book! I am savoring it. So far one of the very best reads this year I have read! I am already looking for the third book, "slight of hand & twist of Fate" is what comes to mind reading this captivating story!! Bravo Diane!

  2. Gasp—thank you so much, Karna! I'm beyond thrilled that you're enjoying Stone of Thieves! Sherwood's End, the third book in this magical & romantic series, will be out in the fall of 2014 :D Have a great summer!

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