This post is a continuation of my "Sex Ed, Then and Now" piece on Chicago Moms Blog.
I know I'm only a part of my girls' sexual education. They are already soaking up information about gender roles, about borders and limits, about the difference between grown-up and child behavior from the world outside our home. Even their bedtime stories are loaded.
Children internalize the underlying ideas of fairy tales and the themes resonate into their adulthood. In stories, the frightening realities of violence, of uncurbed emotions like vengeance and fury, of orphaned and abandoned children, and even of sexuality are contained into a manageable package, complete with vanquished monsters and happy endings.
"The Frog Prince" is about as close as any fairy tale gets to introducing children to the themes of sexual initiation.
The ancient story has versions in the folk tales of Korea, Sri Lanka, China, Scotland and England; I reread the German Brothers Grimm version recently. It's surprising to see it through the eyes of a parent - the sexual themes pop out like I'm wearing 3-D glasses in a Dirk Digler movie.
The princess drops her beloved toy, a golden ball, in a well and a frog offers to help her if she will be his loving companion. She agrees, but runs back home after he returns from the deep with her ball in his mouth. When the frog follows her and knocks on the door of the palace, her father the king demands that the princess keep her promises. She reluctantly allows the frog to eat from her plate and sleep on her pillow. In typical Grimm fashion, the story climaxes with an act of violence when the disgusted princess throws the frog against a wall. This breaks the spell and the frog transforms into the prince, future husband to the happy princess.
What jumps out for me in my re-reading was how young the princess is - still a girl who loves her toy, still a child who runs away from responsibility and promises. As an adult reader, it's easy to see her reactions of repulsion to the animal representing the fear and anxiety the uninitiated may feel as they become aware of the sex act and its unfamiliar strangeness. The story follows her maturing from a child who acquiesces to her father, into a young woman who has grown beyond her fear and is ready to marry.
But just like the revision of princess stories for the grrl power generation, the Frog Prince has been adopted and tamed by pop culture. The story becomes a punch line equivalent of He's Just Not That Into You: "You've got to kiss a few frogs before you find your prince."
Peter Gabriel's musical appropriation of the tale, "Kiss That Frog," is often interpreted as a crude seduction joke. "Jump in the water, c'mon baby, get wet with me," say the lyrics. I heard an interview with Gabriel where he defended the song, citing the inspiration of Bruno Bettelheim's 1975 book, The Uses of Enchantment.
Bettelheim writes: "The story tells us that we cannot expect our first erotic contacts to be pleasant, for they are much too difficult and fraught with anxiety. But if we continue, despite temporary repugnance, to permit the other to become ever more intimate, than at some moment we will experience a happy shock of recognition when complete closeness reveals sexuality's true beauty."
To me it seems the song has such a happy vibe, that it becomes not a kind of coercion, but an invitation for the girl to feel unafraid of her own desire, as strange and unknown and new as it may seem. Not a song positioning girls as potential victims and boys as future predators, but a song about mutual joy.