Prince Charming is a character appearing in numerous fairytales. He is mentioned not as a prince but Le roi Charmant or King Charming in a fairytale written by Madame d’Aulnoy, a 17th century French writer. She also refers to simply a Charmant, in a second fairytale. However, stories including this character type figure predate d’Aulnoy’s work.
The title has often been applied to male characters or to real men who seem to possess all the qualities that would make women fall in love with them. In The Portrait of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde in 1890, a poor but gifted actress refers to Dorian as Prince Charming. However, Wilde turns the concept on its ear when Dorian decides to abandon Sybil, showing himself to be no true Prince, and merely charming on the surface.
Most frequently, one thinks of Prince Charming in connection with Walt Disney’s reworking of popular fairytales. Many call Snow White’s rescuer by this name, although it isn't actually used in a Disney film until Cinderella. Cinderella’s prince is truly named Prince Charming. Contrary to popular belief, the prince of Sleeping Beauty is named Phillip.
From a symbolic sense, however, all princes who rescue ladies are essentially Prince Charming duplicates. Often, the Prince needs to be royal in order to rescue the princess or maiden from horrible living conditions. Frequently, it is not royalty but true love that allows him to free a lady from a terrible spell. This is the case with both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. True love’s first kiss rescues these damsels.
Prince Charming can also be a symbol of the ideal man for a woman who is looking for marriage. As a backlash, many modern women assert they don't need such a man and don't need to be "rescued." They believe that they don't need a husband or boyfriend to live complete and happy lives. Many feminist critics believe that the ideal is unrealistic and reverts many women to "damsels" who need to be rescued.
Others, especially young girls, may cherish the concept of a Prince Charming, who appears and adores them. While many men may have certain charming attributes, the character in literature and film is extremely idealized. When stories end with a “happily ever after,” they are somewhat deluded. We never know if the Prince fails to pick up his laundry, gawks at other women, or snores so loudly one needs a separate bedroom.
This type of realism is applied to the character in the film Shrek 2. Prince Charming turns out to be a whiny, wimpy character who is too late to save Princess Fiona. Fiona has already chosen Shrek as her husband, and the prince behaves like a spoiled child upon learning the news. This is a pleasant turn of events for many feminist critics, who are a little tired of the Prince Charming current running through many novels and fairytales.
In fact, more often than not, modern treatment of Prince Charming is either tongue in cheek or unfavorable. While many still like a good fairytale, most modern day audiences are well aware of the realities of relationships and choose to make their own "happily ever afters."