The Curse of Charming

How a learned behavior can be a red flag.

By Annelise Peterson

Raised on a diet of Disney, where Prince Charming never fails to rescue the fair maiden with grand gestures of heroism, I was stuffed with saccharine fairy tales of romantic love from the moment I was given a pink bow in the hospital. Fortunately, it has been life’s lessons, not a kiss, that have roused me from the curse of the red apple’s allure, unveiling a stark, and perhaps unsettling, truth: Being swept away, far from leading to a happily-ever-after, often primes one for a harsh fall—into the proverbial trash. The appeal of noble deeds often obscures not only the truth of one’s character, but also the fact that genuine connection requires time to develop, along with mutual respect and authenticity.

Perhaps charm, defined as “the power or quality of giving delight or arousing admiration,” should come with a warning label. Akin to those found on a package of cigarettes, it might read: “(Charm) Smoking can kill you,” in a metaphorical sense. From the moment children exit the womb, they’re introduced to a binary worldview, neatly categorizing individuals as “good” or “bad”; “boy” and “girl.” Consider the case of Santa Claus, who, according to legend, withholds gifts from those who make the naughty list. As children grow up, this simplistic assessment of right versus wrong, good versus evil, becomes entrenched, profoundly influencing their self-perception. Self-worth often hinges on behavior, the manifestation of desirable traits and the treatment one receives by others. How well an individual measures up to these attributes reflects both their “goodness” as well as that of their caregivers. While most children naturally inspire delight, “charm” can transform into a calculated strategy for admiration, self-esteem or, in the realm of fairy tales, to win over a princess. This orchestrated chivalry, whether conscious or not, becomes the facade of charm—a choice of perceived righteousness over genuine connection to the self and others, a performance for approval. No pointing fingers. It’s not just men who forsake their ingenuity for social validation and a woman’s regard. Girls are indoctrinated with the notion that their value lies in the “like” of another, the notorious thirst trap on Instagram an obvious byproduct. As a result, women far too often forsake their autonomy under the influence of the male gaze. This dynamic initiates a dance of illusions, where both parties, hypnotized under the spell of patriarchy, act out gender roles that sacrifice their authenticity for the social stage. This phenomenon captured theatrically by Ibsen in A Doll’s House in 1879, remains strikingly relevant today. Perhaps the death is not when they part, but when both succumb to the curse of charm.

Advocating for kindness and generosity is not misguided; it’s the underlying motivation that warrants examination. A man skilled in wining, dining and charming doesn’t necessarily embody wisdom or compassion. While gestures like opening doors or picking up tabs are recognized and appreciated, these actions should not become rigid expectations that define a man’s worth. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes have begun to assert their value, even when they don’t conform under the pressure of being a “nice lady” with a “like” in the metaverse. It’s only fair that men are afforded equal opportunities to express their emotional range, provided nobody gets physically or emotionally bludgeoned in the process, allowing them to build healthy self-regard independent of financial status or other heroic achievements. Moreover, this relentless emphasis on “charm training” by society and caregivers inadvertently underestimates a boy’s ability to make meaningful choices based on being innately more “good” than “bad.” Most parenting experts agree that children are inherently curious, and the most compassionate approach to raising “good” children is to model radical self-acceptance of all our facets, thereby fostering self-exploration rather than thwarting it. According to Tovah Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development as well as the esteemed author of How Toddlers Thrive as well as the forthcoming book Raising Resilience: How to Help Our Children Thrive in Times of Uncertainty, “Boy or girl, all children need the same loving and tuned-in care from parents, including kindness and the message that all emotions matter and can be felt. That is what allows a child to grow into an authentically connected adult.” Instead of hastily labeling actions as manipulative or strictly training children to do the “right thing,” staying open and curious and encouraging self-exploration helps caregivers understand the real needs underlying a child’s behavior. Beneath the veneer of being “good,” there might be a boy who was never given the benefit of the doubt—the chance to discover his innate wisdom and experience the intrinsic joy derived from simple acts of kindness, such as willingly sharing his toy without instruction. Similarly, consider the fulfillment of witnessing a partner’s smile when someone chooses to offer them a ride home, a simple yet meaningful gesture that conveys concern for their safety.

As we progress into the era of the fifth wave of feminism, which emphasizes dismantling traditional power structures and advocating for genuine equality, the urgency to address the curse of charm becomes not just relevant, but critical. This necessity is highlighted in the world of cinema, where art imitates life: Ryan Gosling received a 2024 Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Ken in Barbie, while Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie, the film’s director and lead actress, respectively, did not receive similar recognition. This situation points to ongoing gender equality challenges, showing how women’s achievements can still be overshadowed in favor of traditional masculine roles. Moreover, it underlines the need for a more balanced approach in recognizing contributions across genders, a key focus of the fifth wave, as men continue to hold the reins. To transform the system, creating gender equality and remodeling patriarchal structures, male participation and understanding is fundamental to a shared success. It’s not just about getting boys on board; it’s about them choosing to be “on horse,” to use a reference from the film. Excluding men from the conversation, as they struggle with their own roles in a changing landscape and thereby causing them to feel alienated or defensive, only exacerbates the problem. Women, in their pursuit of change, often feel this backlash most acutely, with the 2024 Oscar nominations serving as an example. Yes, women can be angry—and must simultaneously find empathy. As David W. Augsburger, the renowned writer and counselor specializing in nonviolent conflict resolution, once observed, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” By bringing men into the conversation, we can create a more inclusive and equitable environment, where the journey toward change is a shared one, with both men and women riding together toward a more balanced and authentic future. After all, men deserve the freedom, as Ken found on his horse, to express vulnerability and pursue authenticity over mere charm just like Barbie deserves to be angry and have a vagina.

To resist an addiction to a pack of charm, we must examine our judgments, trust the process and cleanse ourselves of harmful stereotypes we may have ingested along the way. It’s not gentlemen that caregivers seek to raise and marry, but rather gentle men. Perhaps the most profound lesson we can teach our children is unconditional self-compassion. Rather than molding men into heroes and women into fair maidens, maybe it’s time we extend both genders the grace of being human. When boys learn they can be gentle with themselves, embracing all aspects of who they are—including the parts that may be afraid of scaling Rapunzel’s fragile braid—this kindness that we’ve labeled as charm will cultivate on its own. After all, no woman truly desires locks long enough for a man to climb, nor does she wish to have her hair tugged by his full body weight. The true mark of a gentleman is not found in heroic deeds, but in the manner he treats himself, and consequently, how he treats (mother) Earth.