For centuries, the breakup has been the prerogative of men. In the 19th century, the concept of romantic love emerged as the basis for marriage and changed the game. Back in the days of arranged unions, if things didn't work out, one could blame society. But since the conceptual evolution of the marriage towards a sentimental vision, the breakup becomes an attack on the inner self.

Today, about half of all marriages in Europe end in divorce and, significantly, 75 percent of divorce applications are filed by women. Perhaps that last statistic explains why women suffer more emotional hurt and find it harder than their ex-partners to build a new lifestyle and relationships. The cruel logic would be that if the woman marries for love and then decides it was a bad idea, the fault must be hers. So she suffers psychological and social consequences – self-blame, stigma, or both.

Think only of the diamond engagement ring. It is actually a marketing success of the ruthless De Beers diamond monopoly, and not a popular tradition: diamonds are rare because De Beers controlled supply and they are popular because the company backed huge marketing campaigns, which made diamond engagement rings de rigueur. The ring on a severed finger in Gvardeitseva’s installation emphasizes this irony.

The project 5-Minute Bedtime Stories resists this logic in a fabulous way. London-based artist Maria Gvardeitseva, divorced after 20 years of marriage, four children, numerous countries, and shared challenges, takes a pronounced political and feminist approach to the story of her separation, which transforms grief, sorrow, and hatred in order to let them go. She offers artistic tools that help women to look at the situation with self-love, rediscover the socio-political aspects of marriage, and cope with this life trauma and the challenges of patriarchy.

She does this in a surprising way – by reference to fairy tales.


Fairy-tale marriages are a tradition whether or not they have ever left the realm of fiction. In his structuralist masterpiece, Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp ran through the standard elements of every folktale, culminating with number 31: “The hero is married and ascends the throne”.

But a fairy-tale divorce? As Propp points out, the two elements which always get the story started, are: “An interdiction is addressed to the hero”, and “The interdiction is violated.” So, for example, the hero (it could also be a heroine) is told: “Don’t venture forth from the courtyard” or “Don’t pick the apples”. And immediately he (she) ventures forth or picks the apples. The violation of an interdiction or an institution – staying in the courtyard, not picking apples… or marriage – is what makes the epic story possible.

Using the fairy-tale parallel, Maria Gvardeitseva suggests that violating an interdiction or stepping outside an institution can be a brave step with transformative consequences. Maybe a new and richer life, or maybe ultimate return to the same institution in a more satisfactory form – Propp’s happy ending where the hero or heroine “is married and ascends the throne.”

Fairy Tales

What Propp says about initiation rites in fairy tales suggests a related point. The initiatory nature of marriage – to the secrets of sex as used to be, childbirth, etc. – is not in doubt.

“…There was no shortage of princes in the dragon kingdom who were a match for her. But now the girl knew to always make the choice herself. Always. No one ever deserves to be more important in your life than yourself. And happiness is when you make all the choices in your life yourself. Today a dragon, tomorrow a girl. Or vice-versa…”