Thursday, August 13, 2009

Princesses and Cowboys and Knights

Let's talk about socially constructed identities and the cultural context on which they depend for a minute.

A comment on my original cowboy post, along with a couple of comments on Renee's post on "feminist" weddings has gotten me thinking about the parallels between princesses and cowboys and knights. These are interesting because, in our world, they represent an identity that's been ripped out of context - the social contexts that made being a princess or a cowboy* or a knight possible are extinct. And our fascination with these identities has at least a little bit to do with nostalgia for the world they inhabited, and the privileges that came along with these identities. The problem is, it's an idealized world that we pine for, and when we engage in this kind of nostalgia, we tend to remember the privilege portion of the identity, while conveniently forgetting the unpleasant aspects of the life of a princess, or cowboy, or knight. And beyond this selective memory dynamic, what kind of a person idealizes a life that was characterized by privilege that rides on the oppression of others? Don't our fantasies reveal something about us when they involve this kind of idealization of oppression?

In the case of the princess identity, there's an even deeper issue involved, where feminism is concerned. In reality, princesses were political pawns used for strategic marriages and the production of heirs. They had no control over their lives or their relationships. In the modern version of the princess, they're self-centered, spoiled, materialistic people who lack empathy and an understanding of the real world. What person in their right mind takes either of these identities as something to aspire to?!?

Based on this view of princesses, it's endlessly puzzling to me when self-proclaimed feminists defend the marketing of princess culture to little girls, or the ideal of being "princess for a day" for their own wedding. It's as if they're living in this fictional world where you get to rip the identity out of context without also taking on the patriarchal baggage attached to it. Without a patriarchal social framework, there are no princesses. Did you get that? The existence of princesses is contingent on the existence of a patriarchal power structure. No patriarchy, no princesses. The ideal of the princess is inherently tied up with patriarchy, and with the use of women as objects to fulfill male objectives, and with a deeply problematic construction of femininity. And you can't have your little princess fantasy without at the same time affirming the patriarchal construct that gave birth to it. You just can't.

Similarly, you can't have your little traditional marriage and traditional wedding fantasy without also affirming the misogynistic cultural values inherent to the traditional wedding and marriage constructs. If your father is giving you away, then you are implicitly agreeing to be viewed as male property. If you're taking your husband's name, then you're implicitly agreeing that he is the head of the family. That's just how it works. And being feminists doesn't get us off the hook when it comes to the constraints of logic. You cannot affirm two contradictory statements at the same time while still being a rational person. Claiming to be committed to feminist and egalitarian values while also acting in a way that reveals a commitment to traditional, non-egalitarian values is contradictory and irrational, not to mention inauthentic. And feminists, of all people, should be careful to be consistent and rational in their words and actions, because the old "women are inherently irrational" meme is alive and well in our culture. By insisting on clinging to a contradictory set of worldviews and beliefs and values, we simply play into the hands of those who wish to depict us as silly and irrational. And that is nowhere to be found on my list of "things feminists should do."

*I'm referring here to the idealized image of the cowboy that's so prevalent in our culture, not to the actual people who still do ranch work or ride the rodeo circuit.


  1. Sy-run8/14/2009

    I've never really understood why grown women want to have some princess fantasy in the first place (except for the power of marketing, I guess). But it seems undeniable that you can't have your princess fantasy without all the patriarchal baggage.

  2. Hmm. I've been toying with this question ever since you posted this: is it always the case that a socially-constructed identity has to always and forever carry the patriarchal baggage it originally entailed? Are there times when we can "reclaim" an identity the way we reclaim words? Maybe with some of them (like "princess") the patriarchal stuff just is too intrinsic to it. But I'm not sure that's always the case.

  3. Riley,

    I'm not sure that it is always true that the identity is inseparable from the baggage. It seems like there probably are some identities that can be reclaimed, or freed of the baggage. But in the case of the princess identity, I think a patriarchal structure is necessary for it's existence, so the patriarchal crap is inherent to it, and therefore not separable. This is why it's impossible to even make sense of what a princess is outside of a patriarchal context.

  4. I agree with all of this, except for the fact that I keep on thinking about the children's book, "A Little Princess," which is about a different kind of princess-the idea that all females have worth and should be treated like she is worth as much as a royal princess. Of course, this still has some of the patriarchal values in it, but as a child I read the book over and over again and it made me feel extremely empowered.

    But those Disney princesses? They can sing, but that's all they got! Yuck!

  5. If your father is giving you away, then you are implicitly agreeing to be viewed as male property. If you're taking your husband's name, then you're implicitly agreeing that he is the head of the family. That's just how it works.

    Fucking THANK YOU. Everybody always equivocates so much about no-brainers like these. Woman A's dad gave her away because it just happened to be a cute family tradition! Woman B just happened to like her husband's name more than hers (how come that never seems to happen the other way around?). There is no way to justify that shit. No one's perfect, and if you had some dumb sexist custom in your wedding it doesn't mean your feminist card needs to be revoked, but neither can you claim that it's harmless, or that it's an exception to the sexist rule when you do it.

    No one seems to be willing to say these things straight out because we all have friends who partook in these customs, and we don't want to offend them. Every day I want to write a big rant about how my classmates are too fucking young to get married (I just graduated from college in June), but I don't want to lose any friends over it, so I just keep looking at the wedding pictures that look more like prom pictures and bite my tongue. You're telling it like it is, and that's awesome.

  6. Anonymous8/17/2009

    I've got an urge to play devil's advocate here (i.e. I'm not endorsing these points but merely raising them for the sake of discussion):

    Isn't it the case that the central part of the "princess for a day" construction is that the mythos of "princess" means "someone who is special, the centre of attention, who gets pampered and applauded"? Shouldn't everyone (XX, XY and any variant upon) get to feel that at least once in their lives? While the mythical association with the reality of being a princess may be troubling, language evolves all the time - shouldn't we just accept the modern version, and applaud the desire for everyone to be special at least once? And after all, the day you pledge to spend the rest of your life with the person you love most of all is a pretty special day already, so is it wrong to make that the focus of one's "special day", when one gets to be a "princess"?

    Also: when it comes to human interactions "the constraints of logic" are not quite as restrictive as they might be in other fields. For instance, isn't it possible that acting in a certain way for just one day out of one's life doesn't actually "reveal a commitment to" anything? In that context, what is wrong with being "inauthentic"? Isn't much of our lives synthetic anyway, especially if you consider that our behaviours must necessarily be a synthesis of our ideals (i.e. feminism) and our reality (i.e. the Patriarchy) anyway. Is it so wrong for a woman to embrace that for one day when she can actually let it mean something good and exciting for her, personally?

  7. KC, I remember that book (my mom loved it and read it to us), and I do think that ideal of the princess was significantly different. For one thing, being generous and thoughtful and compassionate were central to being a princess in that model, which is kind of the opposite of what it means to be a princess in our world. But I'm still really uncomfortable with the idea that little girls need to be sheltered and pampered and treated like delicate flowers. And it seems inevitable that a soft, luxurious, sheltered life for anyone will ride on the work and oppression of others. But I do agree that there are varying versions of the princess myth, some less offensive than others.

  8. SnowdropExplodes, I think these are interesting points, and exactly the response most pro-princess (or whatever) people would give.

    I get that the whole "princess for a day" thing is supposed to mean being the center of attention, etc. But it's still problematic because of all the baggage that comes with being a princess. Why is a princess the center of attention and pampered and applauded? What makes her the center of attention (hint: this question cannot be answered without appealing to patriarchal social structures). And beyond that, I think you can be special for a day in a totally egalitarian way that isn't contingent on patrarchal identities and roles at all. I just don't think "getting to be a princess" is the kind of thing we ought to aspire to.

    And I don't think that every action we take has to be strictly logical. But I do think that if your actions don't reflect your values, then those aren't really your values, but simply the values you think you ought to claim in order to be the kind of person you think you should be. And to me that's a giant issue. Especially when it comes to actions that are highly symbolic and saturated with cultural meaning, like having your father give you to your husband. I think people should feel free to engage in these traditional customs. But if they do, they ought to acknowledge the intersubjective meaning of the customs rather than pretending that because they're feminist, and having a "feminist" wedding, somehow the shared meaning of the action is changed. It would be like claiming that you're hosting a vegetarian Thanksgiving and serving turkey because that's the tradition, but still insisting that it's a vegetarian celebration.

    And I think that's the source of my preoccupation with authenticity. If your actions don't match up to the ideals you claim, then I'm inclined to think that your values and ideals most likely align with what you do rather than what you say.

  9. Yes thank you. I don't get the name taking thing at all. Why would anyone give up the name they've had since they were born. I just don't understand it.

    Great post