Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Work it, Princess - Part One

Sometimes I have trouble reconciling the things I believe I should want as a feminist with where I find myself in my life, and what I am actually capable of. I feel like feminism teaches me that I should be in charge of my own life – be my own boss, in as many senses as possible. Problem is, for me, it’s just not possible for me to be my own boss in all aspects of my life, particularly my work life.

I currently work for other people, and I can’t see this ever changing. I’ve had a couple of stabs at running my own businesses, and I have come to a point where I have to face up to the fact I’m simply not cut out for it. My history of mental health issues alone makes it even more difficult for me than it is for neurotypical types, and as any small business owner will tell you, it’s hardly a piece of cake to start with. This means that I am pretty much always going to have to answer to other people in my professional life – and not just answer to them, but largely work to serve their ends. It’s a hard place to be when you feel like you should be putting all your effort into working towards your own goals. I feel like I should be more aggressive, more interested in being lauded for my achievements – but I’m not. My shyness (in person) and social anxiety make the idea of public recognition on any sort of major scale fucking terrifying. I’m much happier making things happen from the background. While I obviously love praise and encouragement, I simply couldn’t deal with being above a certain tier in my professional life. The pressure and expectation would cost me far more than I would gain from public recognition and a slight increase in self determination. I also derive a great deal of satisfaction from helping other people achieve what they need to do. I am proud to be “support staff”, because I know that without me the CEO would never get on his damn plane on time. When he gets interviewed in the paper, I get quite smug knowing that I helped him achieve the success he needed in order to get that kind of media attention. I enjoy this kind of backseat driving far more than I ever enjoyed running my own enterprise, and I sometimes feel like it’s anti feminist to be this disinterested in being “in charge”.
I’ve recently realised that my increasing interest in femme aspects of fashion and my long term love of princesses has helped me come to terms with this complex situation. Femme, fashion, and frivolously pretty things make me feel like a princess, and feeling like a princess makes me feel powerful. While I’m not interested in being selflessly subservient, I’m not particularly good at being powerfully aggressive either. Exploring femme, and revisiting a bunch of folklore, has allowed me to recognise in myself a different kind of power, a less aggressive power, and revel in it. It might seem like a long bow to draw, but let me take you through it. 

I’ve always been deeply fascinated by folklore. I remember freaking myself out thoroughly reading stories I was way too young for about a native American spirit that steals part of your liver while you’re asleep, and never being able to sleep on my back again. 
Unlike other kids though, I got more and more into the whole Princess thing as I got older. I thought they were stupid when I was very small, and it wasn’t until I hit my teens that I started really getting into the whole Disney movie thing. It’s remained a guilty pleasure, but become a stronger pleasure the older I get, quite contrary to popular expectation. 

I loved Mirror Mirror so much. This
outfit is stunning and she kicks so much face.
I think princesses get a bad rap these days. You ask people what qualities they associate with princesses, and the same negative terms come up over and over again – selfish, frivolous, petulant. Pretty, almost certainly, but being pretty is her only worth or value. There has been a rise in popularity of modern, adaptations of stories like Snow White where they attempt to refute this idea of princesses being useless idiots. But in order to do this, they are often butched up to be more physical and aggressive than they ever were in the original stories. Don’t get me wrong, this is pretty neat in itself. I like seeing a gorgeously costumed girl kick some face as much as the next person. But this depiction doesn’t really resonate with my experiences. As much as I would love to, I can’t just kick my boss in the face when he’s being a right dickhead. I can’t just pummel my friend until they realise they’re hurting my feelings. My life has a lot of problems that can’t be solved by a sweet flip, and so while I enjoy these kick-ass princesses for themselves, for personal resonance and inspiration I actually much prefer older depictions.

Let’s pause for a moment before we launch into storytime, and define what I mean when I use the term princess. Historically, and in folklore, a princess is a woman who has power based on either her husband or father’s social position. Even when we use this word in a modern (and almost always negative) context, it’s usually aimed at women who have inherited fortunes, or are seen to have power they didn’t earn. Therefore even though there aren’t really any monarchies with a great deal of power anymore, a modern princess is still a woman who has power based on someone else’s position.
This is an enormously broad net to cast, I know, but there are people writing PhD’s on this very question who have much better definitions if you feel like getting into it that deeply. For the purposes of this little ramble though, I’m talking about how the historical precedent of princesses having power based on the position of someone else relates to my own “subservient” role at work, so the definition is good enough for this discussion.  
Like so many depictions of women in modern media, the image of princess has been homogenised to the point where it has almost lost all contact with it’s historical context.  As I said before, the same three or four words are now thought to sum all there is to say about princesses, when some reading shows this is absolutely not the case. I’m happy to concede there were certainly some pain-in-the-ass princesses in folklore. I’m sure everyone remembers the Princess and The Pea, and there are hundreds of similar stories that went around in just about every culture. But it bothers me that in the transition of folklore from an oral tradition to a written one so many stories that showed a different side of being a princess got lost. I personally have a sneaking suspicion a lot of this is to do with it being largely men who were doing the writing down of these stories, but I don’t want to get too sidetracked. The point is that there are still awesome, inspiring princess stories out there if you know where to look.
One of my favourite books of folklore is this one, given to me by my long lost paternal grandparents.

It was apparently published in Hungary, so I have no idea why a dyed-in-the-wool Aussie couple thought to give it to me, but I’m really glad they did. A lot of the stories in it are familiar, but the versions are quite different to what I’ve seen elsewhere. A lot more blood and gore, for a start, which I thought was BRILLIANT as a kid, and is what leads me to suspect that these are older, more authentic version of these traditional stories. But it also has a bunch of stories I have never come across anywhere else, and one of these is a great example of inspirational princessing. 

This is how the king is illustrated in my version.
He clearly needs some help to not make more
poor decisions.
The Clever Girl is apparently an Italian story originally (although the Brothers Grimm did take down a version much later). While the version in my book is shorter than the one I’ve linked to here, there are enough similarities that I’m going to go ahead and assume they are versions of the same story. She’s also technically a Queen in the version I’ve linked to, but she fulfills the narrative role of princess, so just go with it. I’d recommend reading the whole thing, but the very condensed version is that a super smart peasant girl gets the attention of the King because her Dad can’t help bragging about how smart she is. The King gives her a number of riddles to solve, which she does easily, so the King decides she should obviously be his wife. Once they’re married, the now Queen overhears the King making a really unfair decision on behalf of a peasant who’s come to him for adjudication. She goes behind his back and tells the peasant who has been fucked over how to convince the King he’s been an idiot, which he does, but when the King realises his wife was behind it the whole time he kicks her out. He does say she can take whatever she loves most with her when she goes though, so being a clever and stubborn kind of lady, she drugs the King and kidnaps him because he is the thing she loves the most. The King wakes up in her cottage, is overwhelmed by how totally smart and hilarious his wife is, and takes her back. 

Firstly, what really struck me about this one is the language used to describe the princess. It’s mentioned once that she’s beautiful, but almost as an offhand remark. The version I have treats her beauty the same way – it’s mentioned once in passing at the start of the story, and then never mentioned again. The real thrust of the story is that this girl deserved to be a princess, and became a princess, because she was just so damn smart. She is also much more courageous and combative than a modern audience would expect from a princess – she tells the King when she thinks he’s wrong, and moreover, goes and fixes it when she thinks he’s made a mistake. Just as I can’t tell my boss to his face when he’s being a dickhead, she can’t just flip the bird at the King and tell him to shove his poor decision making up his arse. But as I try to do in my job, she finds a way to not only fix the damage caused  by the King’s poor judgement, but also to make him realise he was being a jerk. Happily, the King loves her all the more for it. He knows he can trust her to have his back when he’s being a jackass, and appreciates that for the gift it is. The story tells us that her cleverness is a quality that means she deserves to be a princess – that princesses should be clever, and kind, and patient, and because this girl is all these things, that’s why she gets the position she does. 

Hey girl...
Here is another one, this time from Yugoslavia. This one is usually called The Pigeon’s Bride, and here is a full version if you want to read it through. The crib notes are that there was once a princess who did nothing all day but sit in her tower doing embroidery. Her parents are always hassling her to get married, and she’s all “Don’t hassle me guys, I will totally get married eventually. I’m just really into this whole embroidery thing right now.” One day a pigeon lands on the windowsill of her tower, and for folktale reasons she falls hopelessly in love with it. Turns out (luckily) the pigeon is actually an enchanted prince, so hurrah, she can get married and it won’t be a crime against nature. Only her boyfriend forbids her to tell anyone about them, because if she does he’ll have to go away and never come back. So the princess’s parents are hassling her about getting married to some dude, and the princess caves and admits she can’t marry anyone else because she’s already totally set on marrying the pigeon prince. Of course, now she’s said it, the prince has to go away and never come back. But the princess isn’t having this. She sets off on a world walking tour to track the guy down, and wears through three pairs of iron shoes before she admits that maybe this won’t work. Instead, she comes home and sets up shop in the local bathhouse, offering people free baths if they tell her about weird things they’ve seen, in the hopes one of them has seen her pigeon boyfriend. Happily, it turns out a winsome little peasant girl has – she tells the princess, the princess finds her guy, breaks the spell, they get married and live happily ever after. 
This one is a little more complex than my first example. At the start of the story, the princess is punished for opening her big mouth when she’s specifically told not to – a pretty standard misogynist trope, the idea that women can’t keep a secret, because they are driven to gossip. But she doesn’t take no for an answer. She literally will not stop until she gets what she wants, and in the end, it is her clever idea that allows her to find her husband again. Through determination and intelligence, as well as creative thinking, she is finally rewarded with the thing she wants most. It could be argued that maybe she should have aimed higher than just getting the boy – but you also have to take these stories in context. The princess is initially presented as being a “bad” princess because she’s not taking any interest in the world around her – underlining the idea that a good princess should be concerned with the plight of others. Once she learns to be a “good” princess, she magnanimously invites the peasant girl who helped her find her husband to the wedding, showing gratitude. Determination, intelligence, and kindness, and in interest in the people that surround them -  these are put forward as the qualities a princess should have. 

Stay tuned for the conclusion to all this rambling tomorrow!


  1. Reading this post made me so serene!
    I'm also support staff and do feel an urge to help and care and organise. I'm PA to someone who I quite like, and also get those jolts of pride when he gets recognition. I always feared that feeling that way makes me somehow unfeminist, so I'm glad there are genuine legit feminists out there who are like me.
    I quite like being support and I don't think that should be taken as code for doormat or pushover. We are who we are and should be able to pursue satisfying lives and careers, and not take genedered crap over it.

    *princess/queen high five*

    1. This whole idea is such a contentious one in feminism - just ask any women who identifies as a submissive in a kink sense, or who chooses to be a traditional housewife!
      I think that the role of support has been assumed so long to be all women are capable of, that it's left an enormously bitter taste in the mouths of a lot of women, and I understand that. But I also think that we shouldn't discount the value of those who genuinely enjoy supporting others - someone has to do it, and I'd rather I was allowed to do what makes me happy than try and force everyone into a role that they are "supposed" to want, but which might not make them happy.


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