Princess Ethics

(This is particularly for the “guilty liberals” among you/us… that is those of us who have privilege, know we have privilege, but feel awkward about it and aren’t quite sure what to do with/about it. There are some things we need to talk about, and we need to do it before “our” culture completely destroys the planet. If you aren’t a member of this group, but you still wish to see what I have to say, you’re welcome/encouraged to join in the conversation. If you keep reading you’ll find that this is about “us” taking more responsibility by learning to listen and see better, even though I’m struggling with the very concept of “us”. I will additionally say that I am working at the very edge of what I’m able to think about here. Feeling around in the dark… literally at this moment.)

I learned something important from my daughter about justice, ethics, and what constitutes fairness. Unfortunately, it seems to be intrinsic to our culture, and once I started thinking about it, it had nothing to do with justice, fairness, or ethics. It is this: The great injustice in Cinderella is not that she is poor. There are poor people everywhere in fairy tales, and at the end of it all, only one is ever lifted up out of the bounds of poverty. The injustice in Cinderella is that she is poor when she rightly should be rich. Really, she always was a princess, and the end of the story is just a confirmation of the right order of things. As my daughter put it, “Cinderella is actually the person who owns the house, and she has to do all the chores and cleaning.”

There is so much complexity in here that I have been unpacking this conversation for several months already. I’m not done, but I don’t think I can do the rest of it on my own. Cooler/differently educated heads may need to prevail.

Key assumptions seem to be:

  1. Essentialism: That there is an essence to the princess. She IS a princess by right of birth. In rare circumstances, the main character can become a princess by right of her extreme beauty or goodness, but then you know that really, she was meant to be a princess all along.
  2. Entitlement: the fact of having been born to a king and queen, or into wealthy circumstances is an indication that she has the right to such wealth.
  3. That somehow these facts are tied up in her being good, kind, and beautiful, thus proving that the world is a good, kind, and beautiful place.

This is one of the great myths of our society. This is what my daughter thinks the world is like, because these myths are what we use to make sense of it all, and I (all so innocently) aided and abetted, allowing and even encouraging the princess play, the different versions of Cinderella (I think there are three in our movie collection), only concerned about what it would do to my feminist ideals. It never occurred to me that our society is founded on these princess ethics. Well, obviously it did, but a little too late, we might say.

What do I do with this now? It no longer seems like the lovely play of dreams, but the very foundation of the hierarchy, abuses, and social structures. “We” who have been born into privilege are struggling… how do we maintain this comfort, this amusement? Can we do so without giving anything up? Must we learn to share, and if so, how do we make sure that we still stay at the top of the heap? And how do we simultaneously maintain the belief that the world is fair, just, and beautiful in the face of all evidence to the contrary?

She just wants to play at power, controlling the world around her, and having access to endless wealth, jewels, and beautiful flouncy dresses. How is that so different from my continual reading of decorating magazines? (You can imagine me putting my head down on the desk at this point.)

In the process of this rambling, I happened upon the metaphor of the game. We hear this frequently. Life is a game, and money is how we keep score. He who dies with the most toys wins. It occurred to me, though, that when we play a board game, eventually a winner is declared, and we start again. There is no reset on this game, and we come into it with completely different starting conditions. The game metaphor sucks! Not to mention that as an idea, it lets us out of all the responsibilities, and we cheat. Play against people who don’t know the rules, stack the deck, give ourselves more money to start with, change the rules in mid-stream to make sure that we continue to benefit, make up new rules, steal the bank… Wait a minute! Forget the metaphor. The game sucks.

This game does not make the world it pretends to. I don’t like this game any more, and I’m one of the winners, or at least one of the people who hasn’t yet been wiped out by landing on Boardwalk with a hotel. This is not a world where good triumphs, and true beauty and kindness are rewarded. It is a world in which the villain knocks the tops off entire mountains, creates Isengard in West Virginia, and then retires to a nice home in a different part of the country. Where we can be horrified by the situation, struggle with it, grow some vegetables and chickens, and then drive to town because that’s where the next part of today’s story is, all princess-like.

We’re adrift. We’ve carried our myths, but lost their ties to place. European myths moved around, everywhere in the world, lost track of and obliterated the local storylines, and our ancestors became wanderers, children, ever-seeking never-finding agents of destruction and loss. Don’t hunt the kangaroo during breeding season! This is how you make sure the salmon come back every year! Don’t lose the stories, or you will lose your way. Don’t carry the stories across an ocean, and only bring part of them! You will never find your way back and you will completely alter the place you went to trying to reconstruct the place you came from.

Breadcrumbs, we have nothing but breadcrumbs, and most of those have been eaten. If we happen upon them, nobody can remember why they were there in the first place. There is no home to go to, and there is no home where we are. We are placeless, and lonely, and we secretly think that we are really the lost princess in disguise and that if only we had that new iPhone everything would work out.

Experiments in Agency

The reason I keep running into the myths, the stories, and the structures as I try to make sense of this all is that they don’t just limit what we can do. They limit what we can think of to do. They also limit how much impact any one of us can have. I could give up everything and it wouldn’t benefit the world. Not significantly. This is the position of privilege: I can hand it back, but only to a certain extent. I can call it for what it is, but I can’t change the way that other people perceive me when I simply walk down the street. There are millions of years written on my body. I can’t unlearn my stories, although I can learn to hold them up to examination. And I can’t erase a thousand years of injustice; there is nowhere for me to go back to. This is not guilt. It is frustration. I’m angry.

I’ve been watching and reading across a wide range of radical education recently. We educated white European-descended people are disproportionately represented on these screens. Of course we are. We come from the tradition that wrote the story. But it is coming to a rather nasty conclusion, and many of us are starting to realize that. It is our job to do something about it, AND it is our job to learn the stories which have been lost… not as anthropologists, not as curious outsiders, not as colonizers, and not as princesses or knights riding in to the rescue, but as co-inhabitants of this world that is in desperate need for us to stop wandering as lost, destructive, and well-armed children, looking for our castles in the sky.

What else? What else is possible, if the princesses don’t always prevail? What if, at the end, the whole kingdom is liberated? What other ethic could be?

14 responses to “Princess Ethics”

  1. What if, at the end, the whole kingdom is liberated?

    Since we’re talking about children’s stories (among other things), this question is exactly why I loved Chicken Run so much. (Well, besides just loving whoever is responsible for it and for Wallace & Gromit.) It is very clear from the beginning of the movie that the heroine could in fact escape if she wanted to. But that’s not what she wants. She wants to liberate the whole chicken farm.

    • More thoughts …

      First, speaking of essentialism, forget Cinderella. How about the Princess and the Pea?

      Second, I’m curious what the income gap is in Canada. Here in the U.S.? “The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent” (via blue milk).

      Third, speaking of breadcrumbs, a few months ago my favorite radio host kept on asking and asking and asking why, rather than resent public employees and trying to take away their fabulous benefits, the general public wasn’t instead rallying to have their own benefits improved. “It’s because we’re fighting over the leftovers,” said one guest (I wish I could remember who), and the radio host stopped asking.

      Fourth, thanks for the book recommendation (the King book below).

  2. Hey sister! A few days ago I was telling Victor that, globally speaking, we’re Easter Island. We can see the destruction but we keep on going. We can see what happened to Easter Island but we keep on going. This is the cultural story I carry now; wilful ignorance leading to destruction. This Cassandra has thrown out all princess narratives. They are a distraction from the truth, which is ugly and frightening.

    I love your point about how our cultural constructs keep us from even thinking about the ideals that underpin those constructs. The best tools of social control are those we engage in on our own, especially those we pass down to our children with our approval. Question everything!

    • I edited out a reference to Easter Island from this post, and I keep having dreams about Cassandra.

  3. Whether Cinderella was a princess depends on which version of the tale you read — though she is typically not. One early version says her father was “among the nobles of the king’s court.” Perrault says her father was “a gentleman.” The Grimms say only that her father was “a rich man.”

    In the Norwegian tale of Katie Woodencloak, the girl is a princess who flees her home for fear that her stepmother will murder her (with the help of a talking bull!).

    • Talking bull, eh? I have trouble with these myths, because I’m reading along and find myself thinking, “I think something must have been lost in translation, round about here.”

  4. As with the meanings of words, concepts often change over time. Assumptions are also in the eye of the beer holder… er beholder.

    All of the assumptions you listed have one common tie in our culture, that being money.

    I propose we look at this by replacing the word princess with the term wealthy.

    So now it looks like this

    The wealthy are wealthy because they are born into it, and thus entitled to it, and because they are wealthy they must be good. Because in our society money = good, poor = lazy.

    I do think that there are more to the assumptions than what is obvious. I have to wonder (I at least try to project that past humanity was less greed oriented than today) if the words/ideas in these stories had different meanings at the time, ie if we had different values than we hold today.

    For example:

    Is the essence referred to simply due to blood lineage of wealth? Or is the royal family royal due to their compassionate acts as well?

    Entitlement: how do we define this? Are we talking about right to inheritance? Human rights? the rights to own and control things?

    How is being “Good” defined? Truly helping others, or only throwing money at a problem so it goes away; out of sight out of mind.

    At last, I fear even the analogies I’ve given are taint with words of our culture.

    In my view of an “Ideal world” these assumptions would not be based on how much money one has but by their actions.

    To me Everyone is entitled to equal rights, health care, an education, and the list goes on. But it should, in no way, be tied to how much money you have.

    The richest people I know are dirt poor but creative, generous, kind… GOOD by my standard of the word.

    In short our society values (or has come to value, theres my optimism again) monetary wealth over knowledge,creative, understanding, and community. Until we can remedy this things are bound to get worse.

    So what do we do? Do we stop reading these stories to children? Do we stop letting them watch tv (though that Idea has merit too)?

    It’s my belief that, while our children may not always do what we want them to do, the best thing we can do is to teach them our values, and help them develop critical thinking skills. Those skills will allow them to form their own set of values and make their own informed decisions instead of being another sheep listening to big brother.

    • I don’t let my children watch TV, actually. They do get pretty free access to movies, but I’ve decoupled that from the advertising. As I mentioned in a comment, oh, somewhere else on this site in the last couple of days… That advertising that constantly comes into our houses yelling, “You suck!” undermines our ability to walk through the world making choices instead of reacting.

      • that is awesome. We haven’t had a tv in quite a few years. We are constantly barraged by it when we go to others homes etc.. but to me it’s just annoying.. this coming from someone who grew up on tv.

        but yes, we to tend to watch movies.

        I use to really like horror movies and action movies but I’ve mellowed out over the years. Don’t like the violence and the unnecessary agitation.

    • You’re exactly right, BTW, it is the links between wealth, worth, power, and value that I’m interested in exploring here… along with discussions about whose stories get told, and how we decide what is true.

      I can recommend Thomas King’s “The Truth About Stories” if you can get your hands on it. It’s a CBC Ideas/Massey Lectures series, published by Anansi Press.

  5. This is fascinating…I love it when people make me think outside my box. 🙂

    I’ll be chewing on this post for awhile…my little one isn’t yet old enough for the princess stories, but I had already almost decided not to share them (mainly so she wouldn’t think she needed a prince to rescue her!) But this brings a whole new angle into it…thank you for sharing your thoughts!I

    • I’m getting pretty far out of my own boxes here… But I’ve been staggering along this path for the last 20 years. You know, I started out wanting a Jaguar and a corner office? Bwa ha ha ha ha…

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