What If I Want To Be A Princess?

PrincessCharming

“There simply isn’t a male fantasy about being appreciated and lauded for one’s intrinsic qualities rather than one’s actions.” Noah Brand wonders why that is.

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“Little girls, on the other hand, have much different fantasies. Much less convoluted. Their parents are not their parents. Their lives are not their lives. They are princesses. Lost princesses from distant lands. And one day the king and queen, their real parents, will take them back to their land and then they’ll be happy for ever and ever.”  –Neil Gaiman, Sandman: A Game of You

As Disney proves with a billion-dollar sub-industry, the fantasy of being a princess is one that resonates with young girls. Yes, Disney promotes this fantasy quite heavily, as do various other kids’ media, but they push it because it’s what sells. Something deep in our cultural conditioning tells little girls that “princess” is the optimal thing to be.

To be a princess is to be the most beautiful, the most special, to have the prettiest dress and the sparkliest jewelry, and to have earned all this by the simple virtue of one’s birth, one’s existence as the specialest. The professional party princess who blogs as Princess For Hire says:

A Princess is a thing they all want to become some day.  She’s a grown up, she’s beautiful, she wears fabulous glittery gowns and no doubt owns a pony.  She lives in a big pretty castle, she never has to clean her room and she gets to eat cookies for dinner if she wants.  It’s something I wanted very much when I was a little girl, really.  A life of leisure and of guaranteed beauty and charm and never feeling left out or unappreciated, because the Princess is the focal point of every kingdom.

She’s observed little girls responding to this fantasy up close, and I respectfully take her word for it.

♦◊♦

Now, feminists have quite legitimately criticized the pervasiveness of this fantasy. It’s completely lacking in agency: the princess simply exists as the specialest girl and is rewarded entirely for her intrinsic specialness rather than anything she does. This is true of a lot of little-girl fantasies. Many women recall their own girlhood imaginings, often characterized by their saintly endurance of impossibly tragic backstories. The great Allie Brosh, at the age of six, gave this theme to the Virgin Mary, of all people:

I felt that the struggles of my character, Mary, needed to be emphasized. The audience really needed to understand that she was suffering. I constructed my costume accordingly.

By the time I was done reinventing her, Mary carried a cane, walked with an exaggerated limp and was completely covered in BandAids.

She was also blind.

British comics for girls also emphasized this noble-suffering trope, and its attendant celebration of the intrinsic specialness of its heroines, to so bravely endure such injustice at the hands of a cruel world that didn’t appreciate them (though, again, without really having to do much of anything.)

Perhaps the neatest summation of this aspect comes from Pat Pflieger, in her piece “Too Good To Be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue“, talking about the naive self-insert characters written by young girls:

In the Young-Mary Sue story, the price is never paid; the power just *is*. The adoration is explained by how naturally wonderful Mary just is. As the Mary Sue’s attractions are celebrated and explored, the author gains vicarious recognition of her own innate power: erotic, intellectual, redemptive.

“Naturally wonderful”, “innate power”, these are the keys to the princess fantasy. They are fantasies of having qualities rather than performing actions.

“Naturally wonderful”, “innate power”, these are the keys to the princess fantasy. They are fantasies of having qualities rather than performing actions.

This makes an interesting contrast to the fantasies by and for young boys. Boys get fantasies of doing, not being. We’re taught from the cradle that we should want to live in verbs. We hunt, we slay, we explore, we rescue, et cetera. Sure, the fantasies sold to little boys may include being the Chosen One of some kind, but the intrinsic specialness there is just the entry ticket. Once Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter or Clark Kent discovers the secret of their birth, that’s the beginning of their story, not the climax.

Again, feminists have correctly argued that there should be more of these stories and fantasies for young girls, that girls as much as boys should be encouraged to be active participants in the stories of their lives, to seize control of their own destinies. And lord knows that’s not wrong.

However, let’s take another look at the role these fantasies play, at what they really do for people.

These fantasies are, essentially, emotional comfort food. They’re macaroni and cheese, something you fill up on even though you know it’s not really good for you, because sometimes you just want something familiar and comforting and easy. You can’t eat mac and cheese for every meal, because you’ll die of scurvy. Likewise, you can’t forget the difference between fantasy and reality, or try to treat one as though it’s the other.

But let us not entirely condemn mac and cheese. I enjoy retreating into the fantasy of martial arts movies, for example, even though I know that in real life spin-kicking a dude in the face is not a useful way to solve any kind of problem. Still, it’s fun to pretend for a couple hours that awesomely choreographed cathartic violence is not only useful but morally valuable. It’s fun to pretend that good guys win and the problems in life are solvable by beating up the right person. Most forms of emotional comfort food are like that: fun escapes and fantasies that do no harm as long as you remember they’re not real.

Likewise, plenty of grown women who have no problem holding agency in their own lives enjoy the occasional retreat into Princessland, in one form or another. Romance novels, Disney movies, even a self-indulgent spa weekend can all provide that comforting feeling of not having to do anything, to simply exist and be special and things will be given to you.

And what’s really interesting is that that fantasy simply isn’t available to men.

♦◊♦

As boys we’re not fed the princess fantasy, and there’s no reinforcing fiction as we get older. There simply isn’t a male fantasy about being appreciated and lauded for one’s intrinsic qualities rather than one’s actions.

We can be the center of attention for what we do, but not for what we are. There’s no male version of finding out that you’re the person everyone’s just been waiting to lavish attention on without you having to lift a finger.

Honestly, isn’t that a bit of a shame? There is something genuinely engaging and tempting about the fantasy of not having to do anything, no mighty deeds or obligations, but instead to be the center of attention just for who you are. To be universally recognized as important and attractive and good, to be given the nicest clothes and the most attention and all the best things, all just for being born as you, the specialest person in the world.

Sure, it’s no way to actually live, but it’s a nice fantasy. And it’s genuinely a shame that it’s as strictly gendered as it is.

Photo—CarbonNYC/Flickr

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

Comments

  1. Noah
    . “””””There simply isn’t a male fantasy about being appreciated and lauded for one’s intrinsic qualities rather than one’s actions.””””

    Some cultures love children for being and not for doing. Go to Italiy and you can see that kind of love expressed for both boys and girls.
    To be loved simply because you exist is a gift we all should give to others. And that build emotionally heathy perons.
    To love a child for being is not giving it ideas of being a prinsess. Maybe American should stop telling girls that they are little beautiful princesses and instead love small boys and girls for being.

    • Kim, with all do respect I think you missed the point a little. He is not talking about external response to the children but the intrinsic motivators for childhood fantasy. You are railing against something that is not mentioned nor discussed.

      As for your Italian comparison I spent 4 years living in rural Italy. They put just as importance on doing as they do on being. Maybe not everyone but every Italian parent I knew placed importance on the dolce vita or sweet life that puts outward image and actions over personal desires.

      • Corey
        You are right . Ido not live in your culture and can not grasp what this is all about.

        I should have written that some cultures love children for being and not only for doing .
        It makes me sad when parents only love children for their accomplishments and success in life.

  2. Theorema Egregium says:

    Good reading from you again, Noah!

    There simply isn’t a male fantasy about being appreciated and lauded for one’s intrinsic qualities rather than one’s actions.

    That’s for the simple reason that masculinity itself is perceived as something you do and not something you are. Something that will slip away in a heartbeat if you fail in upholding it by restless (sometimes destructive) action. It goes without saying that that is foolish, toxic and has to be changed.

    Apart from that, what I wonder: Why always a princess and almost never a queen? If the dresses and the beauty and the palace and the princes are a reason, queens get all that just like princesses. With the positive addition of responsibility, power, and self-esteem. If I ever have a daughter and she has to have a fairy-tale role I will try to offer her the part of a queen as opposed to a princess. Elizabeth I., Catherine the Great, definitely no useless pretty ornaments waiting for a guy on a white horse. And still 100 subservient ladies-in-waiting, if you’ve got to have them.

    • A slight non-sequitur:

      Ask the Poles: Catherine the Great (regardless of her epithet) was NO good role model. Anyone who ravages another country out of greed and vengeance against a former lover should not be held up as standard of admirable behavior. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partitions_of_Poland

      … my Polish heritage is showing a bit. Sorry.

      • Theorema Egregium says:

        That’s the problem with all of royalty, I guess. If they were not completely uneffective, they at some point threw some group or other under the bus. Same with the men, obviously. Best way to get called “the Great” has always been to get lots of people killed. I think I will write some blog post about than in a while.

        I might have mentioned Maria Theresia of Austria, but the fact she gave birth to 16 children will make many modern parents shy away from her as if from plague. Although her domestic record (apart from religious matters) was very impressive.

        Talking of Polish heritage, let me tell you that the people of my country (Austria) hold King Jan Sobieski in very high esteem. :-) But that’s a different subject altogether.

  3. CasualReader says:

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked through this exact discussion with my housemate. He’s certain there will never be progress in the world until women give up the princess fantasy. As a woman, I don’t think it’s possible. The Princess fantasy is a safety net, providing emotional reassurance in a world where women have to be chosen by others to survive. Men have faith their efforts will earn their place in society. Women do not see as strong a connection between effort and results. Instead they see women empowered by beauty, social position (obtained by birth or marriage), and the support and mentorship of powerful men.

    This fantasy will only change when there is a stable ladder to self-sufficiency and open opportunity for women at all stages of their life cycle – even when they are raising children or past the age of being a sex symbol. The fantasy of the princess will no longer be appealing when the social and material rewards of achievement are obtainable. When the world lauds women for their genius and importance in world affairs, the princess fantasy will look like a psychological cop out. It will become the female version of the Peter Pan syndrome.

    I’m not sure it’s true that men don’t have some variation of being the focus of unconditional love. Is the Florence Nightingale fantasy only part of the collective unconscious of women? It also strikes me that the Protestant vision of Heaven rewards both the male and female Elect with an eternity of bliss. If you’re Muslim, you even get the attentions and services of beautiful houris, without having to ask what’s in it for the houris. If you’re a Buddhist, your meritorious activities will reward you with resurrection into increasingly princess-like life circumstances, the lush life in the Tushita heaven, or Nirvana – where you do nothing because you aspired to a state of non-being. While men and women have to do something to earn heaven, or at least exhibit the sort of behavior that indicates why they were chosen, the reward is still intrinsic importance and no other gaze disrupting your subjectivity of eternal joy – in other words, everyone’s final reward is to be a princess.

    Instead of saying that men were deprived of the princess fantasy, perhaps its more correct to say that they were given more alternative fantasies to pursue within our social structure in the material plane.

    • A Reader Too says:

      Yes! A couple things came to mind when I was reading the article: first, white males are in a position of privilege for “just being.” “Doing” is something that sets them apart from other white males, whereas for females, “doing” is often necessary to simply be seen. “We can be the center of attention for what we do, but not for what we are” is therefore only true amongst other white males. Maybe the fantasy of being a princess also plays to a desire to be on par with men in this regard. In which case, it seems misplaced (cause what we really want is to be equal, not more special) and will play-out as you described. (Most) men don’t fully recognize the privilege that they possess and (most) don’t use it to empower others in less privileged positions. Will a princess fantasy make them realize that they are indeed the center of attention for just being? Maybe. But it seems pretty lame and short-sighted without a caveat: you must use your innate specialness for good.

      • CasualReader says:

        ” Doing” is something that sets them apart from other white males”
        This is an important point which has never occurred to me.

      • CasualReader says:

        Americans are quick to perceive and slap down a sense of “entitlement”, but it strikes me that this posture has cost us our sense of special identity as human beings.

        In previous eras, religions of all stripes nourished the importance of the human soul.

        It’s more difficult to assert the importance of the individual soul in a secular society, where participation in the social contract seems to be tied to useful (and visible) roles in the community.

        This becomes painfully evident in the deployment of social services. Women receive support only if they have children, and they perceive they are valued only insofar as they are vessels for children. Childless individuals, men or women, are deprived of “cash” support: they can only get food stamps and a small, temporary loan that goes directly to their landlord – at a maximum of $330, it’s rarely enough to keep a single person housed, so the desperately poor are forced into relationships. Difficult-to-employ individuals – particularly the disabled that do not yet meet the tough criteria of SSI – are forced into workfare (http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/08/10/19916979-more-disabled-workers-paid-just-pennies-an-hour?lite) at subhuman wages. This system is not about identifying the potential of individuals and allowing them to develop and push what they can achieve. This system is about telling people they are not worth keeping alive unless they are doing some work, and if they don’t want to accept gross exploitation and slave wages, they are committing the sin of “entitlement”.

        If we want people to stop fantasizing about being a princess, perhaps we should start to adjust our institutions to reflect the value we want people to have as human beings.

    • Male suicide rates. Why do you think men tend to die when we no longer feel ourselves “useful” to those around us? We’re not allowed an intrinsic value that is ascribed to women for the biological imperative that women can bear children. Why do you think men have been historically foisted into the bread-winner and soldier roles? Because society tells us that (due to our testes being able to produce TRILLIONS of sperm in our lifetimes) we don’t really have any intrinsic value simply for existing; either we PROVE ourselves worthy, or we’re not. Do or do not; there is no try.

      This is the point the author’s trying to make: That a false gender dichotomy exists still if you only attempt to dismantle half of it. The other half is still implied in negative because it’s a DICHOTOMY. Until men can be lauded for intrinsic qualities the same way women are (or until NEITHER are), there is no true equality.

      • A Reader Too says:

        Thanks for this. The analogy makes a lot more sense to me now… Love that the Good Men Project is taking on the other half.

        • Bingo. Claiming things are privilege are really just a case of the grass being greener.

          Everyone needs the space to be loved for their works, and appreciated for simply being. It is not privilege to be denied one of the two.

  4. Very insightful article! I’m not sure it’s fair to say that there is *no* male equivalent, however–I think many people would love to be the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark even without flying around in a bat costume or metal exoskeleton and saving the world.

    • I think the point is that Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are not remarkable, there is nothing special about them, until they become Ironman and Batman respectively. They need to DO more, they need to go out and save the world.

      • Theorema Egregium says:

        That’s open to discussion. I remember this snippet of dialogue from Last year’s Avengers movie:

        Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?
        Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.

        • Playboy and philanthropist are things you do, not things that are innate. Genius is something you are partially born with, but it counts for nothing if you don’t achieve something with it. Like enrolling at MIT at the age of 15, earning a master’s engineering degree, inventing a whole load of stuff, including the Iron Man suit itself. Even the billionaire status which he inherited is something that he actively contributes to (even if he need Potts to run the business, he’s still out there inventing stuff).

          All of this doing is even *before* he goes out and saves the world.

          Tony Stark has everything going for him, but if he didn’t actually DO exceptional things, then there would be no story to tell and no aspirational fantasy. Bruce Wayne is very similar.

    • There ARE such men in existence, anon, and they are probably best represented by the likes of Donald Trump and his ilk. We draw a line between these actual rich buffoons (the general public usually treats them as the joke they are because money alone is not a metric by which to judge value) and the fictitious (and yet secretly useful, compassionate, and noble) rich buffoons SPECIFICALLY because the fictional ones DO possess a secret, noble, heroic side: And their heroism (or lack thereof) is judged by their ACTIONS (or lack thereof). This is still a metric of masculinity as “active” as opposed to “passive”.

      • Mark A
        “” We’re not allowed an intrinsic value that is ascribed to women
        for the biological imperative that women can bear children. Why do you think men have been
        historically foisted into the bread-winner and soldier roles? Because society tells us that (due
        to our testes being able to produce TRILLIONS of sperm in our lifetimes) we don’t really have
        any intrinsic value simply for existing; either we PROVE ourselves worthy, or we’re not”””

        Maybe things will change the day all men look for more in a woman than physical beauty for his pleasure. As long as men are satisfied with the mere body, and do not set standards for what is inside this sexy body. Then they continue to give ” value” for women based on looks and not character , accomplishments,educations,skills,…..
        As long as beauty is all that a man requires from a wife, plus the rights to enjoy that body when he feels like it, then thing will go on as before .

        You sound bitter and angry you are a part of your society.
        Society is every one of us Mark A. It is not some face less name less monster.

  5. This fits my experience well. As one gets older, and the doing becomes harder and rarer, and one might hope that “merely” being would suffice for a while, one discovers that, in America, being is not enough. Alas, Nobodyland is where the old — male and female — find themselves in this land where doing is king.

  6. Tom Brechlin says:

    Noah this is a great line “This makes an interesting contrast to the fantasies by and for young boys. Boys get fantasies of doing, not being. We’re taught from the cradle that we should want to live in verbs. We hunt, we slay, we explore, we rescue, et cetera.”

    I’m an old guy and this is as clear a statement of boys fantasy that I have ever heard!

  7. CasualReader says:

    I just realized my favorite book as a young girl was “A Little Princess” by Francis Hodgson Burnett.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Little_Princess

    The protagonist of that novel, Sara Crewe, suddenly loses her place of privilege. She suffers in her work as a servant for the girls who used to be her peers, but she also recognizes those who are worse off than she: at one point she is near starving when a baker gives her a bun: and Sara ends up giving it to a homeless street urchin. (This act of generosity raises the baker’s awareness of children living in the street, and she hires/adopts the urchin to work in the bakery).

    While Sara is rescued (by male patriarchy?) and returned to her “deserved” place of privilege at the end, the reader is left with the impression that Sara has the same character whether she is rich or poor: she will make the best of her circumstances and lead an active life. If she isn’t scrubbing the floors and washing dishes, she will be organizing charities and personally going to the slums to find out what can be done there. Girls will of course prefer to be managing charities instead of scrubbing floors, but what guy wouldn’t prefer to be the CEO instead of the janitor?

    Some “guy” equivalents of the Princess fantasy just struck me: “thought leader” or “innovator” (the guy who has the best selling idea as opposed to the people who do the engineering and building to realize his dream) and the Savvy guy (who “executed” on a number of passive revenue streams or makes a career out of exploiting networks to obtain high status positions where all real work can be delegated). A good example of the latter case was the guy who outsourced his own job to computer programmers in China while he enjoyed life as a couch potato. In other words, a guy is still gets credit for active “doing” if he finds a way to make others do the work for him. He can live like he has “intrinsic worth” because he’s “smart”.

  8. Eduardo García says:

    I almost fell over laughing when I read this article. Don’t take this as an offense. I laughed because a couple of years ago there was an Idea that went viral in Portugal, Spain and then went rampant in Latin America, the idea of the “Princesso”, a male princess. The idea is of a sensitive and gentle man. It started as a ridicule to the “Twilight” boys, but actually became their badge of honor. It actually made the news outlets and had a song done about it.
    http://www.sdpnoticias.com/columnas/2013/04/18/eres-un-princeso

  9. I’m so glad to see I’m not crazy at having observed the notion that the Princess/James Bond fantasy is merely a gender based dream.

    I would also go so far as to say neither is particularly healthy, only until you put them together. I think a healthier fantasy is to accept that, “Everyone is special, a Princess if you will, and must be allowed to exercise their gifts by DOING.” I think by combining both fantasies, you have a pretty close summation of the steps needed for Maslow’s Self-Actualization.

  10. “There simply isn’t a male fantasy about being appreciated and lauded for one’s intrinsic qualities rather than one’s actions.”

    Sure there is – it’s just a different type of fantasy. Why else would all those hot babes be so eager to please me in my fantasies? It must be my intrinsic fantasy awesomeness, because I’m quite sure it wasn’t anything I did.

  11. “I wanna be a princess”, I was reading an article about the American obsession with anti-depressants, and how some American boys are literally becoming ” a princess” biologically (without their consent), because these anti-depressants are perverting their sexual characteristics. Its mostly middle class white boys that have been biologically morphed into “princesses” ( without their consent) because they were put on anti-depressants before puberty, as poor boys families could not afford to put little jonny on these drugs. Makes me kinda grateful i grew up poor in Rural America.

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