“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.
“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.
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.