Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Princess and the Penny

Laurie Penny hates princesses: new princesses, old princesses, Disney princesses, pop princesses, above all the princess that lurks inside every female head, even perhaps her own. The fairytale princess is for her what Carthage was for Porcius Cato the Elder: the source of all moral contagion, something that "must be destroyed". That little girls enjoy dressing up in pink and fantasise about marrying a handsome prince (rather than, say, throwing paint at the local branch of Barclays) is to her mind an outrage and a conundrum, explainable only by a grand conspiracy of big business and monarchical Tory reaction.

And so, from her New Statesman platform she takes aim at the nearest available princess, the inoffensive new Duchess of Cambridge, and lets her have it with both barrels:


Kate Middleton is the perfect modern-day princess, in that she appears essentially void of personality; a dress-up dolly for the age of austerity. The new royal facial muscles seem to be fixed with such permanence into that lipglossed rictus of demure compliance that when she opened her mouth to speak during the televised ceremony, I actually jumped. As it transpired, all she eventually said was "I will," as if someone had tugged a cord through the back of that custom McQueen gown to activate a voicebox of ritual acquiescence.


Miaow.

This comes straight from the Glenda Slagg/Amanda Platell school of journalism; and, as regards Kate Middleton, ("pretty, unobtrusive and fashionably underweight") it is both patronising and unfair. As well as being quite staggeringly sexist.

Nonsense, too, in terms of William and Kate. The couple themselves are clearly not selling a fairytale; their narrative (regardless of whether or not one believes it) is of an ordinary, down-to-earth couple who are getting married because that is what people who have lived together for almost ten years tend to do. This is not 1981. Laurie can damn Kate for being "essentially void of personality" because that is what she - like her husband - aspires to be. And, if the monarchy is to survive, such a strategy is wise. Royals with personalities - Prince Charles with his eccentric beliefs, Prince Andrew with his dubious business connections, Diana with her theatricalities, even Harry with his boisterousness - are liabilities in an institution whose protagonists exist to be rather than to do. William and Kate show every sign of replicating the taciturn opacity of the Queen and her mother while discarding the regal airs.

Tellingly, a photo-opportunity was arranged a couple of days after the wedding in which a dressed-down Kate pushed a shopping trolley round her local branch of Waitrose. The banality of the resulting story was striking, and very much to the point. "It looked like she was stocking up on the basics," one local is quoted as saying, "but she also bought a few special items, so perhaps she was preparing their first romantic meal as a married couple."

Alright, so it wasn't Tesco (that would have given Laurie another opening), but the message was clear. Stunt it may have been (I particularly relished the Mail's line that "the only clues to Kate’s royal status were three police bodyguards") but if this is a fantasy, it is a fantasy of normality. It is the mirror image of Laurie Penny's imagined "fantasy of class treachery whereby good little girls grow up to have their own maids and a butler". This is a Cinderella who goes to the ball, marries the prince, and then goes back to the kitchen.

Such subtleties are lost on the Voice of her Generation. The New Statesman piece is typical, indeed archetypal Laurie: not so much a triumph of style over substance as the use of style to obliterate substance's very possibility. Once she gets away from what she knows - the demi-monde inhabited by her radical friends, of which she remains the peerless interpreter - she struggles to comprehend a world whose lineaments are distorted out of all recognition by her prose. She can produce a good phrase, can our Laurie: "dress up dolly for the age of austerity"; "lipglossed rictus of demure compliance". But beneath the surface shimmer, what is her message? That the "cult of the princess" is a commercial con-trick designed to promote a stereotypical, conformist model of feminity. That in a contemporary twist to the ancient virgin/whore dichotomy modern girls are forced to chose between two equally pink life-roles, the princess and the porn-star. That the princess fantasy represents "a failure of society as a whole to respect and treasure its young women". The entire article is no more than a banal recapitulation of a few tired feminist tropes, taken as read, a string assertions untroubled by evidence or fact. The worst thing is, she probably believes that she is bringing a complacent world some profound revelation.

Her argument is wholly dependent on a Blank Slate model of psychology, in which children - and indeed adults - are socially constructed, powerless to shape their lives, mere automata following patterns of behaviour and even thought laid down by commercial conglomerates, the conservative state, the patriarchy, or whoever. It might as well be David Icke's cosmic lizards.
Nor is she above what looks like blatant self-contradiction. Just what is the point being made here?

Today's spectrum of feminine aspiration is a short colour run from sickly, pastel pink to hot, sexy pink, with the occasional detour into bridal white. But there is a whole rainbow of experience out there for girls to choose from.

So is the problem that girls are offered only a narrow choice? Or is it, rather, that despite being offered "a whole rainbow" of images to choose from, so many little girls still want to be princesses? As to why that might be the case, Laurie Penny has no thoughts to offer beyond despairing condemnation. She complains that the princess stereotype represents:

...the ultimate makeover fantasy, a fairytale of frilly, sequin-encrusted self-improvement that just happens to involve rigid conformity to the rules of contemporary femininity: smile and be silent, be beautiful and rise through the ranks, and you will be rewarded.


The key word here is "contemporary", implying as it does that there is something new and sinister that requires little girls to be quiet and obedient if they want to succeed. But this is the old paradigm. The facts on the ground are somewhat different. As even Laurie must surely be aware, the last thirty or forty years have seen an unprecedented, and unanticipated, revolution in opportunities and life-chances for women in the West (and not just in the West). The cult of celebrity (and the cult of the royal family is a subset of the cult of celebrity) may be vacuous, but the vast majority of girls who buy into it are fully aware of this. They attend university in ever-greater numbers, they go on to do proper jobs in the real world, they also get married and raise children. None of this stops them reading Hello! or watching the royal wedding.

There is today no shortage of "positive" female role-models in the media; the lack, if there is one, is of positive male role-models. As recently as the 1960s, the best prospect Gene Roddenberry could persuade his producers to imagine for the women of three centuries hence was Lt Uhuru, a glorified telephonist. By the 1990s the Voyager had a female captain. These days, even Disney princesses are expected to be feminists: compare and contrast the insipid Snow White of the 1930s with 2010's Rapunzel, who behaves more like one of Quentin Tarantino's action heroines. As one would expect of any good Darwinian meme, the princess paradigm has had to adapt to survive.

Ironically, the pervasive popularity of the princess (and her close cousin, the even soppier fairy) may be part of this wider feminist (or at least feminine) triumph. Diane Purkiss, for example, has written, apropos the cult of fairies:

The fact that these games are so exclusively for girls perhaps says something about why we as a culture so desperately prefer girls. The very association of little girls with quietness, diligence, academic prowess, stillness, bodily control - their distance from the noisy, savage, violent harum-scarum boys - is the very reason why so many middle-class parents breathe a sigh of relief when they learn they are expecting one...
(Troublesome things: a history of fairies and fairy tales)


Put it another way: society wants little girls to identify with princesses, not because it expects them to aspire no higher than matrimony, but because the "conformist" qualities belittled by Laurie Penny are the very ones that promote success in life. "Princess" culture, far from encouraging passivity, inculcates the self-possession and independence that is now, as never before, being required of young women as it has always been required of young men.

What is certainly true is that the upsurge in princess-worship that Laurie complains about is a product of the age of feminism. Here, once again, one is stunned by her ability so completely to miss the point. She condemns the "saccharine tide of glittery pink kitsch" that has engulfed girlhood since the 1980s, omitting to notice that this apparently retrogressive tide has accompanied the workplace and educational revolution in the role of women. Now this is surely significant. If the purpose of all the princess frippery was to keep women imprisoned in an antiquated gender-role, it clearly hasn't worked.

Two things are going on here. One I have already mentioned: the protean nature of the princess archetype, its ability to absorb newer, and more active models of womanhood. The other is its essentially escapist nature. It is a fantasy. It is popular precisely because it is unrealistic. Insomuch as it harks back to a largly obsolete notion of feminity, it is ironically its very obsolescence that has rendered it controversial, that enables the idea to enter into Laurie Penny's head that it must be destroyed in order to liberate womankind.

The view that the princess myth is something foisted upon unwilling or helpless little girls who would otherwise play at being deep-sea divers or radical journalists is simplistic in the extreme. Of course, it has become a highly commercial enterprise. But there were fairy tales before Walt Disney came along. At a time when marriage to a wealthy man was the best women could hope for in terms of social advancement (the only other routes available being via the brothel and the nunnery) a story like Cinderella needed little explanation. Its persistence in an era of unprecedented female success seems more surprising: hence the need Penny feels to resort to conspiracy theory or to some notion of false consciousness in order to explain it.

But in fact there's no mystery. The Disney Corporation is pushing at an open door. Little girls want to be princesses, or fairies, or fairy princesses. Some deep-seated biological urge propels them to dress up in sparkly, floaty pastel-shades. The pink is culturally determined, of course: blue, with its association with the Virgin Mary, used to be the quintessence of the eternal feminine, while pink shared in the masculine, martial associations of red. But princesshood itself transcends and precedes culture. I suppose it must be, at some level, sexual: the princess in the story is invariably nubile, and her adventure is the prelude to a life of domesticity and childbearing in which "they all lived happily ever after". But wherever the appeal of the princess comes from it is deep-seated and real.

What really irritates those of Laurie Penny's sociological persuasion about the princess fantasy - especially its resurgence today - is the challenge it poses to the idea that there are no innate gender differences, nothing beyond mere social construction. Yet it is plainly absurd to suggest that unwilling girls are force-fed fairytales. All too often, it is the parents who are unwilling - especially if those parents are Guardian-reading liberals, their heads full of politically correct platitudes. There are few sights funnier, or more tragic, than a mother's doomed attempts to turn her daughter's thoughts away from Cinderella or to frustrate her son's interest in guns. Nature always returns, even if the Guardian is your pitchfork. Not every girl is a Cinderella, of course, nor every boy a Tarzan. They are individuals, and many of them will reject the stereotype. But that fact doesn't negate the appeal of the traditional images, nor does it mean that those who do embrace them are brainwashed victims of consumerist manipulation.